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The art of machines and microbes Exhibits explore lake microflora and evolutionary computing through science and art

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Photos C/O Grant Holt

By: Anastasia Gaykalova

Have you ever thought that science can become art? That the harsh lines separating the two can be blurred and made one? Well, that is just what the artists Nicole Clouston and Stephen Kelly have done with their works currently displayed at Centre[3] for Print and Media Arts until Nov. 29.

Collecting 15 different samples of mud and water from various locations around the shore of Lake Ontario, Nicole Clouston, a practice-based researcher, let microbes grow and become a living art sculpture. Her work, Portrait of Lake Ontario, consists of 15 columns, arranged aesthetically as an image. Both the look of the sculpture and the process of its creation carries meaning.

In themselves, they sort of form a landscape, a horizon in the piece itself, which I think relates to that landscape that they came from,” pointed out Clouston.  

The varying levels of water and mud and the different colours create unique dynamic art. An equally important part of the artwork is the process and care that goes into it. She tops up the columns with dechlorinated water and feeds the microbes eggshells, egg yolk and newspapers.

This care is meaningful to Clouston, as it creates a symbiosis relationship and a collaborative environment between her as an artist and the living organisms that make up her art. The complexity of this collaboration was the initial inspiration for this project.

“I was interested in the fact that microbial life is such an integral part of not only our own bodily function but the function of the environment,” explained Clouston.

She plans on continuing this work and exploring the intricacies of the relationship between Lake Ontario, its microbes and its people further.

“I needed to delve deeper into the relationship with one particular body of water and get to know it. So, what is coming up next is [that] I would drive around Lake Ontario again and collect another 15 [samples] and make another sculpture like this one. I’m kind of interested in this relationship between the two sculptures,” explained Clouston.

She has given her art life through microbes. This is not a static work of art, but one that lets itself change and create itself.

Similarly, Stephen Kelly has made computers evolve and adapt, giving art, science and biology a place to interact in unusual ways. His project which also can be considered research, is also a complex, dynamic work. This work consists of remotes that acquire energy of light and once they have enough they use it to twist cables that hang from each remote.

Through a communication network with a computer and each other, the remotes exchange information with a goal to devise a unique way of twisting the cable, evolving and learning from the ‘population’ of other remotes.

Kelly’s first work was devising code that adapted to beat ghosts in a well-known game of Pacman. Using a mechanism similar to that of natural selection, he got a computer to evolve its strategy.

“I guess I’m inspired by the possibilities of a combination of biology and computing, the idea of creating machines that can surprise me and behave in unpredictable ways,” explained Kelly

This approach introduces creativity and an element of scientific play and pure experimentation. Allowing the work to guide the artist, instead of the other way around, opens more opportunities and ways to explore. This is when the dichotomy of art versus science fails, forced to make room for a combination of both.

“It’s both equal parts… I think that the division between those two isn’t really that important. I think that they’re both creative processes that involve experimentation and play,” described Kelly.

Kelly’s work is called Reality Gap. This refers to the difficulty of transferring real-world processes and experiences into computerized simulation and vice versa.

“I approach it as a sort of an engineering problem. The reality gap represents a problem to be solved; how do you bridge the gap between simulation and reality in the course of solving evolutionary computation,” explained Kelly.

The reality gap is a key discrepancy between reality and simulation that prevents machines from replicating natural performance. Overcoming this reality gap is a possible step towards artificial intelligence.

Art can be alive. It can make machines evolve and let microbes flourish in novel ways. Art can be dynamic, something that changes every day by itself and be independent of human involvement. You can experience this phenomenon through Portrait of Lake Ontario and Reality Gap.

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