Crystal forming robots

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2014-04-22 12:51:01

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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Datascape. What you see may not be what you get

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2014-04-19 13:28:30

A few weeks ago i was at the LABoral Art and Industrial Creation Centre in Gijón to visit Datascape, a new exhibition which looks at the way the constant stream of data now available at the touch of a screen or keyboard is adding new layers to the physical world and is reshaping our perception and interpretation of it. In fact, whether we fully realize it or not, this ever flowing information becomes an integral part of our experience of the world.

The artists who participate in this exhibition follow into the steps of painters who have dedicated their art to depicting our environment but they also reflect upon the complex overlay of information that enables us to live seamlessly in the physical dimension as well as the virtual dimension. The result is 'datascape', a new landscape where invisible information augments and enhances the physical world.

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Michael Najjar, High Altitude

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David Claerbout, Oil workers (from the Shell company of Nigeria) returning home from work, caught in torrential rain, 2013

David Claerbout's work is worth the trip itself. Both the image and the title of Oil workers (from the Shell company of Nigeria) returning home from work, caught in torrential rain, come from a JPEG image found in an online news story. Through 3D computer techniques and a simple camera movement, the photo gets slowly animated. While the men have been stopped on their way home by monsoon rains, the water at their feet seems to be endlessly flowing. The dirty liquid symbolizes both the water we never tend to associate with Africa and the oil industry which activity isn't to be stopped neither by human rights nor by ecological concerns.

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Karin Sander, XML-SVG Code / Source code of the exhibition wall, 2014.

With Source Code, Karin Sander, demonstrates rather elegantly the opacity lingering behind digital technologies. She covered a wall of the exhibition space with its own source code. Look at it and i doubt you can make any sense of it but the small smartphone in your pocket shouldn't have any problem translating the arrays of characters back into the image of that same wall. The work reminds us that every single object, whether it is a 2D or a 3D one, we see onto our computer screen and take for granted hides a source code. In this work, the source code escapes the virtual and becomes a fresco, a decoration for a physical space.

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Angela Bulloch, Antimatter³ In the Negative Zone, 2003

Angela Bulloch uses 50 by 50 cm 'pixels' to create mesmerizing sculptural screens displaying abstract light composition. Each pixel box houses luminous tubes and an electronic control unit. The result is a screen that plays a sequence of Ang Lee's film The Ice Storm.

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Thomas Ruff, Jpeg NY 15. Photo: LABoral/S. Redruello

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Thomas Ruff, jpeg NY01, 2004

The basis for Thomas Ruff's monumental Jpegs series are low-res images sourced on the Internet and overblown until they become almost abstract the closer you get to them. The process unsettles the meaning and effect of the photos, whether they reproduce soothing landscapes, porn or tragedies (such as 9/11 attack on New York twin towers) .

The distortion of the image brings, once again, the pixels to the forefront, allowing viewers to disconnect themselves from the subject of the image for a moment and question the reliability of the digital medium to represent reality.

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Harun Farocki, Parallel. Photo: LABoral/S. Redruello

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Harun Farocki, Parallel

Harun Farocki, Parallel (extract)

With Parallel, Farocki brings side by side the history of computer-based animation with elements of art history. The two-channel video installation exposes how the development technology translated into increasingly sophisticated representations of the essential components of a landscape (a tree, the wind, the water, etc.) Details of the landscape that were nothing more than symbolic forms in the early days of computer animation have now reached realistic dimensions, to the point that they are now about to outperform cinematographic and photographic representations. And maybe also reality itself.

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Burak Arikan, Monovacation, 2013

Burak Arikan's Monovacation highlights the clichés of the tourism industry in all their syruppy glory. The artist compiled official tourism commercials of countries in competition with each other (and in particular with Turkey) and sliced them up into clips lasting no more than 3 to 4 seconds. The segments were then coded with tags. Through a network diagram which runs as a software simulation, these tags are connected to each other via shared clips positioned on a map. A new sequence is then generated transversally in the network map, jumping from one node to the next, following the path of the most central tags. Beaches from Egypt to Portugal, women from Israel to India, mythological figures from Thailand to Turkey, here comes an extracted fantasy of "vacation"...

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Michael Najjar, High altitude (exhibition view.) Photo: LABoral/S. Redruello

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Nerea Calvillo, Polen In the Air. Photo: LABoral/S. Redruello

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Nerea Calvillo, Pollen in the air

With Pollen in the air, Nerea Calvillo visualizes invisible elements of the landscapes that affect us. The artist mapped clouds of pollen suspended over the streets of Gijón. Pollen in the Air can act as a tool for public information for people with asthma, but also as a way of navigating the city through the rhythms of its vegetation.

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Pablo Valbuena, para-site [6 columns]

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Enrique Radigales. Primer diagnóstico taxonomico. Photo: LABoral/S. Redruello

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David Claerbout, Oil workers (from the Shell company of Nigeria) returning home from work, caught in torrential rain, 2013. Photo: LABoral/S. Redruello

Datascape was curated by Benjamin Weil. It remains open at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial (Art and Industrial Creation Centre) until 21 September 2014.

