Unnatural Language, a collaboration between Michael Ang and Scott Kildall, is a network of electronic organisms (“Datapods”) that create sonic improvisations from physical sensors in the natural environment. Each Datapod has custom electronics connected to sensors, a speaker, and a wireless network. The sensed data, for example from electrodes that measure the subtle electrical variations in the leaves of plants, is transformed into a unique synthesized sound. Encased in sculptural materials (natural fiber, leather, leaves, etc) and dispersed into a natural environment, the Datapods enter into a sonic dialogue with the existing ecosystem of plants and animals.
Unnatural Language proposes that technology and nature are forming a new hybrid ecology, where innovations such as intelligent devices that occupy the natural landscape are dissolving the traditional nature-culture dichotomy. This work repurposes this technology to amplify unseen processes such as plant intercommunication, river health and subtle microclimate changes.
We were at Dinacon in Gamboa, Panama for 18 days and this was our first full development and installation of our project. After several adventures in the area, we decided to deploy eight Datapods in Lake Chagras, which feeds the Panama Canal, since this constitutes a transitional space: a brackish marshland, which also had signs of human outflow such as garbage floating in it.
At Dinacon, we developed two types of sensor-synthesizers. The first detected electrical conductivity levels in water and modulated different sampled sounds that we recorded of rocks sinking in water from a hydrophone. As the water quality fluctuated with these sensor readings, the output of the synthesizer played higher and lower-pitched samples accordingly.
For the water-based datapods, we put our speakers, and the electronics, which consisted of custom software synth code on an ESP32 chip with an on-board amp and water sensor onto various garbage flotillas, which we constructed from the litter that we had collected by kayak.
The second sensor-synth combination was a plant sensor, which detected electrical activity in plants using electrodes. Plants tend to respond relatively rapidly (2-3 minutes) in response to various environmental triggers. The synth we developed acted as a drum machine, modulating different tempos according the the plants that it was attached to.
We learned many things at Dinacon! Making a compelling Datapod took much longer than we thought it would. To achieve the best type of synth effect, we recorded humans performing an activity with the thing being sensed: rocks being thrown into water and water being poured through a strainer onto a plant. We then cut these up into bite-sized pieces and ported them into our software, which uses compiled C++ code on the ESP32 to make dynamic effects.
Also, the janky look for the sculptures themselves had a broad appeal and this will be a direction for the project into the future. We’re looking forward to further site-specific installations of Unnatural Language.
Many thanks to all our fabulous co-Dinasaurs for the wonderfully playful and productive atmosphere, and especially to our intrepid film crew (Monika, Ruben, Cherise, and Andy on the drone!)
Frog Show wants to elevate the singing frogs to an audiovisual experience.
Since our arrival to Gamboa every evening we were amazed by their singing. It didn’t sound like the frogs we knew. This was more of an electronic synth-like music performance. We saw opportuniy to join the frogs and develop some visuals to add to the show.
With the goal of low impact on the environment and not disturb the frog’s activity we came up with this solar-powered red LED installation. The solar power makes the system self-sufficient and the red light is known to be less perceived by frogs.
The installation relies on the following hardware: microphone, arduino board, battery pack, solar panel and LED strip.
The light effects are audio reactive and controlled through code on the arduino board. Every single frog sound triggers the LED strip depending on it’s volume.
The result is an installation that charges during daytime and activates at night with the frogs’s concert. You can read the intense activity of the animals through the light show.
Project by Anna Carreras. BAU Design College of Barcelona, Spain.
Panama are some of the world’s most biologically diverse areas.
Animals use camouflage tactics to blend in with their surroundings,
to disguise their appearance. They mask their location, identity, and
movement to avoid predators.
By the other hand in
cities in many countries the increased use of surveillance
technologies have become part of the public and private landscape.
Citizens lack of camouflage tactics to avoid these forms of elevated
vigilance. Can we learn and borrow tactics from animals to keep away
from this constant monitoring?
The froggy camouflage handheld fans project proposes a playful way to act upon our surveying world while learning from frogs camouflage in Gamboa rainforest, Panama.
