As promised about 100 years ago (see: FIELDS, positive visions for the future), here's another post about Fields - patterns of social, scientific, and technological transformations, an exhibition featuring works by artists who adopt an engaged, critical and active role in society.

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Image courtesy Radix

This time, i'd like to focus particularly an installation which explores the life of a very common, yet mysterious, snail that travels around north west Europe. Possibly on the feet of ducks which i find most romantic.

This Wandering Snail is the radix balthica. The reason why we should all get a bit more excited about those little creatures is that they can survive in extreme and varied environmental conditions and constitute thus an excellent model for determining the traits which species might possess that could be beneficial for survival under altered environmental conditions, such as climate warming and increased saline intrusion into freshwaters.

The artists and researchers from Radix (David Strang, Deborah Robinson, Simon Rundle and Bronac Ferran) describe the installation as follows:

The installation is an improvised rigging of laboratory vessels and technology developed with support from laboratory technicians skilled in researching and constructing various laboratory setups. The application of data (lab and field) has been developed through the work - investigating the control of lighting, sonification and physical vibration of elements in the installation. One aspect of the data explored is the connection of the name "Radix balthica", the snail, and "Radix Sort" a computer science based sorting algorithm. We are interested in the interplay between a snail (a messy biological entity under scientific observation and the subject of experimentation) and an algorithm (dating back to 1887 and the development of tabulating machines) that sorts and orders data sets..

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Image courtesy FIELDS

Clearly, this required a few questions to Radix:

Why did you decide to work with the Radix balthica? What makes it more interesting than other types of snails?

From the scientific perspective Radix balthica is a species of aquatic snail that exhibits a high degree of plasticity - i.e. its shell form, pigmentation, physiology and development are all known to change in response to environmental conditions. This plasticity is thought to be the reason that it is widespread, occupying a range of different habitats in Northwest Europe, from small temporary ponds to large rivers and lakes and the Baltic Sea. The fact that this species has such a high level of tolerance and exhibits a lot of variation in its development, physiology and form makes it an excellent model species for studying questions to do with evolution - as variation is seen as the 'raw material' on which natural selection can act. Moreover, it will also give clues as to the way that freshwater organisms might respond to climate change, i.e. increased temperatures and saline intrusion into fresh waters through sea level rise.

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Research into the evolutionary ecology of this species at Plymouth has focused in on its developmental biology. Because it has transparent embryos its development can be observed easily in the laboratory and it also reproduces readily in the laboratory, allowing studies of inheritance. Most recently, there have been advances in the generation of 'new generation' genomic resources for this species that will allow the investigation of how genetic and environmental factors interact in its evolution and ecology.

From the art perspective our interest in Radix balthica has grown over a three year collaboration with Simon Rundle (freshwater ecologist) and involvement in his research. We are intrigued by how a tiny grey snail that is easily overlooked and seemingly insignificant, has come to play an important role as a marker of climate change. We are interested in our human relationship to this creature.

We were drawn to the idea that this species had been named the 'wandering snail', a name that alludes to its widespread distribution but could also be seen to relate to the ambiguity associated with its scientific names, which have shown numerous changes since its original naming by the father of classification Linnaeus. This aspect of the snail's biology were included in the work through the text from Linnaeus's journey to the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea in 1741, on which he collected the type specimen of Radix balthica. We felt that working with the snail in the context of the Fields exhibition in Riga would be very appropriate in relation to location and migration as well as transdisciplinary research brought into the public domain.

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Image courtesy Radix

Could you explain the installation? I actually couldn't see the snails when i was in the gallery, i guess they were hiding.

There are two main strands to the work that draw on the idea of wandering. The first relates to the tolerance of the species. There are three 'replicate' jars containing snails and pond weed in water of three salinities from three locations where Radix balthica can be found: i) rivers near Plymouth - the place where the snails in the exhibition were collected from; ii) the Baltic Sea at Riga; and iii) further south in the Baltic Sea, where the salinity is higher. A further, single jar sits on the shelf above each of the three replicates for each treatment. This jar contains water of the same salinity as the corresponding three jars. This jar 'controls' the light intensity in the corresponding jars by converting salinity sensor readings into values for LEDs. This form of control reinterprets the common use of the term of 'control' in scientific experiments - replacing the idea of a 'reference' treatment against which experimental responses can be gauged with a more literal interpretation of control.

The second strand of the work draws on the ambiguity of the naming of the species since Linnaeus. We provide three readings of Linnaeus's original text describing his journey to Gotland on which he collected the type specimen of Radix balthica - the original text and in two versions sorted by the Radix algorithm.

