Nathan Mifsud

Concrete Animals

Procedurally generated visual poetry

In Lewis Thomas’s essay collection The Lives of a Cell, he made a comparison between language and the pursuits of social insects that I couldn’t stop thinking about:

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 channeled this into concrete poetry. Ant nests accrete from the tiny bits of earth that each worker carries in its mandibles. In my program, sculptural forms would be shaped by the dirt clods of language—the letters of our alphabet.

Each time the program runs, a random set of species are selected, after which the letters of their names 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.