Nature in Gamboa
Attending the Digital Naturalism Conference (Dinacon) from August 26th to September 1st offered the possibility to do several exploratory walks around Adopta un Bosque station, La Laguna trail in Gamboa and Pipeline road on the border of the Soberania National Park. Animal watching includes birds (thank you Jorge), frogs, mammals and several butterflies and insects.
A species’ camouflage depends on the physical characteristics of the organism, the behavior of the specie and is influenced by the behavior of its predators. Background matching is perhaps the most common camouflage tactic and animals using this tactic are difficult to spot and study. Another camouflage tactic is disruptive coloration that causes predators to misidentify what they are looking at. Other species use coloration tactics that highlight rather than hide their identity. Warning coloration makes predators aware of the organism’s toxic or dangerous characteristics. This type of camouflage is called aposematism or warning coloration.
Studding camouflage tactics includes animal observation and some readings. Frogs are easier to spot and photograph in Gamboa than insects or snakes. The animal books at Adopta un Bosque station and Dinalab gave the opportunity to classify the different species and gain some knowledge about their colors and skin patterns.
The skin of some animals show a self-ordered spatial pattern formation. Cell growing and coloration creates some order resulting from the specific differentiation of cell groups. In such complex systems cells are only in contact with their closest neighbors. Which are this morphogenesis mechanisms where some order emerges from individual cells? Which are the mathematical models we can use to achieve this kind of growing patterns and gain some knowledge about them? Can we simulate some frog’s skin visible regularities with a coded system?
The mathematician Alan Turing predicted the mechanisms which give rise to patterns of spots and stripes. The model is quite simple, it places cells in a row that only interact with their adjacent cells. Each cell synthesizes two different types of molecules. And this molecules can diffuse passively to the adjacent cells. The diffusion process makes the system and the whole result more homogeneous. It tends to destroy any ordered structure. Nevertheless the diffusion process with some interaction by the cell molecules drives to macroscopic ordered structures. The mechanism is called reaction–diffusion system. It drives the emergence of order in a chaotic dynamic system.
A system using the Gray-Scott model and formulas was coded in Processing language. The interface shows the animation of how a frog skin evolves. The GUI also shows the system values that lead to that skin pattern formation. These values and two selected colors generate a unique frog pattern each time the system is started. The spatial feeding system options and the values that can be selected and adjusted are inspired by Gamboa’s frogs. They derive from the observed and photographed species and from the consulted books.
Camouflage DIY hand fans
Frog skin images are used to create light folding hand fans. They are suitable for Gamboa’s hot weather and help to camouflage inside the rainforest. They can easily be taken home and used around the world in several cities.
To build the hand fans two parts are needed: the fan frame and the fan leaf. The designed DIY hand fan is designed as a traditional Spanish hand fan. The frame structure is made of a thin material that can be waved back-and-forth, birch tree or pear tree wood.
The produced hand fans use 0.8mm thick birch wood to make sure it can bend without breaking. The fabrication starts laser cutting the 16 fan ribs for the frame and printing the camouflage image. Cut the fan leaf, using scissors, as a half circle measuring 210mm the exterior radius and 95mm the inner radius.
When the parts are ready put together the 16 fan ribs, one wide rib at the beginning and one at the end. Fix the fan ribs with a m3 screw and nut, a metric screw with nominal diameter of 3mm or 0.12in. Extend the fan ribs as an opened hand fan. Glue the fan leaf on the thiner exterior part of each rib and allow the glue to dry. Finally, one rib at a time, put it above the previous ones and fold the paper carefully to create the folding shape.
Two different models of the Froggy camouflage handheld fans were created. The green one is inspired by the glass frogs and the orange fan is inspired by the pumilio dart frog. Both frogs live in Panama.
The glass frog handheld fan and the pumilio dart frog handheld fan integrated quite well with Gamboa’s surroundings and the rainforest.
