title: Where Meme Meets Gene: mindfluX, Mutagen and the Virtual Replicators
author: belinda barnett
mindfluX is a collective of electronic artists based in Adelaide, an "amorphous blob" comprising several (de)centralised conspirators and a network of cohorts from around the world. Dedicated to exploring the dependency loops of virtual/actual, stasis/evolution, human/machine, the group assemble interactive spaces that are, according to artist and programmer Nik Gaffney, "a primeval soup of possible memes". Cross-fertilising the mutant streams of evolutionary biology, chaos theory and electronic art in a "nomadic" fashion, mindfluX write themselves into the space between the virtual and the (virtually receding) actual.

this is that and that is this - you and the universe are the same thing - only the names have been changed 1

"Memes" are situated at this interface. As ideas or units of information which behave in the same way as genes (eg. TV jingles which seem to replicate and survive in human consciousness as agents), they describe the construction and evolution of social reality.

mindfluX are interested in the way we relay and transmit memes as subjects, creating an evolving feedback loop with the actual. Working with this idea, the group conducted social experiments on an unsuspecting public with their "Conspiracies 'R' Us" random meme generator as part of the "techne" exhibition at the IMAGO Multimedia Centre in Perth. On touching the mouse, a theory assembled itself from a pool of plausible components and surfaced from the text, inscribing itself upon the reader with a view to finding his/her "chaotic resonance frequency" and replicating in the actual. "How does a meme/assemblage survive and replicate?" asks Nik. What is the developing form and pattern of this evolution?

The group have also produced an interactive digizine which explores this interface - mindvirus. It contracts: it expands: it infects: it infests. It is "an inflatable underwater robot", a psychology experiment involving punchcards, two cheeky monkeys and yourself, a mutating menu of alternative paradigms. mindvirus departs from the consumerised "point and click" interface and introduces an element of randomness: the reader is never really sure when she will disrupt her emerging narrative with a three-headed fish swimming backwards across the screen, or if her mutations will contaminate the genetic pool. (Never play with Darwinian theory, it warns as you blissfully disrupt the flow.) It allows for a desiring, inscribing subject whose "memetic disposition" affects the unfolding and the destination of its many possible memes.

Life results from the Non-Random Survival of Randomly Varying Replicators.2

The project included in the 'Altered States' exhibition covers similar territory. Mutagen is an attempt to extend the province of genetic art using form-directed evolution: it creates an interpretive space for a self-contained system of desiring-machines. Nik describes it as "an exploration of the space of possible form, using evolution as the key navigational tool. A graphic commentary on life itself". In contrast to previous forays into the area, it explores morphogenesis (the development of form and pattern in living structures) by simulating aspects of the selection process as well as allowing for user-directed evolution.


Mutagen employs a genetic language comprising single hexadecimal digits, or "genes". Each gene carries a precise instruction for the creation of a "phenotype", the 3D graphic representation of the creature. The expression of these instructions depends upon the placement of the gene in the "genotype", a thread comprising any number of genes. In accordance with evolutionary biology, genes that are co-dependent for their expression are grouped together into chromosomes - volumes of information describing the architecture of form.3 The genotype, Nik explains, "contains information that both identifies the creature and allows for its graphical expression or execution. It allows us to observe the dance of evolution."

There have been numerous explorations of genetically generated graphics among the A-life research community. William Latham and Stephen Todd popularised the concept of aesthetic selection, breeding and mutating exotic 3-dimensional creatures in alien landscapes to produce stunning "synthetic organic forms"4 . In these environments, the gardener is the user - the person seated at the computer actively selecting which creatures will live and which will die. Genetic arrangements are controlled by an embodied subject: the system is not self-contained, and the focus is placed on the diverse (and often beautiful) products of an evolutionary process. The 'user directed' approach to evolutionary graphics has also been employed by Australian artist John McCormack, whose algorithmically generated plantlife is a part of the 'Altered States' exhibition.

The concept of self-directed evolution, which mimics the process natural selection, has been explored by a number of researchers in conjunction with virtual objects. Karl Sims has been instrumental in translating these processes into a graphic environment. Simulating the Darwinian concept of 'survival of the fittest', Sims creates tournament-like environments populated by 3 dimensional creatures which struggle for the control of a central block, behavioural patterns which lead to "winning control" of this box being equated with reproductive fitness.5 Sims has also created graphical environments in which the genetic material is a collection of mathematical functions, the phenotype being a graphic displayed on screen and the "evolutionary pressures" being the whim of an exhibition audience.6

While taking inspiration from these experiments, Mutagen attempts to create forms which determine their own evolutionary direction, as well as exhorting the user to select creatures and combine their genetic information.

