The Oaxaca Valley in Mexico is regarded as the heartland of corn diversity. Not only can cultivation of the plant in the region be traced back to over 6000 years ago, it also presents the highest genetic diversity of corn in the country.

Yet, this rich and ancestral biodiversity is threatened by the introduction of genetically modified seeds in the region. In November, 2001, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela from the University of California, Berkeley published an article in the journal Nature in which they reported that some of Oaxaca native corn had been contaminated by pollen from genetically modified corn. Unsurprisingly, the essay was heavily criticized by academics who had suspicious ties with the biotechnology industry.

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BIOS Ex machinA: Serán ceniza, mas tendrá sentido ligeramente tóxico

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Marcela Armas and Arcángel Constantini, Milpa polímera

An exhibition at the MACO, Oaxaca Contemporary Art Museum, reflects local attempts to preserve Oaxaca's rich genetic heritage. The 'corn issue' cannot be reduced to a fight against the transgenic industry, it is also a battle to preserve a whole culture, an identity and a certain vision of the world.

Bioartefactos. Desgranar lentamente un maíz (Bioartefacts. Slowly treshing corn) presents 9 installations which highlight the 'artefact' nature of corn. The plant is a biological artefact because it is the result of a human domestication that took place thousands of years ago and it has in turn shaped the whole country over as many years.

The works exhibited include a robot that 3d prints then plants seeds made of a biopolymer created from corn (PLA), an installation that monitors and visualizes the breathing of corn as well as a series of corn plants connected with electrodes to record the interaction between plants and humans.

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Macedonio Alcalá street in Oaxaca. Photo courtesy of Arte+Ciencia

I haven't visited the show but the theme, the works selected and the political undertones deserved to be further investigated so i contacted María Antonia González Valerio, curator of the exhibition and director of Arte+Ciencia (Art+Science), asked her for an interview and she kindly agreed to answer my questions.

Hi María! Could you explain the political and economical context of the exhibition?

The exhibition faces a difficult political and economical context in Mexico. Political decisions, in general, are being taken without including the actual living conditions and opinions of Mexican people. This makes us ask how is a community organized, how is it build. Which, of course, has no easy answer. It depends not only on the cultural context of the community, but also on the economical context. Diversity of possibilities of organization is something that we want to stress with the exhibition. Given the political context, that is very artificial and faraway from everyday life, and given the economical conditions, that in general terms and related to politics are benefiting the big and international enterprises, we need to find a way to preserve cultural diversity and biodiversity. This is not an easy task. But if we can show that there are many ways to dwell in this world, and that the capitalism-Western style is still not the only one, but a possibility among others, then we are making a strong point. It is then very important to highlight the complexity of the problems, the many perspectives, the way in which they are related and co-dependent, that is, that economical and political context have a lot to do with cultural diversity and biodiversity.

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BIOS Ex machinA: Desde adentro

Why does the exhibition focuses on corn, rather than any other cereal or edible plant?

Corn is a special plant for Mexico. It has many layers for us. Corn is related to cultural identity, land, food, religion, mythology, rites, family, economy, animals, etc. By stressing the ways in which corn is produced, grown and used in different contexts, we want to meditate on the different aspects that constitute also different worldviews.

Corn is still the basis of Mexican nourishment. What is the relationship that we have to our food? We can at least point to the industrialized way in which it is being produced in the north of the country, the traditional way like in rural Oaxaca, and the indigenous way also taken Oaxaca as an example. From the very much-mediated relationship to food that we have in the cities where everything comes from markets and supermarkets, to the self-subsistent system of corn growth and consumption in rural Oaxaca, we can think about the different ways in which we build our world. Instead of thinking of opposites, I believe that people from the cities have a lot to learn from the countryside, not only in respect to food consumption, but also from the different ways of life. In the same sense, the city has a lot to teach to the countryside.

We cannot face the problem of corn, food, GMO's, biotechnology, etc. only thinking about economical, biological or scientific issues, the cultural aspect is very important. When we talk about different ways of producing corn, from rural to industrialized, we are not talking only about machines or monocultures, but really about cultural diversity.

