The Living Thing / Notebooks : Mellifera

This article appeared in realtime 91.

Mellifera’s ([1]) launch has to be the only occasion that an exhibition has been opened by releasing bees in a crowded room. Well, almost bees. Creators Trish Adams and Andrew Burrell call the virtual lifeforms they have created “mellifera”, after apis mellifera, the European honey bee, but the creatures themselves share at most a family resemblance with their physical cousins. The creatures are, in fact, just one species in the synthetic ecosystem of terra.mellifera set up in the multi-user online world, Second Life

The gallery walls are taken up with projections from what appears to be CCTV surveillance footage; but the terrain the apparent cameras survey is from anywhere but the gallery surrounds. The valley outside is enclosed by precipitous cliffs and filled with strange polygonal flora in various states of growth and decay. A silent humanoid avatar flounces its antennae as it tends to the swarm of varicoloured insects the size of a human head- and across the gallery, a computer terminal invite you to pilot a virtual persona, an ”avatar”, through the imaginary valley. If you come hearing only of the bee-connection this is both more garish and more immersive than the average ecological simulation.

In my email interview with them, the artists are quick to differentiate their synthesis of life from replication thereof:

What we are creating is not a simulation but a space in its own right that has its own logic, in part inspired by some physical world ecosystems and the behaviour of Apis Mellifera (European honey bees), but also very much its own space. A ‘simulation’ is replicating something else. This is something else.

Be that as it may, the project claims multiple points of engagement with the physical honey bee - Firstly, the artists have researched “cognition, navigation and communications in the honey bee” at the Queensland Brain Institute, and mention it as an inspiration for the behaviour of their simulacra. More overt is the contemporary theme of ecological fragility evoked by bees, who are notoriously threatened worldwide.

It’s not apparent in the show at gaffa, but disaster looms for the mellifera as well. In the artists’ words: “The actual ‘terra mellifera’ in Second Life appears at first to be a pastoral paradise; … however, whilst some [simulation states] will have an Elysian theme, others will involve dangerous invasions of pests which our virtual honeybees… will be unable to resist without the attention of ecologically aware Avatars.” The artists certainly intend to subject their creatures to some analogue of the blight afflicting their real kindred.

terra.mellifera is far from the first ecosystem in Second life- and bees in perticular seem common, occurring in two high profile ones: Laukosargas Svarog’s famed “Svarga” simulation, and “Luciftias Neurocam“‘s Terminus.

What’s different here, (beside an unspecified arsenal of gizmos and doohickeys which the artists hope to deploy in the later Brisbane show) is narrative. I’m reminded of Mitchell Whitelaw’s ([2]) consideration of “critical generative systems”, and the potential implicit in these generative simulations to communicate ‘system stories’ that explore possible worlds, systems whose underlying construction can create alternative perspectives on physical reality.

For the Burrell and Adams, indeed, narrative and exploration are both critical. They are happy to disclose that their simulation is based largely around the venerable artificial life technique of agent based modelling, that it contains birth, feeding and death and so on. But they are coy about the detail of the emergent foodweb. That, they wish to leave to the experience of the visitor. At least for now. There is, they say, a synthetic nature documentary in progress about the project which will explain all to the faithful.

For now, the tribulations, and the gradual evolution and curation of the algorithms and interrelations of the mellifera are only visible to those spectators to the virtual component of the show, the denizens of Second life. And it’s not just invasive pests, but the progress of the artwork itself: “As we introduce further code / behaviour /elements to the system, balance is lost, and sometimes it can take quite a while for equilibrium to return. Tiny changes to one piece of code can and do affect the whole system”. The experience of Mellifera, then, approximates a real eco-tourism project in a bona fide ecosystem, with all the responsibility and uncertainty that implies. This critical generative system, then, explores the transience and delicacy of living systems. Noble sentiments.

If this is so, I have a qualm with the choice of medium. If we can extract a detailed experience of the fragility of living systems from such a simulation, it is a lopsided fragility from which we are excluded. Second life invites us, or our virtual avatars, to participate intimatelybut asymmetrically; second-life avatars are solipsistically prime in the simulated world. These immortal, self-contained souls can create a balance of synthetic “nature” but cannot be themselves destroyed by it. Whereas, the demise of the bees in reality seems likely to cost real human lives as our crops lose a key pollenating process. For us, the bees’ value is, tragically, far more than purely aesthetic, and organising to save the arbitrary danger to an artwork in the stead of a real ecosystem is quixotic.

The destinies of both real and virtual bees, however, and the artists’ handling of these difficulties, are all similarly undecided, and I recommend checking in on the progress of each. terra.mellifera is ongoing in Second Life and will re-open in real life in Brisbane in August 2009 at ‘the block’, QUT. Bee extinctions are continuing worldwide.

Dan MacKinlay is a writer, musician and coder from way back, and is just as coy about his own guiding algorithms

16th-21st April gaffa gallery 1/7 Randle Street, Surry Hills Sydney, Australia

[1]first mentioned in RealTime issue 87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 36
[2]System Stories and Model Worlds : A Critical Approach to Generative Art in Olga Goriunova (ed), Readme 100: Temporary Software Art Factory (Norderstedt: BoD) 135-154. (Dec 2005)