October 2015 Inbound residency
Wild Card (during Chicago Artists’ Month)
I had never been to Chicago before when I arrived at the beginning of October to begin my two week Wild Card Residency with Transit. Road-weary after almost a month of near-continuous travel by boat, bus and train, it was relieving to know that I was going to be in the same place for at least a couple of weeks. I was also excited to get started on my project.
That project, called Inorganisms, is a series of workshops about electronics, simple artificial life, and the emergence of complex behaviours from simple forms. The workshops themselves are a central part of the artwork, providing physical and mental space to start to explore the question of the wants and needs of an inorganic life form. That exploration, manifested in the act of making and programming an inorganism is the first stage in the artwork. The second stage coming at a date to be determined will be the assembly of these inorganisms into a habitat, an ecosystem, where they can begin to relate to each other and to people that visit their habitat through their various sensory and expressive organs.
But before I had the chance to get started on this project of creating new life forms, I had the opportunity to be reminded of how weird and wonderful life already is. I began my stay in Chicago with a cousin who lives in Deerfield, a northern suburb of the city. I awoke there on my first morning in town to a message from my girlfriend, Kristin, whose enthusiasm for plants, microbes, and the relationships between the two is infectious and plays a large role in shaping my artistic interests in the interactions between artificial creatures. She had seen the news that Alice the Amorphophallus (Amorphophallus titanum) was blooming at the Chicago Botanical Gardens which, it turned out, was only a few kilometers (a couple miles) away. The plant, more commonly known as the Titan Arum, can grow to 3 meters (10 ft) tall and is breathtaking to see up close. It can take up to 10 years to bloom again, so it was a real treat that it was blooming just as I arrived.
As astounding as the Titan Arum is without any further context, it was also interesting to me in a more specific way relating to Inorganisms. The workshop phase of Inorganisms is all about envisioning a communication strategy for a new creature, a way for it to reach out, make sense of, and touch the world. The Titan Arum’s strategy is to remain inconspicuous for most of its life, storing and conserving energy for years at a time, and to then explode in a bloom of colour and, more importantly, smell. Another of the Titan Arum’s name is the corpse flower because when it blooms, it releases a stench like a rotting carcass. The wafting odor attracts pollinators, specifically scavenger insects that feed on dead animals. It wants pollination and finds that by putting smell out into the world.
Inorganisms have two main modes of communication available to them (for the moment anyways, this could always evolve): light and sound. They can detect sound levels so that they know when a space is quiet or loud. They can also make noise in the form of pulses of tone, basic audio signals that can combine to make something that is roughly music-like. They can detect light levels so they know how bright it is in a particular place, and they can light a single LED in any one of 16 million colours. Though each individual inorganism can only have one sensing organ and one expressive organ (light or sound), they can begin to build more complex behaviour by searching for patterns (for example in changes in light or sound level) and creating patterns of their own (tone patterns or melodies, or fades or flashes of light between colours and intensities). People who came to the workshops to build inorganisms got to begin to build a language for their creature, a language that could be used to communicate with other creatures, including human ones.
But much like the smell of the Titan Arum, the visual or auditory language that people built does not make much sense on its own. The Titan Arum needs its structure its physical largesse, and the arrangement of its pollen and seed-producing organs in order to make its scent effective for pollination. In the same way, the physical structure of an inorganism must match its behaviour in specific ways, to create a whole picture of its desires and fears. Imagine building an inorganism that can hear sound levels and produce light. What does it want? Does it enjoy loud noises, or does it shun them? How does it express its pleasure or displeasure through light? What physical form does it take to encourage or discourage noise? Where in a room would it reside? The wall, the floor, hanging from a ceiling?
I was able to run three workshops in the time that I was in Chicago and explore those questions with a wonderful variety of people, all of whom vastly enriched my experience in the city. The range of spaces that I was able to work in from Taylor Hokanson’s personal studio to an outdoor workshop at Comfort Station Logan Square to the fabulous Maker Lab at the Harold Washington Public Library was a great opportunity to try out different settings for gathering people to create their own Inorganisms.
In that time, we ended up creating nine inorganisms. There was Tubey, a light-sensitive ducting tube that hangs in midair and responds to the absence of light at one of its ends with glowing colours at the other. Vibrus responds to noise with a buzzing vibration (this was an exception to the rule of sound and light that I made myself while experimenting with different modes of communication). Touchriek is photophilic (lightseeking) and shrieks in despair when it loses light on its head. Fred also likes the light and so shines a light into the surrounding space when it is dark nearby. There are more (be sure to check out all of the photos and video of the workshops), but that’s a decent sampling of what we accomplished in the two weeks that I had in Chicago.
Before I sign off, I just want to say a hearty thank you to all of the many people who helped make this residency happen. To Meredith and the Transit board; Taylor and Dieter of Columbia College; the fine folks at Pumping Station: One; my gracious hosts, Brian, Carla and the Spectors; and of course, all of the people who participated in workshops, thank you all so much. I can’t wait to come back to Chicago!