Shedding one’s skin in a new era is an artistic and bio- metamorphological project that I implemented at the Digital Naturalism Conference 2019 in Gamboa, Panama. It is a visual work with tropical rainforest plants, their shadows, and animals such as ants.
I used Performental Art, a combination of performance, environmental, and community art. The purpose of the method is to instigate a deep understanding of one’s own role in the ecosystem by observing, studying, analyzing, imitating, and blurring the distinction between the human animal and other natural beings and systems. In meditative work, I reflect on the possibilities of Posthumanism. How would I thank the earthworm that aerates the soil? What position do I adopt in relation to interactive technology? A critical examination of one’s lifestyle forces one to live one’s own art.
By a new era, I am referring to the Anthropocene, and humankind’s profound geological effect on a changing world. My work with the Biomimeticx2 team responds to these changes via research that attempts to discover in the nano-world biomimetic solutions to the management of eco-catastrophe. Macrocosmic photographic material shared by the DiNaCon community is analyzed, interpreted and combined with microcosmic material from biologists and other experts in various fields.
Through art, the project aims to bring us closer to a realization of our existence as part of a whole and to the recognition that, by destroying our environment, we are perpetuating a process of self-annihilation. The methods the project uses include artistic and biological metamorphoses – transformations – that have been implemented in performance and environmental art works. Openness to interpretation as well as tolerance of chance and contingency open the project up to wonder and the restoration of seasonal change.
1/3. Being hacked: ethnographic rigor within an anti-disciplinary community
As an anthropologist curious about how communities of technologists come together and create things, my mission entering Dinacon 2019–Panamá was clear: figure out what “digital naturalism” is. That is, what idea—other than a desire to hang out with agoutis—united a diverse array of technical and artistic professionals, compelling them to travel to the ghost town of Gamboa in the Canal Zone and then hike in the woods or solder electronics together?
I had read statements about digital naturalism by the ur-digital naturalist, Andrew Quitmeyer. I’d read through the Dinacon site and the documentation regarding Dinacon 2018–Thailand, and I’d spoken with a friend who is a longtime associate of Andy’s. But Andy’s technological and biological design principles—in part, that computers and other tools useful to biologists “have to leave the safety of the womb-like laboratories in which they were conceived and confront the messy challenges outside” (Quitmeyer 2017)—didn’t seem to completely map onto the documented projects from Dinacon 2018.
The call to bring a pragmatic maker, DIY (do-it-yourself) attitude into field biology appeared to be only one of several design tenets at work for the first round of digital naturalists (“Dinasaurs”). Other key themes seemed to include speculative design (exploring possible futures through new arrangements of objects and people), technology for art’s sake (pure play with machines), and multispecies becoming (reframing the category of the “human” through new modes of interaction with nonhuman living beings).
With these themes in mind, I planned to write an ethnographic article about the digital naturalists among whom I would work and live for two weeks. And indeed, in order to learn more about what performing digital naturalism (or not) felt like to the various 2019 conference participants, I conducted a series of sixteen semi-structured interviews, most one hour in length and all richly rewarding. (See below for the interview protocol.) Moreover, I participated alongside many more Dinasaurs as they designed, reimagined, and executed projects or simply explored the tropical moist forest. In a sense, I sought to understand the “typical” experience of a digital naturalist while probing for insights into what digital naturalism means.
Dinacon itself, however, is an anti-disciplinary event where participants are encouraged to eschew formalities and traditions, remix ideas, and remain open to change. In fact, more than the call to bring computer engineering and 3D printing into the forest, the organizers of Dinacon nudge participants to not do whatever they would typically do; to not assume that they are immune to environmental influences, human or nonhuman. This ethos was physicalized by the daily “housecleaning” exercise in which Andy would literally chase participants out of his home/lab, forcing them to pause their work and do anything else for at least an hour (but, in practice, two or three, due to dinner).
So my project to write a well-organized and disciplinarily legible ethnographic article mutated. My article (which, to be frank, is competing as of fall 2019 for attention with my overdue dissertation) remains half-finished. Pages and pages of field notes—thumbed out late at night a while lying on the bottom of a bunk bed—remain half-transformed into coherent vignettes and arguments. On the ground, I allowed my disciplinary practice to be hacked, and my project to be intersected by the humans and nonhumans around me. I joined two collaborative projects, one within my existing skillset and one that pushed me to refine my data management skills.
First, I collaborated with designer Sjef van Gaalen to host a short, intensive speculative design workshop on the future of food production, urban planning, and property law called “Speculative Zoöperations.” Drawing from Sjef’s work in the EU on novel cooperative farm–communities (zoöperations) and my work in the northeast US on high-tech indoor agriculture (vertical farms), we challenged five teams to construct maquettes of future farm–cities.
The result was a frenetic collage of futures, all directly and creatively engaged with climate apocalypse, urban dwelling, and how those dimensions of culture intersect with agriculture and food logistics. One city comprised a giant snail; another consisted of enclaves within giant genetically engineered trees in a newly arable (but not too hot) Antarctica; the third consisted of an fortified anarchist garden in New Orleans; the fourth, a dystopian Neo-Toronto, where citizens dwell underground and live off of mycelium; and the fifth, a unique island ecosystem revolving around giant coconuts engineered by escapist capitalists—a site reminiscent of the laser-shark-infested villas of James Bond villains. All told, these science fictional visions explored real trends in late capitalism, summoning them into abstract life in the form of discarded cardboard, masking tape, and orange or blue 3D-printer plastic.
Second, I worked with open science communications specialist Johanna Havemann to collect basic data on all 2019 conference participants and generate a “DINAmap” illustrating their connections to projects, regions, institutional affiliations, and self-identifying tags (drawn in many cases from interviews) such as “maker” or “environmentalist.”
The DINAmap was not meant to be completely exhaustive or richly descriptive, and it’s still open to contributions! It is rather meant to highlight perhaps unexpected shared affiliations and common identities, and to allow us to see at a glance the general diversity (or lack thereof) of participants in Dinacon 2019. All credit to the idea goes to Jo; I simply assisted in data collection and cleaning, and talking through the data visualization hierarchy. This project or a brand-new version moving away from Kumu—which is relatively easy to learn but suffers from the constraints of any free, readymade visualization tool—could continue in future Dinacons. Certainly, the basic demographic information we collected will be interesting to the degree that digital naturalism grows as a discipline and useful to the degree that Andy or other organizers require metrics to show funding organizations regarding the reach of the conference.
Before, during, and long after these collaborative social–visual projects, however, I continued to write field notes and synthesize them into social theories. The following post summarizes my findings, drawing primarily from participant-observation and semi-structured interviews, with both participants and organizers.
