The Abstraction of Nature
19 February 2020–18 March 2020
Aksioma | Project Space, Ljubljana
Part of the programme:
Hyperemployment – Post-work, Online Labour and Automation
“Tulip Mania meant that the order of the stock market was introduced into the order of nature. The tulip began to lose the properties and charms of a flower: it grew pale, lost its colours and shapes, became an abstraction, a name, a symbol interchangeable with a certain amount of money.”– Zbigniew Herbert
“Tulip mania was a period in the Dutch Golden Age during which contract prices for some bulbs of the recently introduced and fashionable tulip reached extraordinarily high levels and then dramatically collapsed in February 1637. It is generally considered the first recorded speculative bubble […] The term ‘tulip mania’ is now often used metaphorically to refer to any large economic bubble when asset prices deviate from intrinsic values.” 
Before the discovery of the “mosaic virus” in 1920, no one knew just what produced the stripes in the petals of some tulips and not others. Those with stripes became more valuable because there was no way of predicting which flowers would be striped or not. Since the flowers were traded when still in bulb state, and their beauty was extremely ephemeral and unpredictable, it’s no surprise that tulip mania has often been compared not only to futures markets but also to various speculative markets from contemporary art to crypto currencies.
Drawing upon these analogies, Mosaic Virus is a three-channel video installation in which animated tulips are generated by artificial intelligence, trained by the artist using a dataset of 10,000 images, with the stripes on the petals controlled in real time by fluctuations in the Bitcoin market. The installation has been conceived by London-based artist Anna Ridler as an updated, upgraded version of a Dutch still life featuring tulips. According to the artist, such flower paintings, despite their realism, are “botanical impossibilities” and imagined, since all the flowers in them could never bloom at the same time. This contrast between “nature” and “artifice” is emulated and improved using AI, dreaming impossible flowers yet drawing upon reality; while the moral meaning of the still life – a memento mori reminding of the ephemerality and transience of life, beauty and goods – is refreshed through the reference to the fluctuations of the financial market.
Receiving an Honorary Mention Prix Ars Electronica 2019 in the category “AI & Life Art”, Mosaic Virus is peculiar also for the fact that Ridler photographed and manually annotated every single picture of tulips used to train the artificial intelligence that produced it. This dataset of images became another installation, Myriad (Tulips) (2018), revealing the human aspect that sits behind machine learning. To perform reliably, machine learning requires a large quantity of data (usually several thousand instances) on one specific category. These datasets need to be created and annotated mostly manually, which makes datasets highly sought after assets in today’s economy.In this way, both Mosaic Virus and Myriad (Tulips) thematise the potentials and limits of categorisation, machine learning and the adaptation of the nuances of reality to the binary thinking of machines. As Elaine Ayers noted in a review of the two series, “neatly differentiating between various hues – white and pale pink, dark pink and red proved impossible for both the artist and for her algorithm. ‘Mosaic Virus’ and ‘Myriad (Tulips)’ make the case that the artist and algorithm can never be separated, that flowers are inextricable from systems of social and economic currency.” 
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulip_mania. Accessed 16 August 2019.
 Elaine Ayers, “Using AI to Produce ‘Impossible’ Tulips”, Hyperallergic, 1 March 2019, https://hyperallergic.com/487261/anna-ridler-tulipmania/. Accessed 16 August 2019.
Anna Ridler (b. 1985, UK) is an artist and researcher. She has exhibited at institutions such as the V&A Museum, Ars Electronica, HeK Basel, IMPAKT and the Barbican Centre and has degrees from the Royal College of Art, Oxford University and the University of the Arts London. She was a 2018 EMAP/EMARE fellow and was listed by Artnet as one of nine “pioneering artists” exploring AI’s creative potential. She is interested in working with collections of information, particularly self-generated datasets, to create new and unusual narratives in a variety of mediums, and what happens when things cannot fit into discrete categories. She is currently interested in the intersection of machine learning and nature and what we can learn from history. She is the recipient of a UAL Creative Computing Institute Fellowship 2019 and the DARE Art Prize 2018–2019, which challenges artists and scientists to work together on new approaches to the creative process.
Author: Anna Ridler
Production of the exhibition:
Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2020
the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia and the Municipality of Ljubljana
Projects Myriad (Tulips) and Mosaic Virus were funded by the EMAP/EMARE programme (part of Creative Europe) and commissioned by Impakt.