Issue 28 11.20.13

Issue 28
Growth Pattern

by Allison Kudlah

In this work of art, a living natural system takes on the form of a manufactured pattern. Tobacco leaves are die-cut into a bilaterally symmetrical botanical abstraction and incubated in tiling square petri dishes that contain the nutrients necessary to promote new leaf growth. The premise for this work is the merging of a living botanical system with the cultural legacy of botanical motifs. By attempting to structure a living organism inside an abstraction of itself, a poetic fractal of consciousness, control, and plasticity unfolds in time. The essence or idealized structure of a living system collides with its material existence. While the bilaterally symmetrical pattern, which is die-cut along the mid-vein of freshly grown tobacco leaves, might be considered similar to an Arabesque pattern, the pattern is derived as an abstraction based on the geometrical essence[43] of a singular leaf, and its phyllotaxy is seen as an arrangement from aerial perspective.

Allison Kudla, Growth Pattern, 2010. Photo Credit: Kristof Vrancken / Z33.

Image courtesy of artist.

Plant cells are totipotent. This means that, depending on the ratio of auxins to cytokinins, the cells have the capacity to differentiate into any organ in the plant. The concept of “totipotency,” or total potentiality, is precisely the kind of biological concept and extensible idea to ignite a visual artist’s creative imagination. Plants are already excellent morphological carriers for epigenetic and phenotypic modulation, and then to also discover the potential for complete organ plasticity is astonishing. Essentially every cell in a plant has the instructions or algorithms embedded inside of it to replicate into any organ its DNA understands how to produce. Human tissues are much more specialized, and only stem cells contain such total potentiality, but imagining how this plasticity could manifest in a plant through human intervention was a driving force in the creation of this work of art. The project merges an instantiation of our cultural legacy of botanical abstractions with the very material those abstractions modeled themselves after. Given that the material is alive and open to biochemical influences, the pattern morphs as the plant responds to what is essentially a process of disorganization and reorganization for the botanical system. Tobacco was chosen primarily because of the affordances it gave in the tissue culturing process. It has a high-degree of sensitivity and plasticity, lending itself to tissue culture, and its leaves are broad and flat, making it easy to cut shapes from its leaves.

Since each initially nearly identical unit in the whole that composes the work of art functions as a self- contained ecosystem or micro-environment, several precautions were taken to make sure that, when the

leaves were placed into their petri dish environments, they were thoroughly decontaminated and sterilized. However, as with any experiment, it is possible for contamination to occur. In some, the tissue dies; in others, parasites take over and grow faster than the new leaves. In some micro-environments, aseptic conditions are achieved and new sprouts begin to grow from the die-cut leaf tissue’s disembodied cells. Although I considered choosing to grow roots from leaves or leaves from roots, I chose to extend the growth of leaves from leaves. This decision was made to further pronounce the concept of disorganization

Allison Kudla, Growth Pattern, 2010. Enlargement showing condensation pattern. Photo Credit: Kristof Vrancken / Z33.

and reorganization of the biological medium and also to investigate the collision of the abstraction of reality to reality itself. Therefore, the cultured leaves are provided with the hormones that cause the cells of the leaf cuttings to produce new leaf tissue. The newly growing leaves are extending and remixing the form of the botanical motif. Due to the repetition of the pattern, the occupants to the space witness a performative experiment of morphological and ecological changes in each micro-environment over the duration of the exhibit. Much like in contrapuntal composition, each petri dish is created identically, yet due to the variables present in the process and also in the leaves themselves, deviance from the initiating structure occurs in the eventuality of the work of art over time. To continue the comparison to musical structure, the cultural form it borrows, a singular square that generates a repeating pattern, is akin to common time or a 4/4 structure in music. The installation begins in an incredibly harmonious fashion, yet this “4/4” structure is modulated, and disrupted by the varying behaviors, growths, and senescence processes occurring in each unit. The algorithms running on the cells themselves, as they strive to reorganize themselves, can be seen alongside the algorithms of contamination as parasites grow quickly, covering the plant tissue and taking the plant’s nutrients. The structure for the work can no longer be defined with any precision. The harmony of the work of art begins to disorganize at the very moment that the individual micro-environments are starting their own processes of expression and reorganization. The structure of the work begins controlled by the human and ends controlled by an almost expected biological variability and unpredictability. It is not known, even to the artist at the time the work is instigated, which micro-environment will successfully grow new leaf tissue and survive the human disorganization and manipulation of its tissue so as to contribute to a harmonious macro-environment and which micro-environment will decay, grow parasites, and contribute to a dramatic and dynamic display of entropy and ruin. Finally, if all micro-environments were to produce new leaf tissue, the whole would still appear to have disrupted the harmonious structure. As I will discuss in the next chapter, theoretical biology does not know precisely why leaf tissue grows in the position it does on the leaf and