Here I do not offer a single cohesive argument or analysis but four reflections that will serve as the basis of an eventual article:
I discuss at some length how Dinacon functions as an event, including the degree to which Dinacon prompts participants to engage with digital naturalism as articulated by Andy. Then I discuss more briefly:
the various ways in which Dinacon serves as an exemplar for proponents of a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) education paradigm that is more nimble and equitable than that afforded by the Academy;
the strong aspect of play operant at Dinacon, which runs counter to the pragmatism of both the larger maker movement (which I understand in one sense as seeking to return the pragmatic power of tool-making to the people) as well as techno-capitalism;
and finally Dinacon in the context of the politics of the Capitalocene (or Anthropocene, Plantationocene, Manthropocene, Planthroposcene, C[h]thulhucene—take your pick): the questions I’m still writing through include, what are Dinacon’s shortcomings as a space of inclusive sociality? What are the politics of the event?
I offer these fragmentary analytic sketches in part in the spirit of the other partial, mutating projects I observed, and in part because I welcome feedback on them. Far from a removed judgment on a welcoming community, I’d rather offer points of discussion for the community. If you, dear imagined reader, have feedback, please don’t hesitate to email wmarschall [at] fas [dot] harvard [dot] edu or DM me on Twitter at @hollowearths.
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2/3. Nudging toward innovation: swift trust in the (semi-)wilderness
So what is digital naturalism as such? Most Dinasaurs interviewed responded with some version of Andy’s design philosophy. They endorsed this as positive and interesting, even as many interviewees and participant-interlocutors made clear that they do not think of themselves as digital naturalists. When prompted, however, interviewees reflected on the structural differences between digital naturalism as a set of design principles and Dinacon as an event that creates room for other forms of tool-, knowledge-, and art-making. We discussed the nature of this event, and how their own projects fit in.
In general, interviewees and participant-interlocutors felt that digital naturalism was inspiring and could continue to grow as a named, specific technology design paradigm, apart from the event of Dinacon. At the same time, they recognized that Dinacon’s evolution would not necessarily be tightly linked to digital naturalism, but rather to the development of a community or network of individuals with other shared commitments. (I generally gloss these as the principles of maker culture, but there are other ways to think about what brings digital naturalists together.)
Regarding the intersection of digital naturalism as design philosophy and event, most interviewees and participant-interlocutors identified Andy himself as the necessary link: one could summarize Dinacon as a charismatic technological design philosophy being explored in an unconference—or some version of that phrase.
I think we’re all naturally scientists, right? But I think… it helps to have a guiding like a North Star, you know, somebody asking these questions.
—a Dinasaur, contemplating Andy’s role as ur-digital naturalist
Regarding Dinacon as a pure event—a form of socialization, a mode of association, a time- and place-bound coming-together, more than an abstract design philosophy or concomitant (anti-disciplinary) pedagogical model—many interviewees and participant-interlocutors compared it to other genres that bring together dedicated amateurs or professionals from different fields for temporary, project-based creative work: hackathons, summer camps, even transformational festivals such as South-By-Southwest or Burning Man. (At least one participant found the companions to Burning Man pejorative.) I glossed this understanding of Dinacon as event in terms of a professional conference or “unconference,” meaning a conference with a clear theme but little or not set agenda, for makers.
For me, it felt more like a hackathon, but like in the wild and you had to, you know, kind of—you had to get the things that you needed.
—a Dinasaur, on the form of the-event-that-Dinacon-is
Overall, many participants stressed that while Dinacon is more of a general maker conference (an event) than a performance or exploration of a specific design philosophy, Dinacon is not truly a conference at all in the sense of an event with a clear purpose for professionals of one type. One interviewee noted: “Calling [Dinacon] a ‘conference’ is itself a hack,” as in a creative exploitation of a rule. I glossed this not-really-ness as an important element of plasticity (wiggle room or “squishiness”) for a developing event and the developing (anti-/trans-)discipline that inspired it.
Likewise, many interviewees and participant-interlocutors felt that Dinacon was, all at once, thematically about digital naturalism, a more general maker paradigm, and various other, variously allied or counterposed themes. So in addition to the nascent discourse on digital naturalism pur sang, we also discussed other relevant technology, design, science, and art discourses in some depth.
The word that seemed to resonance with the most participants by far was “maker.” A distant second was “hacker,” as in computer engineer interested in software and hardware as platforms for creative play—not, many were quick to point out, as in virtuosic computing amateur interested in stealing online identities or state secrets. “Tinker” also came up as a relevant category, implying a maker who works incrementally.
…Hacking is not necessarily, you know, stealing credit cards and doing notorious things… It is really about taking things and using them for unintended purposes or re-purposing other things for new things.
—a Dinasaur, thinking through making, hacking, and tinkering
Other relevant discourses included open science and technology (the conference budget, for example, is open), technology art (making a spotlight-drone controlled by a plant’s electrical signals for humans to dance under, e.g.), molecular biology (genetic barcoding of wild yeast strains, e.g.), and field biology—that is, naturalism avant the digital (various projects to draw, digitally image, record the sounds of, or otherwise simply describe “nature”).
Of course, some projects did fall neatly within Andy’s original concept of digital naturalism as bringing the tools of computer engineering and makerspaces into sites of field biology research: Andy himself, with help from several others, continued to work on automated ant-counting to help entomologist Peter Marting, a collaborative project that was one of the original inspirations for digital naturalism. Many projects, in fact, focused on making new tools, especially sensors.
The project to create yeast traps, isolate wild yeast strains, and barcode their genomes also clearly adhered to the tenets of digital naturalism as a design philosophy for technologists interested in field biology: the project creator even told me, “I want to do fieldwork. … I want to understand microbial diversity in the wild.”
Beyond some clear structural elements that made Dinacon a coherent event, and beyond thematic groups of projects, a final thread clearly ran through the collaborative projects that I observed: this could be called “swift trust,” or the coming-together of professionals with different expertise to work on common goals over a relatively short period of time (coined by first Debra Meyerson in 1996). As in the movie industry, and contra the timescales of most scientific research, Dinacon projects had to be started, refined, and completed within one or two weeks, sometimes less. Often, they began as solo or small-group projects but added elements that required or enabled new collaborators to join.
This process of rapidly gathering new perspectives included formal feedback sessions and informal articulations (“what are you up to?”) over hikes and meals. Ideally, projects’ stakeholders felt that they entered what Andy called a “flow state,” picking up useful elements from the context of Gamboa and from other Dinasaurs.
Everybody has their contribution, right? So you’re instantly aware of the parochialism of your field, like the narrowness of your training once you meet all these other people.
—a Dinasaur, asked about collaboration
…You’re working with an unknown parts list until everyone arrives.
—another Dinasaur, contemplating project design
Ultimately, all curveballs, resource constraints, and new ideas, good or bad, had to fit within a limited number of days to execute a project. Some projects consisted of performances and could be ultimately finished, but some were left half-finished, open-ended, or as first parts or instigations. Dinacon’s organizers did not of course fully impose a swift trust-driven production flow onto project creators a là the Hollywood movie industry. Instead, the clear goal of accomplishing some sort of project and soliciting some sort of feedback within a certain time frame, with the design philosophy of digital naturalism in the background, offered participants guidelines or nudges, gently contouring their social and technical experience toward collaborative, biology-focused projects with one- or two-week scopes of work.
In summary, Dinacon is at least two things at present: a design technology for technologists interested in working with life scientists as well as an annual gathering in a tropical forest of self-described hackers, makers, scientists, artists, and other creative individuals.