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Age of Wonder: Mistaken ideas about Darwinism

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2014-04-18 10:56:01

Notes and video from the keynote that science writer and paleontologist Richard Fortey gave at the Age of Wonder festival in Eindhoven a few weeks ago.

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Richard Fortey at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

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The Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

The paleontologist's talk was titled Four billion years of life on earth: what should it teach mankind? It was my favourite moment in a festival that impressed me with the way it mixed disciplines, old technologies and innovation, science fiction and pure science, reflections about the ecological-humans” and artistic experiments. Like most people who had a chance to be there, i do hope we'll get to live more "ages of wonder." But i digress. Fortey talked about Darwin and how his theories have been misinterpreted and misapplied to justify the practices of some capitalist business models. It started with his unconventional (that was his word) ideas about the history of life on earth and ended with comments on the soft drink industry.

But here is the official blurb:

Fortey believes that the natural progress of evolution is always towards greater richness, and that this is the way our planet is meant to be when Darwinian evolution is allowed to play out naturally. Mistaken ideas about Darwinism have contributed to a view of human life that diminishes rather than enhances richness, particularly in the Weltanschauung of market capitalism.

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Trilobite fossil. Photo by James L. Amos

The video of his talk is below but since i had already typed my notes from Fortey's presentation before the video was uploaded, i thought i'd just leave them on this page in case you're interested in checking out some links. Besides, my pictures of dinosaurs are way nicer than his.

Age of Wonder - Keynote Richard Fortey from Baltan Laboratories on Vimeo.

For most of his working life Richard Fortey was employed in the Natural History Museum in London. His research has long focused on trilobites, a fossil group of extinct arthropods (joint legged animals) that were around for at least 250 million years. These marine creatures present the first really well preserved eyes in the fossil record . They evolved into all sorts of ecological niches and are a paradigm in miniature for evolution as a whole. (cf his book Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution)

Charles Darwin's seminal work on evolutionary biology served as a backdrop of Fortey's presentation.

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On The Origin of Species (Flickr/apsmuseum, via rnw)

The full title of Darwin's book was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life but its meaning and essence has often been replaced in popular imagination by the punchier formula "the survival of the fittest". That wasn't Darwin's phrase. It was introduced in a text book about biology by Herbert Spencer 5 years after the publication of the Origin of Species but it was adopted as an instant description of how evolution works. In some ways this simplification has had some unfortunate consequences. For example, it leads to the idea of progression, with each stage being an advance on and eliminating the previous one.

Referring to the previous evening's talk about Super Intelligence, Fortey said that if we followed this Survival of the Fittest eationale then the supercomputers, which will soon equal then surpass and eventually make obsolete human intelligence, are the next step in this logical progression.

The first part of his talk took us on a whirlwind tour of the history of life to illustrate progression.

If you want to see a living image of what the pre-Cambrian world looked like towards beginning of the origin of life, you have to go to Shark Bay, Western Australia where stromatolites still live. They look like rocks but are actually living communities of blue green bacteria. They are preserved in this area of Australia thanks to some very peculiar ecological conditions (the place is very hot and not pleasant) which have kept away all the animals that have evolved after the pre-Cambrian.

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Stromatolites in Shark Bay, Australia. Photo via all that is interesting

The Stromatolite photos is a snapshot of life 2.5 billion years ago.

Life existed before that. We know that at least by 3.5 billion years ago, living cells were already reproducing. We can find them as fossils but they are very rare and the ones we find from 2.5 billion years ago look very much like these stromatolites. Some of the fossils look like living blue green algae. It's very hard to tell the differences in some cases between the fossils and the ones still living.

Stromatolites are very simple organisms but they have one important property for the history of the planet: they photosynthesise, they exhale oxygen, making life on earth possible for us. When life first appeared on Earth, the planet was very unwelcoming to life. Its atmosphere had lots of carbon dioxide and probably also poisonous gases and nitrogen. It had very little oxygen, if any. It's the activity over billions of years of these algae, these blue green bacteria that transformed the atmosphere into something that animals could subsequently breathe. Some of the very early organisms that existed before that and would this die in the presence of oxygen are still with us, living in crevices around the world. They never went away but the oxygen-loving organisms took over.

We can fast-forward to when organisms with organized nuclei appeared. And then to about 1.3 billion years ago when the first sexually differentiated organisms are found in the fossil record. Once you differentiate the sexes, you get more possibilities of cross-breeding and more possibilities of variations and inherited variations which obviously ups the whole evolutionary stakes. So far, we've been talking about progression, even in quite a simple way.

About 540 million years ago we arrive at the base of the Cambrian period and that's when trilobites appear in the fossil record. Trilobites are far more complicated organisms that anything we've seen before. Trilobites themselves are no more, they died out about 250 000 million years ago. These were animals with hard parts, they had the first toughened exoskeletons. We found trilobites with bite marks on them which brings us to another step in this history of the evolution of complexity as these marks show there were predators around of the time. Most of the earlier organisms were minutes. Trilobites can fit comfortably into the palm of a man's hand. Which means that at the base of the Cambrian animals got large, they are distinctly animals and some of them got hard parts, skeletons.

