Nodes and Networks: the city as superorganism

Nodes and Networks is a collective art and science experiment exploring biological systems as a model and metaphor for social intervention. Taking inspiration from slime mould navigation, bacterial communication and insect cooperation, groups of artists, designers, and scientists collaborate on devising and delivering public experiments and interventions in the city.

Nodes and Networks | New York City

Feature in SciArt Magazine

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Some of the Nodes and Networks collaborators share their experiences working across disciplinary divides and with public participants in an open and exploratory process emphasising mutual inquiry.

Their perspectives cover collective creativity, citizen science, the relationships between biological and technological networks, and the challenge of trying to understand the subjective life experience of a simple single–celled organism.

View the PDF of the article and visit SciArt Magazine.

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Nodes and Networks | New York City
December 2015

Throughout the first week of December 2015, an international multidisciplinary team came together to design a series of experiments to test human collective intelligence in comparison to other, seemingly simpler, organisms, looking particularly at behaviours of the slime mould Physarum polycephalum. The team invented lab experiments, participatory games and tracking activities to explore biological, cultural and social mechanisms and invited a group of New Yorkers to join in the experimentation in a one day marathon of creative and critical exploration.

Experiments were based at the School of Visual Arts’ BioArt Lab, the Metropolitan Museums’ Media Lab, and public sites across the city.

The project was prompted by the First International Physarum Transport Networks Workshop, held at Columbia University, 3-5 December 2015. As part of BICT (9th Conference on Bio-inspired Information and Communications Technologies) the scientific workshop was dedicated to a wide spectrum of research on slime moulds including physics, cell biology, and genetics of Physarum polycephalum as well as sessions on Education & Science and Art & Science. The giant slime mould cell can mimic human transport systems and navigate efficiently through mazes in search for food, its foraging behaviour emerging from collective cellular interactions, networking without a brain. Nodes and Networks | New York City was a way to explore the themes of the workshop creatively and from multi-disciplinary perspectives. Simple organisms like slime mould offer intriguing models to test how ideas spread, how group decisions are made and how communities cooperate.

The multidisciplinary team leading the collective experiment included artists, writers, architects and designers working with biological systems, and scientists from the fields of biophysics, ecology, genetics and neuroscience. Nodes and Networks brought these many heads together to create novel ideas and experiments through a creative emergent process.

The experiment was shared on social media. You can see images and comments on : Facebook and Twitter


Nodes and Networks | New York City was organised by:

Heather Barnett, artist and educator, University of the Arts London; founder, The Slime Mould Collective

Nurit Bar Shai, artist and culture director, GenSpace

Daniel Grushkin, program director, Biodesign Challenge

Julia Buntaine, director, SciArt Center

In collaboration with Suzanne Anker (The School of Visual Arts’ BioArt Lab) and Marco Castro Cosio (The Metropolitan Museum’s MediaLab).

The project was devised in association with Hans-Günther Döbereiner (Universität Bremen), and the Physarum Transport Networks Workshop at Columbia University, 3-5 December 2015.

Lead Participants:

Adrian Fessel, biophysicist, University of Bremen

Alison Irvine, theatre artist, Cut Paste Grow

Mitchell Joachim, architect, Terreform ONE

Oliver Kellhammer, artist and urban ecologist, Parsons School of Design

Sarah Kornbluth, ecologist, Rutgers University

Jonghyun Lee, biophysicist, University of Bremen

Colleen Macklin, games designer, Parsons School of Design

Christine Marizzi, geneticist, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Christina Oettmeier, biologist, University of Bremen

Pia O’Neill, neuroscientist, Columbia University

Jennifer Sta. Ines, geospatial analyst, NYC Department of Transportation

Lior Zalmanson, internet researcher, NYU School of Business


Creative Development

Over two evenings, lead participants worked together to exchange expertise and develop ideas for collective experiments:  a process of divergent and convergent thinking.

Meet up

The team go to the pub to meet potential recruits for the main day of experiments, a social meet-up organised by SciArt Center.

The Main Event

A day of collaborative and collective experiments taking place at the BioArt Lab (School of Visual Art), Central Park, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (in collaboration with MET Media Lab).


Setting the scene for the day of collective experiments

Node #1: slime mould experiments

Individual slime mould experiments to test navigation and aid decision making

Node #2: modelling the city

Small groups created cityscapes of New York City boroughs and added attractants (oats) and repellents (paprika) to signify socioeconomic factors.

Node #3: the collective body

We conducted several collective experiments to test synchrony, communication and cooperation in humans. By following simple rules, we wanted to know if complex behaviours would emerge.

Node #4: mapping culture observation

Each node tracked the journey of a random visitor through the galleries, noting observational behaviours.

Meanwhile, the slime mould was navigating a 3D model of the same MET galleries

Continued growth

The laboratory based slime mould experiments continued for a further few days. These images were taken after 3 days growth, after the slime mould had explored its new environment and responded to attractants and repellents.