Art is one of the better ways to show this cultural diversity that at the same time is intimately related to the natural world, which for us now means also the production and designing of "bio-artifacts". Corn is a bio-artifact. But we have to learn to see degrees, nuances and be more specific in the kind of analysis that we make when we draw a border between the natural and the artificial.

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El Banco de Germoplasma de Especies Nativas de Oaxaca (gene bank of Oaxaca's native species). Photo courtesy of Arte+Ciencia

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El Banco de Germoplasma de Especies Nativas de Oaxaca (gene bank of Oaxaca's native species). Photo courtesy of Arte+Ciencia

In Europe, GMO are submitted to very strict regulations. The U.S.A. are notoriously far more favorable to GMOs. How is the situation in Mexico and what is the state of the debate about 'native' corn vs transgenic corn?

For the moment, there is a prohibition in Mexico to continue with the planting of transgenic corn, not even for experimental purposes, because it has been demonstrated that all our country has corn biodiversity, not only the south, and that therefore all the territory must be protected from contamination. Being also the center of origin of corn, puts us in the special condition of watching for biodiversity.

But it is very important to say, and we have previously demonstrated this, that we are importing corn seeds from the USA, some of them are transgenic and germinal. Non-human animals are being fed in Mexico with transgenic corn. There is not an adequate surveillance from the Mexican government in regard to the importation of these seeds. And since we are bound to buy corn to the USA, because of the NAFTA, and the USA is producing transgenic corn, we are very worried.

It can be said that there is no problem with transgenic food, but there is no consensus in the scientific community about this. And this should be enough to have more precaution. But I insist, what is at stake is not only the way in which we produce food and what for, but also how we dwell in this world, and what cultural diversity are we willing to preserve and respect.

The example of high fructose corn syrup allow us to see how things are related to each other in more profound and complex ways that what we usually are seeing. The production of this syrup has signified for Mexico a financial crisis regarding the sugar cane industry. The consumption of these products is also a health problem. Why are we eating everything so sweet? How and why have we changed so profoundly in the past century our relationship to the land, the planet, our bodies, our cultures, etc.? What does technology means seeing from this perspective?

How can art contribute to the discussions around the issue?

The nine pieces that we are presenting are dealing with many of the topics afore mentioned. BIOS Ex machinA: Serán ceniza, mas tendrá sentido ligeramente tóxico/ It will be ashes, but will make sense (slighty toxic). Is an experiment to detect contamination of transgenic corn in seeds in Mexican soil. We test the resistance to the herbicide glyphosate or Roundup produced by Monsanto.

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BIOS Ex machinA: Serán ceniza, mas tendrá sentido ligeramente tóxico

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BIOS Ex machinA: Serán ceniza, mas tendrá sentido ligeramente tóxico

BIOS Ex machinA: Polinización cruzada/Cross-pollination is a video documental that presents interviews to different actors in the current debate regarding transgenic corn in Mexico. It exhibits the capacity of the discourse to say true or to lie.

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BIOS Ex machinA: Polinización cruzada

BIOS Ex machinA: Desde adentro. Experiments in situ to teach the reaches and limites of DIY biology.

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BIOS Ex machinA: Desde adentro

Arcángel Constantini and Marcela Armas working with BIOS Ex machinA: Milpa polímera/Polymer milpa. Is a robot-3D printer that prints PLA in form of
corn seeds. The ultimate degree of industrialization of corn, is use it to produce plastics.

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Marcela Armas and Arcángel Constantini, Milpa polímera

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Marcela Armas and Arcángel Constantini, Milpa polímera

Lena Ortega's La dulce vida/La dolce vita deals with the problem of high fructose corn syrup, the way in which families are fed nowadays, and the transformation from the rural world to the cities.

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Lena Ortega, La dulce vida

Alfadir Luna's Containers reflects about the problem of transforming corn into a commodity that is being transported in containers along with fuel, concrete, steel, etc.

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Alfadir Luna, Container

Collective MAMAZ. Códice del maíz exhibits textiles that tell the story of what corn represents to local women in Oaxaca and in other places of Mexico.