ascribes the potential for growth from a cell to a random order. Thus, even when sterilization balance achieves perfection, the pattern of sprouting is not always ordered within that order, or “hyper-ordered.” The pattern emerging within the pattern still contains an element of the unpredictable and when it does match, then that is precisely where the work is seen to create an emergent pattern.

The life-cycle of the work goes through three macro-scale state changes: an initial state, a growth state, and a decay state. The growth state is composed of various micro-states that can be generalized to contain in some leaf tissue growth, and in others bacterial and fungal growth. The decay state is always eventually arrived at by all of the units which comprise the whole, however, in some this happens in a matter of days and in others in a matter of months. The timeline for new leaf growth is approximately three to four weeks, whereas the timeline for bacterial and fungal growth can range from two to three days to two to three weeks. It takes a period of two to three months before all of the petri dishes have arrived at a state of decay. The project is highly temporal in nature; it doesn’t leave behind any material of lasting permanence beyond the frames that hold the micro-environments. The work of art exists in time and space as a collection of ever-changing and continuous moments which the viewer samples with each visit to the installation. Therefore, the work is structured to stage multiple viewings over durations of days, weeks, and months so as to witness both micro and macro, implicit and explicit expressions of patterns and changes of state. As described prior, in the first stage of the work, the viewer encounters 64 nearly identical square units in an 8 x 8 array that hold leaf tissue that has been methodically cut into a precise and bilaterally symmetrical pattern. Over a period of days, condensation develops, and, over a period of weeks, bacteria, fungi, and new leaves may grow, and, finally, over a period of two to three months, the tissue decays and dies as nutrient supplies deplete with each unit in the system changing, becoming, and ending in a different way. This process of unpredictability and differentiation is beautifully discussed by the philosopher Gilbert Simondon in his ideas of individuation.[63] Although the piece begins as a collective whole united in form and pattern, by the end of the exhibition, each micro-environment has stepped through its own expression of haecceity. The final state which identifies each petri dish is unknowable and literally infinite in its explicit variability, yet its essential individuation is limited to a finite number of implicit possibilities. The delicate process of sterilization leaves much guesswork as contamination and also cell death are invisible processes at first and take days and weeks to develop into our operational awareness.

Growth Pattern leverages the algorithms embedded in plant cells and their surrounding micro-organisms to render a self-generating, time-based and physically real visual process. There is a difference between this and previous works in the field of Artificial Life (AL): Rather than the back-end for the botanical animation being a computer program written in a human-designed coding language, the back-end is the biology of the organism itself; the front-end is the cultural legacy of botanical patterns found in tiling designs. The software that generates this work, rather than running on a computer operating system, is running on the biochemical structure of plant cells, and I am working and composing with them. The living organism is the operating system for the work. This particular code comes from the totipotency of all plant cells, meaning any cell in a plant can become any organ in a plant. This thereby generates a living animation where petri dishes, or micro-environments, act as a microcosmic universe or whole, and the algorithm and software for the work is housed in the biochemistry and DNA of a living system, which is also where the live-process of my artwork occurs.

The basic formula for organ generation from cultured cells involves the use of two specific chemical growth regulators. They are called “auxins” and “cytokinins.” Plants generate these naturally, however, scientists in the mid-twentieth century discovered how to synthesize these chemicals in laboratories. The primary use for these synthetic hormones or “plant growth regulators” is research around the mechanisms of the cell and, in a more applied way, in micropropagation, cloning, and tissue culture. The algorithm is

as follows: a greater ratio of auxins to cytokinins = roots, a great ratio of cytokinins to auxins = leaves, and equal ratios of auxins and cytokinins = undifferentiated tissue. I took this basic formula to generate a living image or process-based real-time cellular animation where leaves, cut in the abstraction of themselves, generate new leaves. Therefore, my chemical formula was cytokinins > auxins = leaves. I added nutrients, sugar, antibiotics, and antimycotics to the growth medium. The growth medium was made of a standard laboratory grade agar. The sterilization technique of the tissue involved a procedure of one minute in ethanol, five minutes in a mixture of sterile water, bleach, Dettol and Tween (detergents), and a final swirl in ethanol. The tissue was then rinsed in two baths of sterile water before being cultured into the petri dishes. The placement of the tissue is done inside of a sterile hood.