Alongside the trilobites were other fossils. For example the Burgess shale in Canada which didn't have hard parts but was soft-bodied. Soft bodied organisms are harder to preserve. Aysheaia, for example, was one of these soft bodied Cambrian organisms and it is clearly related to the still living velvet worm.

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Aysheaia pedunculata (image: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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Velvet Worm. Image Natural History Museum

In fact, most of the living of the largest groups of the animals that we know today had their first representatives in the Cambrian period. Around 542 million years ago, took place the so-called Cambrian explosion which saw evolution work very fast and produce designs which are still with us today.

Life so far was fully marine but it eventually found its way onto land. Of course, each of these evolutions made for a new ecology and that's progression two.

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A thallose liverwort, Lunularia cruciata

The ancestors of nowadays' Liverworts left water and crawled over the surface of wet mud. Their green pads were photosynthesizing and releasing more oxygen into the atmosphere and as that happened it made it more suitable for animals to follow them onto the land. Now when you go onto land, you open up other possibilities for evolution, which gives way to a new eco-system.

The next stage were organisms moving upwards (to get more light and thus take over your neighbours.)

These animals and plants are not just fossils, they are still with us so the first qualification to the idea of progression is that when organisms evolve to the next stage, they don't die out, they are still with us, they have a niche that enables them to survive. The simple idea of progression of organism giving rise to another which outcompetes and eventually replaces it and so on is not an adequate description of what is happening in the world. Live moves on but the history is retained.

Fortey further explored this idea in his book Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind.

The next stage is to support that photosynthesizing column and carry it upwards to make a tree.

The animals shortly followed the plants. The first ones were tiny insect relatives and then creatures that eat insects and ultimately our first distant ancestors, the first quadrupeds who came from their fishy relatives and set foot onto land. One of these fishy relatives is still living today: it's the Australian lungfish.

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Australian lungfish, Basle Zoo. Photo via zoochat

This lungfish is recognized by both zoologist and DNA studies as a close relative to our other relative that came out from the sea onto land. Some time during the Devonian period more than 400 million years ago, it came out onto land. Until recently, paleontologists were looking for a 'missing link', for the fossil of a fishy type of creature with a fin that looked like a hand.

They eventually found this missing link. It's the Tiktaalik, a creature with a complex series of bones bones in the feet, half way between a fin and a hand. The early creatures that came to land actually had 6 or 7 digits, not 5.

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Tiktaalik Roseae (image guardian liberty voice)

We now have an ecological structure that you might recognize today: prey, predators, low and tall plants, etc. So far, it all sounds rather linear.

Fast forward to the age of the dinosaurs, the terrestrial animals continue to evolve and get larger. The botanical situation at the time was similar to today's except that there were no flowering plants. Some of those dinosaurs were covered in small feathers, even tyranosaurus rex had fuzzy feathers. One group of these dinosaurs went on to give rise to the birds which evolved together with and from the dinosaurs but didn't die out with them. After the extinction of the dinosaurs, small insect-eating mammals gave life to large herbivorous & carnivorous mammals that preyed on them. e.g. bison, a survivor from the last Ice Age.

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Feathered dinosaurs. Image credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences/Dr Brian Choo (via Wired)

The final step is an animal that is a mammal that has consciousness and high intelligence. And so we have a rather linear progression that goes from the first cell to the intelligent human being. Could the next stage be the supercomputer that takes the brain element further into its next stage? Maybe... but that wouldn't be an adequate description of what evolution really does.

However, it not simply an upward story. The history of life has been punctuated by mass extinctions when hundreds, sometimes millions of species became extinct within a short period of time.

The so-called K-T event, for example, brought about the demise of the dinosaurs and many other organisms. But there were other mass extinctions. One of them at least took place at the end of the Permian period, and it was even more extreme.

Survival then might have been lottery or maybe the surviving species had some quality that you didn't now you possessed but came useful when crisis arose and got you through. There was an element of serendipity in the organism that passed through.

The K-T event took out dinosaurs and other organisms in the sea. It reset life and gave the mammals a chance to evolve into the forms we have today.

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Planet Dinosaur. Image BBC

Throughout the history of life, brain power did increase in general. Metabolic rate also increased between the reptiles and the mammals. There is thus a progressive aspect in spite of these interruptions. The biggest interruption was the end of the Permian period (about 250 million years ago) when all the continents were united and the ocean went seriously anoxic. There was a violent eruption of volcanic gas in what is now Siberia. It produced the biggest extinction the world has seen. 90% of species probably disappeared. e.g. the ammonites.

These extinction events reset the clock and give survivors the chance to re-evolve, to regenerate ecologies. Every time a mass extinction has intervened, evolution has filled up the gap afterwards, often with a very rapid period of evolution where the ecology reasserts itself. It is a very neglected fact about the history of life. A couple of examples: the coral reef which is often taken as a paradigm for biologically varied communities. The reef habitat goes back past 4 mass extinctions. At each stage, the reefs died out completely, but shortly afterwards they re-evolved which means that evolution rapidly fills all the niches.

Another example is the woodland found in the south of England (and elsewhere in the world) with trees, plants and ferns. This particular structure has evolved from the coal forests of the Carboniferous period more than 300 million years ago that ultimately produced coal deposits. The structure of those forest is not so different from the ones we have today and it is extremely species-rich but not as species rich as today's tropical forest, the richest habitat on earth.

You could replicate his argument with most of the major habitats on earth: they are very rich in species and after an extinction event, they 'restock' and become rich in species again. Now how does that not seem to fit in the account of the survival of the fittest? if one species is particularly good, it outcompetes the other so you would expect much more of a one species takes all situation but when natural evolution is allowed to play out, it goes for extremely species rich environment.

Each of these extinction events allows life to replay itself in a sense and it replays itself always towards biodiversity and large numbers of species, not the dominance of one or two. The end product of evolution as it really works is thus a huge, incomparable diversity of organisms on the planet.

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Richard Fortey at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

Scientists tend to avoid imputing human or moral values to their work. Fortey, however, added moral value to his ideas by saying that biodiversity is the way the world is supposed to be and not the dominance of one or two species.

Some people say that we are now in a period when we are decimating the biodiversity of the planet, we are putting species extinct very fast or at least reducing their numbers to almost zoological garden proportions. Fortey's feeling as a biologist is that this is morally wrong. Extinction does happen naturally but if we can say as a precept that the state of nature as it should be is one that maximizes its richness, then you have a moral ground for saying what we are doing to the planet is wrong. The right state of the world is a rich one and we are going against it.

Geerat J. Vermeij, in his book Evolution and Escalation. An Ecological History of Life pointed out that much of this richness is generated by antagonism between prey species and the predators. The prey evolves by developing new techniques to defend itself.

Summary of richness and its implications. What does richness mean?
- it's the end result of natural selection operating through geological time
- it's a combination of biodiversity, ecological specialization and geological sensitivity
- it's the state to which evolution leads if left to play under natural circumstances
- it's the way the natural world is and should be
- it's nothing like the human world produced by unfettered capitalism or by the controlled 'command economy' of communism regimes.

We humans are just another species and perhaps our human society should also regard richness as a desirable end.

The misapplication of Darwinism or when the 'survival of the fittest' is misapplied in the wrong situation (the 'winner takes all' justification):

The Market is just another example of Darwinism in action. These days in the UK we keep hearing statements describing the Market as if it were a Darwinistic phenomenon. Margaret Thatcher talking about market forces said 'there is no alternative.' Even the corporate business model for the market uses the language of natural selection. Trawling through the newspapers, Fortey found example of this: we must adapt or die, we mustn't be dinosaurs, competition is threatening our market niche, it's a jungle out there, there will be a Starbucks on ever street corner, etc.

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The County Butchers in Cornwall has added wild grey squirrel onto its list of game. Photo: Adam Gerrar/ SWNS via The Guardian

How did it get there? The model in the business man's mind is something like what has happened to our squirrel population. The South of England used to be inhabited by a population of red squirrels. Then came 'the American invader', the grey squirrel. It is clever, more aggressive, and brings with it a nasty disease. It is a much more successful animal. This kind of model is "the model takes all" model which lies behind this interpretation of the Darwinian process as applied to a lot of human activity.

For Fortey, this is a violation of the principle of richness. The good state is one of proliferation of many product and places to make life as rich as possible.

The end of product of the capitalism is nearly always very similar to the case of the grey squirrel: you get a reduction in richness. In capitalism, however, you often end up with a duopoly of two companies with very similar products that have eaten up other companies and then have to sell one another on superficial differences.

Coca-cola bottles from around the world present subtle differences that reflect the local brands that the Coca-cola corporation has replaced over the years. If you look at the whole Pepsi vs Coca Cola line of products, you will find that these mega soft drink companies offer some one to one correspondences. For example, sprite and seven up are virtually identical. The main difference is the amount they spend in advertising.

The wine industry is the opposite. It's the coral reef of the supermarket. There are infinite varieties of wines to choose from. Many were produced by small business. These are species actively evolving, which adds to richness.

Fortey's idea wasn't about anti-capitalism but about how capitalism could also result in creativeness, innovation, variety.

Does this have any use?
It is wrong for human beings to make species extinct. The world will become a less rich place if we carry on as we do.

7 billion people on Earth, that's too many and if we need to feed them with shrinking resources, then how are we going to build super computers to take us to the stars?

Is it too Utopian? Almost certainly yes.

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The Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

Previous posts about the festival: "Volta", the oversized voltaic pile, Age of Wonder: Superintelligence and existential risks, Tree Antenna: using trees for radio transmission.

There are more images on flickr and videos on Vimeo.

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Martin Creed: What's the point of it?

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Published on : 2014-04-14 12:58:48

Please, don't miss Martin Creed: What's the point of it? at the Hayward Gallery if you're in London. It is visually stunning, very entertaining and it doesn't even require you to wriggle with your brain if you don't want to. In fact, i think this is contemporary art for people who can't suffer to see the words 'contemporary' and 'art' side by side. But don't quote me on this, i never tried to bring a contemporary art-hater to a retrospective of an artist who won the Turner Prize with Work No 227: The Lights Going On and Off, an installation in which the lights of an otherwise empty gallery were turned on and off every five seconds.

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Martin Creed, Work no 960

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Work No. 1094, 2011

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Installation view,Work no. 1092, 2011,Martin Creed What's the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

Also i am not entirely impartial when it comes to Martin Creed. I love his work. Whether it's the Sick Films in which people enter an empty white space and proceed to vomit on the floor, the mocking neon signs or the cactus plants neatly positioned by size. I LOVE his work.

What's the point of it? is a retrospective which aim wasn't to simply assemble most of Creed's most representative pieces, but to provide a multi-sensory experience. As the following two works will easily demonstrate...

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Work no. 1092, 2011. (Photo by Happy Famous Artists)

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Work no. 1092, 2011. (photo by Happy Famous Artists)

The word MOTHERS almost literally hits you as you enter the gallery. You instinctively duck as the 6 gigantic neon letters slowly gyrate and dominate the whole room. It is fun and slightly menacing. I wonder how the Hayward wasn't served a loud "Health and Safety No No." Meanwhile, 39 metronomes lined up on the floor gently tick at various speeds.

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Installation view, Work no. 200, 1998, Martin Creed What's the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

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Martin Creed, Work no 200

The small glass room above is filled with some 7000 balloons. I'm claustrophobic. Even the title of the installation, Work No. 200. Half the air in a given space, made me hyperventilate.

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Installation view,Work No. 1806, 2014, Martin Creed What's the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

The exhibition is also an optical party: the walls serve as a happy splashy backdrop for the works. Creed covered them with layers of paint, stripes of adhesive tape and even with rows over rows of small broccoli prints.

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Installation view,Work No. 1585, 2013,Martin Creed What's the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

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Photo by Happy Famous Artists

There were also videos from the Sick Film and Shit Film series. Work No. 660 shows a rather elegant and not entirely at ease young woman entering the frame and defecating in the middle of a white gallery.

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Work No. 660, 2007

I wish i could find online videos from the Sick Film series. I don't care much for the crap ones but the vomit series is mesmerizing. Some people throw up generously. Others struggle to do so and eventually give up. "Living," as the artist explains "is a matter of trying to come to terms with what comes out of you... That includes shit and sick and horrible feeling. The problem with horrible feelings is you can't paint them. But horrible vomit - you can film that."

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Work Number 1029. Photo via Purple

Rise and fall of an erection on to the Hayward's terrace. Creed has distributed works outside of the usual gallery space: on the terrace, in the bathroom, in the lifts of both the Royal Festival Hall and of the Hayward Gallery.

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Work 1686 (Ford Focus). Photo by Happy Famous Artists

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Photo by Happy Famous Artists

So what's the point of this exhibition? I guess there are many answers to that question. For me, it's about getting lost in sensations, being surprised, feeling awe and disgust at the same time and having a very happy moment that lasted long after i exited the show.

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Installation view Martin Creed What's the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

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Martin Creed, Work no 629


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Installation view,Work No. 1110, 2011,Martin Creed What's the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind


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Martin Creed, Work no 88

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Installation view Martin Creed What's the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

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Installation view, Martin Creed What's the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

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Martin Creed, work no. 1095

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Work No. 1315

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Installation view,Work No. 928, 2008, Martin Creed What's the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

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Installation view, Work No. 916, 2008, Martin Creed What's the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

Ah! Martin Creed! Even the man looks very cool.

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Photo by Happy Famous Artists

Martin Creed: What's the point of it? is at the Hayward Gallery until Monday 5 May 2014.

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Don't call it ruin porn, this is Ruin Lust

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2014-04-11 13:48:42

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Jane & Louise Wilson, Urville (from the 'Sealander' series), 2006

Most people are fascinated by ruins. The appeal of the crumbling and the decaying is such that it has its own term in photography. It is called "ruin porn" and Detroit is one of its most celebrated subjects. Tate Britain currently has an exhibition about the mournful, thrilling, comic and perverse uses of ruins in art. It is called Ruin Lust. Not because Tate curators are prude and proper but because they are erudite, the title of the show, i read, comes from the 18th-century German architectural word Ruinenlust.

The exhibition begins with the eighteenth century's fascination for ruins among artists, writers, architects and travelers. Think J.M.W. Turner and John Constable. I can't summon much enthusiasm for paintings, etchings and sculptures of the past so i'm going to stop the romantic trip here, shamelessly skip the first parts of the exhibition and focus solely on contemporary works. Most of them photography.

Contemporary artists see ruins, not simply as scenes for aesthetic pleasure and remembrance of past glory, they also question their essence and even view them as as sites of rebirth and new opportunities.

Even if i deliberately only enjoyed a small part of Ruin Lust, i exited the show content and ready to enjoy any overlooked and crap-looking bit of urbanism London has to offer (before they become a real estate 'prime location'.)

