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Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ


Nicolas Maigret, DRONE.2000, 2014

GAMERZ in Aix-en-Provence is probably the only festival in Europe that doesn't bat an eyelid when an artist proposes to organize a performance in which drones modified to be fairly dumb roam freely and menacingly over a room of spectators. This might not sound scary until you realize that a dumb drone is even more dangerous than a smart drone.

The two UAVs of the DRONE.2000 performance are guided by the simple algorithms of a Roomba robot. Clearly, that's not enough intelligence for them as they bump against the walls, fly far too close to the audience, dart green arrows over the heads and emit a noise that has been amplified to the point of discomfort. This could have ended in tears and bruises (but it didn't.)

The only direct experience most of us have of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) is fairly benign. We know them through hacking, art, cinema or video games. One day, these flying machines will also deliver our parcels, help coordinate firefighting efforts or keep a 'benevolent' eye over sports games. How far should their autonomy and power go? Do we trust them? Do we trust the ones who manufacture and control them?

Drone.2000 is part of a series of works by Nicolas Maigret that reminds us of the military origins and use of technologies that have reached the mainstream. Here, trusting the autonomy of the machine is not only a discursive concept, Maigret writes, but a true experience shared with the audience, triggering off their reactions, tensions and commitment of their bodies in situation of real danger..

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Nicolas Maigret, Drone-2000, 2014. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ

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Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ

I was in Aix-en-Provence for the opening of the GAMERZ festival but had to leave before the start of the performance so i asked Nicolas Maigret to give us the lowdown on his work:

Bonjour Nicolas! Which model of drone were you using in this performance?

These are Parrot AR.Drone 2.0. The advantage of this model is that it is widely used and very hack-able. A large community is working on hijacking it for different uses. (see: nodecopter = hackathon, ardupilot.com = auto-pilot, copterface = facial recognition ...)
It is quite cheap and it is really is somewhere between the toys, the connected object, and the semi-pro equipment.

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Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014 (Preparation before the performance.) Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ

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Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014 (Preparation before the performance.) Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ

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Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014 (Preparation before the performance.) Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ

Can you explain how you modified the drone?

The challenge was really to confuse the public, to have it face the autonomy of the machines (in this case flying ones). And add to that a confrontation with instability, fragility, and the potential danger of algorithms that govern the autonomous behavior of these machine.

To do this we have reproduced the primary behaviors of a robot / vacuum cleaner like iRobot Roomba. Which means that the Drone is absolutely not aware of his surroundings, it only knows its height and rotates randomly from time to time when it bumps against an obstacle (walls, etc). We blocked the cameras normally used to stabilize the position, the Drone is literally un-intelligent. He does not know the position of the other drones either.

These changes entail an underlying sense of danger, a sort of sword of Damocles that is quite striking. Especially since these same drones falls down rather frequently (whether there is a public or not).

Each drone is also equipped with vibration sensors under the propellers. These sounds were gradually amplified during the performance, until the beating blades gets a real physical presence. This activates a martial connotation in the brutality of the contemporary sounds - this aspect recalls the sound approaches of the Futurists (or their reactivations such as Jean-Marc Vivenza's Aérobruitisme Dynamique). However, the Futurists harboured a progressive and inclusive form of hope, whereas I believe that we now have a very different rapport, we feel a growing distrust towards the widespread propaganda of technological innovations that have very little in common with yesteryear's myth of progress.

How did the public react? Were they aware of the danger?

Public reactions alternated between discomfort, nervousness, and humor.

The awkward movements of the Drones quickly made the danger tangible. Initially, most of the audience intuitively chose to stand near the walls, on the sides of the room. I think this was the time when anxiety was at its peak. Then people gradually got closer or they sat down around the space. Some even tried to interfere with the flight of these Zombie Drones. Ironically, the walls of the room, which were the places where most people gathered, were also the places where the drones usually fell.

It should be noted that the Drones also intermittently emit a laser target in the shape of a cross towards the public, openly evoking the military and oppressive parallel of this same technology that has quickly been gamified for the general public, in particular with drones plug and play like AR.Drones. (see the project blurb.)

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Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ

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Nicolas Maigret, Drone.2000, 2014. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ

Drone.2000. i love that name but the 2000 is ironic, right? it makes me think of all those shops called 'Fashion 2000' "Car dealer 2000" in the 1980s and 1990s.