When it comes to perceiving them they are the humble snail - an often overlooked species, difficult to see and with the work we invite you to spend time looking and watching.

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Image courtesy Radix

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Image courtesy Radix

But i saw glass containers, wires, plants. What are they? What is their purpose? How do they work together?

The glass containers are setup in three groups representing Plymouth, Baltic and Riga. Each set has three jars with water, plant, snails and a measured salinity inside that are lit from above using white LED light. The fourth jar in each set has the same measured salinity as the three jars below it and a salinity sensor. The salinity sensor in each group is measured using Arduino to control the intensity of the LEDs. The code also introduces the changes in the system over time - a six-hour fluctuation in line with tidal movements that would alter the amount of salinity present in the water. The wiring shows the mapping of these connections throughout the system and also includes the surface transducer that is placed on the top shelf from which the audio plays out across the architecture of the installation.

The plant inside the jars is Canadian Pond Weed (Elodea canadensis) that is part of the small ecosystem where the snails feed off the algae that grows on the plant - sustaining both the snails and the plant.

During the course of the exhibition, you are monitoring the way the snails respond to gallery conditions, light, salinity and atmosphere. What have you discovered so far?

Such a long exhibition provides challenges to keeping the snails healthy and alive especially at a distance: we don't quite know how they will fare and so - in this sense - it is a real experiment, taking lab snails back into the field which is, in this instance, a public art field. We have set up some test conditions and are monitoring the liveliness of the creatures through observation by colleagues. In mid June Professor Richard Thompson (a member of Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre, Plymouth) visited the gallery and re-photographed the snails using Simon's original viewpoint. One of us will go across to Riga to repeat this process in a couple of weeks.

Why do you want to monitor the response of the snails to their long sojourn in the gallery?

At the outset of the project we wanted to monitor the fate of the snails for a couple of reasons.

We wanted to know how the snails would respond to an art environment, and how their fate might shape in accord with our artistic intent.

Beyond this we envisaged that the act of 'monitoring' might act as a strategy around the instability of the gaze (moving between aesthetic/scientific) in relation to a gallery context. We worked with the idea that scientific visualisations are premised on a relational positions of power between those who are scientifically educated and those who are not. We wanted to extend an invitation to the gallery viewer to participate in (but not be educated by) the scientific gaze .

We have set up what appears to be a scientific experiment in a gallery. The approach was to use a strategy of mimicry where the art exhibition context is deployed as a means to identify fissures within an experimental system that can then be opened to further reflective artistic investigation.

Note: A reading of the work of Luce Irigaray (1985) that gives emphasis to the development of mimicry as an anti-essentialist strategy underpins how we have approached Wandering Snail - a work that could be conceptualised as a kind of "essence of an experiment" and used the specific context of the gallery as a mechanism that could potentially reveal aspects that may be repressed in another context - the laboratory. "Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called itself that is left behind" (Lacan, 1977)

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Image courtesy Radix

The description of the work also mentions the Radix Sort algorithm. What kind of role does this algorithm play in the installation?

Radix Sort is a sorting algorithm that is a playful mediation between the human and the snail. The initial connection came through the name 'Radix' as the root or base in computing and in the naming of a species and this connection developed further after researching the way Radix Sort uses two categories to sort data: Least Significant Digit (LSD) and Most Significant Digit (MSD). The use of the LSD method brings up ideas around noise in information that, which parallels other areas of research within the Radix group.

The algorithm is used within the work to play with the text and form a sonic output that is both a reading of sorted text (lexicographically) and a further manipulation of the audio file of that reading. Two readings of the text about Linnaeus' journey to Gotland, on which he discovered the species were recorded - one is a straight recording and another made after the algorithm has sorted the text alphabetically. The audio files are also sorted using Radix Sort by frequency and amplitude and the results are then mixed with the readings and played out across the architecture of the installation shelving using a surface transducer.

You work together under the name of radix research group at the University of Plymouth. What brought you together? Is there a website that gathers all the works you've done together?

A shared interest in interdisciplinary art/science research through practice brought us together. Three of us - Deborah, Simon and David - are academics at Plymouth University and we have worked together on precedent projects involving the snail since 2011 when Deborah became artist in residence with MBERC (Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre) at Plymouth and created a collaborative work called Transpositions with Simon. David then worked with both on a second project, an immersive sound installation based on the snail embryo, called ATRIA. Bronac Ferran is a writer and curator who we invited to collaborate with us to build new audiences for the work. Radix as a shared art organism is relatively new. We're building a website and will hopefully do some publishing in future as well as more exhibitions based on the humble snail.