Somehow, Dinacon as a total intellectual, emotional, and physical space manages to be both meditative and intense, rule-free and anxiety-provoking. This strikes me as rather the point: if it were merely a meeting of open hardware engineers or only ornithologists or only kinetic sculptors; if less booze were involved; if less internalized pressure to produce work were felt;—if any of these counterfactuals were true, Dinacon would lose its charm as a site where generations meet, disciplinary norms are transgressed, myriad projects unfold and half-unfold and crash, and—most importantly—these tensions must be actively discussed, because you’ll see the same people at dinner and breakfast for a week; because you want to write songs with them and go on long hikes with them; because you’re working on a sensor project together; because you are all out of your element and collectively exploring.
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3/3. Beyond toolmaking, beyond hacking: other ways of reading Dinacon
The above reflection focuses on Dinacon as a space—a time frame, a physical locus—within which technical work of some kind was accomplished. The following shorter reflections focus on kinds of work Dinasaurs they performed, beyond that encompassed in the definition of digital naturalism.
Reimagining the future of STEAM: digital naturalism as educational paradigm
To some degree, many projects did not seem to have a pragmatic objective in mind: the tools they created were non-functional, or the data they collected (length of stay in Gamboa mapped out in a histogram made out of leaves, e.g.), hard to draw meaningful patterns from. The purpose of these projects seemed to be instead to refine one’s skills, to learn about the town of Gamboa and especially the tropical forest surrounding it, or to teach others something. Thus many projects or non-project creative activities at Dinacon seemed to be educational in nature. Skill-sharing workshops were especially common. Most participants seemed eager to share knowledge, with no sense of pedantry. One interviewee reported that the biggest problem with Dinacon is an inevitable feeling of “FOMO” (fear of missing out) vis-à-vis all of the activities offered.
My personal favorite workshops were one on training machines to write poetry using a web app and some sample texts, including a delightfully dry passage about agoutis, and one on forest bees.
Owls for the Kingdom(Cento) She is seeing owl worlds. Then actual owls, which explains the rush of time left over. But the owls are born in name alone—
cut from inside-out colonies on a world planted in the forests. Here, not order—contrast.
—poem composed from lines generated by a computer
But these projects and teaching moments might be best understood as metonyms: Dinacon as a whole can be seen as an earnest, well-designed attempt to model a new détente between the Academy, capital A, and some form of making/doing-focused “unschooling” that feels decidedly non-capital-A-Academic. That is, perhaps more than allowing individual makers or small groups of them to explore interesting projects in semi-wild areas, Dinacon’s primary offering is modeling a way to organize learning by making. This is not an entirely novel idea. Andy stressed when interviewed that he teaches computing and hardware skills by bringing students outside, so in a way, digital naturalism is already at work as a practical mode of tech education, and perhaps as a fully theorized philosophy of pedagogy. But Dinacon offers a showcase space, a transformational event for makers and educators to explore new ways of teaching.
Perhaps some of the makers who come to Dinacon will be inspired and take away ideas about how to educate in their areas. Digital naturalism could very well grow into a common approach for teaching various subjects, particularly those under the STEAM umbrella: Dinacon seems to promote exploring new technical subjects and skills in small groups, in relaxed settings, with few or no concrete outcomes set in advance. One can imagine even more community-wide projects at future Dinacons, to be explored as jigsaws; this idea appealed to several interviewees, who related it to citizen science but differentiated digital naturalism as more about tech skills than epistemic questions per se. One interviewee suggested that future Dinasaurs plant some to-be-determined number of trees appropriate to a visited region. I suggested that we work with local primary and secondary schools, or that we first ask local indigenous peoples what environmental issues they would most be interested in visiting technologists researching.
In any event, for educators, Dinacon offers a chance to rethink what teaching looks like, since a house/makerspace in a ghost town in the tropical forest is not a traditional classroom, and one’s fellow Dinasaurs, not traditional learners.
So yeah, I would like to share something before I leave, yeah. I never leave one place without showing or sharing something about bees.
—a Dinasaur, two days before leaving Gamboa
Escaping the tyranny of pragmatism in maker discourse: a celebration of useless endeavors
At the same time that Dinacon is practical qua project-focused and educational qua post-Academic skill-sharing-focused, it is also a space of pure jeu or play: many projects featured elements that serve no purpose whatsoever, and many days featured moments that were never meant to serve any particular project. Play can be thought of as a rehearsal of creative moves with no goal in mind, as opposed to “mere” fun (a diversion, pure entertainment).
Both dimensions of activity were present at Dinacon, but the philosophy of the event seemed to push participants toward play. I recall many times a fellow Dinasaur stressing that her real “project” was simply to walk through the forest and look for animals. (For me, it was plants.) Andy said that much of the point is simply to encourage the act of “crafting in nature” without stressing specific outcomes.
I personally experienced play at Dinacon in two modes: the first was an invitation to try new things, loosen or change old ones, and especially to explore Gamboa and the forest. This led, for example, to my collaboration with Sjef on Speculative Zoöperations, which was an ultra-fast, compressed version of two different day-long designs workshops with slightly different goals and background lectures. The result was not pure play, in that we still had some pedagogical goals in mind and gave our good-natured participants several specific tasks to complete (create a maquette, name a future city, explain the food system there, respond to a climate catastrophe, incorporate a new cohort of person/market, etc.). But the feeling of playing around with ideas of what future-oriented ecological design is, and how to explore that practice with others, pushed the workshop into existence in the first place.
An example of a second, more pure mode of play was what I called in my field notes “drone fever”: during the evolution of the plant-driven drone-with-a-giant-spotlight-on-it project, the overgrown baseball diamond—the hollow center of the empty colonial town—would be periodically flooded with light for what felt like a quarter of an hour (I don’t know if anyone in the bleachers kept time) as the inchoate frankendrone danced. Bugs fogged the pillar of light as humans oohed and aahed.
I’m sure these flights served some testing purpose for the dronemaker, but for the rest of us, they served as a coordinating ritual akin to a religious sermon. We sat and took pictures and wondered about the future together: how ubiquitous will delivery drones become? Drones in science? Security drones, which of course promote the insecurity that neo-nationalist austerity states thrive upon? Pet drones? Watching someone play around with both technology and a plant in the dark felt rewarding not because we learned anything specific, but because we collectively attended to what felt like an intrusion from the sometimes inspiring, sometimes techno-dystopian future into a quiet idyll of the present. We experienced non-pragmatic making that also didn’t feel like art—a test run, not in a gallery, hardly announced, unclear start and stop times, repeated often.
Likewise, when one Dinasaur discovered that it is both medically safe (short-term) and culturally appropriate to smoke warūmo—the leaf of the ubiquitous, elegantly skinny cecropia tree—at least a few if not many of us played around with this new, free, mild substance. Its smoke was supposed to function like CBD but only ever seemed to function like tobacco. I never learned the full story about how it is traditionally prepared. Maybe no one particularly enjoyed it. The point certainly wasn’t really to learn about plant physiology by smoking it. Instead, the discover of warūmo concretized for me human relationships, not to mention my relationship with the important cecropia tree. Smoking was play that made people and trees more memorable.