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Colectivo MAMAZ, Códice del maíz

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Colectivo MAMAZ, Códice del maíz

Collective Zm_maquina Media Lab: Installation that senses the respiration (production of CO2) of corn plants and engraves a copper disc with this data.

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Collective Zm_maquina Media Lab

Minerva Hernández and Héctor Cruz: Zea mays. Installation that reflects on how the corn plants are altered by the presence of humans.

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Minerva Hernández and Héctor Cruz, Zea mays

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Minerva Hernández and Héctor Cruz, Zea mays

I read in an online article that visitors will be able to work with scientists to determine whether a corn is transgenic or not. Could you tell us more about the setting and the participation of the public?

There are two possibilities for actual interaction of the public with the exhibition. The day of the inauguration we set a lab of DIY biology. We wanted to show to the public how to extract a DNA molecule out of a corn seed. Also, we wanted to show how to do a process of electrophoresis and of replicating DNA with a PCR. For this we used DNA from E. coli.
The other possibility is bringing corn seeds to the museum. Here we will plant them and grow them to test the resistance to Roundup. In case that we have resistance to the herbicide, we will take the surviving plants to the lab, to test if they are transgenic or not.

The exhibition seems to feature works in which artists have collaborated with scientists and engineers. Was this art/science collaboration one of the main thread of the curatorial process? How did you select the artworks that participate to the exhibition?

This exhibition has an important antecedent in a previous one, Sin origen/Sin semilla (Without origin/Seedless) that we presented in 2012-2013 in the museums MUCA Roma and MUAC at UNAM in Mexico City.

We have been working with scientists, engineers, artists, scholars, students, editors, designers, etc. We strongly believe that the interdisciplinary work is the way to approach complex issues, because it permits a wide perspective that can relate different layers. This is how we have been working on the issue of corn, and so far we have very good results.
In the group Arte+Ciencia (Art+Science) based at UNAM we have been building a path to intertwine arts, science and humanities.

Thanks María!

All images courtesy of Arte+Ciencia.

Sponsored by:





Science Fiction: New Death seeks to provoke the question - have the Sci Fi visions we once imagined of the future since become a reality? I guess we all know the answer to that one.

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Dario Solman, Target Orbit

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Jon Rafman, Hope Springs Eternal/Still Life (BetaMale)

Because i write mostly about art and science/technology, i've seen my fair share of exhibitions that reference scifi. However, FACT's latest show is the first one i've visited that is entirely dedicated to science-fiction and visual arts. And in this instance, science fiction isn't explored as the ultimate future forecaster, it is rather the starting point of a reflection on our current condition, an invitation to explore how our relationship with technology has made our everyday lives increasingly look like it is set against the backdrop of a science fiction novel.

Inspired by the work of J.G. Ballard, our story looks to the bleak, man-made landscapes of the future and asks: What happens when virtual environments become indistinguishable from reality? Will our global culture allow us to choose where to live, and who will stop us? What will we do with knowledge that becomes freely available to all? With social platforms acting as camera, how will 'selfies' develop and what new forms of narcissism will thrive? What is it that we need to preserve, and what do we need to change? These questions are explored through intense visualisations of electronic communication, dystopian domestic interiors, and re-enactments of historical revolutionary moments.

New Death, a title which comes from a text that fantasy writer China Miéville wrote for the exhibition, is ominous but so are the glimpses that the participating artists give into the techno-mediated we've built ourselves: conditions of intensified surveillance and repression, border control, loss of citizenship, etc. Not everything is bleak and joyless in the show though. You can bounce off a trampoline and pretend you're an astronaut, meet intelligent robots that attempt to avoid boredom at all costs, you can even participate to the exhibition by writing a story describing a dystopian near future. I don't know what a sci-fi fan would make of the exhibition but i found it smart, provocative and thought-provoking.

Quick overview of the show:

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Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Accomplice. Installation at FACT Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

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Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Accomplice. Installation at FACT-Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

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Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Accomplice. Installation at FACT-Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

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Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders, Accomplice. Installation at FACT-Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

Accomplice is a small clique of social autonomous robots hidden behind one of FACT's gallery walls. Because these machines are curious, they attempt to discover their environment and the first step to live new adventures is to break down the wall. Their mechanical arm relentlessly punches against the wall. In the process, they not only make holes, they are also acquiring knowledge: how the wall react to their poking, how to best expand their horizon and what it is like out there, on the other side of the wall.