For more information about Transpositions and ATRIA see Deborah's website, an
essay by Simon, and a video of Radix balthica's full embryonic development by Oliver Tills, MBERC, Plymouth.

Website (under construction) about Radix.

Do check out Wandering Snail at the Fields exhibition, produced by RIXC and curated by Raitis Smits, Rasa Smite and Armin Medosch. The show remains open at Arsenals Exhibition Hall of the Latvian National Arts Museum (LNAM) in Riga until August 3, 2014.

Previously: FIELDS, positive visions for the future.

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I'm spending a couple of days in Lodz for the Photo Festival. Or rather, the Fotofestiwal. I haven't seen all the exhibitions yet but so far, so good. I've been particularly fascinated by Zhao Renhui's A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World which has been selected for the Grand Prix Fotofestiwal.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Fat polar bear swimming in Hudson Bay

The photo series attempts to document the ways in which the human species has altered the planet, and in particular other life forms.

The result of his research is a visually stripped back catalogue of curious creatures and life-forms. Some had to evolve in order to cope with the pressures of a fast changing world. Others appeared as the results of direct human intervention, mutations engineered to serve purposes ranging from scientific research to the desire for ornamentation:

Remote-controlled coakroach, peanuts injected with the DNA of a lobster so that they will never go bad, medicinal eggs with extractable antibodies against cancer, caterpillar-killing cabbage carrying the gene responsible for producing the poison in scorpions, tomatoes that do not go bad, sugar cane engineered with human gene, the first tiger mosquito found in Norway, etc.

Zhao's work addresses man's relationship with nature, and related issues of morality and ethics, paying close attention to how our attitudes assumptions about the natural world are often shaped by institutions of authority and the media.

Quick selection, with comments copied/pasted from the project website:

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Blood bee

Every year, scientists report findings of bees being attracted to discarded soda cans, leftover drinks and various sweet things. This is due to the combined effect of a declining natural supply of nectar in the wild and the insect's possible craving for caffeine. In Singapore, a community of bees has been raiding a factory producing sodas of various colours. The red dye from a certain brand of soda remains in the bees' bodies even after they have processed their food into honey. Over time, it is found that the stomachs of these bees have turned red, changing from their usual orange amber hue. The honeycombs in the hives are also found to have turned into a shade of blood red.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Unbreakable egg

A company in Japan has developed a technique to create eggs that are so strong that they cannot be broken. The only way to access its contents is to puncture a hole in its shell with a pointed tool. The egg was created by adding the plant protein of a banyan tree to a chicken, thus creating an egg with a bark-like texture.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Non-genetically modified Corn showing an aura

Corn is the number one crop grown in the United States and about 88% of it is genetically modified. Although there is little evidence that these crops pose a threat to humans, scientists are still understanding the effects of genetic engineering on corn. Scientists recently discovered non-genetically modified corn emit chemicals when they are being attacked by pests. These chemicals, which signal wasps to attack pests, are not present in genetically modified corn. Through Kirlian photography, the aura of a non-genetically modified corn can still be seen.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, rhinoceros with no horns, Grand Prix Fotofestiwal 2014

A small population of white rhinoceroses in Africa has evolved to have horns so small that they are barely visible. Experts believe this could be due to years of hunting individuals with large horns. The remaining rhinoceroses with smaller horns left to breed will eventually created a whole new hornless generation.

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Fake beef, from the series A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, 2013

It has recently been found in China that pork has been made to aesthetically look like beef. 'Beef colouring' and 'beef extracts' were added to pork to make it look and taste like beef.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, World Goldfish Queen

China organised the first International Goldfish Championships in Fuzhou in 2012. Over 3,000 goldfish from 14 countries competed for different titles including the World Goldfish Queen crown. Goldfish are judged by five criteria: breed, body shape, swimming gesture, colour and overall impression. The show stealer was a giant goldfish weighing around 4kg. The judges noted that not all goldfish can grow this big as factors such as breeding may affect size. Goldfish are bred out of generations of genetic mutations since the Jin Dynasty and their exact origins are unknown.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Wild flowerhorn

Flowerhorn cichlids are ornamental aquarium fish noted for their vivid colours and bulbous humped heads. A man-made hybrid, the flowerhorn was popular in Singapore in the late 1990s. When their popularity waned, owners released the fish into the local waters. Today, the fish thrive in large numbers in local reservoirs and waterways. Scientists have reported that the flowerhorn has taken on a different adaptation in recent years. The bulbous and round head it once had has given way to a sharp, flat and rounded disc. It is posited that the more streamlined form allows them to swim quickly away from predators.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Moon dust (ash belonging to 103 species of insects collected from a lamp cover)

