Fifty Sisters

Jon McCormack, Fifty Sisters, Series of fifty evolved digital plant images, 2012

Evolved plant images based on oil company logos, 2012.
Commission for the Ars Electronica Museum, Linz, Austria.

Fifty Sisters is comprised of fifty 1m x 1m images of computer synthesised plant-forms, algorithmically “grown” from computer code using artificial evolution and generative grammars. Each plant-like form is derived from the primitive graphic elements of oil company logos. The title of the work refers to the original “Seven Sisters” – a cartel of seven oil companies that dominated the global petrochemical industry and Middle East oil production from the mid-1940s until the oil crisis of the 1970s. Oil has shaped our civilisation and driven its unprecedented growth over the last century. We have been seduced by oil and its bi-products as they are now used across almost every aspect of human endeavour, providing fuels, fertilisers, feedstocks, plastics, medicines and more. But oil has also changed the environment, evident from the petrochemical haze that hangs over many a modern metropolis, the environmental damage of major oil spills, and the looming spectre of global climate change. With worldwide demand for oil now at 93 million barrels per day, humanity’s appetite for oil is unrelenting. Oil companies regularly report many of the all-time largest annual earnings in corporate history.

Fifty Sisters at the Ars Electronica Museum, April 2013

Fossil fuels began as plants that over millions of years were transformed by geological processes into the coal and oil that powers modern civilisation. To create this artwork, a variety of “digital genes” (a computer equivalent of DNA) were crafted to replicate the structure and form of Mesozoic plants and their modern descendants. These digital genes were used to “grow” imaginary plant species in the computer, being then subject to evolutionary processes of mutation and crossover. Through a process akin to selective breeding, new and exotic species were evolved. The geometric elements of these digital organisms were derived from the geometric abstractions of oil company logos, which often subtly reference plants and the environment. In the final images, some of the original elements remain quite obvious, others are so strangely distorted or changed by evolution, that they are only subliminally recognisable, if at all.

Fifty Sisters at the Ars Electronica Museum, April 2013

The 21st century is likely to be one of the most globally challenging that humanity has faced. Our dependence on oil’s cheap energy has lead to massive and rapid growth, but this dependence cannot continue indefinitely. Ironically, the plants that existed in the Jurassic period when the Earth was at its warmest are now a major cause of our world warming and returning to climate conditions that favoured the organisms from which oil originated. Fifty Sisters reminds us that the current dominance of oil commerce originated from plants. What once took evolutionary time scales of millions of years can now be superficially replicated by technology in an instant. But while we can evolve new species and technologies that satisfy our desires, those technologies have done nothing to change them.

Documentary Video

Flickr set of the work at Ars Electronica, April 2013 (click on any thumbnail image to view):

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For more information on the ideas that inspired this work:

Fifty Sisters was developed as part of the Australian Artist-in-Residence program at the Ars Electronica FutureLab.

The Australian Artist-in-Residence program at FutureLab has been initiated and produced by Novamedia in partnership with the Australia Council for the Arts and Ars Electronica. The artist acknowledges the generous support of these organisations in realising this work. Software and technical components of the work were supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, DP1094064.

Fifty Sisters was awarded the 2016 Lumen Prize for digital still images.