The Creeping Garden

Tim Grabham, Jasper Sharp

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Uncomputables: #6 The Creeping Garden
Tim Grabham, Jasper Sharp

81 Minutes

Artist Cinemas

Repeat: February 26-27, 2024

A real life science-fiction movie exploring a world creeping right beneath our feet, where time and space are magnified and intelligence redefined. The Creeping Garden is a multi-award-winning feature-length creative documentary exploring the work of fringe scientists, mycologists, and artists, and their relationship with the extraordinary plasmodial slime mould.

Slime-moulds are organisms capable of solving a maze despite their lack of a brain or nervous system. These mindless life forms display collective intelligence that is more than the sum of its parts, and are capable of problem-solving and decision-making. In The Creeping Garden, the slime mould is being used to explore biological-inspired design, emergence theory, unconventional computing, and robot controllers, much of which borders on the world of science fiction. But as well as exploring the slime mould in the lab, the film also travels out into the wild, hunting for the organisms in their natural habitat.

Co-directed by artist-filmmaker Tim Grabham and writer and film curator Jasper Sharp, the film follows in the unconventional footsteps of Grabham’s previous feature KanZeOn and Sharp’s fascination with the extended world of mycology. Grabham and Sharp created an intriguing link with early cinema by featuring fragments of Magic Myxies (1931), a short film of a slime mould by British filmmaker and naturalist Percy Smith (1880-1945), who pioneered methods of time-lapse nature photography, microphotography, microcinematography, and animation in the early twentieth century. 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.

The Creeping Garden is the sixth and final installment of Uncomputables: On Cybernetics and Alien Intelligences, an online program of films and accompanying texts convened by Agnieszka Kurant as the thirteenth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Film.

The film is presented alongside “We shall by morning inherit the Earth,” a text response by Lucia Pietroiusti.

Uncomputables: On Cybernetics and Alien Intelligences runs in six episodes released every Monday from January 15 through February 26, 2024, streaming a new film each week accompanied by a commissioned interview or response published in text form.

We shall by morning inherit the Earth*
By Lucia Pietroiusti

This is a text about hindsight, fish, and returning.

Reaching back through old notes, I come across an aborted text that I had once begun writing with no particular aim in mind. I had called it, “I want to be the mushroom that kills you.” In it, I find some kind of weird, enraged erotic hallucination, maybe the plot of a badly-filmed revenge thriller—ecology as slithering body horror: the stuff of another life.

How much of that other life still squirms its way into this one?, I wonder, setting down to share reflections on Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp’s 2014 documentary, The Creeping Garden, a feature-length enquiry into the nature of slime mould and the creative and philosophical ramifications of its particular form of intelligence.

It is difficult to imagine, now that Merlin Sheldrake’s delightfully fungal essay, Entangled Life (2020), has reached mass readership, and as we await its filmic adaptation (voiced by Björk); now that slimes and mushrooms have taken over both the cli-fi and horror genres, from The Last of Us (2023) to Annihilation (2018)—it’s hard to imagine now, in this landscape, how niche, creepy, and completely esoteric The Creeping Garden must have appeared to its original audience a decade or so ago.

I have no memory of how I felt about mushrooms and slime moulds in 2014, with the obvious exception of porcini. Before the subject took over my own intellectual life, somewhere around 2017, the consciousness or intelligence of more-than-human beings lived, tangentially at best, in the realm of fantasy fiction and all of the critical anthropology books I had, at the time, yet to read. But as things tend to do these days, things run, and fast. A mere decade later, the points of intersection between non-human forms of consciousness and the technological prostheses that hold much of this world’s systems in place today, touch one another in eerie and unexpected places. Considerations around more-than-human intelligence, and what it can bring to the developing field of human-made intelligent technologies, abound. So much talk of AI as an “intelligence” (as opposed to say, occult statistics, or educated-guess phantasmagoria) has prompted a desire to understand technologies through what we know, and crucially don’t know, about how beings on Earth think, move, articulate themselves through space, and make sense of themselves within their environment.

In 2018, Filipa Ramos and I began a research project titled The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish. Initially intended as a one-off symposium, the Fish was dedicated to convening disciplines around the consciousness and intelligence of more-than-human species and beings. Aimed at questioning anthropocentrism, the Fish chose to do that humbly and bit by bit, by unpicking those assumptions that accompany anthropocentrism, hoping to show that the legs that hold the table up, so to speak, aren’t actually there.

What we didn’t know at the time, as we embarked on our research, was how much of the Fish would spread, slime-mould like, in all sorts of directions and with such incredible determination—so much so that each time we’d settled on the next symposium, radio project, artist commission, publication, or screening, another one would pop into view, fruiting body-like. Allowing the slime to do with us what it wished, we’d find ourselves committing to yet another year working together, another set of instincts and questions, and more investigations of “stuff” in an interspecies context.