Conclusions and future work
To act upon our surveying world camouflage is one of the plans we can play. It rises issues of mimesis, crypsis, perception, privacy and identity. Some artistic projects about fashion and cosmetics have been developed with this idea, like CV Dazzle and HyperFace, among others. The Froggy camouflage handheld fans project sums up in this direction creating hand fans inspired by Panama’s frogs camouflage strategies.
We can gain some knowledge and learn from animals and their hiding techniques. Some animal camouflage skin coloration can be modeled as a quite simple dynamic system that generates complex ordered patterns. We can mathematically model and code the system to simulate the growing process of frogs skin coloration. It helps us to better understand how different frog species have certain particular patterns. Moreover it gives us some insight about how order can emerge from random initial conditions.
Different animal patterns and camouflage tactics can be further investigated. It can help us to achieve different and diverse algorithms and colored results. They can suit in different environments and they can help us camouflage from the increasing number of surveillance systems. A battle between algorithms learned and borrowed from nature against vigilance algorithms.
First I would like to thank Dr. Andrew Quitmeyer for organizing the event and all the participants I met at Dinacon Gamboa. And thanks to Marta, Mónica, Tomás, Jorge, Päivi and Dani to help me documenting the work.
BookThe Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis. Alan Turing. 1952.
BookOrden y Caos en Sistemas Complejos. Ricard V. Solé, Susanna C. Manrubia. 2000.
Videotutorial Coding challenge #13: Reaction Diffusion Algorithm in p5.js. Daniel Shiffman. 2016.
ProjectCV Dazzle: Camouflage from face detection. 2010.
During dinacon, we utilized aerial photography and photogrammetry to create an aerial mapping of Gamboa.
First, we used the resident dinalab drone, a DJI Mavic 2 Zoom, and an online tool, DroneDeploy, to create a flight plan that would send the drone autonomously zigzagging across Gamboa, producing hundreds of high-quality photos. Then,we processed the photos with software that performed photogrammetry – a technique that measures the difference in perspective from multiple photos to create a range of specialized digital images. Some of the software we tried for photogrammetry included DroneDeploy, 3DF Zephyr, Metashape, and OpenDroneMap.
One limiting factor was computing power. Photogrammetry is a very processor-intensive operation, best done with powerful graphics cards. For this project we only had the CPU of a Lenovo X1 Carbon ultrabook, leading to many hours of processing to achieve maps of medium detail. Fortunately, the DroneDeploy software is cloud-based, so we were able to get quick results with that. Additionally, by fine-tuning settings and allowing the laptop to process overnight, we were able to get good results with the other software, particularly 3DF Zephyr.
Models are all opensource and available here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=19eKoAMwny8L8_hqb_ZFEF0w98g-6tIlv
(And soon on sites like Thingiverse)
The following images were processed using DroneDeploy.
3D Model This 3D model of Gamboa is an obj file, which can be imported into Unity or printed with a 3D printer.
Orthophoto An orthophoto is an aerial photo that has been geometrically corrected, giving an accurate, uniform scale between points on the map and providing a direct, top-down perspective for every point of the image.
Elevation Map Displays relative elevation of an image, from lowest (blue) to highest (red).