In the same way, I barely improved my soldering skills at Dinacon, never did learn to weld, and only wrote a few lines of code for simple web apps—but the event made me remember how those skills work, why they matter, how I might explore them in the future. So in a sense pure play did serve a function by helping a community to form and educational activities to appear approachable.
Pure play might be a pole at one end of a spectrum, the other being pragmatic activity designed to result in some documentable progress or achievement. Rather than simply standing apart, completely separated, however, these poles are always pulling upon each other. It is as hard to imagine Dinacon without play as it is to imagine it without the sharing of practical skills.
Debating the vocation of the maker in the age of climate apocalypse: against an apolitical digital naturalism
Finally, I must discuss another way in which Dinacon functions, and another thing that it is, or may be, or will be, depending on who organizes and attends and writes about it over the next several years. For Dinacon is a boundary object, an entity that stakeholders have some investment in even as they don’t agree on what exactly it is. And Dinacon may change very much in the near future—even if all stakeholders are happy with its current format—in response to climatic and attendant political disruptions of all kinds.
So regarding this boundary objet, I have so many questions. What are the politics of Dinacon, folk (meaning unofficial, ad hoc) or otherwise? Is Dinacon a redoubt, a vacation, a training camp, a place temporarily removed from larger social struggles? How to reconcile the experience of driving through an economically blighted barrio in Cuidad de Panamá with the opulence of the gleaming new postmodern edifice home to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI)?
Does the emergent culture of Dinacon sufficiently depart from a larger maker culture, one that is typically white, male, and above all neoliberal? Can future Dinacons better nudge makers to think about and perhaps abnegate or share their own privileges? Can future Dinacons better plug into local communities, addressing local environmental challenges? Can Dinacon more explicitly offer a response to climate apocalypse?
Widening out, what function should a traditional education in technology play, if any, in an imagined ecotopia? What role should makers and hackers play? What is the capital-P Point, the telos (to be fancy), of the maker in the age of climate apocalypse and neo-nationalism? And how does Dinacon fit in?
At least a few participants struggled with these lines of thinking, and arguments about them at times arose that, however friendly, revealed, real disagreements about the roles of Dinacon-the-event, digital naturalism-the-design-philosophy, and technology overall in various possible futures. These fissures led me to believe that, regardless of the answer to the questions posed, Dinacon functions as an important crucible for asking them.
Since Dinacon is not only a boundary object but an event wherein clever people exploit rules and adapt to new circumstances, I predict that its role as crucible for nudging makers to debate serious questions about the connected, living fragile world will become more important as the event grows and circumstances indeed change. Future projects will no doubt hack Dinacon in order to manifest (eco-)political changes. The anti-politics of technology—pure efficiency, by twentieth-century industrial standards—will fade in relevance. I look forward to learning what emerges in their stead.
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Appendix: interview protocol
Here is the list of questions I asked during hour-long interviews. In many cases, due to the flow of a given conversation, I swapped the order of questions or reworded them in minor ways.
Re feedback, I solicited it during and especially after interviews, depending on time. I owe a sincere thanks to all of the interviewees who shared their thoughts on specific questions and my overall line of inquiry. This version incorporates many changes based on this feedback.
❧ Hello. I’m an anthropologist of ecological technology and design. My research examines communities that come together to imagine and then instantiate new futures for living environments. Dinacon provides an excellent case for the study of such a community. I plan to research and write an ethnographic article about how digital naturalists form a community, building “swift trust,” and then work together to accomplish various goals. May I ask you a few questions about your participation in digital naturalism and Dinacon?
❧ May I record this interview? Thanks!
❧ Would you like you me to keep your answers anonymous, or do I have your permission to write about your work by name?
❧ Can you please state your name and title, and then briefly describe your project at Digital Naturalism 2019?
❧ How did you hear about Digital Naturalism?
❧ Why did you ultimately decide to attend?
❧ Did you have institutional support to attend?
❧ Can you tell me a bit more about your project? How has it evolved since you’ve arrived in Gamboa?
❧ How motivated are you to finish the project you initially pitched? To finish on time?
❧ Have you looked at the book detailing Dinacon 2018? Are you at all motivated by that sort of documentary artifact?
❧ Are you working with other Digital Naturalists at this event? Talk to me about collaboration. In general, and at Dinacon.
❧ Do you speak Spanish?
❧ What do you think of Gamboa? Is this site of particular interest to you? Would you be as likely to attend a future Dinacon elsewhere?
❧ Have you been hiking or swimming yet? Where? How has that affected your project, if at all?
❧ What counts as sustainability for you?
❧ In your opinion, what aspects of a living environment should be conserved? What role does technology play in conservation or preservation of living environments? Any good examples spring to mind?
❧ What makes a technology, or an application of one, instrumentally or morally good?
❧ What is hacking?
❧ What does the phrase “digital naturalism” mean for you?
❧ Do you think of digital naturalism more as a design philosophy for technology (set of guidelines for making tools), a discipline (academic category, teachable), a movement (social grouping, event- and leader-focused), or an imaginary (vision for society)?
❧ What kind of event is this? Burning Man or summer camp? Hackathon or academic unconference? Or detox? Or cult?
❧ What values characterize digital naturalism as novel?
❧ Do you think that events such as this Digital Naturalism conference will help transform traditional disciplines or institutions? If so, how so?
❧ What role does digital naturalism play in global movements for planetary health and environmental or social justice, or climate change mitigation? Policy?
❧ Who else should be included? What about people not from intellectual, “creative” backgrounds?
❧ Is maker culture inclusive, overall? How can it be moreso?
❧ Should Digital Naturalism seek more institutional support, e.g. from a university? What about prize money?
During my time at Dinacon I was making radiophonic objects to create kind of living documentary installations working with radio waves, found and archive objects and sound, the so-called inanimate, the manmade and the natural. They are something like witness objects.
Somehow nothing feels so present to me as working with radio waves. Pulling radiowaves, tapping in, circuiting, a translation. It is though rather an act of presence. Distance is compressed. There is a leap in time.
Wrapping the coil around the object also keeps one present. If you are counting the turns, as any good crystal radio aficionado is supposed to, you cannot lose yourself in the action fully. I sometimes did this canal-side. It feels like a mantra.
The pill bottle at the center of this pod I brought from my grandmother’s house in New York. Both my grandmother´s parents lived a time in Panama, emigrating from the West Indies, before coming to the States and meeting in a church in Bedford Styverson, Brooklyn, over 100 years ago.
My Grandmother´s thyroid was damaged as a child, burned through iodide painting, an experimental practice of the time. This left her with a permanent thyroid condition that she has been taking medicine for ever since.
Through this telephone headset you can hear the AM long-wave radio, recognizable as radio with help of the diode.
This seed pod radio AM receiver consists of: Twos coils (copper wire 22): one band of 40 turns and other 30 N1922 diode 47k capacitor Variable Capacitor Telephone headset – headphones
I decided for this iteration to record and collect audios that I would broadcast, some uncut and others collaged for future iterations.
