untitled interspecies umwelten (2021 – )


LE GOÛT DE L’INVISIBLE, Goethe Institute Paris 2024
May13 – July 27 2024

More-than-Human exhibition, Onsite Gallery, Ontario College of Art and Design
Feb1 – May 13 2023

Politics of the Machine, Berlin/Virtual
October 2021

IEEE VISAP (VIS Arts Program) 2021. Virtual
October 2021

Ectopia Gallery, Lisboa, Portugal.
June-August 2021


“Human nature is an interspecies relationship”
Anna Tsing

The project untitled interspecies umwelten is an artistic research project exploring expanded and computer-mediated experiences of conversation with other species. Through strategies in data visualization, motion capture and computer vision, the project proposes the speculative intermingling of the natural and cultural worlds of bio-semiotics and extra-verbal language. Its goal is to develop an interspecies futurity through which the collaborative practices with multiple species of plants, animals, fungi and microbes may inhabit the field, scientific/engineering laboratories and studios of computational practices (in silico).

The Euglena gracilis is a fascinating organism. A single-celled alga, it is a robust agent that is able to conform its size and activity to its environment, it is also able to recognize gradients and will exhibit complex responses to stimulus. It is phototactic and photosynthetic, but in addition to generating energy from the sun, it also hunts and eats other cells like green algae and amoebas by phagocytosis. These characteristics have placed it in murky interstices between taxonomic definitions. It is fascinating in this project because of its invisibility at the human scale, yet is bursting with activity under the microscope, exhibiting rapid responses to stimulus that were almost predictable, and at a time scale that is available to us as a human. Its variegated responses to its environment are also well documented, in addition to moving towards light, it also exhibits extensive contortions of its body (metaboly) that while are methods for self-preservation, could also be framed as performative and expressive gestures. 

The work has three iterations involving live samples of E. gracilis via a live feed from a microscope.  In the first iteration, the movement of Euglena becomes the becomes the trigger for a generative text segment.  In the second, it is part of an experimental roundtable performance via Zoom in a multi-agent exchange where human interlocutors and non-human partners argue the possibly of a “machinic sublime”.  In the third,at Onsite Gallery in Toronto, the E.gracilis lives in the gallery for 3 months.  Its metaboly -shapes+movements- rewrite a key coming-of-age text (Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist), perhaps speculating on the way our emerging interspecies relationships will be brought to bear on revisionist practices of history and archiving. Crucially, the installation required frequent interventions as unanticipated issues (such as fluctuations in temperature, environmental noise etc) would come up which inevitably stressed the system. 

As a work of research-creation, the project explores ideas of a meta-organism – the microscopic or hitherto ‘visualized’ body, recontextualized as an object of knowledge, or better a ‘resource of information’. (Thacker, 2004). This ‘elevated’ scientific value follows an increasingly sophisticated mode of informatic knowledge of the body, within which a crisis exists of ethical considerations of bodies’ and a neo-transcendentalist handling of the ‘afterlives’ of the data beyond the material body.  In its theoretical underpinnings, it explores the speculative nature of interspecies communication , computer vision and data visualization techniques synonymous with our technology-mediation versions of creating and cataloguing knowledge today, adopting an expansive understanding of kinship towards a ‘promiscuous care’(Hakim et al, 2020). a mode of multiplying and experimenting with greater diversity of models of caring relationships (beyond ‘the family’ or ‘the market’), and establishing social infrastructures that support more capacious notions of non-discriminatory caregiving practices. In a manner reminiscent of early Bioart pieces Including Adam Zaretsky’s Workhorse Zoo (2001), placing the stakes of caregiving of living organisms side by side with technological apparatus (and in this case, training of an AI) evokes questions about the active labour of care in contrast to the performance of vital maintenance, in particular of mediating devices as a way to locate and transact value in a post-perspectival “trading zone” (Peter Galison) 

In addition, the work is motivated to explore two emerging mythologies. The first is a familiar one – developed through prescient understanding of nonhuman systems (be it computer AI, or nonhumans) and the perspective of them as analogues for human minds. Kate Crawford speaks against this oversimplification of intelligence as an elision of the human as embodied, relational and set within wider ecologies. The second, is the myth of language as anthropocentric, verbal and utilitarian. Nature abounds with communicative structures beyond our comprehension and human-determined logic. By using simple computer systems with customizable parameters of ‘seeing’ and ‘listening’, could we formulate modes of communication that construct an interspecies umwelten, an multitude of semiotic traces that we may respond to?

Project website: https://www.arkfrequencies.com/untitled-interspecies-umwelten-2021/

etude 1:

OpenCV motion tracking and color extraction of Euglena gracilis

Using Blob tracking, the movement of Euglena becomes the trigger for a generative text segment. In this example two instances of the microscopic feeds are used to generate text in a call – response fashion. The text is taken from a database of tweets (filtered for the word ‘love’) and organized according to sentiment. Arguably this method presents a crude superimposition of affect on the otherwise random movement of the organism.

moving Euglena triggers the composition of a generative poetry

Biofrictions Virtual Residency (2021)

This aspect of the residency with Cultivamos Cultura focused on the reading of DNA , and ways towards “understanding” other species through phenomena like color and movement.  
The text is generated from subjective responses to the abstracted images of the moving organism and reference a semi – fictional archive of my past, perhaps attempting to make sense of what we see through the lens of our memories.
Further on, simple random word substitution creates a series of generative text  that obfuscates this archive.  This interplay between computational and biological,  human and machine interpretation will be further explored through live communication.  

