Jenna Sutela’s polycephalic body of work can be viewed as an abundant testing ground in connecting the fields of art, technology and life sciences. In this interview with Christina Gigliotti, she speaks about her research and experience in cultivating interconnectivity and unpredictability into her practice.
You’re constantly exploring and re-imagining authorship as an artist. Within your work, you’ve included a wide range of creative collaborators, from human to microbe. How did you become interested in incorporating other life forms into your practice?
An encounter with »Physarum polycephalum«, the single-celled yet »many-headed« species of slime mold led me on the path of biocomputational experimentation. I mean I was always into sci-fi and cyberpunk, taken by the idea of wetware next to hardware and software. The slime mold has inspired experiments in mapping and robotics. It’s like this decentralized autonomous organism, literally a collective body. A »natural computer«. My other organic collaborators – or co-creators, to use a better term – have included, for example, »Bacillus subtilis nattō« bacteria and a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast in a kombucha tea ferment. And there have also been synthetic ones, namely artificial neural networks. I try to engage with not only ancient but also futuristic materials in a non-linear way.
With multiple agents working together, the results likely start to become more unpredictable. Has anything surprised you?
A good example is, perhaps, the eerie sounding output from the computer in »nimiia cétiï«, my project from 2018 that uses machine learning to generate a new written and spoken language based on a neural network’s interpretation of a Martian tongue from the late 1800s – originally channelled by the Swiss spirit medium Hélène Smith and now voiced by me – as well as the movement of »Bacillus subtilis«, an extremophilic bacterium that, according to recent spaceflight experimentation, can survive on Mars. The chorus-like hum that came out as a result of the computer reorganizing a vast directory of sound clips that I had recorded while comparing them to frames from a video showing different bacterial configurations under a microscope was definitely beyond my wildest imagination. This was a project I worked on together with Memo Akten and Damien Henry. There have also been moments when uninvited microbes have taken over the host sculptures or micro-environments that I built for the slime mold. Sometimes hairy white room-molds have taken over my labyrinths. Also, the slime mold has escaped its habitat before.
In his book »Metazoa: Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness«, Peter Godfrey-Smith writes that »we generally build machines to be predictable and restricted in their activities, even if we might then use them to simulate more chaotic goings-on«. Could you talk about your work »I Magma«, which you described as an oracle, and how you taught the AI element of it to be more chaotic, more life-like?
Even if, ever since the Renaissance, the most complex machines that we’ve developed have been used as an analogy of the mind, computers are actually deterministic instead of intuitive by design, they follow set procedures. However, I’d argue that AI has introduced some ghosts in the machine. For example, the black box problem in machine learning means that it’s sometimes hard to explain how an artificial neural network has come to its conclusion. The I Magma App draws from the history of lava lamps as random number generators at Sun Microsystems in the 1990s. But instead of randomness, my work looks for patterns, signs, or meaning in the blobs of liquid colour in motion inside the head-shaped forms. The idea of machine-generated divinations draws from the origins of binary code in the »I Ching«, or »Book of Changes«. Leibniz, who discovered the language of computing, was influenced by this ancient Chinese divination system, Yin and Yang. The divinations in the app read like trip reports of sorts. In fact, Erowid’s Shulgin Archives, along with the Internet Sacred Text Archive, is what the AI-powered system has learned from. Together with Allison Parrish, who worked on the language generation, we had to tune the linguistic output of the oracle to a bit more poetic direction than the rather developed and accurate yet more boring language and interpretation that the intelligence machine would’ve been capable of.
Were there any resulting sentences or pieces of text from the oracle that you found particularly meaningful?
I’ve written down some of my favorite divinations:
No central creatures are fixed. | I is a derivative.
It is a single reality, but the second.
In the word the fires. | The one will be the water.
The air is growing wind. | Our consciousness, when it is beginning.
It returned to the egg. | The circle is the whole.
Is it still possible to access/download the app? I would definitely consider incorporating a reading into my morning routine!
The app works whenever the installation of the seven lava heads is up and connected to it as a seed. I believe the next time this will happen is in the context of an exhibition in spring 2022. It can be downloaded from the App Store for free. I’m glad to hear you’d welcome this idiosyncratic overlord as part of your daily practice!
You mentioned to me that your work is continuous, and projects often build upon each other or branch off and mutate. What are you working on at the moment?
Most recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and work around, or alongside (body) water(s). Last weekend, I organized this experimental workshop, together with the collective mimi ferments, at E-WERK in Luckenwalde, a small city in Brandenburg, where we made alcohol based on the saliva of a group of people. A spit drink. The inspiration for this project comes from the history of mouth-chewed sake. While preparing the drink—chewing and spitting rice that would later be fermented by wild yeast from the air—the idea was to meditate on all the ways in which we are intrinsically connected to or interconnected with each other and the open system of a planet that’s not our own. Interspecies collaboration. Part and parcel of this project are these glass vessels that I made for the spit sake based on a particular kind of biomimetic »flow form« that produces rhythms similar to blood flow in the drink when it’s poured. I’ve also just worked on a piece, as part of my residency at MIT, where water is used as a medium for molecular vibrations from neurotransmitters, such as oxytocin, serotonin, and others. The vibrations are first expressed as sound and then in ripples that work as teaching material for a neural network. They are also dosed into the water for drinking, cooking, bathing, painting, etc. This is a sonification project in collaboration with scientist Markus J. Buehler. It exemplifies another one of my current interests: the topic of observing micro- or nanoscopic phenomena, or life by listening instead of only looking. The piece features some of my wet-on-wet watercolor painting, which I’ve been doing for lockdown meditation. It’s totally unpredictable, translucent and prone to accidents.
Presently one can notice a definitive shift towards alternative ways of living, specifically those that ask us to take more care about how we are affecting our environment. This extends beyond what might be considered already implemented environmentalism. There’s a noticeably stronger emphasis on interspecies communities. These issues are explored in the last 3hd festival edition, bearing the title »UNHUMANITY«, where your work is included in the exhibition Symbiotic Agencies. Do you think a more symbiotic relationship between humans and the rest of our living planet will ever be possible?
The futures I anticipate are free from the modern urge to achieve domination over nature and each other. They’ll be built on shared terms between us and other life forms. And our form will most likely be different. No doubt, »Bacillus subtilis natto«, along with some other microorganisms, like the ancient slime mold, will outlive us. Tolerating extreme conditions, such as heat or drought, many of them are fit to function even in outer space. If we’re lucky, maybe they will carry something of the human as a parasite to the next emerging phase. Physician Levis Thomas said it: »There is a tendency for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other, return to earlier arrangements, get along, whenever possible. This is the way of the world.« At the same time, I think it’s immensely important to bring attention to our responsibilities not only as part of interconnected more-than-human ecosystems but also the human society. I appreciate Rosi Braidotti’s take on posthumanism failing to stand for post-power, post-class, post-gender, or post-race. How, in her words, »we were not all human, to begin with«. Beyond being good hosts to, say, the bacteria in our bodies, we should consider the most effective ways to benefit other people too, considering the particularities of different cultural and living conditions, some of them are oppressed and compromised. Also here – similar to the interspecies relations that I’ve been dealing with – the survival of the fittest narrative just won’t do.