Allison Kudla, Growth Pattern, 2010. Tissue that has sprouted new leaves. Photo Credit: Kristof Vrancken / Z33.

The project went through many iterations before its final outcome, and that involved changes of method, process, pattern, size, and shape. The first proof of concept for this work was done at a smaller scale of only 16 petri dishes, a 4 x 4 array, sized at 3.5” per square. The leaf tissue was laser cut into a pattern that echoed the damask wallpaper that hung near where it was being exhibited. The process of laser cutting the leaf tissue was refined so that the edges of the leaf were not burned. However, the act of putting a leaf into the top corner of a rectangular CNC table and pressing “go” while a laser cut through the leaf took a large degree of control out of the process. The cutouts were ill fitting to the form of the leaf and often included the middle vein of the leaf in the shapes being cut. The middle vein of the leaf contains the most bacteria, the least meristem tissue, and it is very difficult to sterilize. After switching to using a pattern based on bilateral symmetry, using the middle vein of the leaf as a guide, and cutting the pattern’s pieces out by hand with dies rather than with a machine, the concept and the method started to reinforce each other to a much higher degree. I was able to compose the symmetry and use of the tissue in a much more meaningful way for the design. I was also returning to the process of cutting that biologists traditionally use; the die technique being much more similar to using a cork borer. The form for the work resonated with the material and process for the work in a much more consistent way. Furthermore, ideologically, the pattern of damask wallpaper was much less about the geometric essence and formation of a plant than the design of the bilaterally symmetrical pattern that was used in the final outcome of the work. I came at this bilaterally symmetrical pattern because I was researching examples of botanical abstractions that were more focused on the universal essence of a plant and how it is structured than on its figurative depiction. In the process of reading about ornamental patterns, I determined that the most

Allison Kudla, Growth Pattern, 2010. Left: Leaves after being cut with bilaterally symmetrical dies. Right: Die sets.

interesting way to create the pattern for Growth Pattern would be to design one bilaterally symmetrical unit that could be rotated four times to generate a central botanical pattern. Each unit then becomes a representation of a leaf, and the leaf then rotates about an invisible central axis as the pattern radiates out into clusters of four. The pattern was influenced by existing Arabesque designs, but its final format was a completely original pattern that was broken up into twenty-four individual pieces or dies that are mirror images of each other, or twelve pairs of dies. The smaller sub-shapes generated within the larger pattern reference shapes as diverse as the human figure, a rocking horse, a Dutch shoe, and the way human skin cells look when viewed under a microscope. As a whole, the tile appears as a botanical abstraction of a leaf and as all tiles come together, it references a field of plants from aerial perspective. The work is presented on the floor rather than the wall, further emphasizing the concept of the tableau we are gazing down at being an abstraction of an agricultural system.

Fig. 2. Documentation of leaf tissue curling in the smaller scaled petri dishes

The units which make up the whole were tested in two different scales. First, in approximately 3.5” square petri dishes and then in approximately 9” square petri dishes. It was discovered that the tissue, when cut into pieces small enough for the 3.5” square, too quickly curled and morphed, losing all recognition of the originating pattern [Fig. 2]. This is one reason for the 9” square dishes, however, the larger scale of the work also added to a sense of the sublime and infinite when displayed over a 2.5 meter by 2.5 meter area, consisting of 64 petri dishes in an 8 x 8 array. It required the viewers to walk around it, the work existing at the liminal edges of being able to be taken in as a whole from a human-scaled height and position. The large petri dishes are also such an uncommon object, that it reinforced the forms ambiguity, which is an essential characteristic in the process of conveying to the viewer a sense of the experiential and surreal. It could not be minimized as another example of art in petri dishes, for the form

transcended such a reading. The trademark tools and tropes of science laboratories were subverted enough so that the visual resonance of the aesthetics of the modern, the industrial, the unit, and the manufactured could become just as equally pronounced. The sensitivity to the materials and their visual presentation placed emphasis on the effects of scientific tools and processes not being aesthetically lost but rather seamlessly blended into the aesthetics of the industrial and technological paradigm shifts of our

