TO EACH EACH OTHER
Image Credit: Son Kit, collaged from documentation by Heather Barnett
They get a tattoo of an empty Venn diagram on a stretch of skin that no longer sees the sun. A Venn diagram is a representation of all possible logical relations between different sets. At its simplest and as a tattoo, it is two circles, partially overlapped.
Cell membranes separate the interiors of cells from extracellular spaces, protecting them from their environment and from each other. They rupture briefly during cell fusion, which occurs during differentiation of muscle and bone, during embryogenesis, and during morphogenesis. In this process, cell membranes merge again to make two cells one.
Slime molds technically are not molds. They are closer to amoebas in that a slime mold is still a slime mold as a single cell. When two slime molds meet, they rupture the cell membranes protecting them from their environment and each other; they merge again to make two cells one. This one cell contains each slime molds’ genetics; this one cell is technically a collective, called a plasmodium. Slime mold is a singular plural, is still a slime mold containing any number of slime molds.
Their Venn diagram tattoo is inspired by a note in their phone, taken under psilocybin mushrooms. They take the note in the mail room with a friend, both shivering with cold so internal it persists against the warmth of each other’s’ touch. They want so terribly to rupture, for the skin that sees the sun to break open so that they can warm each other’s’ cores. A Venn diagram without overlap is no Venn diagram. It is two circles side by side in the mail room.
Physarum polycephalum, a kind of slime mold, is capable of solving the shortest path problem. In graph theory, this is the problem of finding the shortest paths between a given point and all other points in the graph. Scientists chopped up P. polycephalum and scattered its pieces throughout a maze. Scientists placed oats, P. polycephalum’s’ preferred food, at certain points in the maze. Scientists shined lights, P. polycephalum’s’ mortal enemy, at other points in the maze. The pieces of P. polycephalum reached for each other in the shadows. The pieces of P. polycephalum closest to the oats reached for the oats, then for each other in the shadows. They found each other and taught each other about the oats and about the lights, by which point they were teaching themself; they fed each other, away from the lights, by which point they were feeding themself.
Scientists had each piece of P. polycephalum represent a city and oats represent other cities. Scientists recreated Tokyo’s subway, then motorways in the UK, Canada, Brazil, from P. polycephalum’s’ yellow reach. They lauded P. polycephalum’s’ ability to imitate human engineering, declaring it a natural optimization algorithm. They called the experiment a success, measured against their initial question. Nature corroborated human decisions, they said, to withhold oats, to shine lights. The problems of humanity begin with the insufficiencies in its questions. Will we create subways, motorways, any way, to a place where food is plentiful and police lights don’t circle? Spread over a yellowing map, P. Polycephalum feeds themself.
“What do you wanna eat?” they ask their friend as they walk out of the mail room towards the trees. They do not want to eat but cannot say as much. They lean against each other as the pavement turns to dirt. The skin that sees the sun is a membrane protecting them from each other. They stretch their fingers wide to feel the skin grow thin, then interlace their fingers with each other’s’. The sun is setting, and the vessels in their skin shunt the blood from their extremities. The evening saps the warmth from each other’s’ touch, just enough to suggest they feel the cold in each other’s’ cores.
Are we entering the age of the biological computer? Scientists feed P. polycephalum with oats and threaten them with lights. P. polycephalum passes through one logic gate, then another. They solve a boolean operation in their passing. A boolean has two possible values: “true” and “false.” A computer operates using two symbols: “0” and “1.” A Venn diagram without overlap is two circles side by side; they want so terribly to rupture, for their membranes to break open towards the moment of merge, when feeding each other is as feeding themself.
Away from the mail room and in the woods, they lose each other in the dark. “This way,” they say, and shine a phone light for their friend. “This way,” their friend says, and shines a phone light towards home. The woods are winding, full of dead plant matter and ends; they shine their phone lights to find each other and the way home. “This way,” they teach one another. They reach for each other in the shadows.
Will we know plenty? Scientists publish papers positing the biological computer. They congratulate themselves on the maze, the problems, and human ingenuity. They list the questions, the problems, and the locations of the oats and the lights in the maze. Their experiments always contain oats and lights, their simulations always a labyrinth, and their papers always a problem. The public becomes enamored with P. polycephalum as a problem-solver; they demand a new problem for every problem solved. With every new problem, scientists become better problem-makers, building bigger mazes to better hide the oats and the dangers from P. polycephalum, to better hide themselves from scrutiny. Cell membranes protect the interiors of cells from their environment and each other. Without rupture, there can be no change. The mazes never leave the experiments, the problems never the papers, and the dangers never the ways. Within and without mazes, with and without oats and lights, P. polycephalum reaches for each other.
They are two circles side by side in the mail room, then in the woods. Their friend huddles close, shining a phone light towards home. They still have yet to rupture, but the psilocybin is fading and with it, the desire to. They had encased their skin in sweaters and coats, their interiors in the weariness of the day. They step away from each other and shine their phone lights as they will, two luminous circles drifting over dead plant matter.
For its problem-solving abilities, P. polycephalum receives a collective faculty appointment as the first Visiting Non-Human Scholar at Hampshire College. P. polycephalum has an office, a faculty webpage, research assistants. They gain the position through the advocacy of Jonathan Keats, a conceptual artist, experimental philosopher, and member of the public, who says of P. polycephalum, “they’re neutral; they’re other.” Every binary an exclusion. Keats continues, “in order for a nonhuman intelligence to be taken seriously by humans, it really is necessary it operate within human constructs, within human systems.”1 Humans chop up P. polycephalum and scatter its pieces throughout a maze, feed them with oats and threaten them with lights. Humans construct border walls in petri dishes and ask P. polycephalum whether these walls should be constructed in the world. At the end of the experiment, microbes are sprayed with bleach, research assistants go home, but P. polycephalum finds themself released into the woods.
In the shadows of deciduous logs, P. polycephalum reaches for each other. They begin to rupture and merge; they recoil and separate under phone lights. “Do you see this?” their friend asks, shining a phone light onto P. polycephalum. The pieces of them reach for each other. “See what?” they ask, shining a phone light beyond P. polycephalum. The pieces of them reach for each other. “What are you to me?” their friend asks, shining a phone light onto them. The pieces of P. polycephalum reach for bacteria, yeast, fungi. “What do you want to eat?” they ask, shining a phone light onto dead plant matter. The pieces of P. polycephalum reach for the microorganisms in dead plant matter. “Which way?” their friend asks, shining a phone light through the dark. The pieces of them reach for each other. “Did we make the right decision?” they ask, shining a phone light back the way they came. The pieces of them reach for each other. “What are you asking?” their friend asks, turning off the phone light. The pieces of them reach for each other. “Why do you ask?” they ask, turning off their phone light as well. In the shadows of deciduous logs, P. polycephalum finds each other and feeds each other, and in doing so they feed themself. With the lights turned off, they teach each other, and in doing so they teach themself.
1Resnick, Brian. “Trump Doesn't Have a Science Adviser. This Slime Mold Is Available.” Vox, 6 Mar. 2018, www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/3/6/17072380/slime-mold-intelligence-hampshire-college.
Son Kit (sometimes Kit Son Lee) is an occasional writer. They are more commonly a designer/developer, artist, and co-founder of Codify Art, a collective supporting work by women, queer, and trans artists of color. Kit’s writing appears in The Art Happens Here: Net Art Anthology (Rhizome, 2019) and Interjection Calendar 005 (Montez Press, 2020). They hold BAs in Visual Art and Literary Arts from Brown University and are presently completing their MFA in Graphic Design at Rhode Island School of Design. Find their work at sonkit.info.