Things got a whole lot weirder over time, too. While the 2018 Fish symposium focused on interspecies communication—ideas that are easy to adore: dolphin computers, piano-playing bonobos, and the like—and having spent the following few years on swarm intelligence, plant consciousness, and erotic botany, by late 2020 we, too, had dug ourselves waist-deep into the earth and curated The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish: The Understory of the Understory, an entirely-online convening that turned its attention to land, dirt, earth, ground, mushrooms and, indeed, slime moulds. In hindsight, I see some geophagic-like messiness in our process by this point, perhaps an oppositional reaction to an all-too-sterilized COVID-19 pandemic period: a desire to just roll around in the mud, lick the mould, worship the compost, embrace decay…

Familiar Fish faces, from artist and researcher Heather Barnett to Andrew Adamatzky, Professor of Unconventional Computing at the University of the West of England, lend their voices to The Creeping Garden as they later did to the Fish. And while Barnett experiments with the possibilities of letting slime moulds become collaborators in joint artistic decisions, Adamatzky relies on the species’ uncanny problem-solving and energy-conducting capabilities to propose bio-tech hybrids that, by all accounts, could someday do better than computers. Something circular, or lightly tautological, is at play here, which James Bridle explains with characteristic eloquence in their most recent book-length essay, Ways of Being (2022): something about the place of the planet in our imagination of technology—and what happens when we recognize it, and when we don’t. Humans make worlds that make computers that behave like the world. Meanwhile, the world (or better: the planet) computes, constantly and infinitely and with an ungraspable complexity that some of us, sometimes, call God.

In the essay “To Hear Plants Speak” (2017), political philosopher Michael Marder invites his readers to consider the language of plants, not from the point of view of how to translate what they “say,” but rather, to encourage the possibility of a space that is as unacknowledged as it is essential in any interrelation, from coexistence, to responsibility, to ethics, and even love—that of the untranslatable. Slime mould may re-trace the Tokyo underground network, it may recreate London’s M25 motorway. It may tick all the boxes for a sentient being, or many. In this encounter, I may recognize the uncanny presence of an intelligence I do not have complete access to, a sudden cold shiver running down my spine, like a ghost in the studio, blowing air at the back of my neck. I may try to make the slime more human, give it language, give it rights, find its place in human-made systems so as to make it into a fiction that is, at least, part-intelligible. Or I may recognize that the slime mould behaves like me because I am slime mould, and mushroom, and dirt—and that while we unquestionably both belong to the same “something” (again: planet), I do not know it any more, or any less, than I know myself.

*From Sylvia Plath, “Mushrooms” (1959).

Lucia Pietroiusti is Head of Ecologies at Serpentine, London. As a curator, she works at the intersection of art, ecology, and systems, often outside of the exhibition space. She was the founder of Serpentine’s General Ecology project (2018-ongoing) and the curator of the Golden Lion-winning opera-performance, Sun & Sea by Rugile Barzdziukaite, Vaiva Grainyte, and Lina Lapelyte, the Lithuanian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennial (and its 2020-2025 international tour). She was a curator of the 8th Biennale Gherdeïna, Persones Persons, in 2022 (with Filipa Ramos), the 13th Shanghai Biennial, Bodies of Water (2020/2021, with Andrés Jaque, Chief Curator; Marina Otero Verzier; Filipa Ramos; and You Mi) and the second edition of POWER NIGHTS at E-Werk Luckenwalde, titled Being Mothers, in 2021/2022. With Filipa Ramos, Pietroiusti will be co-curating Songs for the Changing Seasons at the 2024 Vienna Klima Biennale. Publications include the forthcoming reader for The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish (with Filipa Ramos, 2024); More-than-Human (with Andrés Jaque and Marina Otero Verzier, 2020); Microhabitable (with Fernando García-Dory, Spanish edition published 2020; English edition 2023); PLANTSEX (MAL Journal, 2019) and Sun & Sea (Marina) (2019). Pietroiusti teaches and lectures internationally and is currently leading the Interior Ecologies module at HEAD Geneva’s MA Interior Architecture in 2023/24. Pietroiusti is a Trustee of the Gallery Climate Coalition.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Nature & Ecology
Science Fiction, Documentary, Human - Nonhuman Relations, Biology, Artificial intelligence, Planet Earth
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Tim Grabham (aka iloobia) is a multidisciplinary artist who has independently produced still- and moving-image work for over thirty years. Comprising short films, animation, photography, and installations, as well as documentary and long-form features, his work has been presented internationally at festivals, cinemas, on television, and in galleries, and has won a number of awards. Ongoing interests in his work include hand-worked bespoke analogue processes; reconfiguring abandoned, decaying, and orphaned celluloid material; the manipulation of archival and obsolete media formats; and the convergence of science and art.

Jasper Sharp is an author, film critic, and curator. He’s the author of three books on Japanese cinema, the Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (2003, joint authored with Tom Mes), Behind the Pink Curtain (2008), and The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Film (2011), co-director of the documentary The Creeping Garden (2014), and author of the tie-in book The Creeping Garden: Irrational Encounters with Plasmodial Slime Moulds (2015). He has recently co-directed The J-Horror Virus with Sarah Appleton, a documentary looking at the global boom in Japanese horror films at the turn of the millenium.


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