As the wall disappears, the robots discover other creatures: the gallery visitors. The more they can see and hear, the more excited and active these robots are getting. Their behaviour, however, isn't predictable and linear. As soon as the movements and noises made by the visitors or the colours and patterns they are wearing have become too familiar, the robots become bored. In a sense, the roles usually taken by the audience and the robots or the artefacts and the visitors are reversed: the robots are the spectators and the gallery goers perform for them.

I had a chance to talk with Rob Saunders at the press view. I scribbled our conversation on a bit of paper, lost it so i'm going to point you to this Robots Podcast: Curious & creative in which he talks about being inspired by Gordon Pask's conversation theory, designing curious systems, the laws of novelty and the social structure that might evolve from them.

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The Kazimier

The bits and pieces of walls laying unceremoniously on the floor and the unpredictable attitude of the Accomplice robots echo the exhibition experience that Venya Krutikov & Michael Lill of The Kazimier have designed for Science Fiction: New Death. They turned the FACT building into a disordered, stern and slightly disquieting space to navigate. Your movements inside the gallery might or might not be filmed. That poorly-lit corridor might be off limit. That door over there might open on another artworks or maybe it's a dead end.

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Sascha Pohflepp, Camera Futura

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Sascha Pohflepp, Camera Futura

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Sascha Pohflepp, Camera Futura

Before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon in 1969, the NASA elaborated various exercises to understand how man would move in microgravity. The experiments were not just simulations but "pre-enactments" of a new set of rules that we were about to enter, providing a window into the future through which NASA researchers collected not only data but also visual impressions. One such experiment was conducted at Stanford University in the mid-1960s by Thomas R. Kane. The applied mechanics professor had studied the ability of cats to spin their body mid-air so that they could securely land on their four paws. Kane would film a cat bouncing on a trampoline, study its movements, and then a gymnast in a spacesuit would try to reproduce the cat's movements on the trampoline.

Sascha Pohflepp's Camera Futura enables visitors to replicate the experiment. You are invited to wear a light space suit and jump on the trampoline while a camera captures your moves.

The energy stored in the trampoline's springs amplifies the power of our muscles, so that we can briefly launch ourselves and experience an instant of relative weightlessness when falling back to Earth. Camera Futura captures images from that very instant. These photos allow for a glimpse of our brief moment in a post-gravity world. In a sense, they are impressions of ourselves from one of many futures.

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Jae Rhim Lee, Infinity Burial Project Installation at FACT Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death


Jae Rhim Lee: My mushroom burial suit

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Jae Rhim Lee, Mushroom Death Suit #2

The Infinity Burial Project is an art project with an aim to help us accept the reality of our own death. It is also a very bold and practical alternative to current burial system. Once buried or cremated, our bodies do not just decompose and vanish, they also contribute to the deterioration of the environment by releasing the toxic pollutants that our bodies have accumulated over the course of the years: pesticides, preservatives and heavy metals such as lead and mercury.

Mushrooms, on the other hand, can detoxify soils.

Jae Rhim Lee has thus developed the Mushroom Death Suit, a burial suit infused with mushroom spores to assist the decomposition of human corpses. The outfit comes with capsules that contain infinity mushroom spores and other elements that speed decomposition and toxin remediation. Besides, an open source burial container, and a membership society devoted to the promotion of death awareness and acceptance and the practice of decompiculture (the cultivation of decomposing organisms).

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Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite


Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face

Facial Weaponization Suite is a playful but also dark critique of the silent and gradual rise of the use of biometric facial recognition software by governments to monitor citizens.
During a series of workshops, Zach Blas worked with members of specific minority communities (queers, black people, etc.) to create masks that are modeled from the aggregated facial data of participants. The amorphous and slightly sinister masks are then worn in public performances.

