Watching Agoutis

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…

getting close to agoutis, Campo de Santana, Rio de Janeiro, BR
french fries + agoutis, Campo de Santana, Rio de Janeiro, BR
the agouti crowds, Campo de Santana, Rio de Janeiro, BR

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.

lo-fi agouti camera trap set up
for watching agoutis, Ricoh GR II and cheap gorilla tripod

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.

-Madeline Blount

Ray LC

August 19 to 22.

Generative Dance in the Wild and EEG Sonification.

Part One:

How do movements couple to sounds in the natural environment, and can paired dance communication by improvised both in the movements and musical composition realms? I used SonicPi to generatively sample sound recorded from nature to make musical beats and rhythms. These beats will couple to pair dance metaphors in paradigms in salsa and zouk, which are popular dances in Panama. Specifically the project consists of the following phases.

  1. Record sounds in the natural environment of Panama and use them to construct simple phrases in SonicPi, choosing the right envelopes to synthesize beat sounds which, when live-looped together, produces Latin-like rhythms.
  2. Begin recruiting conference attendees for a performance which involves dancing in sync to the collected beats. I will train those who are not familiar with simple steps of salsa and bachata latin dancing so that all can practice together even without formal training.
  3. We will construct a wearable interface for switching between different SoniPi sketches for generating different sounds. We will prototype a teensy-based device that can use accelerometer data to switch between beats. The choice will depend on the leader in the dance pair.
  4. We will user test a pair of dancers, one of whom (leader) can switch between rhythms and music that inspires different dance forms and speeds. The leader can choose both her steps and the musical rhythms being generated. For example, she can choose to dance bachata rather than salsa, or to have a dip in the salsa, and can choose the musical motifs appropriate to these specific actions.
  5. If time permits, we will organize a Casino Rueda performance using pairs of dancers who can all control the music in different ways. If the technology does not permit it, we can prototype the process using calls much like in Casino Rueda, giving our DJ a cue to change the music.

The project investigates whether improvisation in dance can be coupled also to improvisation in music. Can we create a system for both changing the musicality and the movements in dance? We aim to investigate this in a natural context where Latin rhythms and natural sounds can be used as samples to create a performance of higher order improvisation.

Part Two:

Can EEG be used as a source of sound and can this sound be used to harmonize with the environment? This project generates a work of symphonic sound using human EEG attention data and EEG data in the wild. I use a MindWave Mobile headset to get attention data from humans and translates that scale to pitch for the melody. I use plant electrical data to recorded using plant electrodes (thanks to Seamus) to generate the tonic portion for the work. Combining the phasic EEG music with the tonic plant environmental music gives a voice to the way we operate in the universe. We humans make a lot of phasic noise, but the plant and environment of the world embody the tone and mood that form the substance of a work. We co-create with electrical recordings from the brain and the plant to make a symphony of Gamboa.

MindWave Mobile data is piped to BrainWaveOSC app, which sends the data to Unity. Unity uses an AudioSource to generate the pitch as mapped from attention data. On the plant side, Arduino is used to record and log plant electrical values. These two sources of EEG are part of the environment we exist in. Human EEG as you can see in the video demo, is used to generate pitch, making directed musical phrases using attention, so humans can control to come extent (but not all). Plant EEG will be used to generate the subtext of the symphony, forming the chords that the human EEG will play on top of. Both have a life of its own, so that the final form of the work is as much part of the environment of Gamboa as to any conscious control by any party.

Ray LC’s artistic practice incorporates cutting-edge neuroscience research for building bonds between humans and between humans and machines. He studied AI (Cal) and neuroscience (UCLA), building interactive art in Tokyo while publishing papers on PTSD. He’s Visiting Professor, Northeastern University College of Art, Media, Design. He was artist-in-residence at BankArt, 1_Wall_Tokyo, Brooklyn Fashion BFDA, Process Space LMCC, NYSCI, Saari Residence. He exhibited at Kiyoshi Saito Museum, Tokyo GoldenEgg, Columbia University Macy Gallery, Java Studios, CUHK, Elektra, NYSCI, Happieee Place ArtLab. He was awarded by Japan JSPS, National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health, Microsoft Imagine Cup, Adobe Design Achievement Award.