The inspiratorial jumping off point for this project was the idea of creating an algae bioreactor using recycled PET bottles. DIY examples of such systems are relatively simple and have been made with a number of different designs. The purpose of this interest correlates with my interest in ecology and food production. Algae gain mass and take in Carbon Dioxide at a far higher rate than other plants, so are an ideal candidate for a cultivar species to help draw in CO2 from the atmosphere. Algae by-products have a great number of uses; many are edible, some can be used to create bio-plastics or biofuels, though the material properties and impact of these as uses or alternatives to fossil fuels is debatable.

 My interest is in food production though and here algae provides a nutritious, though not particularly desirable subject of interest. My working thought was to create an artistically designed bioreactor that might be seen as an article of useful sculpture within a home or otherwise urban environment that would in itself in some small way act to address the issue it was highlighting, i.e. it would be pulling net CO2 from the atmosphere and producing food, even if these quantities are negligible. The purpose of this pattern of thought was to not simply highlight, but in highlighting act towards a speculative solution to a problem.

There are already large-scale commercial trials of algae as a carbon capture method, as well as biofuel production. So I began thinking up and drawing ideas for a more sculptural bioreactor that could conceivable act as a work of art or a piece of furniture, elevating the living algae being from a slave element to at least the position of object of fascination and beauty.

​Burton Nitta’s work reflects somewhat of this idea of algae as collaborator. Here the person’s singing or breath feeds the algae with CO2, in which way they collaborate with the wearer as a vector to turn the incidental emissions of their performance into food.

A skill I wished to develop as part of this project was computational modelling. I knew that Maya can take python scripts, so I decided that I would attempt to create my teardrop design with python and develop it to conjure convoluted and interesting forms with the teardrop bulb on the end.

It was at this point I presented the work to a crit, asking for references and ideas to further the project and its ideas. Some of the salient questions and suggestions brought up were:

  • Am I publicising the issue or creating an object
  • What is the feasibility of this as an object functioning adequately
  • Is this a formal art object or would it stand more as a work of activism?
  • For making the object I could look into neon tube bending
  • Perhaps using a soft material rather than a hard one for the tubing
  • What type of housing would the algae want?
  • If I am recycling PET bottles, how much CO2 is required to create a bottle, and so how long would it take the algae to sequester enough carbon to undo the making of the shell?

My initial experiments with PET bottles were proving difficult, so I went back to Maya to work on creating more interesting models. I ran into a lot of frustration after generating these twisting tubes to try and find the transform of the end of them to be able to place the bulb shape on top. As such I decided to give up on the bulb shape, at least for now, and start working with the towers as they were. I created some 3D prints of one of the towers and some early renders, but decided that I needed an environment to render them into.

This led me down a path of creating this Gothic Laboratory which was conceived of initially as a converted office building that used the brick and sculpted windows of a gothic church rather than the midcentury modernism of glass and steel. I added in the rock wall at the back inspired by Scandinavian architectural designs that blend into the permanence of the rock faces they are built around.

The choice of gothic was not accidental either. Our cohort concept is the idea of Mythotechnesis, myth creation and fictioning being major aspects of this. Along with this came a gothic script invoking ideas of magi and ritual. The neo-gothic period is also considered the time of the birth of modern science-fiction, with Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, and the myth of the solitary genius and the reanimation of life are themes that I feel fit with my idea of algae tower experiments.

After struggling with the large render times coming through Maya and now a shift towards the idea of creating a work of moving image, I decided to port my scene over to the Unreal Engine, where I could light and move about the scene in Real-Time, and with their stock environments producing more controllable and realish results.

Render of the scene in Unreal

At this point I have the broad strokes of the film to be. Two AIs constructed by different biological beings would be conversing in a laboratory where the proprietor may have left a century before or may be just about to return. One AI would be made from the algae in the towers representing a thinking that is modular but homogenous, singular, centralised, self-serving but productive. The other AI, I have determined would be made from mycelium, and would be heterogenous, decentralised, service oriented and distributive. I can see vague parallels with Farmers and Supermarkets for example or any other producer/distributor dichotomies that require each other and feed off each other, but where imbalances occur and can harm either or both. And this is an idea I would like to highlight lackadaisically through the AIs’ bickering over trivialities.

First fungal sketch in p5js

This fungal AI computer now required that I model some sort of Fungal based sculptural form. There are models out there that create amazing forms that replicate the shapes and structures of slime moulds for eample. I wanted to shy away from these for a couple of reasons; firstly I didn’t want to get lost in someone else’s code and as such just end up copying or using theirs; secondly, as far as I can tell from the outside, these systems seem to map something more akin to energy flow through a structure rather than an architecture of the structure itself as a growing set of cells within a medium; thirdly, I had a vague idea that I believe I can translate once finished into something I can bring into maya and turn into a 3D model.

My idea was to create a system divided into two species types: Nodes and seekers, which would seek out their highest value neighbour block, create a new seeker, and then pass value from the block they were in up the chain. I started working on a 2D version in p5js before transitioning to c# and Unity as this was more powerful and better at handling the OOP. After some iterations I ended up creating these lovely patterns, but was limited in size because, as this was all running on the CPU, eventually it just becomes too large and too slow for the computer to handle.

Each colour represents all the seekers that belong to a node after it has been created

After a few more tweaks I ended up with a system that would give what appear to be convincing enough root systems.

Unfortunately something within this code meant that even just running 100×100 tiles was proving too much.

However I am incredibly pleased with the progress on this topic so far, as it does seem to be creating something representative of a distributed node-based, heterogenous that grows organically and is cognizant of itself and the rest of the system.

The next steps with this are to create a 3D version, and then to rewrite it as a shader to make use of the GPU and vastly speed up all the processes that could be run in parallel. Once I reach this stage it will be an interesting prospect as to whether it would work better as a volume shader or as my initial intention to output a set points through which I can create a spline and extrude along a primitive to create the organic-like shapes I desire.

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