Masks remain an effective tool to prevent identification technologies from capturing, analyzing, archiving and identifying our face. The use of mask also refers to social movements that use masks as a sign of protests. From the Zapatista rebels, to Pussy Riot, Anonymous, etc.

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Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, Deep State Installation at FACT Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

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Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, Deep State. Installation at FACT Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

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Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, Deep State. Installation at FACT Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death (photo FACT)

Brad Butler and Karen Mirza are presenting Deep State, a film scripted by science fiction author China Miéville. The film takes its title from the Turkish term "Derin Devlet," meaning "state within the state," and tells a story about the representation of political struggle, moments of crisis, solidarity, schisms and oppression.

The whole film, which overlays archive protest footage and performed interludes, is online:

Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, Deep State

At first, i wasn't sure what to make of it but, as the images rolled on, i started connecting them to what was going on in Ukraine at the time of the press view of the show and i realized that at this very moment, maybe we still have a choice: we can be the people who raise their heads, protest and attempt to take some control back or we can be the people who are blindly herded into a society of control.

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James Bridle, Homo Sacer, 2014. Installation at FACT-Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

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Close and Remote, Zone

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Laurence Payot, 1 in a Million You

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Mark Leckey, Pearl Vision. Installation at FACT-Liverpool as part of Science Fiction: New Death

Also part of the show: Nation Estate, a "vertical solution to Palestinian statehood."

Science Fiction: New Death was curated by Omar Kholeif and Mike Stubbs. The show is open at FACT in Liverpool until 22 June 2014.

Christian Faubel, Crystal forming robots on overhead

The Crystal Forming Robots are little autonomous robots that are placed on an overhead projector. Each robot is powered by the light of the projector and their movements over its surface make tangible the growth process of crystal structures.

When a robot has collected enough energy, it will start moving around. The robots are equipped with tiny magnets, and as soon as two robots with matching polarity come close, they attract each other. Over time, more and more pairs of robots form, create larger clusters and a crystal like structure eventually emerges. The overhead projector magnifies the process into an abstract movie.

The background of this work are the early experiments of cybernetician Gordon Pask on building a chemical computer as a learning system. With the help of software simulation the idea of a growing structure that modifies its own perception of the environment is illustrated. The robotic implementation of the growth process is a first step towards making such a process tangible.

The robots are going to be presented in a performance and exhibition at the Sight + Sound festival in Montreal next month. The programme of the event is, as usual, rather exciting. Sadly, i can't make it to Montreal so i figured out that the next best thing would be to talk to some of the artists who will be there. Hence this little Q&A with Christian Faubel...

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Photographs of a clustering sequence, it took approximately 20 minutes for the final structure to build

Hi Christian! I'm very curious about the way the little bots move in this video. For example, what happens when they all get immobile? Is the system 'trying to figure out' what to do next? What controls the behavior of the robots? Why do some move and others are more passive? Is there a hierarchy?

There is no hierarchy, each of the robots is fully autonomous and triggers a movement when it has collected enough energy through its solar panel. Even though they are all built with the same components, they may have variations in timing and duration of their movement. These variations appear because the components are not perfect, they have physical differences and theses differences contribute to the behavior of the robots. Another contribution to differences in behavior, is the fact that environmental conditions on the ohp vary, in the center there is stronger light and thus more energy for the robots to harvest. As a consequence robots in the center move more often than those on the borders.

Your description of the text talks about parasites and ecosystems. The way the robots move has something a bit organic. It's particularly uncanny in the video version with colorful umbrellas. How important is the observation or imitation of nature when you're developing robotic artworks?

I see most of my robotic artworks as reflections on nature, I consider these robots as philosophical toys because they make the abstract concepts of autonomy and self-organisation tangible. These concepts were developed to describe and understand the way behavior is organized in living beings. So i think that ideally the artworks tell us something about ourselves.

The crystal forming robots are actually an experimental platform that i keep working on as part of my artistic research at the lab3. The first version, that is also documented in the video, had rectangular shapes, while I am currently working with hexagonal shapes. This local difference in shape has global effects in form of the growing shapes. My next step is to add contact points on the robots, so that when they cluster electrical connections are created. Once i have this in place there are so many experiments to do with growing electrical connections, i am really looking forward to this.