To think about how these radiophonic objects could be I spent time in Gamoa´s Soberanía rainforest, sometimes recording alone and others accompanied by some of my Dina colleagues who made exploring a much more curious experience.
Mostly the village of Gamboa seems like a ghost town, abandoned structures and houses. You could easily walk the loop of the town without crossing another pedestrian.
But it does not sound like you are alone.
Two sonar worlds seemed to rule here – the balance unknown: that of the jungle, which the town is carved and shaved into, from inside the trees and grounds, the sky above – I think of my childhood books now rendering into words, within the collection of my first spoken, perhaps just after mom and dada and no, no, Rabia no – roaring, picking, tweeting, buzzing…
The other, sounds from the bordering canal. “Canal” is quite appropriate: a vibrating, tremble, something like a “horn blows low”. It is a recognizable machine-at-work sound. And water.
Does the nature remember, what?
The people remember the territory occupied. They remember who lived on which side of town. Pastor Wilbur explains: “The Black West Indians lived on this side…”
This town exists as an important drenching point. Here in Gamboa the land slides into the canal and must constantly be dredged.
I also often wander around Gamboa town and I sometimes go to Panama city for supplies. I record folks I meet, not on the street but along the way: the local sign builder; an American pastor recruited to preach in English over 40 years ago; a young man, the son of Panimain canal engineer- one of the only in his position during those times when Americans ran everything to do with the Canal. And I collect sound archives.
The Americans came up with the locks as a solution for the canal project the French gave up on.
Matthew Parker: “[The canal] did not so much impact on the environment as change it forever. Mountains were moved, the land bridge between the north and south American continents was severed, and more than 150 sq miles of jungle was submerged under a new manmade lake. To defeat deadly mosquitoes, hundreds of square miles of what we would now call “vital wetlands” were drained and filled, and vast areas poisoned or smothered in thousands of gallons of crude oil.” – Changing Course, The Guardian
Many lives have been lost in the building of the canal most to accidents and others to yellow fever. The majority of lives lost were black men from the West Indies. Thousands died drenching the canal – over 20,000.
I recover items from the River Charge: flip-flops, obviously modern, so many types and sizes of flip-flops – there something about shoes. There are lots of pesticide containers and bottles of different sorts too.
The Americans made there own little universe in Panama. The archives are astounding – shameless. ...”it was a provincially ordained world empire domination that the U.S. was meant to enjoy” – Jackson Lear
Pastor Wilbur shows me where one of the last standoffs happen of Noregas troops happened during in 1989.
I came to Dinacon already a devotee of agoutis. I had been observing them, photographing them, and following them around a city park in Rio de Janeiro for over a year.
In Rio the urban population of agoutis are not quite tame, but not quite wild any longer – they are not afraid of humans. Humans bring them vegetable scraps, french fries, even piles of cat food that they congregate around to enjoy. These agoutis only rarely flare up their butt hair, the signature agouti skittish gesture of fear. They co-exist with the population of stray cats, ducks, pigeons, geese, and peacocks that call the park home…
In Gamboa, I had planned to film the local agoutis. I knew on some level that they would be different from their quasi-domesticated Brazilian cousins, but I did not realize that my entire understanding of agouti behavior was skewed by the city population I knew.
In Gamboa, an agouti is approximately 7.92x more skittish (data forthcoming). They hear the crinkly sound of a human stepping on a decaying leaf on the ground, and they snap to attention, look up, and run away. The most common image I captured when I began agouti observation in Gamboa was that of a retreating rear end.
The biggest difference was how the jungle agoutis in Panama did not seem to crowd around in groups. I never observed more than two agoutis in the same place, and often if there were two grazing, one would attempt to dominate the other and scare it away (cue: flare butt hair). The urban agoutis act more like we do in cities, gathering, eating fried food. In the jungle, the agouti’s important job of burying and dispersing seeds around the forest seems to be a solo endeavor.
So: in order to observe the agoutis of Gamboa, I knew I needed to get closer, and get quieter.
I took note of a spot near the water on the Laguna trail where multiple agoutis had crossed the footpath – frantically, running from me. I went back to the same spot on different days, in the early afternoon, and saw agoutis retreating from me on multiple occasions. This was a place they liked. This would be my stakeout. I set up a very lo-fi camera trap: my Ricoh GR II fixed-lens camera, attached to a hanging vine with a gorilla tripod (approximate cost: R$15, or less than $4 USD).
Under the gaze of the camera, I set up an offering. This was not the french fries and cat food of the Rio park, but a near-rotting pile of orange peels, banana peels, and hibiscus flowers. I set the stage. The bright colors of my food offering lay against the greying palm underneath it. I walked away. I waited.
I waited until the forest forgot I was there. Or until I forgot to consider myself different than the forest. I looked through my scopes at hummingbirds, at toucans in the canopy. I knelt until I no longer felt my quads burning. A blue-crowned motmot landed on a branch inches above my face. A Panamanian flycatcher looked at me, asking. I became like a stone, and when I quieted the forest came alive, dense and throbbing.
I stayed wilding myself for a little more than an hour. When I stood up creaking and walked back to my camera, I saw that some of the food had been taken. I realized in that moment I could have caught any creature in the act – who else might want that banana peel?! But after about 40 minutes of filming only the food pile, my camera caught this:
key moments in the video:
0:18 – the second agouti arrives, clucking 0:22 – brief moment of shared snacking 0:47 – agouti fight! 1:30 – paws out, digging underneath the palm 2:47 – agouti returns, from under the palm 5:42 – return of the agouti, part ii
stills from the video:
If the garbage-food offering was a step towards domestication for these jungle agoutis, my sitting in the woods was a step towards wildness. We met somewhere in the middle.
possible extensions of project:
-what would the urban agoutis of Rio have to say to the forest agoutis of Panama? with a similar simple set-up, a signal could be sent (Arduino connected to Internet) from one group to the other – an LED light, a banana peel being delivered…the above could have been Phase 1 of “Cross-Continental Cutia Communication” (cutia = the Brazilian Portuguese word for agouti)
-an agouti hide, like a birding hide, built to be able to disappear and observe like my camera
-more footage, and a full-on documentary about agoutis
Thanks to everyone at Dinacon! And to agoutis everywhere.
The first time I heard about Andy Q and Digital Naturalism was when I stumbled across a copy of “Hacking the Wild: Madagascar” from 2015 on the internet. I found it to be incredibly thought provoking and inspiring. The hand drawn zine illustrated a 10-day expedition of a small group of folks that included artists, designers, scientists and locals who were exploring the diverse ecosystem of Madagascar through the design of simple electronic hacks. The zine was a collection of photographs, sketches of prototypes and personal and collective deep thoughts. The DIY convergence of nature with analog/digital media as a way to not only experience the wild but to exist within it continued to resonant in my mind. After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017 and completely devastated the island, I started thinking more about DIY survivalist technologies — things you can quickly hack together in an emergency situation that could provide communication, power, food (especially things you can create with paper towel rolls).