Less than 4% of Singapore exists in total darkness after 10pm. Insects are attracted to artificial light sources, though no one knows exactly why. The insects are usually killed by exhaustion or through contact with the heat from lamps. After being incinerated, their bodies become a heap of ash, collected in the covers of street lamps. The ash, also referred to as 'moon dust', is used by scientists to study the ecological impact of light pollution on insects.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, square apple, Grand Prix Fotofestiwal 2014

Sold in a department store in South Korea, these square apples were created as gifts for students taking the College Scholastic Ability Test, with some inscribed with the words 'pass' or 'success'. A similar square watermelon was developed in Japan in the 1980s. The cubic fruits are created by stunting their growth in glass cubes.

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Renhui Zhao, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Falcon that is an owl

Falcons are diurnal birds but have recently adapted to become nocturnal, like owls. Urban falcons have begun to use artificial illumination from street lamps and lit buildings to hunt for bats throughout the night.

Photo on the homepage: Remote-controlled cockroach., from the series, A guide to the flora and fauna of the world. More at The Institute of Critical Zoologists.

The Grand Prix Fotofestiwal is on view at ART_INKUBATOR in Lodz until 15 June, 2014.

Synthetic Aesthetics. Investigating Synthetic Biology's Designs on Nature, by designer Alexandra Ginsberg Daisy, social scientists Jane Calvert and Pablo Schyfter, bioengineers Alistair Elfick and Drew Endy.

Available on amazon UK and USA.

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Publisher MIT Press writes: Synthetic biology manipulates the stuff of life. For synthetic biologists, living matter is programmable material. In search of carbon-neutral fuels, sustainable manufacturing techniques, and innovative drugs, these researchers aim to redesign existing organisms and even construct completely novel biological entities. Some synthetic biologists see themselves as designers, inventing new products and applications. But if biology is viewed as a malleable, engineerable, designable medium, what is the role of design and how will its values apply?

In this book, synthetic biologists, artists, designers, and social scientists investigate synthetic biology and design. After chapters that introduce the science and set the terms of the discussion, the book follows six boundary-crossing collaborations between artists and designers and synthetic biologists from around the world, helping us understand what it might mean to 'design nature.' These collaborations have resulted in biological computers that calculate form; speculative packaging that builds its own contents; algae that feeds on circuit boards; and a sampling of human cheeses. They raise intriguing questions about the scientific process, the delegation of creativity, our relationship to designed matter, and, the importance of critical engagement. Should these projects be considered art, design, synthetic biology, or something else altogether?

Synthetic biology is driven by its potential; some of these projects are fictions, beyond the current capabilities of the technology. Yet even as fictions, they help illuminate, question, and even shape the future of the field.

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Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas, Selfmade, 2014. Photo: Science Gallery

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Human Cheese Making 2: Bottles, 2010. Photograph by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

I don't think i've ever reviewed a book and recommended it to scientists. Synthetic Aesthetics, however, should appeal to the art/design crowd and to the science community alike. It should also interest anyone who is eager to look beyond overenthusiastic headlines that promise a world-saving 'green' technology and who would like to understand better the benefits, risks and uncertainties of a field that might sometimes appear foreign and abstract.

Synthetic Aesthetics brings together synthetic biologists, social scientists, designers and artists to talk about what it means for science, culture and society to not only redesign existing organisms but also to design new ones, constructing in the process completely novel biological entities. As you can expect from the avant-garde minds invited to take part in Synthetic Aesthetics, the essays discuss the possibilities, real and imagined, of a future in which 'synbio' is part of 'nature', design and everyday life but some of the authors also look at the historical and cultural precedents of human interference with nature, from The Island of Doctor Moreau to producing GMOs.

Synthetic Aesthetics doesn't offer any easy answer regarding the challenges and potentials of 'synbio'. What it does very well, however, is opening up a space to have a broad discussion about questions as critical as: Could reprogramming organisms answer the problem of the finite resources of the planet? How do you design what doesn't exist, not even in our imagination? When should we turn to synthetic biology rather than to political or technical solutions? What are the implication of applying an engineering mindset to life materials? etc.

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Designers: Will Carey, Adam Reineck. Scientists: Reid Williams, Wendell Lim, Packaging that Creates its Content

Roughly one half of the book explores projects that resulted from a close collaboration between scientists and artists/designers. I'll just highlight one of them because it has a good balance of 'sci-fi' and everyday practicality.

