An Artist + A Lab = An Evolution of Practice

From Januray 2011 to December 2014 evolutionary biologist Stephen Tonsor and I worked in collaboration based on the roles of time, space, and change in our work. Tonsor examines change within plant populations to the particularities of a site over time—Arabidopsis thaliana on the mountainsides of Spain, as a surrogate for plants in general across global climate. My wall drawings respond to site architecture and viewer traffic—essentially the particular conditions of a space over time, and how viewers respond to the work. The collaboration itself is a social sculpture, inspired by the work of artist Joseph Beuys, and based on evolutionary theory: When two distinct practices are put into contact, they alter the mental space of each practitioner and the trajectory of the fields.

My studio practice was based in the lab among 15 scientists. As a group we attended biology talks and art exhibitions, and traded books and conversation on a range of topics. Meeting weekly as a lab, we discussed problems, triumphs, and the conceptual challenges of shaping new work and directions. Through this daily practice we came to understand the context, questions, and methods of each other's work and thought. We aspired to better understanding of our two related but distinct inquiries—artistic and scientific—in a way that could inform and reshape the way each of us thinks about ourselves, our work, and our world.

The Project

Working together we developed an interactive, projected wallpaper in which the wallpaper's many distinct design motifs that act like a population of organisms that adapt site‐specifically based on viewer interaction. The motifs given the most attention by viewers contribute their offspring to the wallpaper. The viewers may pay attention to a particular motif out of disgust or desire, either way this attention will drive the evolution of the wallpaper. Each motif has it's own underlying genetic code, and the genome for all of the motifs is based on the biological concepts of genetic modules and developmental cascades—mixed with the elements of design. Both an artwork and a system of scientific experimentation, the project is a beguiling synthesis of culture, technology, and the complex forces of nature.

Throughout the development of this work each of us has learned the language of the other, leading to a curiously mixed dialect. We needed both compromise and judicious tenacity keep the work and dialogue on track, all the while recognizing that these two related but distinct inquiries—artistic and scientific—can further the way we understand our work, ourselves and our world.

Learn more about the Evolving Wallpaper Project.

This project was supported with funds from the The Heinz Endowments, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and through broader impacts funding to the lab from the National Science Foundation.


Settles and Tonsor talk about the early development of this work in 2011 at the National Academy of Sciences' DASER forum: