We have been designing our world for centuries. Humans try to control nature – treating it as an enemy -, but I believe it is time to shift our technological development paradigm in some degrees towards nature. Nature in my experience has always been synonym of pleasure and an inspiration source to create my artworks. In my research I aim to find balance between nature and technology – and I believe nature is a very important factor for the development of our technological world. In the last 5 years I started to create a range of works which are based in such concepts[i] as: the reinvention of the environment[ii]; use of natural resources; if we can see these hybrids of living organisms and machines placed in the world, techno-scientific mutations[iii] and to reshape and redefine our design and tools to amalgamate with natural systems and be more coherent with the natural environment.
The project Symbiotic Machine is a continuation of the project Jurema Action Plant (JAP, 2011/12). JAP was developed during the summer residency at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam, and part of a research with scientist Bert van Duijn, expertise in plant electrophysiology and biodynamic. Much like humans, animals and machines, plants have an electrical signal traveling inside them, but they do not have nerves like humans and animals; nor wires and cables like machines. Machines operate with high voltage and stable current – plants, humans and animals operates with low voltage and unstable current. Would it be possible to straighten electric-mechanical systems from machines to operate with such low energy source, like most biological systems do? Would be possible for a plant power a machine? In JAP we were reading electrical signals of the plant Mimosa Pudica. The result of this collaboration is a hybrid robot – the machine interfaces the plant – enabling it to enjoy technologies similar to the ones humans use. When someone touches the leaf of the plant, electrical signals are changed enabling the machine to drive. This project also explores new ways of communication and co-relation between machines, humans and other living organisms.
In mid 2012 I created another piece titled Prototype for a New Bio Machine (PNBM) – exhibited at Ars Electronica Museum in Linz, Austria. This artwork is an upgrade from JAP, and also demonstrates that not only the Mimosa Pudica has this special skill of electrical signals, but also other plants, in the case of PNBM the plant is from the specimen Homalomena.
In order to create these artworks, the prototype (mutation) is fundamental. As Darwin discussed the Theory of Evolution in his book The Origin of Species, in order to happen an evolution of any specimen is necessary mutation[iv]. We are in constant mutation as our design as well. These bio-machines are part of the same family tree, mutating to evolve in order to adapt in the world.
The motivation to create the Symbiotic Machine is to evolve JAP, PNBM and to create a new entity, which is a hybrid autonomous system – a perpetuum mobile. When machines are brought into dialogue with living organisms, especially in the artistic context, they perform in a very complex system with many layers, composing a single being, which redirects the evolutionary vector of machines, and even nature, into a new direction. Symbiotic Machine (SM) was developed with scientists from the VU Amsterdam Laser Lab (Free University from Amsterdam) Raoul Frese and Vincent Friebe; physician Michiel van Overbeek and Leydervan Xavier, professor of mechanical engineering from the Technological University from Rio de Janeiro (CEFET/RJ), Brazil.
SM is the creation of a prototype for an autonomous system that can do basic needs of life: be able to find its own food to have energy to search for food again. This bio-machine hacks the electrons provided by the photosynthetic process that occurs in the algae spirogyra. This specific algae is abundant in the Dutch landscape – mainly found in ponds and canals – a filamentous organism that when releases oxygen during the photosynthetic process create bubbles which make this filamentous mesh of algae float.
In order to “hack” the algae spirogyra photosynthesis’ and apply it as an energy source, the algae cell’s membrane has to be broken. SM prototype was designed within the disciplines of engineering, biotechnology, art and design to accomplish a condition – make photosynthesis to continue its life cycle[v], like a plant.
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. Once the motor is activated the endless worm can turn to the right or to the left. If it turns to the right it sucks liquid in. If it turns to the left it pushes liquid out. The machine is programmed to pump algae and water in and out by the information transmitted by the sensors. 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. After the light is shed on the electrons of the grinded algae they flow to the most conductive metal, as 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 milivoltages in two AA rechargeable batteries. The electricity provided by this synthetic photosynthetic process is used to power the LEDs placed in the sensors.
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. It rests for ten minutes. After the 10 min sunbath 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 project Symbiotic Machine was financed by Stichting Doen. It was exhibited at Het Glazen Huis (The Glass House) in Amstelpark in Amsterdam from 9th March until 27th April, invited by Zone2Source. A pool was created, filled with 17.000 litters of pond water and plenty of algae from the specimen spirogyra. The pool, inside the 150 m2 gallery with glass walls, was absorbing all the images from the surrounding landscape – trees, bushes and people walking – merging this artificial set up with the other beings in the park. A circular back room, with 50 m2 was exhibited drawings; graphics, non-used parts of the machine and a shelf with materials for workshops which happened during the exhibition. Close to the main entrance, another video with a zoom in the machine processing the algae and making photosynthesis. It was interesting observe the audience, as this specific park in Amsterdam has also some other special animals being exhibited as well: an albino kangaroo, a peacock couple, birds and squirrels spread all over the park. So in a way, Symbiotic Machine was just another creature being exhibited. SM was featured at Discovery Channel in Canada, awarded in Japan Media Arts Festival 2014, won Honorary Mention from Prix Ars Electronica 2014 in the category Vostelpine [the next idea], was presented at The Waag Society and Biotalk at Mediamatic in Amsterdam.
[i] These concepts were discussed in the book Oritur (https://ivanhenriques.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/oritur_ebook_2011july.pdf)
[ii] “…Henceforth it is the ways of living on this planet that are in question, in the context of the acceleration of techno-scientific mutations and of considerable demographic growth. Through the continuous development of machine labor, multiplied by the information revolution, productive forces can make available an increasing amount of time for potential human activity. But to what end? Unemployment, oppressive marginalization, loneliness, boredom, anxiety and neurosis? Or culture, creation, development, the reinvention of the environment and the enrichment of modes of life and sensibility?…” pg. 28. Guattari, Felix. Three Ecologies. (http://lnk.nu/monoskop.org/q5wj.pdf)
[iii] ibid, pg 28. Guattari, Felix. Three Ecologies.
[iv] “…Thus a distinguished German naturalist has asserted that the weakest part of my theory is, that I consider all organic beings as imperfect: what I have really said is, that all are not as perfect as they might have been in relation to their conditions; and this is shown to be the case by so many native forms in many quarters of the world having yielded their places to intruding foreigners. Nor can organic beings, even if they were at any one time perfectly adapted to their conditions of life, have remained so, when their conditions changed, unless they themselves likewise changed; and no one will dispute that the physical conditions of each country, as well as the number and kinds of its inhabitants, have undergone many mutations.” pg. 198. Darwin, Charles. The Origin Of Species. (http://lnk.nu/andrew.cmu.edu/q254.pdf)
[v] 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.