Grace Grothaus THE FUTURE WITHIN: A digital seed archive and interactive sculpture series exploring threatened plant biodiversity in the americas
“First and above all an explanation must do justice to the thing that is to be explained, must not devaluate it, interpret it away, belittle it, or garble it, in order to make it easier to understand. The question is not “At what view of the phenomenon must we arrive in order to explain it in accordance with one or another philosophy?” but precisely the reverse: “What philosophy is requisite if we are to live up to the subject, be on a level with it?” The question is not how the phenomenon must be turned, twisted, narrowed, crippled so as to be explicable, at all costs, upon principles that we have once and for all resolved not to go beyond. The question is: “To what point must we enlarge our thought so that it shall be in proportion to the phenomenon…” – Schelling
“The future is not in front of us, for it is here already in the shape of a germ (seed).” “What is not with us will not be, even in the future.” Čapek
A result of cumulative anthropogenic activity, global mass extinction is currently in progress, a phenomenon which many refer to as the sixth extinction. I am attempting to grappling with this phenomenon as an artist and to live up to the enormity of the subject. In Schelling’s expostulation I begin to see the beginnings of a course of action. To enlarge my thought to be in proportion to the phenomenon, I must immerse myself in it, far beyond the four walls of my studio. In so doing I deepen my knowledge base and in turn the efficacy of my artistic practice upon return to studio. We see more clearly by recording what we see firsthand. With this understanding and via the support of the Digital Naturalism Conference, the Tinker Foundation, and the University of California San Diego, I conducted field research July-September 2019 in forests across the Americas: South, Central and North. Specifcally in the Panamanian canal zone tropical moist broadleaf forest (“rainforest”), Brazilian Cerrado, Mata Atlântica, and the North Atlantic forest of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Especially in Panama and in Brazil, these biodiversity hotspots are home to a great number of endemic species, some of which have not yet even been discovered. Especially in Brazil they are also threatened. According to UNESCO, the Cerrado, the second largest biome in South America, less than 30% of the natural vegetation remains and continues to shrink and the original Mata Atlântica has experienced 85% deforestation. These are places of irreplaceable biodiversity. For example the Cerrado is the most biodiverse savannah in the world. Yet devastating losses continue. It is highly probable that many endemic species have already faced extinction before being recognized by the scientific community and the broader world at large, and even more are at risk today.
These past few months during my hikes in these forests and grassland, I sought out seeds, seedpods, and fruiting bodies of as many different plant species as possible and from them created 3D digital models. In this way I digitally collected 60 unique specimens in Panama during Dinacon, another 152 in South America, and 45 thus far from North America where I am working now. All together this represents 257 unique species. The digital models of them are comprised of a staggering 26,000+ images taken of the specimens during the photogrammetry process. In addition, I have nearly seven thousand photographs, video, and audio recordings, numerous field notes and sketches. Via field guides and discussion with generous researchers at Inhotim Botanical Gardens, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and the University of California San Diego I have been identifying the species of my specimens and learning about them.
In particular, discussion with two of STRI’s post-doctoral research fellows about their research into seed dormancy in tropical forests was eye-opening. Seeds in more temperate forests are known for their lengthy fertile dormancy and it is not unknown to find specimens to lie dormant but still viable for even tens of thousands of years, yet in tropical forests the duration is much shorter, ending after only a few years and stretching into a decade or two max, species and soil conditions dependent. Reasons are not wholly clear, yet in both locations the seeds are not impaired by the soil, rather they actually need the soil microbes for the possibility of germination. Like the wildfires of the Cerrado, tropical soil is able to abrade the seed surface enough for germination. Seeds possess a chalazal area or plug, a round location on the surface that must break away, in order for the plant embryo inside to emerge and grow. In discussion of mechanisms by which future climate change may affect the species they study, the researchers explained that it is not only microbial/soil abrasion in the tropics that are sufficient to break physical dormancy in seeds, but also fluctuations in the soil temperature. Surface soil temperature is dependent on ambient air temperature and so in a much warmer future, the viability window of opportunity for these seeds may well shorten. This is but one of the numerous concrete mechanisms by which species in this biome face future loss and potential extinction, and one I was previously wholly unaware of.
It can be cognitively difficult to focus on the slow growing and near silent plants around us. We have a tendency to look at plants as part of another and separate “natural world,” perhaps even a backdrop upon which we and other animals live out our lives, but this mindset is a fallacy. Plants are the keystone upon which all mammals rely. The pace of plant growth is so slow compared to human movement, it lends toward the human impression of the plant world as constant, reliable backdrop, yet everything is growing constantly and all that I observed was constantly in flux. I’m grateful for the extended time dedicated to careful observation this field research provided, and reminded of Heraclitus’s truism that you can only step into the same river once. In the same way that it is difficult to focus attention for the length of time requisite to really witness a plant grow, climate crisis is similarly difficult to observe, and yet with both the cumulative changes are unmistakable.