Here is a hasty tour of the show. It represent only a very subjective and photography-heavy perspective of it:

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Jane and Louise Wilson, Azeville, 2006

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Jane & Louise Wilson, Biville (from the 'Sealander' series), 2006

Jane and Louise Wilson have long explored architectural spaces that evoke power and control. The artists started photographing decaying Nazi bunkers on France's Normandy Coast, after having read an article by J.G. Ballard on their place in modernist architecture. "We were intrigued by the World War II bunkers that were being drawn back into the water," Jane says. "It was like something from an ancient civilization, but darker."

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Tacita Dean, Vesuvio, 2001

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Tacita Dean, The Wreck of Worthing Pier, 2001

The Russian Ending, by Tacita Dean, is a series of photogravures with etching inspired by postcards documenting disastrous events. The title of the series refers to a cinematographic practice of the early 20th Century when the last sequences of European movies exported to America and Russia were filmed twice. American audiences would watch the 'Happy End' while a 'Tragic End' was made for Russians.

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Broomberg and Chanarin, Red House #12, 2006

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have photographed marks and drawings made on the walls of what seems to have become a tourist hotspot in the town of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq: the Red House. The building was originally the headquarters of Saddam's Ba'athist party. It was also a place of incarceration, torture and often death for many Kurds. Broomberg and Chanarin

The artists photographed the marks left by Kurdish prisoners. We cannot tell what marks were made when and in what order. History presents itself as a palimpsest. If you wish you can sense in these photographs echoes of Brassai's surrealist images of scratched grafitti from 1930s Paris or Aaron Siskind's photos from the 1950s of daubs and tears made in hommage to abstract expressionist painting. But the context is more pressing and more fraught. The traces recorded by these photographs may relate to past events in the history of the Red House but nothing is settled in Iraq yet. While the photographs are fixed forever, these may not be the last marks made on these walls - David Campany.

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Gerard Byrne, 1984 (screen shot from the video installation), 2005-2006

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Gerard Byrne, 1984 and Beyond, 2005-2006

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Gerard Byrne, 1984 and Beyond, 2005-2006

In 1984 and Beyond, Byrne re-enacts a discussion, published in Playboy in 1963, in which science fiction writers - including Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke - speculated about what the world might be like in 1984. Unsurprisingly, they were way off the mark.

Black-and-white photographs accompany the video work look like they came straight from the 1960s but if you look better you realize that they show objects, landscapes, cityscapes and scenes that might just as well belong to 1963, 1984 or now. They show the future that might have been, that probably never was but that still loiter in today's world.

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Keith Arnatt, A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), 1982-4

Keith Arnatt's deadpan series A.O.N.B. (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) subverts the idea of what is picturesque and what deserves to get our attention by pointing the camera to the most prosaic man-made interventions in the landscape.

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John Latham, Five Sisters Bing

Five Sisters is a derelict land site in the Midlothian and West Lothian area which John Latham, during his artist's placement with the Scottish Development Office, recommended they be preserved as monuments. He also proposed that the 'bings' (huge heaps of coal waste) should be preserved as monuments. Latham's proposed to erect sculptures, in the form of books, on the summits of the 'bings'.

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Paul Graham, Paint on Road, Gobnascale Estate, Derry, 1985, printed 1993‑4, from the series Troubled Land

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Paul Graham, Republican Coloured Kerbstones, Crumlin Road, from the series Troubled Land

Paul Graham's series Troubled Land looked at "the troubles" in Northern Ireland.

Instead of working like a photojournalist and look for dramatic scenes to document, Graham searched for subtle traces of political instability left in the landscape. Graham said: "It's a combination of landscape and conflict photography, using small seductive landscapes to reveal the details."

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Jon Savage, Uninhabited London, 1977-2008

Savage photographed abandoned locations around North Kensington. In the 1970s, the area had very little in common with the chic neighbourhood it later became. He wrote:

These photos were taken on an old Pentax during January 1977: their purpose was to serve as an image bank for the second issue of the fanzine London's Outrage. The location was the square of North Kensington that lies between Holland Park Road, the Shepherd's Bush spur, Westbourne Park Road and the Harrow Road.

The bulk of the images come from the streets around Latimer Road and Lancaster Road: the district called Notting Dale. Here, as in other inner London areas like W9 (the Chippenham) and WC2 (Covent Garden), the tide of industry and humanity had temporarily receded. Slum housing stock had been demolished, but there was no reconstruction: squatting communities like Frestonia (based in Notting Dale's Freston Road) occupied the remaining buildings. Not yet the clichés of punk iconography, large tower blocks loomed like primitive monsters above the rubble and the corrugated iron. I was guided to this area after seeing the Clash and the Sex Pistols. I was very taken with the Clash, partly because their North Kensington manor was so close to mine. Songs like "How Can I Understand The Flies" and "London's Burning" reflected their environment with precision and passion. London was very poor in the late seventies. (via)

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Rachel Whiteread, A: Clapton Park Estate, Mandeville Street, London E5; Ambergate Court; Norbury Court; October 1993 1996


Rachel Whiteread, B: Clapton Park Estate, Mandeville Street, London E5; Bakewell Court; Repton Court; March 1995

Rachel Whiteread's 1996 prints show tower blocks on three housing estates in east London at the moment of their demolition. The images were scanned from photographs and stages in each of these demolitions were documented in three photographs taken from the same view-point. A fourth photograph of each site from a different location records moments that preceded or followed the knocking down.

