Nathan Mifsud

Concrete Animals

Procedurally generated visual poetry

In The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas compares language to the pursuits of social insects:

Language is, like nest building or hive making, the universal and biologically specific activity of human beings. We engage in it communally, compulsively, and automatically. We cannot be human without it; if we were to be separated from it our minds would die, as surely as bees lost from the hive. […]

New ways of stringing words and sentences together come into fashion and vanish again, but the underlying structure simply grows, enriches itself, and expands.

Enamoured with the idea of language as an entity unto itself, I tinkered with generative concrete poetry. Just as ant nests accrete from the tiny bits of earth that each worker carries in its mandibles, in my program, sculptural forms are shaped by the dirt clods of language—the letters of our alphabet.

Each time the program runs, a random set of species are selected, and the letters of their names are sorted by character density (e.g. seal → slea). These letters are then mapped to the pixel intensities of images extracted from a search engine query.

You can look at some poems here and here, and find the code here.