Beyond Classification: The Machinic Sublime at Politics of the Machine (2022) with Eunsu Kang, Robert Twomey and Joshua Jin

Beyond Classification: The Machinic Sublime (BCMC) emulated an academic roundtable discussion with the authors and 3 machinic/more-than-human guests.  Part performance, part intervention within the context of an academic conference, BCMC introduces a novel and explicitly visible strategy of co-dependency for an array of diverse intelligences through a connected loop of human, machine, and animal agencies.  The meteoric rise of AI in the last years can be seen as a part of a larger tendency towards deeper, more opaque data collection and analysis techniques that form the dense substratum beneath the proliferation of human-computer interfaces today. As a human developer, the most striking qualities of generative AI are its vastness, non-determinism, and infinitude— explicit themes and qualities of a machinic ‘sublime’. How can a human artist/programmer sensibly navigate this multi-dimensional space of latent meaning?

This intervention is an experimental roundtable discussion/performance via web conferencing, a new kind of Turing Test where success in the testing is not found in the plausible simulation of human consciousness through speech, but rather in expressing diverse intelligences through new forms of language. In this multi-agent exchange, human interlocutors and non-human partners argue the possibility of a machinic sublime. Together, these interlinked discussions become an emergent system. In this roundtable format, audience interventions are welcome.

More-than-Human exhibition, Onsite Gallery, OCAD, TORONTO, Feb 2023

In this iteration of the work, a live sample of Euglena gracilis graces the stage via a live feed from a microscope in the gallery. Its metaboly -shapes+movements- rewrite a key coming-of-age text (Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist) , perhaps speculating on the way our emerging interspecies relationships will be brought to bear on revisionist practices of history and archiving. Crucially, the installation required frequent interventions as unanticipated issues (such as fluctuations in temperature, environmental noise etc) would come up which inevitably stressed the system. The project was an experiment in an aesthetics of (promiscuous) care that extend from traditionally hospitable spaces such as culture farms/specific lab environments to unconventional spaces like the gallery.

mural design support by Natalie Plociennik

LE GOÛT DE L’INVISIBLE, Goethe Institute Paris May 2024
Video documentation of text generation with machine and Euglena-based agents, 14’55”

sides endlessness earth sky as one no sound no stir .   r    ^(whispwh { /sil     $<     and(     *Grey face two *meager* *small* *meager* body heart only up right .)G facehaha{ harboharb so_sorssodeep,with,wi} itsmemeagm:mmeage confinecoconc /cocoheartonly solace, [ reprie reprreprrepri. Blacked out fallen *small* four walls over backwards *single* refuge issueless . ? (   ) $ echoed,wall  ,whispered  ^    ,timeles*{   |  <(@ shadow   Scattered ruins *meager* *small* as the sand ash *single* *single* refuge .,    nature,*meage  ]   thoughts      %]  profound  /re ?$    FiFigm  )li%?    oncmere | +wh;wh  #   ilillu] [ _illuminateilluminate_& | fo. trut   #w;  @s   prof)profoun;profoun +> never was but *single* air *meager* no sound .

[excerpt from generated collaborative text between machinic and Euglena-determined systems]

In this iteration presented as part of Le Gout de L’Invisible at the Goethe Institute in Paris, the movements of an E.gracilis population become the trigger for a generative text segment loosely based on Samuel Beckett’s “Lessness” or Sans (originally written in French in 1969) which was famously composed using an aleatoric method of choosing sentences.  Similar to the way Beckett’s storyline is experienced more through pattern recognition of an aural or prosodic reading than its content, the text generated by the uiu system is reconfigured as a rhythmic patterning derived from an analysis of the text’s metaphorical levels of constraint and luminosity – both important environmental stimulus for the microbe – and word-substitution in sentences pulled from “Lessness” depending on the inferred sentiment from the E.gracilis population. 

uiu’s text-generation depicts a speculative conversation between machinic and euglena-determined agents that emerges through an assiduous and simultaneous co-existence of these two systems.  While the goal of establishing legible communicative pathways between species may seem anthropocentric and extractive, this exploration prioritizes the process of understanding intent without valorizing a teleological goal, but is driven by a sense of reciprocal zoomorphism – while we study the E.gracilis, how might they return this gaze and study us? 

Much of the resulting ‘story’ is obscured from any understanding, intended only for its author/recipient, asserting perhaps that some elements of the wondrous and beautiful in the invisible microbial world resist capture.   Ever so poignant today, E.gracilis is co-opted in several industrial complexes for food substitutes, health supplements and algae-based carbon sequestration, and seen primarily for its functional biomass and not its other qualities.  In these cases, invisibility might be a form of care.

Emerging research today is proving hypotheses of inter-cellular signalling within E.gracilis populations and with other microbe groups through complex and mind-baffling optical or electromagnetic signaling even across a physical barrier.  Such invisible signaling for E.gracilis populations may result in a kind of collective behavior by remembering environmental stimuli – a “memory effect”, leading to ecological implications as well as a symbolic richness in stories and narratives that can be created through such a system in future iterations of this project.