Allison Kudla, Growth Pattern, 2010. Working in the sterile hood at the NCBS in Bangalore, India.

time. The support systems for the living systems were intentionally square, solid, manufactured, and uniform; this visual counterbalance to the fragile, living, and changing micro-environments is essential to the aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual experience of the work. The brightly glowing light-box stage that holds the square petri dishes emphasizes an analogy to a pixel-based screen and adds one more contextual reference to computational art; the generative display of screen-based AL is re-imagined in living, growing matter. Additionally, the ventilated light-box serves to draw out all of the essential visual characteristics of each living micro-environment while also providing the tissue with the right temperature and light energy levels to keep the cells alive and optimized for potential growth.

I researched and developed this work at the University of Washington in the biology lab of Dr. Liz Van Volkenburgh. Since that time, I refined my protocol by consulting and working with scientists from the University of Salzburg, the University of Hasselt, and the University of Oviedo. Practical work was performed at the latter two in addition to the University of Washington, Seattle. Although proof of concept was achieved at the University of Washington, I continued my exploration of culturing die-cut leaf tissue while at the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore, India. I was working there as an artist-in-residence with an appointment at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. Due to equipment access limitations, the work migrated from using a laser cutter to using dies. Fittingly, the process and design of the pattern became much more controlled and the pattern more geometrically elegant once the use of dies was introduced into the work. The process of creating this work is described in more detail in subsequent chapters, however, it involves custom-made dies, tobacco plants, petri dishes, and growth medium that contains agar, sugar, nutrients, hormones, antibiotics, and antimycotics. The production is carried out in a biology lab with a sterile hood and autoclave and requires a greenhouse for growing the tobacco plants which supply the work of art its leaf tissue. The tobacco plants grown for the

work are an academic variety known as Xanthi. I originally received the strain from Douglas Ewing, the director of the University of Washington’s Greenhouse, and I have been harvesting and saving these seeds since then. When the work was presented in Hasselt, a camera with intervolumeter was mounted directly above the work and set to record one photograph every 15 minutes over the duration of a two-month span. Documentation of the beginning and end state of this time-lapse video can be seen below. [Fig. 3]

Fig. 3. Growth Pattern, 2010. Still from Time-lapse documentation. Beginning and End.

Allison Kudla, Growth Pattern, 2010. Photo Credit: Kristof Vrancken / Z33.

Botanical Abstraction

The drawings of patients with Parkinsonism, as they are “awakened” by L- Dopa, form an instructive analogy. Asked to draw a tree, the Parkinsonian tends to draw a small, meager thing, stunted, impoverished, a bare winter-tree with no foliage at all. As he “warms up”, “comes to”, is animated by L-Dopa, so the tree acquires vigor, life, imagination—and foliage. If he becomes too excited, high, on L-Dopa, the tree may acquire a fantastic ornateness and exuberance, exploding with a florescence of new branches and foliage with little arabesques, curlicues, and what-not, until finally its original form is completely lost beneath this enormous, this baroque, elaboration.([57] p 54-55)

-Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat

This quotation is an intriguing one in that it brings to question if the process whereby humans abstract nature into baroque configurations, curlicues, and arabesque patterns is somehow biologically linked somewhere in the physiology of our brains. This is particularly interesting when considering the cultural legacy of botanical motifs. Could it be that under certain chemically-induced somatic states plants appear to flourish in a way similar to what has been recorded in the evolution of ornamentation and botanical abstractions? Perhaps we use depictions and abstractions of plants in ornamental patterns precisely because they lend themselves so well to this format due to their inherent algorithmic properties of repetition and geometric configuration. Does the altering of certain chemicals in human physiology produce fantastical and elaborate hallucinations of ornamental patterns when gazing upon the foliage of a lush and full botanical form? If there is a connection in human physiology to the hallucination of plants into baroque, arabesque, and ornamental patterns, this research has not been done, however, it is an interesting idea to consider. If that hypothesis were true, what would happen if the plant was carved out into the form of the very abstraction the human mind perceives? How would the plant emerge within this human-ordered abstraction? How could the plant actively play a role in this fantasy? This was one of the thoughts that guided the creation of the work Growth Pattern.

