An ongoing collaboration with an intelligent organism.

“[In] trying to understand systems that use relatively simple components to build higher-level intelligence, the slime mould may someday be seen as the equivalent of the finches and tortoises that Darwin observed on the GaIápagos Islands.”  

Johnson, Steven, (2001). Emergence. Penguin, London.

For some years Heather Barnett has been working with the true slime mould, Physarum polycephalum, observing and capturing its growth patterns, navigational abilities and seemingly human behaviours. Used as a model organism in diverse scientific studies, the single cell organism is attributed with a primitive form of intelligence, problem solving skills and the ability to anticipate events. It is also quite beautiful, the dendritic patterns reminiscent of forms seen at varying scales within nature, from blood vessels to tree branches, from river deltas to lightening flashes.

Barnett’s animations and photographic studies take inspiration from the array of scientific research – which includes city planning, cellular computation, decision-making, and complexity – in a game of creative control and authorship. The Physarum Experiments is an exploration of the simple yet complex behaviours of this biological and cultural phenomenon.

Studies include:

Study No.020: protoplasmic streaming

Microscopic video of protoplasmic streaming (the central intelligence system within the supercell).

Study No.019: The Maze

The slime mould navigates a replica of the classic maze experiment by Toshiyuki Nakagaki at Hokkaido University in Japan.

Study No.016: collective experiment establishing likes and dislikes

(made at Margate Photo Festival with visitors)

Visitors to the exhibition were invited to feed the slime mould (with a variety of substances) to establish likes and dislikes. At the end of the festival the film was compiled and shared online, many people contributing to one film. Some responses are obvious (it likes oats and pasta, doesn’t like pharmaceuticals), but the response to chilli powder and tobacco is mixed – something to be tested more in future.

Study No.013: the spelling test

The slime mould forms a network between hidden food sources and (sort of) spells out PHYSARUM.

Study No.012: finding the shortest route through a maze to a food source

An homage (but not a replication) of the classic maze experiment. The result of my experiment was not entirely successful. The food was on a higher (and drier) plane – the slime mould found the food source easily but would not move up to drier territory to feed, so stayed hungry.

Study No.011: observation of growth until resources are depleted

A mixture of time-lapse and stop frame animation observing growth in response to moisture and food, testing to what extent I can influence direction and behaviour.

To see more videos and animations, please visit Heather’s YouTube channel.

Presentations, participatory experiments and workshops:

City Superorganism, York University & University of Toronto, Canada
Being Other Than We Are… Multispecies Storytelling Conference, Vaxjo, Sweden

Into the Mountain: A Meet, Tramway, Glasgow
Fluid Rhythms, Open Set, Amsterdam
Species Intelligence Conference, Harvard University
Reimagining Munich, City as Superorganism, Munich
Playful Learning Conference, Manchester
Bioclub, Tokyo
Many-Headed, Hikari, Tokyo
Interspecies Encounters, invited speaker PhysNet Conference, Bremen University

Nonhuman Agents ConferenceArt Laboratory Berlin
Crowd Control, collective behaviour experiments, arebyte gallery, London
Experiments in Elasticity, keynote speaker for ELIA Conference, Central Saint Martins
Being Biological, Scratch Night, Coney  and Theatre Delicatessen
The Physarum Experiments, invited speaker at The Experiment Symposium, Tokyo (CSM/TokyoTech)
Systems Games Nights, arebyte gallery, London

Systems Games STEAM workshop (via roaming robot), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Systems Games Night open workshop, Qlab, New York
Being Slime Mould, Social Evolution Field Course, Rockefeller University, New York State
Working with the microbial collective, BioChanges, Royal College of Art, London
The Physarum Experiments, ASCUS Lab, Summerhall, Edinburgh
Slime Mould Boot Camp, Central Saint Martins, London

Designing with biological behaviours, Royal College of Art, London
Material Mechanical, Science Museum, London
Being Slime Mould, Lab Project, London
Biology and Art: learning from nature, The Conference, Malmö
The Physarum Experiments, BLAST, Bournemouth
Being Slime Mould, Open Embodiments conference, Tucson, Arizona
The Physarum Experiments, BOM, Birmingham

Collective Intelligence, FT Innovate, London
TED Salon: Berlin
Creative Computing: University of Sussex
Society of Biology: London

MA Art & Science: University of the Arts, London
Creative Computing: University of Sussex
GenSpace: New York

Subtle Technologies: Toronto
MA Art & Science: University of the Arts, London

Chocolate Factory Open Studio: London
Margate Photo Festival:  Margate
GenSpace: New York
MA Art & Science: University of the Arts, London

British Science Festival: Guildford University
Brighton Science Festival: Brighton University

Drawing on Life (Big Draw Event): University College London


Art in Flux at Event Two, Royal College of Art (12/07/19-17/07/19)
La Fabrique Du VivantPompidou Centre, Paris (20/02/19-15/04/19)
Nonhuman Networks, Art Laboratory Berlin (30/09/17 – 26/11/17)
Anthropocene Island, Tallinn Architecture Biennale, Estonian Museum of Architecture (2017)
Crowd Control: Testing Station, Arebyte Gallery (21/07/17-23/07/17)
Call of the Wild,
 Studio ExPurgamento, London (11/12/16 – 15/01/17)
Menagerie of Microbes, Bio and Beyond, Summerhall, Edinburgh (25/03/16 – 13/05/16)
BLAST Exhibition, Bournemouth (30/05/15 – 20/06/15)
BioDesign: On the Cross-Pollination of Nature, Science and Creativity, The New Institute, Rotterdam (27/09/13 – 05/01/14)
Cut/Paste/Grow, The Observatory, New York (23/03/13 – 11/05/13)
Margate Photo Fest (10/08/12 – 12/08/12)

The Creeping Garden:

Heather is one of the key contributors featured in this documentary about slime moulds and the people who work with them.

The Creeping Garden is a feature length creative documentary exploring the work of fringe scientists, mycologists and artists, and their relationship with the extraordinary plasmodial slime mould.

Co-directed by artist film-maker Tim Grabham and writer and film curator Jasper Sharp, the film follows in the unconventional footsteps of Grabham’s previous feature ‘KanZeOn’ and Sharps fascination with the extended world of mycology.

With an original soundtrack composed by celebrated musician and producer Jim O’Rourke (Sonic Youth, Werner Herzog’s ‘Grizzly Man’) this is a unique exploration into a hitherto untapped subject matter, observing and immersing the audience into the worlds of the observers and the observed.

For other features and reviews and to view Heather’s TED talk on the art and science of slime mould, please visit the PRESS page