Over the next year, I developed a project around this theme titled “Trading Systems: Bio-Economic Fairy Tales” that looked at the failures and inequities of human designed systems. It raised the question — what might it look like if non-humans were put in the driver’s seat of Puerto Rico’s reconstruction? The project engaged rather whimsical solutions to underscore the severity of the destruction and lack of support from the US government. Some of the design hacks included lemon batteries as a solution to the island’s non-functioning power grid and leveraging the earth’s own electromagnetic waves for communication through self-powered crystal/fox hole radios made out of household items such as lead pencils and razor blades .
So when the opportunity emerged this summer to participate in a Dinacon I was more than excited! I had big project ambitions for my 2 weeks in Gamboa but as it happened I was so enthralled with the energized, lovely human and non-human community and lascivious landscape that I got just a tiny bit distracted. I will admit that some of my luxurious time was spent attempting the following: #1) impersonating a human laser frog chorus, #2) interspecies communication with agouti on best garbage foraging practices, #3) outracing a supermax ship in a slowly leaking kayak, #4) thinking about harvesting energy from baby crocodiles, and of course #5) swimming at the “tropical palace” every moment possible (you can IM me for details).
But the majority of my time was spent reflecting on the wonderful hacks the Madagascar team created and seeing if I could recreate them. Although I made headway on a few, the one pictured here was most successful. I call it “Andy’s Ear” — a circuit and speaker made from a leaf, wax, metallic wire and magnets. Other experiments included exploring fiber optic threads to make an insect sensor, organic breadboards with giant mushroom caps, and a tactile way to analyze/collect data through your tongue using wire probes, a leaf and conductive thread. I am continuing to explore these digital-natural hybrids systems to incorporate into larger, future projects and so thankful for the amazing time I had learning and sharing at Dinacon!
Special thanks to the marvelous Jana for her expert modeling skills!
I am a percussionist and composer with a background in entomology and ecology, and am interested in bringing a focus to inconspicuous elements of ecosystems through sound work and music composition, with a focus on insects and their habitats. I attended Dinacon with my collaborator in Pattern Ecology, musician/composer Kristina Dutton.
My focus at Dinacon 2019 was recording hidden sounds – those sounds that humans cannot hear without the aid of technology. How can human opinions on invertebrates be shifted through listening? Can listening encourage us to challenge our assumptions, and change our behaviour and decision-making processes concerning our relations to non-human species? Can it move us towards a biocentric viewpoint? In this time when talk about the ‘environment’ is all over the popular media, I wonder if people are becoming more open to paradigm shifts of this nature.
At Dinacon I worked on developing a process for constructing synthesized “built” soundscapes of hidden sounds. Built Hidden Soundscape: Pipeline Road, Gamboa is a video of a spectrogram of sounds that cannot be heard by humans without the use of technology. I built a sound work using field recordings I made on Pipeline Road, and synthesized an imagined soundscape represented by the spectrogram. Sounds that are easily heard by human ears are excluded from this soundscape. The Y axis represents frequency and the X axis represents time. This built soundscape includes ultrasonic sounds (above the range of human hearing, played back at lower frequency), substrate-borne vibrations, and otherwise very quiet sounds. I recorded all of the sounds on and around Pipeline Road, with the exception of one recording of a wasp nest, recorded in a field in downtown Gamboa.
Sounds featured, in rough order of appearance: 1. Ultrasonic component of dawn soundscape on Pipeline Road 2. Paper wasp nest on cecropia branch, through substrate 3. Atta (leaf-cutter ant) foraging trail, locomotion sounds 4. Azteca ants on Cecropia tree, locomotion sounds 5. Cicada, ultrasonic component 6. Odontomachus (trap-jaw) ant, stridulation (partially ultrasonic) 7. Labidus (army ant) trail, sounds of locomotion and aggressive behavior 8. Ultrasonic component of dusk soundscape, from canopy, Pipeline Road
2. PATTERN ECOLOGY – with Kristina Dutton
Much of my work at Dinacon was in collaboration with my Pattern Ecology partner Kristina Dutton. We produced two videos and conducted interviews with biologists and artists about the intersection of their practices. In 2018, Pattern Ecology composed a musical score to Rearing Anartia, a 1976 8mm documentary film produced by entomologists Robert Silberglied and Annette Aiello at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Barro Colorado Island (BCI) research station in Panama. We had the opportunity to visit BCI and to meet with Annette while in Panama, and our work came full-circle. At Dinacon, we worked on material for an eventual video-album in the spirit of Aiello and Silberglied’s efforts to share intimate details of field work and scientific processes with the public. We are embarking on a revision of the Rearing Anartia score with Annette this coming year, to carry out the vision they originally intended for the film.
We completed two short films while in Gamboa. These films feature Kristina’s immersive binaural audio and video recording and my field recording using ultrasonic and substrate-borne techniques. The first video shows workers of a colony of Atta ant species moving across Pipeline Road in Gamboa, and includes sounds of locomotion and stridulation from the ants, and binaural ambient sounds from the trail environment. The second video was filmed while kayaking in the Rio Chagres one afternoon, and features ambient sound, underwater soundscapes, and video. These videos will be combined with ecological insight from the field and components of interviews in our future works.
a. ATTA ON PIPELINE ROAD: https://vimeo.com/359170608
b. RIO CHAGRES: https://vimeo.com/359166693
My time at DINACON was truly transformative. I learned so much from the other dinasaurs, whether over meals or on trails. Dedicating ourselves to our practices in tight living quarters created this sort of synergistic creative energy, and it affected my process and my scope of possibilities. Everything started to seem possible, and I am excited.
Originally, the idea was to create a radiophonic journey through Gamboa—exploring the variety of birdsongs on Pipeline Road, lingering in the marshes of the Chagres and simply strolling around the neighborhood, capturing sound bites of both human and nonhuman residents.
The first time I ventured out alone to Pipeline Road, I brought along my bamboo flute. Back in the city, when I would play inside my room behind paper shoji screens, occasionally a brazen bird would perch outside on the balcony and vividly respond to my shrill notes with rhapsodic chirps.
In the jungle, however, it was a different story. The sheer immensity of the rainforest was humbling enough, but it was the symphonic richness of its soundscape that stopped me in my tracks: the competitive chatter of mealy parrots, the percussive taps of a woodpecker on a hollow tree trunk, rhythmically improvised clicks and chuckles counterpointed by cicada crescendi and glissandi, the four piercingly pure notes of an ant-thrush, clearly heard but never seen, always on cue with metronomic precision. Out there in the wild, the human arrogance of “music” produced by blowing through a lacquered reed of polished bamboo seemed extraneously redundant. So I just listened.
Out on the river, I silently witnessed many creatures both up close and through binoculars: a caiman lurking just under the water’s surface, a creme-colored caracara tearing at its prey, red-headed turkey vultures preening on high branches, white egrets, blue herons, striped jacobins and yellow-winged jacanas. Yet it was the acousmatic motif of a hidden howler monkey that set the tempo adagio from deep within the forest.
The title of the sound piece was inspired by the insistently repetitive cry of what I have since identified as a red-lored parrot on the Río Chagres. “Accurate! Accurate!” it seemed to squawk, as if challenging our inevitably flawed human assessment of its species and its surroundings. I’m projecting, of course, but it’s hard not to associate sounds with signals, phonemes with meaning, utterances with intention.
