Machine in the Garden

Simon Ingram with Terrestrial Assemblages

18 December 2021

Simon Ingram and Terrestrial Assemblages, Earth Models, 2020.

Machine in the Garden centres on Ingram’s Automata Paintings and a series of new computer-based works by Terrestrial Assemblages—an ecological working group Ingram initiated alongside educator and digital artist John-Paul Pochin to create sensitivity to, and awareness of, natural systems.

The Automata Paintings, and the computer-based Tree Models, share an interpretation of complexity as the consequence of rule-based environments. Both series employ algorithmic ‘self-organising’ systems called cellular automata, which were initially conceived by mathematician John von Neumann as part of his research into machine self-replication and later developed by Konrad Zuse, John Conway, Christoper Langton and Stephen Wolfram.

In their simplest form, cellular automata exist as grids of cells in one of two binary states, decided relative to the position and state of neighbouring cells. These initially simple relational systems produce complexity that spreads across a potentially infinite theoretical space and can be used to demonstrate the outcomes of natural systems that have no ‘author’, such as movement in a school of fish or the ‘design’ of termite nests.

By executing his paintings in acrylic paint on gridded canvases according to elementary cellular automata rules, Ingram simultaneously participates in the history and traditions of abstract art while investigating systems that aspire to representation on a foundational level. His pixelated compositions attempt reflection of the basic building blocks of biological systems, as opposed to the imitation of outward appearance that painting historically enacts.

These ideas have been developed further by Terrestrial Assemblages into Tree Models: custom-built software presented on three ‘unboxed’ computers. Tree Models interprets principles of plant biology as complex sets of cellular automata-like rules that enable growth as well as sap and water flow from root to leaf. These rules are augmented with real-time data in the form of air pressure, humidity, sap flow, soil moisture and temperature derived from a single tītoki. Like cellular automata, these virtual plants are evolving models of natural systems that change and grow according to their relationship with the collected data.