Natural and Artificial Worlds

We live in a world where technology and human creativity are converging more than ever before. The lines between nature and the artifice have become blurred, with AI imagery harder and harder to distinguish from the the real thing. Whilst many have concerns about what this holds for the future, it has also opened doors for artists to explore, critique and evolve. Xinyi Shao, an award-winning graphic designer specialising in brand identity, editorial and digital design, is responding to this new state of play. Shao’s project, Mutopia, is a captivating fusion of art, computer science and biology, revealing the cross-disciplinary potential of human-machine interactions by visualising the common ancestors of different plant and animal species.

Mutopia symbolises the fusion of two words: “mutant” and “utopia.” It’s an immersive experience where viewers are invited to traverse an otherworldly landscape: a digital world that teems with hybrid creatures. Ghostly white mollusks and neon fungi explore woodlands and mossy banks, displayed on monolithic rectangular columns. Mutopia uses machine learning to answer questions like: What might the shared origin of a butterfly and a mushroom look like? The result is something magical. Globules and spiral forms glow against a pitch black background. Purple tufts of a coral-like organism emerge from grassy plains. Disfigured snail shells grow beyond normal proportions, floating through darkness as if the descendent of a primordial deep sea creature.  Over 5,000 such images are weaved into Shao’s tapestry of wilderness; a fantasy world that brings to mind surreal photography of JeeYoung Lee and Sandy Skoglund. Other pieces evoke Mandy Barker‘s beautiful – yet disturbing – assemblages of plastic waste, where individual objects are carefully categorised. The project is an exercise in posthumanist theory and speculative design.

Shao is also committed to demystifying what it means to work with machine learning and automated systems. The Mutopia exhibition allows viewers to experience the process first-hand. It starts by looking at the format of the word “Mutopia,” rendering it in different logotypes. Then, it mimics cell growth, moving from dataset images of mushrooms and butterflies to hybrid pictures – speculative marches of progress – where the two forms combine. This immersive show transcends traditional divisions between human and nonhuman, challenging audiences to explore previously unseen territories. It’s a chance to step into augmented ecologies: places that verge on the hyperreal or extraterrestrial.

All images courtesy Xinyi Shao.