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In Development: Secret Genera(tions)

Project background

I’m investigating and imagining how cryptic camouflage in living organisms might evolve & adapt to the ways humans are changing our environment, and exploring parallels in how humans adapt or camouflage themselves. I’m asking the questions; will animals and plants in the Anthropocene epoch hide in plain sight on human made materials? Will we find new species living in our homes and cities… and on our art? And what parallels are there in how social ecosystems lead us humans to reveal or conceal facets of our identities? Can exploring these ideas make us think more deeply about our actions, both environmentally and socially?

For this project I want to expand and progress ideas in my current work on this theme in a new direction. Rather than depicting imaginary species camouflaged on existing material as in my Cryptic Cards, I want to develop new visual material that changes during the course of the project, and imagine new species in taxonomic lineages evolving onto and in tandem with that material. The real life evolution of species doesn’t occur in a precise and predetermined way; it responds to environmental pressures, and involves elements of random mutation. As in Emergent Crypsis I would like to work with generative artists or materials collaborators. However, in this project I want to commission newly generated and perhaps unpredictable visual substrates for my imaginary species camouflage evolutions.

There are deeper questions I want to probe through this work. Life is nothing if not resourceful, and as humankind takes away one ecological space, it creates others. When we leave species no other choice… Will they move in with us? How might we adapt to that? And are there parallels in the way we as humans adapt socially? How do I evolve with my disability? How do we camouflage ourselves, and when we feel safe to reveal information about our identities? What about things we can’t avoid revealing - how do we adapt to potentially hostile environments that we must navigate? I can’t avoid revealing my disability, but often my nonbinary gender or my mental illness can be easily disguised. When other humans take away spaces we feel safe in, how do we adapt? These are the ideas I want to investigate further, with the help of my sciart and disability communities. I want to make the art output accessible through online spaces used by my disabled community, as well as print/exhibition formats.

Current Research & Development

My studies have included examining specimens in scientific collections in Reading and Oxford, to investigate the variety of features and strategies extant species use to hide or disguise their true nature. Work has focused on plant mimicry using leaf patterns and smell, and insect, amphibian, and reptile species that mimic background substrates. Of particular interest are insect wing patterns, and reptile & amphibian skin patterns and texture that;

  • exhibit pattern or outline asymmetry/imperfect symmetry, irregularity, or unevenness - e.g. uneven pattern and fringe textures in leaf tailed geckos

  • display wide variations in local populations - for example insects where within a species, there is tightly location-specific variation in wing pattern

  • show pattern or texture changes, such as the ability of mutable rain-frogs to change the texture of their skin from lumpy to smooth

  • hide in the direct vicinity of predators, like the Euteliine moths below which mimic dead plant material and rest in the webs of spider predators (images by John Horstmann)

These are of interest because species that display wide internal variation - adapting locally to patterns on specific fauna, for example - or rapid changes, might be convincing candidates for my imaginary species to have evolved from. Species that do not rely on symmetry might also be successful starting points for imagined species here - generative patterns that incorporate an element of randomness are often asymmetrical. I’m also fascinated by species that live so close to the jaws of their own predators; if I’m imagining creatures that adapt to survive alongside the humans that have taken away so many habitats, perhaps these existing creatures provide a good starting point.

Working with generative artists

I make generative art myself in traditional media, but I am more interested in the work of other artists who use computers to execute their algorithms, and so make art. Partly this is because their work often exhibits a kind of visual evolution as they develop their algorithms to get the kind of images they were after - and those images are traceable, being stored on computers. Such a method also allows for fast pattern evolution and development; a computer can iterate through a set of rules many times and much more quickly than I can using pens, for example. Generative artists are often generous with their code, too; I have been grateful for the artists who have shared their code with me as I worked on these ideas, helping me to understand how randomly generated numbers can be used in a directed way to produce particular pattern features. Prior to this project I collaborated with Anders Hoff (better known as inconvergent), a generative artist from Norway, who provided me with both physical and digital art as substrates to experiment with, and a lot of information on his processes for producing art.