The Demolished photos record what Whiteread calls 'something that is going to be completely forgotten ... the detritus of our culture', creating a memorial to the past in the hope of generating something better for the future.

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Tacita Dean, Kodak, 2006

Tacita Dean's film Kodak explores the ruin of images and obsolescence of technology. The artist traveled to Chalon-sur-Saône (France) in 2006 to visit and film the final days of the production of the company's 16-mm film stock.

On the day of filming, the factory also ran a test through the system with brown paper, providing a rare opportunity to see the facilities fully illuminated, without the darkness needed to prevent exposure.

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Laura Oldfield Ford, Detail of Ferrier Estate, 2010

Please, don't let this post convince you that i don't like painting. Laura Oldfield Ford's look at brutalist estates and architecture's failed attempts to build an egalitarian society.

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John Riddy, London (Weston Street), 2009

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David Shrigley, Leisure Centre, 1992

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David Shrigley, Leisure Centre, 1992 (detail)

Ruin Lust is at Tate Britain until 18 May 2014. The catalogue is available on amazon USA and UK.

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"Volta", the oversized voltaic pile

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2014-04-09 11:51:50

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Michiel Pijpe and the Artscience Interfaculty, Volta, Dick Raaijmakers ('95) at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

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Michiel Pijpe and the Artscience Interfaculty, Volta, Dick Raaijmakers ('95) at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

In 1800, Alessandro Volta made the first electro chemical battery. The 'voltaic pile' demonstrated that a moist, porous material sandwiched between two dissimilar metals can produce an electrical current. The scientist tested several metals and found that zinc and silver gave the best results.

In his experiment, Volta used a disk of copper, covered it with a disk of cloth soaked in brine (i.e., the electrolyte), and stacked that with a disk of zinc. He repeated the copper-cloth-zinc disks piling up until the pile reached a height of about 30 cm. The positive end of the pile is the bottom copper disk, and the negative end is the zinc disk on top.

Volta's experiment was re-enacted on a gigantic scale at the Age of Wonder festival a few weeks ago in Eindhoven. Or maybe i should write that Michiel Pijpe and the Artscience Interfaculty re-enacted the re-enactment of the voltaic pile discovery that media art pioneer Dick Raaijmakers realized in 1995. Raaijmakers (or Raaymakers) is regarded as one of the founders of the Dutch electronic music. He is also closely connected to Eindhoven through his research at the Natlab (Philips Research Laboratories) in the fifties.

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Dick Raaymakers at the Philips NatLab (image via V2_)

Over the course of a several hour long performance, the Volta team built up a giant and foul-smelling pile that alternated copper plates, clothes drenched in acid and zinc.

I didn't stand and stare until the final moments of the performance but I wish i had. The goal was to use the oversized battery to produce enough energy for one light bulb, suspended from the ceiling. I might have missed the grand finale but i've nevertheless been impressed by this over-sized lesson in physics and by the calm, repetitive gestures required to light up a mundane bulb for a few seconds. Also, it's always good to be reminded what a genius Raaijmakers was.

Thus, the audience can experience the relation between the invested labor and the resulting electric energy. And also, how and why the original visual quality of this 'proto-element' has been lost in favor of the efficiency of the modern battery. 'Volta' intends to recreate this lost plasticity, if only for a single moment.

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Michiel Pijpe and the Artscience Interfaculty, Volta, Dick Raaijmakers ('95) at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

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Michiel Pijpe and the Artscience Interfaculty, Volta, Dick Raaijmakers ('95) at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

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Michiel Pijpe and the Artscience Interfaculty, Volta, Dick Raaijmakers ('95) at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

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Michiel Pijpe and the Artscience Interfaculty, Volta, Dick Raaijmakers ('95) at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

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Michiel Pijpe and the Artscience Interfaculty, Volta, Dick Raaijmakers ('95) at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

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Michiel Pijpe and the Artscience Interfaculty, Volta, Dick Raaijmakers ('95) at the Age of Wonder Festival. Photo by Sas Schilten

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Tree Antenna: using trees for radio transmission

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2014-04-07 11:04:28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Illustration from Squier's patent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Symbiotic Machine, the photosynthetic robot that feeds on algae

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2014-04-04 12:12:35

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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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Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2014-04-02 14:17:14

A visit of the exhibition Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology yesterday made me realize, once again, that i should be grateful to live here and now and not at a time when melancholia was treated with a 'healthy' dose of electric shocks and nerves were supplied with a 'vital energy' by wearing an electrical belt previously soaked in vinegar. This ancient cure looked like jolly good fun though.

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Model of a human brain, sectioned, French, first half 19th century. Image courtesy Science Museum

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Susan Aldworth, Transition series, 2010

Mind Maps explores how mental health conditions have been diagnosed and treated over the past 250 years. Divided into four episodes between 1780 and 2014, this exhibition looks at key breakthroughs in scientists' understanding of the mind and the tools and methods of treatment that have been developed, from Mesmerism to Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) bringing visitors up to date with the latest cutting edge research and its applications.