What is the 'diffusion limited aggregation algorithm', developed for simulating crystal growth? Can you explain us how it works?

The diffusion limited aggregation algorithm was developed and described in a seminal paper by Witten and Sander in the 80ties to simulate crystal growth processes. [Witten, T. t., and Sander, L. Diffusion-limited aggregation. Physical Review B 27, 9 (1983).]

The basic principle is to simulate particles that do a random walk (diffusion), when they hit a structure (by chance), they attach to that structure (aggregation). The structure is initialized with a single element, over time more and more particles dock onto the structure and a crystal like structure will form.

When you google for it you will find an overwhelming number of beautiful implementations in processing. Andy Lomas presented very nice simulations on Siggraph in 2005. I became interested in this algorithm by a general interest on growth processes and specifically through works such as Roots by Roman Kirschner, which took the works of Gordon Pask on building a chemical computer as starting point. My research on this topic is documented in a seminar on plasticity. When you scroll down you will also find some examples of experiments on crystal growth, as well as some simulations with the diffusion limited aggregation algorithm.

"Over time a crystal like structure emerges from more and more little robots forming larger clusters." What happens once the structure has been formed? is the bots work over and done? or do they separate and start again the clustering process?

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No they will not separate again, the whole process runs into one direction and after an hour or more there will usually be only one single big structure. The robots need to be reset manually when the process has converged. I would say that the experiment is finished, when the process has converged and that you then start another experiment, by putting the robots apart again. What you will observe over the course of multiple experiments is that the shapes that form are always different in detail, but structurally similar.

I saw on the festival program that you will also take part in a Monochrome Layering performance at the festival. Will the Overheadbots be part of the events? Or are you going to do something that has nothing to do with them?

The overheadbots have a lot to do with the performance. When we (Tina Tonagel, Ralf Schreiber and myself) started to work on our performance project some years ago, the overheadbots were sort of a trigger for this project. In our performance, the key is the simultaneity of sound and vision. We place kinetic objects such as for example overheadbots, but also all different kind of small robots or self build instruments on the ohp and we use pick-up microphones to amplify the sound that they make when moving. So that in parallel to the moving shadow, or moving light you also hear the sound of the movement.
this is maybe best captured in these two videos:

Kunst und Musik mit dem Tageslichtprojektor @ Designacademy Eindhoven


Performance at the Shinytoys festival, September 2011

Why do you chose to work mostly with analog robots?

I like the openness of analog circuits. You don't need to implement any sort of digital communication protocol to link up to a device. Instead you can couple thinks by simply putting a cable that creates electrical connection. For example the when the crystal forming bots are equipped with contacts, so that an electrical connection between them is created, it is enough to put that connection in between the trigger points of the two circuits and the robots will from the moment the connection is created move in synchrony. This happens without any re-programming or other re-configuration.
Another aspect of analog robots is their adaptivity to variations in the environment, that comes as an emergent property. As a matter of fact the behavior of these robots look very organic. I have explored this in more detail in a paper and presentation i gave last year at the xcoax conference in Bergamo http://2013.xcoax.org/pdf/xcoax2013-faubel.pdf.

Conceptually i like the concept of the analog, not in difference to digital computation, but estimating in contrast to counting. i have been influenced a lot by the book Analogous and Digital of the German designer and typographer Otl Aicher. In this book he writes for example that a digital clock always shows the time precisely to the second. It provides you with exact numerical values, but the landscape of time, whether it is morning or afternoon, too early or too late, i can easier deduce from the positioning of the clock hand on the clock face.

Speaking with Otl Aicher i would say that i am more interested in the landscapes than in numerical measures.

Thanks Christian!

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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.

I spent the weekend in Eindhoven for Age of Wonder, a festival which turned up to be even more exciting and engaging than its name promised. I'll get back with images and posts later but right now i felt like blogging my notes from Nick Bostrom's keynote about Superintelligence. Bostrom is a Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University and the director of The Future of Humanity Institute. He talked about the ultra fast pace of innovation, hazardous future technologies, artificial intelligence that will one day surpass the one of human beings and might even take over our future.