Packaging that Creates its Content envisioned a probiotic drink that relies on bacteria to morph into a physical cup when exposed to a specific light wavelength. During shipping and storage, the cups remain dormant until water is poured inside, creating a healthy drink. After several uses, the cup's walls begin to degrade and it can be composted.

'Packaging That Creates Its Contents' helps people think about what the world would be like if packaging never created waste.

Get that book! I've searched high and low for a book that would explain synbio in a clear, engaging and intelligent way. I'm glad i've finally found it.

Views inside the book:

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Image on the homepage: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, The Synthetic Kingdom: Carbon Monoxide Detecting Lung Tumour, 2009. Photograph by Carole Suety.

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (demo outside Baltan Laboratories). Photo by Sas Schilten

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (demo outside Baltan Laboratories). Photo by Sas Schilten

I already mentioned the festival Age of Wonder last week in my notes from Nick Bostrom's talk about (human and artificial) Super Intelligence. The festival attempted to reflect on the challenging but ultimately exciting techno-mediated times we are living with a series of performances, keynotes and art installations. BioArt Laboratories illustrated the essence of the festival with Tree Antenna, an installation and workshop that engaged with alternative wireless communication, ecology, DIY culture and historical knowledge.

The Eindhoven-based multidisciplinary art&design group recreated an early 20th Century experiment in which live trees are used as antennas for radio communication.

General George Owen Squier, the Chief Signal Officer at the U.S. army not only coined the word "muzak", in 1904 he also invented in 1904 a system that used living vegetable organisms such as trees to make radio contact across the Atlantic. The invention never really took off as the advent of more sophisticated means of communication made tree communication quickly look anachronistic.

Tree communication was briefly back in favour during the Vietnam War when U.S. troupes found themselves in the jungle and in need of a reliable and easy to transport system of communication but after that, only a few groups of hobbyists used tree antennas for wireless communication.

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George O. Squier ~ Trees as Antennas (Scientific American, June 14, 1919 & British Patent Specification # 149,917)

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Illustration from Squier's patent

During the last afternoon of Age of Wonder, BioArt Laboratories invited members of the public of all ages and background to join them and bring back tree antennas to our attention. Participants of the workshop could craft simple and affordable devices that would allow anyone to use the tree in their backyard as a radio receiver (it is also possible to broadcast from your tree but the technology is slightly more expensive and it requires permits.)

Squier drove a nail into the tree, hung a wire, and connected it to the receiver. The BioArt Laboratory team used flexible metal spring that wrapped around the trunk as planting a nail into the tree would have damaged it. Their system definitely works as the team managed to communicate with amateurs radios from countries as distant as Italy and Ukraine.

Right now there are only a few amateurs using tree and other high plants for wireless communication but the BioArt Laboratory's objective is to spread the word about this simple and affordable technology and gradually build up a world-wide forest of antennas.

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (workshop at Baltan Laboratories.) Photo by Sas Schilten

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (workshop at Baltan Laboratories.) Photo by Sas Schilten

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (workshop at Baltan Laboratories.) Photo by Sas Schilten

Obviously, in this experiment the tree is part and parcel of the functionality of the antenna. We're thus not speaking of questionable antennas disguised as tree.

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (demo outside Baltan Laboratories). Photo by Sas Schilten

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (demo outside Baltan Laboratories). Photo by Sas Schilten

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (demo outside Baltan Laboratories). Photo by Sas Schilten

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BioArt Laboratories, Tree Antenna at Age of Wonder (demo outside Baltan Laboratories). Photo by Sas Schilten

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Ivan Henriques, Symbiotic Machine. Photo courtesy Lyndsey Housden

Having previously given life to a robot that enables plants to move around as they please, Ivan Henriques has collaborated with scientists from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam to develop the prototype of an autonomous bio-machine which harvests energy from photosynthetic organisms commonly found in ponds, canals, rivers and the sea.

The Symbiotic Machine uses the energy collected from micro organisms to move around in search for more photosynthetic organisms which it then collects and processes again.

The Symbiotic Machine is currently spending two months in an aquarium in the Glass House in Amstelpark, Amsterdam.

Short conversation with the artist:


Ivan Henriques, Symbiotic Machine

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Hi Ivan! How does Symbiotic Machine relate to Jurema Action Plant. Is this a continuation of that previous work? Did you learn something from JAP that you are applying to the Symbiotic Machine? Or is this a completely different exploration?

