César Alvarez's Futurity and Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp's The Creeping Garden

by Michael Blair


Andrew R. Butler, César Alvarez, Storm Thomas, Karen Kandel in César Alvarez's Futurity, 2015. Presented by Soho Rep and Ars Nova. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

The Connelly Theater, 2015
Cinema Iloobia, 2014

 

“I know what you’re thinking: a
    machine is not a mind
But couldn’t the mechanics of an
engine be completely redesigned
To adapt and grow the way only an
    organism can
A revolution of solutions that could
    move beyond the intellect of man ... ”

Singing these words is Julian Munro, the fictitious Union soldier at the center of César Alvarez’s new musical, Futurity. Such a metaphysical mouthful might be overkill in most musicals, but it’s right in step with a character like Julian (played with earnest enthusiasm by Alvarez himself), an “amateur” and a “tinkerer” whose long days marching South are spent dreaming up new technologies to end the Civil War. From the banks of the Ohio, Julian shoots off a letter to the British mathematician Ada Lovelace (Sammy Tunis), an important historical figure credited with publishing the first computer algorithms. Together, they mix the real and the imagined to invent a proto-computer called “The Steam Brain,” which will hopefully have the intelligence to outsmart human “failures of imagination” like war and slavery.

It’s a layered and complicated plot for a musical, made doubly so by Alvarez and Tunis’s frequent and fluid slips out of their nineteenth-century stage characters and into their real-life roles as bandmates in the indie-folk band The Lisps. At these moments, they’re free to sing seemingly unrelated and contemporary songs about supermarkets and broken eggs, or to issue stern warnings against any attempt to learn about history from what they’re singing. This open-ended structure makes for a musical that can truly argue against itself, posing more questions than it could ever attempt to answer: Is there really a difference between a machine and a mind? Can we imagine a post-Singularity life in the “cloud” without physical bodies? If machines could change and adapt like “organisms,” could they ever grow smarter than humans?

It’s this last question that’s on the minds of filmmakers Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp in their new documentary, The Creeping Garden, which plunges into the strange world of the slime mold—a sometimes expanding, sometimes contracting blob-pod that’s neither fungus nor animal. An enigmatic, unclassifiable creature often found poking through the insides of hollow logs, the slime mold is now being studied for its perhaps intelligent decision-making, as scientists and artists are looking for new ways to organically process data and information.

Like Futurity’s narrative movement between characters and across time, The Creeping Garden similarly follows the slime mold wherever its maze-like cells end up—from laboratories where scientists construct slime mold­–operated robots to concert halls where it generates computer interfaces that inform the far edges of contemporary, post-John Cage composition. Like Futurity, the film uses music as the primary translating metaphor for the unknown—whether it’s mycology or Microsoft. Experimenters convert the slime mold’s movements to piano-based sounds that grow in volume or slow to a drone as the organism finds food or hibernates. All the while, Jim O’Rourke’s rustling electronic score moves with the camera from tree-trunks to art and science conventions.

Most memorably, though, Grabham and Sharp’s camera sneaks into the British woodlands alongside a mycological hobbyist named Mark Pragnell, who, like Julian Munro, speaks with the unalloyed wonder of a true amateur. Pragnell admits to having read one or two articles about the more sci-fi sounding applications of slime mold, but he’s more interested in spotting it beneath stacks of forest leaves. When he chances upon an unknown specimen in the woods, he’s careful to remind us that all his photographs and classifications can only go so far in unfurling the mysteries of the slime mold. “Nature doesn’t define a species,” he tells us. “It’s us.” It’s a freeing but chilling remark, in part because we can’t yet know what all the creative experiments with slime mold will yield.

As Julian and Ada ask questions about a taxonomy of the future—about how their machine might offer up a new kind of intelligence—Pragnell’s unknowable slime mold creeps into focus, and we start to wonder what’s coming next.

 

— Michael Blair is BOMB’s Andrew W. Mellon Fellow for Performing Arts.

Tags:
plays
musicals
technology
nature
ecology
science fiction
BOMB 134
Winter 2016
The cover of BOMB 134
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