The focus is shifted from the genetically generated product to the process of evolution itself: the viewer watches the dependency circuits of biology/technology, virtual/actual, stasis/evolution converge into a self-perpetuating system of desiring-production. "Even consciously altering evolution," Nik maintains, "is itself a part of the evolutionary process." As either viewer or participant, one begins to understand that the creatures' forms are subcomponents of a system (the program) and that this system is in turn a subcomponent of a larger flux - the dance of randomly-varying replicators. Nik hopes that this will "raise questions in the mind of the participant such as, 'what are the parameters of carbon-based evolution?' and, 'what are the implications when virtual replicators begin to reproduce and self-organise?'"

- reality is tangled in knots - the filaments need to be severed and the hieroglyphics deciphered 7

The "purpose" of Mutagen environments and the genetic/memetic art of mindfluX is to observe the developing pattern and form of desiring-production: the evolutionary hieroglyphs of randomly-varying replicators. The cross-generational patterns which emerge in the digital environment mimic, question and intrude upon the directional flows of our embodied actuality. Evolution is a reciprocally choreographed dance.

Gene-streams in Mutagen environments evolve and diversify themselves to attain a phenotype which is 'attractive' to the rest of the population: unless natural selection acts upon their graphic representation, they are out of the evolutionary game. This model is based more on the 'peacock tail' concept of fitness than the 'box control' or behavioural model Sims employs, attempting to create an interpretive space attuned to the chaotic circuit of pattern/randomness arising from the reproduction and mutation of form. "There is no this or that," Nik explains. "Only pattern and randomness, mutation and reproduction."

In Mutagen environments, creatures can reproduce either sexually or asexually. Creatures which reproduce sexually select mates by comparing their phenotype with the phenotype of 'attractive' creatures on-screen, combining their genetic information to produce a hybrid genotype. "Virtual desire creates virtual forms," Nik muses, "new creatures and new patterns".

In Karl Sims' work, the genotype is a directed graph of nodes and connections which is isomorphic with the form of the creature.8 By contrast, it is impossible to determine the form of a creature in Mutagen environments by viewing its genotype, as the act of execution is necessary to express the instructions contained within each gene. Again, the focus is shifted from the graphical product to the process of evolution itself. The coded messages supervise the translation of the gene into a coordinate in a manner similar to the indirect supervision of DNA over the production of proteins in the "execution" of life. "I would like to explore the possibility of a more intricate genetic language in relation to graphic evolution", Nik explains. Mutagen employs an indirect, interdependent plane of translation which mimics evolutionary biology, "while taking advantage of the possibilities inherent in computer-based processes".

When we allow for virtual desire, for virtual translation errors and phenotypic mutations, for self-directed digital evolution, our attention is drawn to the developing form and pattern of this process. What happens to life in the actual when the object of our investigations becomes the virtual replicator? mindfluX seek to render this question mark digital: the space between the meme and the gene.

there is only the movement called evolution - processes that thrive on chaos and entropy - you and i are random arrangements - EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE IN A UNIVERSE /SYSTEM BUILT OR FED FROM CHAOS.9

  1. Source unknown, "The Doctrine of Eternal Chaos", Chronicles of Flux, extract t1023.
  2. Michael Schrage, "Revolutionary Evolutionist" in Wired 3:07, pp.3 http://www.wired.com/wired/3.07/features/dawkins.html
  3. Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, pp.22.
  4. Todd, Stephen & Latham, William, Evolutionary Art and Computers. London & San Diego: Academic Press, 1992.
  5. Karl Sims, "Evolving Virtual Creatures" in Computer Graphics, Annual Conference Series, (SIGGRAPH '94 Proceedings), July 1994, pp. 15-22.
  6. Genetic Images. Installation, Pompidou Centre, Paris 1994.
  7. The Doctrine of Eternal Chaos, op.cit.
  8. Sims, op.cit.,
  9. The Doctrine of Eternal Chaos, op.cit.