The title is clearly ironic. At least it summons an imaginary future as it existed in the past, especially one related to the autonomous flying objects that we encountered in sci-fi and anticipation literature, film, comics, tv series.

I think there is something of the self-fulfilling prophecy in these generational fantasies inspired by sci-fi, the entertainment industry, and more generally the effect of the zeitgeist. Indeed, entire generations grow up with a common imaginary, whether they are dystopian, critical or not. Later, as they are adults, some mechanically attempt to achieve a more or less faithful realization of that imaginary. (This is also a key point of Jean-Baptiste Bayle's Terminator Studies, or of Nicolas Nova's latest book). I think that's part of what we've been seeing over the last 20 years through a series of gadgets and "innovations", emerging notably from the Californian ideology and more generally from the new ruling class of the engineers.

The title, Drone.2000, conjures the vision of a future that is already gone, that seeks to disrupt the mask of fascination associated with innovation, and that also tends to generate a tension between our aspirations to consume science-fiction artifacts and the ideology they carry.

The term drone crystallizes fairly well this tension between, on the one hand, a fun and fascinating artifact coming from the world of model-making and on the other hand, a new paradigm in the relationship to the "clean and surgical" war (Grégoire Chamayou, Drone Theory) or a probable near future characterized by widespread surveillance and control.

It is for these reasons among others that I wanted to make the Drones completely autonomous and disturbing, a symbolic intersection between these three references.

Merci Nicolas!

Drone.2000 was produced by M2F Créations - Lab GAMERZ, Grégoire Lauvin and Nicolas Maigret.

Also by Nicolas Maigret: The Pirate Cinema, A Cinematic Collage Generated by P2P Users.

Sponsored by:





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The Terminator Studies

Somewhere between military robots, Amazon drones knocking on your door to deliver a parcel, and the rise in machine intelligence, lies what some call The Terminator Scenario. Jean-Baptiste Bayle has spent the past few years looking at the fear and likeliness that our society is getting closer to the one depicted in the 1984 science fiction film The Terminator. The Terminator Studies timeline, map and news collection propose a reinterpretation of a Sci-fi blockbuster. The picture that emerges from this research hovers between cinematographic prophecy and History contaminated by fiction.

The Terminator Studies is going to be exhibited from tomorrow on in Pau, France, as part of the Disnovation show and the accès)s( festival of digital culture. Until i get there (next month! next month!), i wanted to have a quick online chat with the artist:

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The Terminator Studies

Hi Jean-Baptiste! People can navigate the Terminator Studies via news feed, a map or a timeline. Could you explain how they complete each other? Why did you chose this kind of 'architecture' for the work?

First of all I stand like an observer and I collect webshots (screenshots of the web) as evidence. So the website is a repository for this collection, an archive which represents a knowledge resource for the project. The feed is curated, all items are handpicked from diverse sources. So the feed and the timeline are basically the same type of visualisation in a different order, but the map is more subjective, and shows relations, factual, subversive or symbolic, in between all the topics, so that it evolves with time and the flux of events.

I actually really like the map. I wish i could see a big print of it. Would that make sense to you?

And when you exhibit the project in festivals, what does the idea set up look like? That huge map i'm dreaming of and then a computer to explore the project?

Yes, the map, printed is really intriguing . It becomes a modern "fresque". It's a software generated mashup of screenshots, logos, and portraits. And of course it's better to have the electronic version to explore fully the links.

The project was first commissioned by the online platform of Le Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2011. It has since been shown during Sight and Sound in Montreal last year and this year it will be shown during Acces-S in Pau, France.

I also present the state of the art of the research in conference/keynote like the one at Gaité Lyrique in May, and completed with a workshop to practice the survival guide of the internet.

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The Terminator Studies

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When and how did you realize that the "terminator scenario" is becoming increasingly likely to become reality one day?

In fact it is already happening . Exactly what do we call the Terminator scenario? Technological take over? As most of the population is increasingly being used by/or uses computers everyday : we are living it. Technological cataclysm ? What about Chernobyl ? Fukushima ? GMO ? or asbestos ? Ecological doom ? Here we go.. Scientists and experts now talk of existential risk! It's true if not new, but a major cause of thoses threats is unaccountability, and should be avoidable in theory.