The photogrammetry process enables me to digitally collect only and leave no trace behind me – the real specimens in their home environments where they belong. I am developing a growing digital record, but just a tiny fraction of the species diversity that was all around me. Many more species were not in seed during the time of my visit and many more eluded my discovery, having already dispersed to the wind, soil, or animal digestion. The seed specimens I did collect vary greatly in size from a paper thin ~1/64 of an inch thick to 18 3/8 inch long. I was thorough in my collection but still others were too small, lacking any dimension of length and therefore impossible to capture using the set-up available to me. Perhaps farther in the future with other support I’ll be able to model via micro MRI imaging. In the near term I am now in the process of turning these digital models into sculptures. printing them into physical objects and embedding my motion-sensitive electronics inside that will enable the finished sculptures to murmur sounds into our ears. If a seashell held to the ear presents to our imagination sounds of the ocean though in fact amplifying the rush of our own blood circulating, then perhaps these seed sculpture sound compositions, composed from field recordings and whispered text, will amplify our hopes and fears about our planetary future to a level that we cannot ignore.
Tadpole Soundscapes of Gamboa is a generative soundscape made in collaboration with wildlife of Gamboa. The audio is generated via Processing through a live webcam feed of tadpoles. Recordings are compiled from various artists to create a unique soundscape based on the movement and patterns of the observed tadpoles. As the tadpoles move and evolve, so does the soundscape.
Recordings featured by: Peter Marting, Michael Ang, Lee Wilkins.
Generative poetry introduces chaos and multiplies possibilities. Also, it constrains the author. It forces her to consider language as a series of assorted tools. What does an adjective do to a poem? How can we categorize adjectives? What makes an answer?
The process for creating these poems involved stretching my brain into a different type of writing-thinking. Normally when I write, I think of specific words and ideas. For these poems, I had to make myself consider questions like: “What are the characteristics of the language formula, ‘the + adjective + noun + verb + direct object?'” What associations do we have with that particular language equation? “
There aren’t concrete answers to these questions. But by asking the questions and sorting different language formulas into what feels most thought-provoking, I could begin to write the poems. For example, the first step of my writing process for the poem, “theProjectOfTheAgouti,” was a decision to have the poem be a short narrative about coming across a person, asking them a question, and waiting in anticipation for their answer. This was my more Dinacon-related poem, as one of the primary dynamics of Dinacon for me has been trying to learn as much as I can from others, which is an inspiring, but sometimes fraught process. A large portion of the word banks for this poem involved Dinacon-related words and overheard conversation, and I inserted Dinacon participants’ names in for the characters of the poem. I also brought in the personage of Bolsonaro, and the location of the Amazon, since the Amazon fires were just being publicized at that time, and seemed especially poignant as we were in a different, not on fire, rainforest.
For the second poem, I allowed myself to venture away from Dinacon a little bit. I wanted to write a poem about the process of searching for things and being thwarted, and then trying to appreciate what happens even if it’s not what you were looking for. The poem, “sometimesAtDawn” was the result.
One of the technical challenges of the poems was playing with timing. I wanted to introduce a bit of hesitation into the program, in order to mimic the rhythm of writing. The idea was to further flesh out the fantasy that the computer was writing a poem. I think I succeeded only partially in this respect, and have other ideas I still want to implement.
A language-related challenge was how to make the poems surreal, while also seeming potentially meaningful. So many automatically produced poems come across to me as complete nonsense. I wanted the reader to have that pleasurable feeling that comes from reading something very strange and somewhat random and making meaning out of that. This challenge involved a lot of tweaking of the word banks, so that no poem would seem completely unreasonable. The more I can walk the line on this though, the more the reader can recognize the creative process involved in reading anything and processing any information. My most ambitious hope with a project like this is that the reader will come away with an understanding of how much their particular brain shapes everything that they take in, and along with that, a healthy distrust of their own thinking patterns.
Here are two examples of the poems. If I’ve calculated correctly, “theProjectOfTheAgouti” has about 200 million possibilities (though many of them are very similar to each other) and “sometimesAtDawn” has around 500,000 possibilities. Automatically regenerating versions of the poems can be viewed on my website dezmediah.com
Ann Gerondelis, Drexel University Raja Schaar, Drexel University
Project created for the Digital Naturalism Conference, 2019 Gamboa, Panama
Walking around Gamboa it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the superhighways of ants recognizable by large distinct paths of wobbly leaves.