The research that started with Jurema Action Plant led to the development of the Symbiotic Machine (SM). I have created a range of works that explores such concepts as: the future (reinvention) of the environment; the acceleration of techno-scientific mutations; when nature becomes culture; the use of natural resources; where these hybrids of nature and technology will take place in the near future and reshape and redesign our tools to amalgamate and be more coherent with the natural environment (these concepts were discussed in the e-book Oritur). When JAP was being exhibited I noticed that as the interaction between the person and the plant enables the machine to move, people were envision a living entity, which was responding to them - i.e. it likes me!, when JAP was moving towards the person and It doesn't like me!, when it was moving away from the person touching it. That is the reason why I gave the Action Plant a first name: Jurema.

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In the past years I have been creating machines that operates within the biological time combining different energy sources. In JAP, the variation of electrical signals inside the plant changes when someone touches it and in Symbiotic Machine it is a machine that makes photosynthesis to generate energy for itself, like a plant. In JAP the machine reads electrical signals and in SM the machine makes photosynthesis in order to have these electrical signals. It is a further research into plants electricity and development of a hybrid entity.

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Could you talk to us about the collaboration with scientists from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam? How did you start working with each other? And what was the working process like? Was it just you setting up instructions and telling scientists what to do? Or was it a more hands-on experience?

When I first met Raoul Frese, scientist from the Biophysics Lab from VU Amsterdam, (The Netherlands) I wanted to develop further JAP. I got very inspired after his speech in a symposium at the former NIMK in Amsterdam about photosynthesis. Later we did an appointment to discuss further our possible collaboration. To develop the Symbiotic Machine we had several meetings in my studio and in his lab. Soon, Vincent Friebe, PhD student from Biophysics lab also joined the team.

In this project I wanted to create an autonomous system, which is able to live by itself, as most of the living entities do. For me it is very poetic to create a hybrid living system that can move to search for its own energy source, process it and have energy to do its own life cycle.

We had lots of hands on experiences and exchanging ideas and techniques. The project started with the concept and the technology we could use, but this Beta version was designed according to the necessities and mechanisms the bio-machine required. The project also had collaborations with Michiel van Overbeek who developed the hard/software and the Mechanical Engineer lab from CEFET/RJ (Technological University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil).

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What are the photosynthetic organisms that the machine harvests? Could you give a few examples? What makes them interesting for the scientists you were working with? 

For this prototype we focused in a specific algae: Spirogyra. It is a genus of filamentous green algae, which can be found in freshwater such as canals and ponds. Spirogyra grows under water, but when there is enough sunlight and warmth they produce large amounts of oxygen, adhering bubbles between the tangled filaments. The filamentous masses come to the surface and become visible as slimy green mats.

I asked Raoul Frese why he is interested in photosynthetic organisms: " Scientists are researching photosynthesis and photosynthetic organisms to learn how processes occur from the nanoscale and femtoseconds to the scale of the organism or ecosystem on days and years. It is an excellent example how a life process is interconnected from the molecules to organism to interrelated species. For biophysicists, the process exemplifies molecular interactions upon light absorption, energy transfer and electron and proton transfers. Such processes are researched with the entire experimental physics toolbox and described by theories such as thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. From a technological point of view, we can learn from the process how efficient solar energy conversion can take place, especially from the primary, light dependent reactions and how light absorption can result in the creation of a fuel (and not only electricity)."

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Microscope Chamber #1. NY, New York - SVA 335 16st W. June 20th 2013

Why were you interested in photosynthetic organisms, and in creating a machine that would feed on them and function a bit like them?

My interest in photosynthetic organisms started when I wanted to develop further JAP in a way that a hybrid organism could harvest its own energy to live like a plant. In April 2013, during the residency in NY I had the opportunity to research these microorganisms when I created the installation Microscopic Chamber #1, using a laser pointer to magnify these microorganisms, where people could see in naked eyes projected on a wall different kinds of microorganisms swimming. These living organisms were collected at Belmar beach, in New Jersey and were displayed in the installation in an aquarium where I cultivated them.

The algae Spirogyra is very common in The Netherlands. The choices of the organisms presented in my works are based on the concept, their own technology and location of the specimen. One of the ideas is to adapt the mechanics and electrical system in the machine to be capable to function with the mili-voltages that plants, animals and us have. Create an autonomous system that could use such small scale of electricity to operate. After the residency I had several meetings with scientists from VU Amsterdam where I had the opportunity to research further the Spirogyra and other photosynthetic creatures.

In this research about plant and machines I want to find a way of coexistence between living organisms and machines more integrated, and inspire people for a possible different future.

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Could you explain us the shape of the floating mobile robotic structure? Because it looks much more 'organic' than typically robotic. Could you describe the various elements that constitute the robotic structure and what their role is?