It all started in the 80s during the Reagan era, another Hollywood actor : the software industry, the pc computer, high frequency trading, NSA surveillance, DARPA robots, and the scenario of the Terminator movie (1984) was inspired by those hypes.

In this sense we are already in a worst case scenario a la "Terminator", and that is probably one of the reason why the movie is such a reference.. It's even used by government representatives and experts during debates on autonomous killing machine ban at the UN.

Cameron is lucid about this: he's working hand in hand with the military, cultivates the image of a ecologically concerned filmmaker, but while he's producing a global warming documentary series for cable tv, at the same times he's on board with a company that plans to mine resources missing on Earth on other planets..

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The Terminator Studies

From what you have discovered during your research for this project, who will be the losers of this terminator society? the whole humanity? Or just the masses? And who will be the winners, if there will be any, in the long term?

It's important to understand the pragmatic approach of the Terminator Studies. The goal is not to make predictions but to understand bits of contemporary history. It's interesting that you ask about the "Terminator society" because this concept of extermination is very similar to the capitalist process. In fact the capitalist society is a Terminator society. Terminator is also the name of a technology patented by Monsanto, which is a sterile seeds, also called suicide seeds, to force farmers to buy new seeds every year. The capitalist society is fundamentally suicidal. So for now, we can clearly see losers and winners, but it's more in terms of domination structure.

In China, the people building ipads and iphone at Foxconn factory don't have the same perception of modernity as Apple customers do. They don't share the same everyday issues.

San Francisco is now over-gentrified by the Silicon Valley folks and lots of people face eviction or cannot afford the city anymore. We see that some Californians now see the Tech industry as severely predatory. It creates a lot less common goods than it consumes... The etymology of robot is rooted in feudalistic society. And there is this kind of cynicism in the Californian tech elite, mostly white, that trash themselves once a year in luxury caravan in the middle of the desert, during the Burning Man festival. Think that Megan Ellison, the daughter of the 5th richest man in the world, software industry tycoon Larry Ellison, who is 25, has bought the rights of the Terminator franchise for about 30 million dollars. That also is real.

There is also the information class war. Our biggest enemy is ignorance, the whole domination process is based on the culture of ignorance (or as Robert Proctor coined it : agnotology). The tobacco industry, the deadliest industry , has invented the management of scientific doubt and by so improved its non liability and its sustainability. Now this applies to everything from GMO to global warming, to data retention, bank industry or even the state. That's why an initiative like Wikileaks is so vital and imperative in this time.

On internet, most of the users are forced into accepting contracts without even reading them, and thus become willingly serfs of google, facebook, or whatever Californian goulag.

Artists can play a major role, if they choose an ethical model of action, in re-infesting the collective consciousness through alternative storytelling. For example Paolo Cirio or Julian Oliver have explicitly directed theirs works towards systems, and make effective proposals to alter their efficiency, even temporarily. But this process of creative resistance must be appropriated by everyone.. Perhaps that was also the goal or the dream of James Cameron to bring awareness when he created the Terminator, though I doubt it.

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One of SkyNet's Hunter-Killer Drones from the film Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (image)

Since you've been scanning the press for a few years now, do you think that journalists are doing a good job at weighting in the pros and cons of a world ruled by machines and AI?

Generally the press doesn't do much journalism, with a few exceptions. AI takeover, as a topic, is quite unclear for a non expert especially with all the science fiction references, which tends to simplify it and make it acceptable. This is also called the James Bond effect, when people are already used to situations they saw multiple times in movies, like war, violence or surveillance..

At the same time it is very hard to talk about robots or our technology without mentionning science fiction references because in fact it all comes from it.. Hugo de Garis and others transhumanists consider science fiction as quasi biblical tell. Activists against autonomous killer robots opted for an opposite communication strategy and avoid any references to distopic science fiction tells (so called skynet factor), to make clear that this is a real threat and not a fictive one.

Thus the figure of the terminator is always ambiguous : it represents the domination but it's also part of it, in the sense that it has not been fully reappropriated like, say, the Anonymous mask.

Thanks Jean-Baptiste!

Terminator Studies is shown at the DISNOVATION exhibition, on October 8th- December 6th, as part of the 14th edition of the accès)s( festival which will run November 13th -16th, 2014, at Le Bel Ordinaire, Billière + associated venues in Pau & around. The programme was curated by Nicolas Maigret and Bertrand Grimault.

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.

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.

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