So I continued to move along the river in a kayak, paddling through the dense marshwater with a splashproof smartphone on my lap recording in low-tech mono, clumsily picking up the rumbles of wind and bumps on the microphone, as well as the buzz of a persistently pesky fly. (Back on land, the Zoom recorder would take over in stereo.)
“¿Cómo te llamas?” rhetorically asks Jorge, Panamanian avifauna expert who already knows the appellations of every local bird he is seeing or hearing. Returning from my excursions, I search through a handful of field guides, my superficial gateway to the vast database of human scientific knowledge about the resident species of central Panama.
And so I moved on to the naming of birds and other creatures—in learned English, in local Spanish, in scientific nomenclature: variable seedeater / espiguero variable / Sporophila corvina * wattled jacana / jacana carunculada / Jacana jacana * white-necked jacobin / jacobin nuquiblanco / Florisuga mellivora * striated heron / garza listada / Egretta tricolor * mantled howler monkey / mono aullador / Alouatta palliata * yellow-headed caracara / caracara cabeciamarilla / Milvago chimachima * turkey vulture / gallinazo cabecirrojo / Cathartes aura * lineated woodpecker / carpintero lineado / Dryocopus lineatus * mealy parrot / loro harinosa / Amazona farinosa * northern tamandua / hormiguero norteño / Tamandua mexicana * coati / gato solo / Nasua narica * crowned tree frog / rana arbórea coronada / Anotheca spinosa * fer-de-lance / equis / Bothrops asper * black-faced ant-thrush / formicario carinegro / Formicarius analis…
This surtitled multilingual nomenclature, with male and female voices uttering very different words to describe essentially the same species, is more a reflection of human cultural perceptions than of the individual encountered in the wild. Juxtaposed with the natural soundscape of the creatures’ respective habitats, are these words disruptive, intrusive, invasive? Or merely indicative of our endless efforts to identify, capture, classify and label through relentless accumulation of data?
Inside a house in Gamboa, the melodic strings of a cello mingle freely with a giggling chorus of parrots in the tree outside. Agoutis roam neighborhood backyards, sloths and owls hang out in the branches above the sidewalk, puddles of túngara frogs turn up the volume after dusk… Humans seem to co-habit seamlessly with our nonhuman neighbors.
At the edge of the vast Soberanía rainforest, along a narrow waterway separating two continents and two oceans, I had the rare opportunity to appreciate not only the wealth of wildlife that surrounds us but also the infinite percentage of all existing species on Earth that they represent, among so many more still unknown to humans yet already critically endangered by our ever-encroaching civilization. At the end of the Anthropocene, what will extinction sound like?
“Permanece escuchando” repeats Jorge, reminding us that there is always more to perceive through our own unmediated senses, signal after silence: Keep listening.
I wanted to capture what it feels like to wander in the forests of Gamboa during both the sunset and evening choruses. Once I spent a little time on the Rio Charges I decided to weave that into the mix as well.
Binaural recordings imitate the spatial dimensions of human hearing. In other words, they reproduce sound the way we actually hear it. Because of this, listening to binaural recordings works best with headphones.
The microphones I used are designed specifically for quiet environments and I found the noise level of the evening chorus on Laguna Trail was enough to occasionally blow out the mics.
The audio was recorded in tandem with the video, so I moved both camera and mics (since they were attached to my ears) in whatever direction I was looking. This way, when I turn, the viewer hears the sound of the howlers from behind just as I did, whereas a moment before they were to the left, etc.
I wanted to convey the experience of sonic density in contrast to how little we actually see with our eyes in these environments, and to explore the idea that listening would have been important for our ancestors in wildly different ways than it is for us in most situations in modern cities or suburbs. Our relationship to sound has lost much of the meaning it once had and understanding it required. In cities we primarily filter out “noise” whereas, in the forest, we lean in and listen to understand what is around us.
For example, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton found that human hearing range is a perfect match for birdsong – that birds are indicators of a habitat that would be prosperous for human survival. He states that hearing is vital for all animals’ survival, and the bandwidth from 2.5 to 5 kHz are the resonant frequencies where we have super-senstive hearing – which is a perfect match for birdsong.
I’ve only made it through about 25% of what I recorded so I’ll continue to post more to my Vimeo page that will include other parts of Gamboa and the surrounding areas.
The collaborative project I did with Lisa Schonberg involved combining technologies to enable others to experience the ecosystems in Gamboa from new perspectives. We made two videos. The first of leaf-cutter ants combined substrate-borne stridulations and locomotion on Pipeline Road with binaural ambient sound. The second was filmed underwater in the Rio Chagres and uses a combination of hydrophone and iPhone recording above and under water.
In the Rio Charges, while putting my iPhone in the water to film, I discovered that many small fish were interested in sucking at my skin. I ended up playing with them for quite a long time, as the fish didn’t react much to me scooping them into my hand. Playing in the water reminded me a lot what I felt like as a kid when I’d hang out at the edge of the pond near my house. I decided to make the video from that perspective – an intimate, playful view of the world just below the surface of the water.- wonder and curiosity being two of the greatest assets of art/sci/tech folks.
This project was an attempt to make a cheap DIY submarine, there are very few cheap kits for teachers and researchers that give access to the underwater worlds around us. This was designed as a simple wired ROV with a camera lights and a few small DC motors that would be able to dive and maneuver while delivering live camera feed. to the surface.
The body is made out of bamboo because it was abundant and invasive in Gamboa. If I complete this project again I would use a water bottle or another seal-able cylindrical object. The internals seemed to function well but problems arose with the improvised body. It was still fun to play around with all of the electronic bits and learn about circuits, current, and motors. The whole project only cost about 70 dollars and as a kit it could teach basic electronics , and problem solving. It also lets people see the water through different perspectives.
Overall this was a very good first test and prototype, I think with a small amount of tweaking I could have a functional cheap ROV!
Completing this project in a beautiful and different location surrounded by beautiful and different people helped. What an amazing ‘Conference’
Original plans made to use fire extinguisher as body.
In this project, I created three-dimensional sculptural artworks derived from the shadows cast by found objects.
I began creating 3D prints through unusual processes in 2018, when I used oils to essentially paint a 3D shape. For me, this was a fun way to dip my toes into 3D modeling and printing using the skills I already had (painting) rather than those I didn’t (3D modeling). I was very happy with the output of this process, which I think lent the 3D model a unique texture–it wore its paint-ishness proudly, with bumpy ridges and ravines born from brushstrokes. There was an organic quality that I didn’t often see in 3D models fabricated digitally. I immediately began thinking of other unconventional ways to arrive at 3D shapes, and cyanotype solar prints quickly rose to the top of processes I was excited to try.
SHADOWS AND DIMENSIONS
My initial goal with this project was simply to test my theory that I could create interesting sculpture through the manipulation of shadow. However, a presentation by Josh Michaels on my first night at Dinacon got me thinking more about shadows and what they represent in the relationships between dimensions. Josh showed Carl Sagan’s famous explanation of the 4th dimension from Cosmos.
