A Question Of Process #18: Genetic Moo

Edited by Sandra Crisp LG

Nicola and Tim (Genetic Moo) in Growthline

Sandra Crisp LG: Genetic Moo create immersive, interactive artworks which encourage experimentation and collaborative play by the audience, producing digital ecosystems which you call Microworld.

Your practice includes the use of creative coding and is inspired by popular science, ecology, artificial life and evolution. Often sensors, webcams & microphones are used so that visitors can interact within these dynamic art spaces created in galleries and museums. Multiple projections are often populated by a collection of creatures, ‘headline stars’ such as: Squidlets, Hector & The Sunstars, Animacules, Aeroplankton & Globster.

Further insights and thoughts on your digital process will be great to hear about.  

Our first response to the question of describing our process went something like this: Tim’s process is to stay in bed as much as possible writing code on his laptop while Nicola sits next door in her arctic trousers writing code on her tower PC. But that wouldn’t have got us very far. Instead, to help explain how we work, we will focus on our latest ‘headline star’: the Headless Chicken Monster. This creature, along with seven others, will be on show over the summer at The Amelia Scott, a new museum in Royal Tunbridge Wells.

Everything we do is a collaboration of ideas and skills and this piece is collaborative in three different ways:
– We both worked on the code
– We commissioned freelancers to make 3D models
– We worked with the collection’s team to gather and scan objects from the museum’s collection

So back to 2019. We were doing a lot of creative coding projects in Margate in preparation for the NOW Digital festival which we ran in October as part of Margate NOW. One of the first things we teach in coding is how to create patterns using “for loops”*. Here is an example in the Processing language:

* Basically, a for loop runs a section of code repeatedly until a certain condition has been met. In this case, drawing 6 rectangles.

Nicola had been developing a library of generative patterns for a while and some of these started to look as if they could become a piece in their own right. So, Tim wrote a container program to allow patterns to be combined in layers. There was something beguiling about watching novel combinations develop. Using random numbers allowed for endless variations, you could say ‘an ocean’ of digital variations. Tim gave the program back to Nicola who started adding more layers, exploring the depth and variety of this space.

Meanwhile, scientists in a real ocean – the East Antarctic, discovered a new species of sea cucumber which they christened the Headless Chicken Monster, a life form which looked as if it had been magicked up.

Enypniastes eximia, aka the headless chicken monster.

“God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. He has no real style. He just keeps on trying other things.” attributed to Picasso.

What struck us was that it looked like it had been designed in Blender (an open-source 3D modelling program) with odd body parts from other 3D models stuck together in an artificial combination. We imagined this creature swimming through our 2D patterns. However, since we’re both rubbish at Blender, we decided to commission a Freelancer to make the model. We’d never done this before so it was a big experiment. We set up an account on freelancer.co.uk and entered a job request “create a 3D OBJ model of a Headless Chicken Monster with a low polycount** and a simple jpg texture map”. Then people from around the world bid against each other to do the job for the best price. Eventually, we paid 5 freelancers about £20 each to make models for us. The whole process would have taken them a few hours each. It would have taken us a few months!

One of the five we commissioned suited our needs and we added it into the piece. Freelancer is a great way to get things done quickly, we’ve used it a few times since to generate logos, resources and solve tech issues. One time we paid a Ukrainian techie £50 to solve an iPad display issue for us, which turned out to be one line of code =UD they saw us coming! So with Freelancer, there is a certain gamble involved – you take a chance, but you can get some good results.

3D OBJ model of a Headless Chicken Monster. **The polycount is the total number of polygons found in a three-dimensional model. A Low polygon count means easy to edit because of their less complicated mesh and easy to load and view.

The final part of the piece was the toys. Earlier in the year, in collaboration with a local electronic engineer, we’d run a series of workshops at Open School East on coding and hacking electronic toys. To prepare for this, we’d bought a job lot of more than 100 ‘vintage’ wind-up toys on eBay but soon discovered that, unlike their electronic descendants, they were pretty hard to hack without breaking them. We decided to use them as filmed objects instead, their brightly coloured plastic bodies reflecting the global optimism of the 60s & 70s when we grew up and most toys were made in Hong Kong or Taiwan and had travelled the seven seas to get into our grubby little mitts.

We designed a “big button operated, green screen, film set” to enable people (and by now, we were thinking of kids) to interactively add videos of these toys on top of the patterns. The finished piece was shown late 2019 as part of a 4-month Microworld in Ithra’s Children’s Museum in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The next iteration of the piece and its layering of patterns, toys and creatures became central to our lockdown Microworld@HOME broadcasts which gave us something to do in 2020 and sprouted out in several new directions. Now, out the other side of the Pandemic, we are exhibiting it again, physically in Kent, our home county.

Since January, we’ve been working with The Amelia Scott Museum in Royal Tunbridge Wells to digitise objects from their collection of historical toys including Subbuteo which was invented in the town. Nicola has been working with the collections team to select and generate 3D models, which Tim reworks in Blender reducing their polycount and making them more suitable for our needs. Nicola has designed new patterns and the interface has been updated. In the next few weeks, this will all come together into the latest version of the piece.

Though this account describes the development of only one of our artworks, hopefully, it gives an idea of the way all our works develop and evolve. We are constantly tweaking and reworking. Our process is a continuous back and forth between Nicola and Tim, freelancers and technicians, technology and toys.

Nicola + Tim
Genetic Moo LG 2023

Summer exhibitions
Microworld: Amelia The Amelia Scott, Tunbridge Wells TN1 1LS   29 May to 3 September 2023
Microworld Wolves: A Digital Adventure Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Wolverhampton WV1 1DU  22 July to 28 August 2023

A Question of Process 
#17 Simon Read 
#19 Alex Ramsay