The progress of a slime mould is slow but inevitable, and sure enough, three years after the cinema release of when it won the best director prize in the documentary features category at the 2014 Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, The Creeping Garden has made its way to Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Academy, accompanied by a plethora of special features as bizarre as the film itself.
Once grouped among the estimated one and a half million species discovered in the diverse kingdom of the fungi, the slime moulds are now considered separately even though that categorisation is misleading, the slime mould umbrella containing many organisms which display similar behaviour but are in fact genetically unrelated, though as stated by amateur mycologist Mark Pragnell “nature doesn’t define a species, it’s us that’s done that.”
Providing a more professional insight, Bryn Dentinger, head of mycology of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, offers a more useful determination of how the thousand or so species of slime mould came to be defined, their slimy appearance giving them their name but the unique pulsing movement of the colonies in search of food being what sets them apart from the more widely researched fungi.
Once thought to be microscopic animals, leading to the misleading term Mycetozoa, the slime moulds are “vastly understudied and under-known” in the words of Dentinger, superficially appearing the same to the naked eye but the microscope revealing the differences in their complex structures, flexible and adaptive, and their responses to stimuli which, it is suggested by artist Heather Barnett, could indicate a form of primitive intelligence.
With a variety of interviewees of different backgrounds, some of whom are more obviously accustomed to articulating complex information to an audience, Dentinger is undoubtedly the best, informed, relaxed and a good communicator, introducing his subject and explaining basic biological terms such as chemotaxis, phagocytosis and cytoplasmic streaming as he introduces each.
With individual spores able to lay dormant for at least sixty years before being revived when the conditions are favourable, the slime moulds are believed to be forty million years old though historian Tim Boon only goes so far back as the Edwardian era to present a slide show and early films of time lapse motion of colonies; to an audience accustomed to Netflix and the Playstation they may not seem much, but to those who likely had little education beyond basic literacy they would have been revolutionary.
Those “time magnification” films of Percy Smith dating to the 1930s are echoed in Barnett’s more technically advanced films, capturing the dividing branches as they expand across an area, avoiding certain chemicals and actively seeking out others such as available carbohydrates, oats being a particular favourite.
A fascinating but niche subject, The Creeping Garden lacks structure and it sometimes feels as though the individuals approached by directors Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp have been asked to talk about their interests without rehearsal or guidance, and some of the comments are neither supported by the evidence presented nor are they challenged.
While an art project of Barnett’s entertainingly asks volunteers to behave as a slime mould colony and Pragnell suggests using slime moulds to model human movement en masse with a view to understanding traffic flow in densely populated areas, other more practical methods are available to provide less ambiguous results more swiftly.
Similarly, Professor Andy Adamatzky of the aptly named Centre for Unconventional Computing demonstrates that slime moulds emulate the roadways of America when food sources are laid out in the positions of the major cities on a miniature map of the continent, but all that does is confirm an established optimal route, a result which provides no insight or advantage.
Researcher Ella Gale and composer Eduardo Reck Miranda may have respectively created an animatronic head and a piano played by magnetic impulses, each triggered by the activity of slime moulds, but they are only displaying emotions or playing notes assigned by humans, not, as they seem to imply, genuinely interpreting any artistic ability of the slime mould; with no auditory organ with which to experience sound and no state of consciousness involved it is feedback, not composition.
Again it is Dentinger who provides clarity: “I would argue that what we are observing in a slime mould is not behaviour, per se, it is mechanistic responses to environmental stimuli… which is really our own projection of our presumptions about the simplicity of these organisms and being surprised by their ability to do more than we expect of them.”
With the visuals reminding of the viral replication imagery of The Andromeda Strain, Jim O’Rourke’s soundtrack, included as a bonus disc, echoes Gil Mellé’s score for that film and the “electronic tonalities” created by Bebe and Louis Barron for Forbidden Planet. That retro feel is also captured in two of the short films included, 2009’s Milk recalling the lava lamp titles of The Tomorrow People and the decayed colour VHS transfer of 2012’s Rotten reminding of bootlegs of early seventies Doctor Who.
2015’s Paramusical Ensemble is more uplifting, the use of the biofeedback technology discussed in the main feature to allow severely disabled hospital patients to engage in musical creativity, and in fact the supporting features are in some cases more directly informative than the film itself, while the gallery introduces many of the uncredited essential contributors: the slime moulds themselves, in all their diverse and colourful glory.