Karl Blossfeldt, Forsythia suspensa, 1929. Photogravure.

While the process of creating botanical abstractions is ancient, centuries old, and appearing throughout many different cultures at many different times and in many different forms, there are a few hallmark motifs that arise over and over again. These most recognized and conventionalized botanical stylizations are rosettes, palmettes, calyxes, scrollwork, and fan- like flowers.[43] Karl Blossfeldt, a photographer from Germany who became most recognized in the early twentieth century for his published work Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature, 1929),[10] stands out as having begun, in a methodical way, the process of finding these idealized and stylized forms in actual nature. His photographs appear otherworldly, however, they are quite simply photographs of actual nature. He only manipulates the nature in so far as to cut, tie, nail, paste, and position or arrange these living artifacts in such a way as to most accurately translate the idealized form of a botanical abstraction. His working collages are truly amazing and relate directly back to the idea that perhaps idealized botanical forms were not invented by human beings but rather they were discovered when in a subjective and operational time and space that was unusual or somehow transcendent to the perceiver. Essentially, botanical abstractions are a form of

algorithmic perfection that do exist in our physical reality, however, it requires our minds to be able to see and order it in a particular way; it is only through a specific hyper-state of perception that these forms can or could be routinely observed.

While the preceding idea is not scientifically grounded, but rather guided by intuition, experience, and assumption, work has been done on how totipotent cells arrange and reorganize themselves into new organs. Chemical formulas are used to elicit certain responses from plant cells, but where these new organs place themselves in a leaf cutting is a mystery. If one were to cut a circle, or leaf disc, and place it into a micro-environment with the growth medium that contains the hormones for new leaf growth, and all conditions of sterility were properly achieved and the cells were able to differentiate into new shoots, what determines where those new shoots grow? Why do they grow at 1 o’clock on one leaf disc and 8 o’clock on another, for example. It is observed that the new shoots can only grow out of callus tissue. This means that first, the cut or severed tissue responds to the act of being vivisected by growing clumps of undifferentiated tissue at the open and dislocated edges. Almost in a healing process, the organism sends more cells to those edges and the cells develop a sort of scab or husk of undifferentiated callus tissue. Once the cut edge has this buffer, the chemical messages being sent from the micro-environment are taken into the cells and they respond by differentiating based on those hormonal signals. Out of the callus tissue, new shoots sprout. It was hypothesized that perhaps there is more action potential for new shoot development at the opening of a vein, however, this was not proven as it wasn’t most often at the site of a vein were new leaves sprouted; in fact, quite the reverse was true. It appears that callus tissue forms first where there is not a vein, as the vein does not contain the desired meristem tissue; beyond that rule, the pattern appears to behave randomly. My understanding of the word “random” in highly ordered and evolved biological systems is that it is simply unknown to us, not that it is without meaning or function. The visually repeating and methodical system set up in Growth Pattern makes the comparison of placement of new sprouts easier to see simply by viewing. When I cut the forms out of the leaves, I always made “pairs” for each tile, the dividing line of symmetry for the leaf guiding the dividing line of symmetry in each petri dish’s pattern. For this reason, it is very interesting to see fungal growths [Fig. 5] and even in some cases leaf sprouts [Fig. 4] happening in a mirrored form from one side of the square dish to the next. I have included images of some examples of this emergent pattern happening within the pattern below. Achieving an emergent pattern within a pattern or a hyper-ordered pattern was a goal of the work, as it further emphasizes the algorithmic and programmatic qualities embedded in living systems while simultaneously proving exactly how complex, diverse, and dynamic these systems can be.

Fig. 4. Growth Pattern, 2010. Left: Freshly cut leaves. Right: Some symmetry in reorganized and newly sprouting leaves.

Fig. 5. Growth Pattern, 2010. Detail of symmetrical fungal growths. Photo Credit: Kristof Vrancken / Z33.

Allison Kudla. Growth Pattern, 2010. Composition of petri dishes with only leaf growth. Photo Credit: Kristof Vrancken / Z33.