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HAL 9000 vs Dave in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey

Bostrom is worried about the way humanity is rushing forward. The time between having an idea and developing it is getting increasingly shorter. This gives less space to reflect on the safety of innovation. Bostrom believes that humans cannot see the existential danger this entails. If the future is a place where we really want to live, then we will have to think in different and better-targeted ways about ourselves and about technological developments.

Bostrom's talk started on a high and slightly worrying note with a few words on existential risk. An existential risk is one that endangers the survival of intelligent life on Earth or that threatens to severely destroy our potential for development. So far, humanity has survived the worst natural or man-caused catastrophes (genocide, tsunami, nuclear explosion, etc.) but an existential catastrophe would be so lethal that it would ruin all future for all mankind. An analogy on an individual scale would be if you find yourself facing a life sentence in prison or in a coma you don't wake up from.

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Slide from Nick Bostrom's presentation: Negligible to existential catastrophes (bigger image)

So far we've survived all natural catastrophes but we need to beware of anthropogenic risks. New technologies haven't yet managed to spread doom. Nuclear weapons, for example, are very destructive but they are also very difficult to make. Now imagine if a destructive technology was easy to make in your garage, It could end in the hands of a lunatic who plots the end of human civilization.

Potentially hazardous future technologies such as machine intelligence, synthetic biology, molecular technology, totalitarism-enabling technologies, geoengineering, human modification, etc. had not been invented 100 years ago. Imagine what might emerge within the next 100 years.

So if you care about the future of human civilization and if your goal is to do some good, you need to look at how to reduce existential risk. You would need to influence when and by whom technologies can be developed. You would need to speed up the development of 'good' technologies and retard the development of others such as designer pathogens for example.

How does this play out with a rise of machine intelligence which could result in Super Intelligence?

Machine intelligence will radically surpass biological intelligence (even if it is enhanced through genetic selection for example) one day. Experts find it difficult to agree on when exactly machines will reach the level of human intelligence. They estimate that there is 90% probability that human level artificial intelligence might arise around 2075. Once machine intelligence roughly matches human's in general intelligence, a machine intelligence takeoff could take place extremely fast.

But how can you control a Super Intelligent machine? What will happen when we develop something that radically surpass our intelligence and might have the capability to shape our future? Any plan we might have to control the super intelligence will probably be easily thwarted by it. Is it possible to have any gatekeeper that/who will make sure that the artificial intelligence will not do anything detrimental to us? The Super Intelligence would probably be capable of figuring out how to escape any confinement we might impose upon it. It might even kill us to prevent us from interfering with its own plans. We should also think about any ultimate goal that a Super Intelligence might have. What if its own goal is to dedicate all the resources of the universe to producing as many paper clips as possible?

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Slide from Nick Bostrom's presentation: what Super Intelligence can do and how it can achieve its objectives (bigger image)

How can we build an artificial Super Intelligence with human-friendly values? How can we control it and avoid some existential risks that might arise down the road?

The forms of artificial intelligence we are familiar with can solve one problem: speech recognition, face recognition, route-finding software, spam filters, search engines, etc. A general artificial intelligence will be able to carry out a variety of challenges and goals. How can we male sure that it learns humanly meaningful values?

Nick Bostrom's new book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies will be published by Oxford University in June 2014 (You can pre-order it on Amazon USA and UK.)

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

My guest in the studio will be James Auger, a designer, researcher and lecturer operating at the intersection of art and industrial design. He is a tutor at the RCA: Design Interactions and visiting professor at the Haute école d'art et de design (HEAD) in Geneva. Together with Jimmy Loizeau, James runs Auger-Loizeau, a design studio that explores what it means to exist in a technology rich environment both today and in the near future.

In this episodes we're going to talk about James' PHD thesis Why Robots? which uses the robot as a vehicle to study how technology be domesticated. But the designer will also discuss preferable futures and electronic devices that know more about your partner's emotional state than you do.

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Flypaper Robotic Clock

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Smell+

The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 12 March at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud one day.

Check out also James Auger's essay in the Journal of Human-Robot Interaction: Living With Robots: A Speculative Design Approach.

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