Our team dove into observational research, expert knowledge, internet findings, and one amazing book found at the field research station to find out more about these mesmerizing creatures.
Getting swole like an ant?
A fitness app for digital naturalists and folks who think Leaf Cutter Ants are superfit superorganisms.
This short workout invites you to be the ant, strengthen your body, and learn about ants’ intimate relationship with mother earth.
Over a four-day period, we designed, tested, and prototyped our app with fellow conference attendees (surrounded by the rainforest no less). The content was key in delivering an experience that mimics the fascinating farming of fungus and other leafcutter ant behaviors.
We hope this gives you a glimpse into the above and below the ground world of the leafcutter ant. Thanks to all the Dinacon attendees, Henrietta Mango the sloth, and Smithsonian scientists who inspired us during our time at Gamboa!
Zines have been around for a longtime with the goal being to make something cheap and easy to reproduce. This means there’s a big reliance on printer paper and classic photocopier inks. Though this can make production easy it also means that it’s not the most environmentally friendly situation. Bleached printer paper takes a long time to break down, inks and toners are can be fairly toxic and create environmental issues.
During DinaCon my goal was create a fully sustainable zine. My concept of sustainability was making something that would have little environmental impact and have the ability to break down easily as time goes by. This meant that I committed to foraging for materials to make paper, inks and binding for a zine.
Here’s a breakdown the components and the processes involved with each part:
Mould – I made my paper mould on-site using scrap wood provided by Andrew Coates’ building team and screen that was DinaLab. This took two days.
Brown Paper – Foraged banana tree bark, boiled for two hours and then blended to get pulpy. This was then put in a large plastic packing container with a 2:1 water to pulp ratio called a slurry. It took about 4 days of pulling and drying to make 12 sheets of paper.
White Paper – Foraged turkey tail mushrooms from a local trail thanks to Blackii’s suggestion, blended with water to get pulpy. This was then put in the large plastic container with the 2:1 water to pulp ratio slurry. It took 5 days of pulling and drying with a dehumidifier’s help due to the natural moistness of mushrooms to get 7 sheets of paper.
Black Ink – Foraged charcoal from a small fire, ground down and mixed with gum arabic to thicken. Gum arabic was the one item I brought with me from home, I wasn’t sure how much access I would have to a similar product. This took about 15 minutes
Blue/Green Ink – Algae pigment provided by the wonderful Elliot mixed with water/agar agar and gum arabic to try different textures and thicknesses. Each ink option took a few minutes to mix.
Brown Ink – This was made by boiling down rumbutan skins for one hour to get a gorgeous deep red burgundy and then mixing it with agar agar. This took one hour and 10 minutes to make.
Clear Ink – Mix of honey and coffee which made a transparent reflective ink which took the same amount of time as making a pot of coffee.
Wing Page – All the wings on the centrefold pages were foraged from different dead insects other dinasaurs used for their own experiments and projects. Once they were no longer being used I removed the wings and put them in the slurry and pulled the sheet with the wings embedded.
Bindings – The bindings are foraged vines from a plant in the backyard of DinaLab that I sewed through the pages for an easy bind. This took about ten minutes.
During Dinacon I will create environment-specific sonifications using the Datapods (developed for Unnatural Language with Scott Kildall). Datapods are electronic devices that translate the unseen activity of plants and the environment into sounds for human appreciation. The troupe of Datapods will be spread into the jungle to converse with the environment, us, and each other. The Datapods are a modular system based on Arduino – curious to see if we can create new sensors and ways for them to interact with nature!
Michael Ang (https://michaelang.com) is a Berlin-based artist and engineer who creates light objects, interactive installations, and technological tools that expand the possibilities of human expression and connection. Applying a hacker’s aesthetic, he often repurposes existing technology to create human-centered experiences in public space and the open field. Countering the trend for technology to dissociate us from ourselves and surroundings, Michael’s works connect us to each other and the experience of the present moment.