The small show is everything but dull and scholarly: controversial treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy and poisonous nerve 'tonics' are followed by pendulum measuring the speed of thoughts, Pavlov's experiments on conditional reflexes and by Freud and his couch.

Every single object in the exhibition comes with a fascinating and at times chilling story. The only criticism i'm ready to make about Mind Maps is that ongoing journey into the mysteries of the brain and the nervous system would benefit from a less dim and confined exhibition space.

Highlights from the exhibition:

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Frog Pistol, invented 1860s. Image courtesy Science Museum

The artefact i found most puzzling was the 'frog pistol' developed by German scientist Emil du Bois-Reymond to demontrate 'animal electricity' to his students.

A fresh frog leg was placed on the glass plate inside the tube, with the nerve ends connected to the keys on the top of the pistol grip. When these keys were depressed, a contact was made and the leg kicked back as it if had been electrified.

The small pistol instrument was of course inspired by the work of Luigi Galvani. In the 1780s, the Italian doctor discovered that sparks of electricity caused dead frogs' legs to twitch, leading him to propose that electrical energy was intrinsic to biological matter. Some of the instruments used by Galvani in his pioneering studies of nerve activity are presented in the exhibition, they haven't been displayed in public for more than a century.

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Amuletic dried frog in a silk bag from early 20th century south Devon. Photo Science Museum blog

The nerve/frog connection doesn't stop here. A dried frog inside a silk pouch is a testimony to the resilience of folk medicine in the 20th century, the essicated amphibian was carried around the neck 'to prevent fits and seizures.'

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Detail of an anatomical table displaying human nerves, dissected at the University of Padua in the 17th century (image Fresh eye on London)

Let's keep on the macabre mood with this 17th century dissection table from Padua with all the nerves of (presumably) an executed criminal laid out on it to form a map of the nervous system on a varnished wooden panel.

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Cavallo-style electrical generator, made by George Adams, London, 1780-84. Object no. 1889-29 © Science Museum

Tiberius Cavallo, a leading European authority on medical electricity, designed this compact electrical generator and its accessories, including the 'medical bottle' that regulated the shocks it administered. Turning the glass cylinder built up a static electric charge in the metal collector on the side of the machine.

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D'Arsonval cage from Riviere's clinic, Paris. Image courtesy Science Museum

The patient stood inside the D'Arsonval cage while harmless high-frequency alternating current from the tesla coil on a desk pulsed around the metal framework, generating powerful electromagnetic fields inside the body. The treatment was claimed to stimulate metabolism, reduce obesity and eczema, and temporarily relieve nervous pains.

The cage was only one of the many devices that Dr J-A Rivière, "electrotherapist and pacifist", used in the 1890s. His Paris clinic specialized in 'physical' treatments involving water, air, heat, light, electricity and after 1895, the newly discovered X-rays. Patients were seated in electric chairs, flooded with electric light or plunged into electrified bathtubs.

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Bottle of "Ner-Vigor", with instructions, in original carton, by the Anglo-American Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. Image courtesy Science Museum

Huxley's 'Ner-Vigor' was used between 1892-1943 for "strengthening the nerves." Like some other medical products of the period, it contains a very small measure of the strychnine poison.

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Nervone nerve nutrient, 1924-49. Object no. 1988-317/165 © Science Museum

The Nervone 'nerve nutrient' was launched in the 1920s as an alternative to harmful nerve tonics and was still being sold in the 1960s when it was replaced by new anti-anxiety and depression drugs such as Valium.

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Sherrington's cat model, c. 1920-30. Object No: 1999-917 © Science Museum

Nerve scientist and Nobel Prize winner Charles Sherrington was fascinated by the way cats kept their balance while negotiating obstacles at speed. This model was used to illustrate how the cat's eyes, whiskers, neck, legs and tail continued to work together even when the 'highest' portion of its brain had been removed.

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Electroconvulsive therapy machine made in the 1940s for the Burden Neurological Institute

The period that followed the Second World War saw the rise of several controversial treatments, including electro-convulsive therapy (where electricity is used to induce a brain seizure) and lobotomy.

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Equipment for conducting an electronic lobotomy, 1962

The machine was designed to deliver just enough current to a gold electrode to make a peppercorn sized hole in the brain. This technique, also known as leucotomy, was a more precise form of lobotomy. It was used from the early 1960s to treat patients with uncontrollable anxiety.

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EEG hairnet. Image courtesy Science Museum

Electroencephalography (EEG) remains an essential element of the psychology laboratory. It is frequently used in conjunction with brain scanning.

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Lecuir's battery, 1880-1920. Photo courtesy Science Museum, London

Batteries to stimulate nervous energy sometimes also featured religious symbols, because mental health needs all the help it can get, right?

Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology is free and runs at the Science Museum in London until 10 June.

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Age of Wonder: Superintelligence and existential risks

Feed : we make money not art
Published on : 2014-03-31 14:10:52

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.)

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