Further research and development

There are two areas I want to develop prior to creation of final outputs for this project. Firstly, I want to invite generative artists I casually collaborate/engage with to consider working with me on this project, and work together to define ideal requirements for new images to be used together in a mutually interesting way. I already communicate with four artists I intend to initially approach. Defining features of patterns/algorithms that will work for both sides of this collaboration will be an iterative process, and a vital part of the work; commissioning an artist to provide me with unfamiliar images and patterns I haven’t seen before as a substrate for new work on entails an element of risk. To ensure the best possible outcome - images I’m able to work from, that also satisfy the artistic needs of my collaborator - there needs to be thorough and honest discussion, and mutual give and take between artists. Thus I want to approach this part of the project with care.

Secondly I want to create imaginary creatures that are just convincing enough to make viewers - including scientists - wonder if they could be real some day. My background is in science as well as art; so the first challenge is always convincing myself! But I also want to convince my scientific collaborators that I’ve come up with the best imaginary species based on current science. Which creatures do we already know that adapt quickly to new environments? How do they do that? What are key features I should be looking for? This brings me to scientific input on the project.

Scientific input

In 2016, the genetic mutation giving rise to the famous dark form of the peppered moth was identified. What clues does that give us the the ways life might adapt to anthropogenic environmental change? Beyond imagined species in this project, will we really find life evolving to hide on road-signs, wallpaper, or art? I’m communicating with experts in zoology, botany, and taxonomy to investigate/inform this work. These collaborators include an RHS taxonomist, an expert in statistics relating to human populations, and a zoologist who focuses on insects and amphibians.

Potential outputs Of this Project

There are three key artistic outputs I’m initially proposing in this project

1 - Exhibitions & workshops; the content to include a set of images on tiles that can be rearranged in a large-scale installation, using similar techniques to my arrays/grid installations. However, in this case images will be species painted on the novel visual substrates mentioned above, and the work will display a progression/evolution. Visitors will be able to rearrange the images to form their own taxonomic trees/cladograms based on how they imagine the images progressed as they evolved. The individual images will also be scanned to create an online rearrangeable array. Large-scale paintings (to 1.5msq) over single images from the series could also be produced for exhibition, to highlight individual features of both generative patterns and newly evolved species and genera. An accompanying accessible family workshop will be developed, in which participants can design their own new species, and will be encourage to consider how both wildlife evolution, and humans as social creatures, are influenced by human-mediated pressures.

2 - Printed output; the array images will be reproduced as a set of miniature tiles that can be re-arranged in a tabletop game. Additionally, experimental drawings and test pieces for the project could be compiled into a “spotters guide to cryptic Anthropocene creatures”, to accompany the project, and I will use my scientific contacts to help format this to mimic a real wildlife guide & key. I propose to crowdfund these print components of the project, so original artwork from the image set could be potentially used as higher tier rewards.

3 - Online content; in addition to ensuring exhibition/workshops are as accessible as possible (both for people like me with a mobility impairment, and to the wider disability community), it is personally very important to me that artwork is accessible online. I have derived much benefit from online information sharing with other disabled & chronically ill people, especially disabled artists. Online collaboration with other artists, sciartists, science communicators, and researchers is also a key part of my practice. Therefore I propose to make the output from this project accessible online as follows;

  • the array image will be available online via a website, in a format where images can be clicked/dragged and rearranged. The book content might also be available online after an appropriate wait period after crowdfunding

  • captioned timelapse video will be made & shares, & livestreaming of work-in-progress can also be explored

  • social media engagement aimed at existing communities and new audiences via Twitter (where I’m @Lycomorpha) & other platforms

Two artworks from my Emergent Crypsis collaboration with generative artist Anders Hoff

 A blue-thighed rainfrog, image courtesy of  Andeas Kay

A blue-thighed rainfrog, image courtesy of Andeas Kay

Small-scale experimental drawings of insects camouflaged on arbitrary ink-splatter, generative patterns, and human litter

Images of card faces from my successfully crowdfunded ‘Cryptic Cards’ transformations poker deck

 Imperfect symmetry on a  Uroplatus  gecko’s tail.  Image by Olaf Pronk

Imperfect symmetry on a Uroplatus gecko’s tail. Image by Olaf Pronk