The machine is designed to communicate with the environment. For this first model the machine is planned to process the algae from specimen Spirogyra to generate electricity. As this specimen is a filamentous floating organism, the robot has to be in water, floating together with the algae.

The structure is composed by an ellipsoid of revolution with 3 conical shaped arms. Attached to the arms tentacles equipped with sensors. The structure is transparent to catch sunlight at any angle. The choice for an ellipsoid of revolution is to create more surface area for the electrodes (photocells) and to use more of the sun rays onto the photocells when the light reflects in the golden electrodes - using more sunlight by consequence. The tentacles make the robot extend its senses to search for algae. The arms create closed chambers to place electronics.

The machine has a complete digestive system: mouth, stomach and anus. See the video:


Ivan Henriques, Symbiotic Machine (digestive system)

Sealed with a transparent cylinder a motor, an endless worm and a pepper grinder aligned and connected by one single axis compose the mouth/anus, like a jellyfish. This cylinder has a liquid inlet/outlet (for water and algae spirogyra) placed at the end part of the endless worm. The endless worm has an important function to pump liquid in and out and to give small propulsion for the machine.

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In order to "hack" the algae spirogyra photosynthesis' and apply it as an energy source, the algae cell's membrane has to be broken. The pepper grinder that is connected at the end of the endless worm can grind the algae breaking the membrane cell, releasing micro particles.

These micro particles in naked eyes looks like a "green juice" which is flushed inside the machine: the stomach.

A tube that comes from the end of the mouth with grinded algae goes though the stomach, inside the ellipsoid of revolution. This tube is fastened on a 2-way valve placed in the center of the spherical shape. Inside the ellipsoid of revolution there is another bowl, just one centimeter smaller aligned in the center. Placing this bowl inside, it creates two chambers: 1] the space between the outer skin and the bowl and 2] inside the smaller bowl. In chamber 1 the photocells are placed in parallel and in series. The photocell is composed by a plate covered with gold, a spacer in the middle covered with a copper mesh. This set up allows the "green juice" rest between the gold and copper.

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After the light is shed on the electrons of the grinded algae they flow to one of these metals, like a lemon battery. As all the photocells are connected, with the help from the electronic chip LTC 3108 Energy Harvester is possible to store these mili-voltages in two AA rechargeable batteries. A life cycle with functions was idealized in order to program the machine and activate independent mechanical parts of the stomach: it has to eat, move, sunbath, rest, search for food, wash itself, in loop.

The 2-way valve mentioned above is connected as: valve 1 hooked up with chamber 1 and valve 2 with chamber 2. When the stomach works is sent information to the machine that the valve 1 has to be opened. The algae flow to this chamber and the machine uses a light sensor to go towards where there is more luminescence to make photosynthesis. After the 10 min sunbathing (photosynthesis) the machine has to clean its stomach - and the photocells - to be able to eat again. Water is sucked in again with the mouth, and via the same valve from the algae, it pumps more water inside chamber 1 in order to have an overflow of this liquid in chamber 2. The liquid, which is now in chamber 2 is flushed out by the motor turning the endless worm and having the valve 2 opened. Fixed on the edge of the structure opposite the mouth, an underwater pump connected by a vertical axis with a servo powers the movement of the structure giving possibilities to steer 0, 45 and minus 45 degrees. The movement programmed for this machine was written concerned about the duration/time, space and energy.



What is next for the Symbiotic Machine and for you?

This version of the Symbiotic Machine still has to be improved and I would like to continue the research and develop this bio-machine further. I want to keep working to improve what was done. The exhibition is from March 9th until 27th April at the Glazen Huis in Amstelpark, Amsterdam.

To start this research it was only possible with support from Stichting DOEN and also to work with this fantastic team. There are another projects I am developing, keep your eyes on my website!

Thanks Ivan!

Previously by the same artist: Jurema Action Plant.

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Technical drawing of nuclear landmine including chicken box. Image Marcel Helmer

Last week was the School of Design students work in progress exhibition at the Royal College of Art, that's probably my favourite show at RCA because everything is still gloriously wild, promising and unpolished.

Marcel Helmer from Design Interactions had a very puzzling display showing sketches of an audio recorder inside of a walnut that squirrels would then bury in enemy territory, nuclear landmine warmed up by live chickens, military equipment for insect related units, etc.

He called these scenarios Technocratic Fables. They tell the tales of machines depending on, cooperating with or being defeated by animals. The work looked closely at animals in military use. Some of his examples came from the past (believe it or not, in the 1950s the UK seriously planned to put chicken inside landmines to regulate its temperature), present and looked at how engineered animals might shape the future of warfare.