Sagan illustrates how a shadow is an imperfect two-dimensional projection of a three-dimensional object. I wondered–if all we had was a two-dimensional shadow, what could we theorize about the three-dimensional object? If we were the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, watching the shadows of the world play on the wall, what objects could we fashion from the clay at our feet to reflect what we imagined was out there? What stories could we ascribe to these imperfectly theorized forms? When early humans saw the the night sky, we couldn’t see the three-dimensional reality of space and stars–we saw a two-dimensional tapestry from which we theorized three-dimensional creatures and heroes and villains and conflicts and passions. We looked up and saw our reflection. What does a rambutan shadow become without the knowledge of a rambutan, with instead the innate human impulse to project meaning and personality and story upon that which we cannot fully comprehend? That’s what I became excited to explore with this project. But first, how to make the darn things?
For those who want to try this at home, I have written a detailed How To about the process on my website. But the basic workflow I followed was this:
STEP 1: MAKE A SOLAR PRINT OF SOME INTERESTING OBJECTS
The areas that are more shaded by our objects stay white, and the areas that the sun hits become a darker blue. Note that the solar print that results from three-dimensional objects like these rambutans have some midtones that follow their curves, because though they cast hard shadows, some light leaks in from the sides. The closer an object gets to the solar paper, the more light it blocks. This effect will make a big difference in how these prints translate to 3D models.
STEP 2: USE THE SOLAR PRINT AS A DEPTH MAP TO CREATE A 3D MODEL
For those unfamiliar with depth maps, essentially the software* interprets the luminance data of a pixel (how bright it is) as depth information. Depth maps can be used for a variety of applications, but in this case the lightest parts of the image become the more raised parts of the 3D model, and the darker parts become the more recessed parts. For our solar prints, what this means is that the areas where our objects touched the paper (or at least came very close to it) will be white and therefore raised, the areas that weren’t shaded at all by our objects will become dark and therefore recessed, and the areas that are shaded but which some light can leak into around the objects will by our mid-tones, and will lead to some smooth graded surfaces in the 3D model.
*I used Photoshop for this process, but if you have a suggestion for a free program that can do the same, please contact me. I’d like for this process to be accessible to as many people as possible.
Below, you can play around with some 3D models alongside the solar prints from which they were derived. Compare them to see how subtle variations in the luminance information from the 2D image has been translated into depth information to create a 3D model.
In the below solar print, I laid a spiralled vine over the top of the other objects being printed. Because it was raised off the paper by the other objects, light leaked in and created a fainter shadow, resulting in a cool background swirl in the 3D model. Manipulating objects’ distance from the paper proved to be an effective method to create foreground/background separation in the final 3D model.
Another variable that I manipulated to create different levels in the 3D model was exposure time. The fainter leaves coming into the below solar print weren’t any father from the solar paper than the other leaves, but I placed them after the solar print had been exposed for a couple of minutes. This made their resulting imprint fainter/darker, and therefore more backgrounded than the leaves that had been there for the duration of the exposure. You can also see where some of the leaves moved during the exposure, as they have a faint double image that creates a cool “step” effect in the 3D model. You might also notice that the 3D model has more of a texture than the others on this page. That comes from the paper itself, which is a different brand than I used for the others. The paper texture creates slight variations in luminance which translate as bump patterns in the model. You run into a similar effect with camera grain–even at high ISOs, the slight variation in luminance from pixel to pixel can look very pronounced when translated to 3D. I discuss how to manage this in the How To page for this process.
One more neat thing about this one is that I made the print on top of a folder that had a barcode on it, and that reflected back enough light through the paper that it came out in the solar print and the 3D model (in the bottom right). After I noticed this I started exposing my prints on a solid black surface.
The below solar print was made later in the day–notice the long shadows. It was also in the partial shade of a tree, so the bottom left corner of the print darkens. If you turn the 3D model to its side you’ll see how that light falloff results in a thinning of the model. I also took this photo before the print had fully developed the deep blue it would eventually reach, and that lack of contrast results in the faint seedpod in the bottom left not differentiating itself much from the background in the 3D model. I found that these prints could take a couple days to fully “develop.”
STEP 3: 3D PRINT THE MODEL
The 3D models that Photoshop spits out through this process can sometimes have structural problems that a 3D printer doesn’t quite know how to deal with. I explain these problems and how to fix them in greater detail in the How To page for this process.
STEP 4: PAINT THE 3D PRINT
Now we get back to my musings about Plato’s cave. My goal in the painting stage was to find meaning and story in this extrapolation of 3D forms from a 2D projection. As of this writing I have only finished one of these paintings, pictured below.
– Carve the models out of wood with a CNC milling machine to reduce plastic use. I actually used PLA, which is derived from corn starch and is biodegradable under industrial conditions, but is still not ideal. This will also allow me to go BIGGER with the sculptural pieces, which wouldn’t be impossible with 3D printing but would require some tedious labor to bond together multiple prints.
– Move away from right angles! Though I was attempting to make some unusual “canvasses” for painting, I ended up replicating the rectangular characteristics of traditional painting surfaces, which seems particularly egregious when modeling irregular organic shapes. Creating non-rectangular pieces will require making prints that capture the entire perimeter of the objects’ shadows without cutting them off. I can then tell the software to “drop out” the negative space. I have already made some prints that I think will work well for this, I’ll update this page once I 3D model them.
– Build a custom solar printing rig to allow for more flexibility in constructing interesting prints. A limitation of this process was that I wanted to create complex and delicate compositions of shadows but it was hard to not disturb the three-dimensional objects when moving between the composition and exposure phases. My general process in this iteration of the project was to arrange the objects on a piece of plexiglass on top of an opaque card on top of the solar print. This allowed me time to experiment with arrangements of the objects, but the process of pulling the opaque card out to reveal the print inevitably disrupted the objects and then I would have to scramble to reset them as best I could. Arranging the objects inside wasn’t a good option because I couldn’t see the shadows the sun would cast, which were essentially the medium I was working with. The rig I imagine to solve this would be a frame with a transparent top and a sliding opaque board which could be pulled out to reveal the solar paper below without disrupting the arrangement of objects on top.
– Solar print living creatures! I attempted this at Dinacon with a centipede, as did Andy Quitmeyer with some leafcutter ants. It’s difficult to do! One reason is that living creatures tend to move around and solar prints require a few minutes of exposure time. I was thinking something like a frog that might hop around a bit, stay still, hop around some more would work, but still you would need to have some kind of clear container that would contain the animal without casting its own shadow. I also thought maybe a busy leafcutter ant “highway” would have dense enough traffic to leave behind ghostly ant trails, but Andy discovered that the ants are not keen to walk over solar paper laid in their path. A custom rig like the one discussed above could maybe be used–place the rig in their path, allow them time to acclimate to its presence and walk over it, then expose the paper underneath them without disturbing their work.
– Projection map visuals onto the 3D prints! These pieces were created to be static paintings, but they could also make for cool three-dimensional animated pieces. Bigger would be better for this purpose.