These fables show potential of putative simple organisms in the past, present and future. What if invasive species become a weapon? What if the next danger is an engineered physical insect, not a digital one?

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View of the project at the WIP show. Photo by Marcel Helmer

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Mechanical drawing of jelly fish breeding tank. Image Marcel Helmer

The designer kindly accepted to answer my questions:

Hi Marcel! Why did you decide to present the work as 'fables' and not as just 'projects' like most other works in the show?

Technocratic fables are a collection of stories. All of them based on animal/technology interaction inside the field of military purposes. They are placed between the 1930 and the not too distant future, embedding the most sophisticated technology of each specific time into the tale. Showing its vulnerability, dependency or cooperation to/on/with animal behaviour.

Traditional fables use anthropomorphised animals not only to tell fantastic and entertaining stories, but to teach and exemplify sociological human behaviour. My idea is to use animals and technology not to explore the human/human interaction, but the human/technology side of society of a specific time. Specific time for the reason, because of the idea that a relationship of course changes throughout history, whether it actually does may remain unanswered though. It is certainly not about finding new uses for animals in warfare, even though it mentions the possibility of invasive species used as weaponry.

Can you walk us through some of those animals used for military purposes?

My favourite story so far: During the cold war Germany was separated into the soviet east and the allied forces' west. The western forces were seriously concerned about the possibility of the soviet army conquering western Europe, therefore they developed a plan B. Burying nuclear landmines to make central Europe inhabitable in case of an invasion. The only problem they had, German winters can be quite rough, and the electronics of the time weren't made for those temperatures. The proposed solution: burying live chicken with the bombs to use their body heat to keep the sensitive electronics alive. The soviet reaction to this plan was the attempt to train foxes, not only to track down the bombs but to "defuse" them by killing the chicken.

This is one example of the past, more recent ones include squirrels captured by the iranian government because they were "carrying espionage equipment", jellyfish fields blocking passage ways for multi million dollar nuclear submarines or moths distracting sonar controlled homing missiles.

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The mine would be kept warm by chickens

Why did you associate a particular animal with a particular military use? Are they already used for similar purposes?

This is the twist: the stories i just mentioned are true! Design fictions like to use fantastic narratives to communicate scenarios, encasing and presenting them as realistic as possible, perfect renderings, tables and facts to create plausibility. I'd like to go the other way around, i cloak the stories as fictions to surprise with the truth, stressing once more that reality can be stranger than fiction! My design is the communication of the story and the speculative next step of these truths, what if this really happened and became the standard of warfare? What are countermeasures to chicken bombs? What does a squirrel use to spy on you? How can jellyfish become a weapon? It is an alternative century of animals in warfare.

Are animals still used in warfare?

Absolutely. But today its usually less spectacular and experimental, since computer technology supposedly became the answer for most problems. It is no more necessary to use pidgeon as pilots for "intelligent" missiles (again, true story!). We still cherish the advanced sense of smell of dogs, or recently even rats to find hidden landmines. One of the more fantastic approached is the research of the U.S. navy using dolphins to find sea mines. On the other side, who knows what's happening behind closed curtains? The "chicken bomb" was a rumor, until it has been proven in the early 90s by secret documents, which became open to the public after the fall of the Soviet Republic. It definitely leaves enough space for speculations of future stories, especially in regard to engineered organisms, which will be part of the "near future story" i develop.

These factors are also part of the reason why i choose to place it in the realm of military technology. It's the secret, yet fantastic nature that evolves out of the almost blind trust into technology inhabited by this area. Pushing the boundaries of technology with only limited emphasis on ethical or moral restrictions.

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View of the project at the WIP show. Photo by Marcel Helmer

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Emblem of the soviet "fox bataillon", founded to track down and defuse allied "chicken bombs" (1971) View of the project at the WIP show. Photo by Marcel Helmer

Are you planning to push the project further?

Yes, it is definitely going to be one of my main projects i'll be presenting in the Summer show. While i personally appreciate the idea of mixed media installations to offer the audience artefacts to explore the fables, i'd like to work closer to the expectations of classic fables in literature. Whether this is going to be a book, including the fables and the research or another traditional form of storytelling is still to be determined. I certainly have a lot more fantastic stories written not only by me, but history itself i can work with.

Thanks Marcel!

The Work in Progress show of the design school is over, alas! but the School of Architecture Work-in-Progress Show opens in a few days in the Kensington building.

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