As soon as I arrived to Dinacon, we had to set up a special outside Lab that we called The Cabana Lab. It was a very nice working space surrounded by trees and next to the lagoon. Pure Dinacon style!
We managed to organize a very nice space to work in some mechanical things and robots that mixed artificial and natural components. We also set up the recycled plastic PLA maker and the 3D printer.
I brought with me some 3D printed stuff to work with and make some robot experiments. One of them was a skeleton of an animatronic heart and Leonie helped me to put it together. We added a very nice coconut shell cover (inspired by Andy’s proposal) to create what we called Dinaheart, a Coconut robot heart that merges with nature and seems alive!
He had some other experiments happening around robot jamming all week at the Cabana Lab and at the Dreamspace Collective space.
It is so nice to be sharing electronics experiments with a lot of people with this fantastic views 🙂
investigating the secret lives of wild animals around Dreamspace
As part of Dinacon, I put together two classes at Dreamspace about finding, understanding, and telling stories about the lives of wild animals that live right outside the door. These are entry-level classes designed to introduce students to their local ecosystem and give a sampling of tools and techniques for how they can investigate and interact with their neighboring natural world.
I co-taught the classes with a longtime collaborator and fellow Dinasaur, Jasmine Gutbrod, and two volunteers from Dreamspace, Sayu Ambiharathinam and Gabi Mohanalingam. One class was an adult class, for Dreamspace members who were interested, and the other was a class for gradeschool-aged children from a nearby orphanage. Both classes had about twenty students and met for about an hour each day, for six days. We also ran a 3-day intensive workshop for Dinacon participants that was a condensed version of the class, as a prototype for how to train teachers to run classes like this with their own students.
The big idea behind these classes is that, wherever you may live in the world and whatever animals live near you, you can use the same process to find animals and follow stories about their lives. That process begins with going outside, looking around and asking yourself a simple question: if I were a wild animal, where would I go when humans aren’t around? The answer is different, of course, for different species, environments, seasons, and hundreds of other variables, but the way you figure it out is always the same: by empathetically watching the world around you.
In the middle of the Dinacon month I went with some of the Dinosaurs and ventured onto the beautiful Batticaloa lagoon to listen to and record the famous singing fish.
It was a full moon and a super moon, so the conditions were ideal. The ‘singing’ comes from plainfin midshipman, a species of toadfish that glow green during mating times. The fish produce an aquatic frog-like mating call. They are best heard at about 10 PM on a full moon.
Here are some of the recordings, I’ve made these recordings into a kind of greatest hits compilation of the audio that I captured over two nights of the full moon. The recording is highly recommended as an insomniac’s sleeping aid.
To record I used a Zoom recorder and a custom made hydrophone that was submerged to about 6 meters into various parts of the lagoon at night.
I also ventured out to the end of the Batticaloa peninsular before dawn to collect audio and video footage. The casuarina pine forest at the end of the peninsular was well worth the 1-hour bike ride through sand tracks. The forest was planted post-tsunami. The trees are organised in unnatural rows, creating uncanny organic order.
During Dinacon I drew on a variety of audio-visual footage, that I collected over my Dinacon time, to make a series of trash-bag video art experiments. These video works are a commentary on the impact of hyper-consumerism on our natural ecosystems. The image below is a screen grab from one of the video works. It features drone footage from the end of the Batticaloa peninsular, whale baleen (we found on the Batticaloa beach), graphic design, trash typeface design and singing fish audio.
Tali was kind enough to provide video feedback on my Dinacon project.
My initial project idea for Dinacon this year was based on wanting to play with ideas of a monster that is controlled by a brain fungus. I thought this would exist as a game of sorts or involved working with Dinasaurs to build different visual experiences with how the monster would look however due to some constraints I ended up being the solo subject.
I was inspired by Madeline Schwartzman Face Nature projects, seeing all the ways that she uses plants to change her face and express herself has been one of my favourite things.
Batticaloa is full of the most incredible plants, growing all over in a beautiful chaos. The way we were surrounded by unkempt growth around Batticaloa and maintained growth at Riviera was inspiring.
Wandering through the area I found these bright pink petals that had a soft, paper lantern like texture. I knew I wanted to use them immediately. They maintain their colour so wonderfully as they die, becoming lighter pink but still more vibrant than I’ve seen other flowers. Their paper-like qualities become more obvious as they dry out, instead of rotting like other flowers do.
I also utilized turkey tail mushrooms I was able to find near petrified on branches used as fencing outside of some of the homes. I searched for branching pieces of coral on the beach to add further texture and ambiguous origins to the monster. I gathered all the plants, flowers, leaves and coral that I liked the aesthetics of and proceeded to design a headpiece that was the majority of the costume. After that I experimented with a couple iterations of how the monster could look, and found that I really enjoyed using petals to make a scale-like situation down the face that grew with each version.
Making a monster is many things, but especially knowing that monsters are not always monstrous. Monsters can be beautiful.
This was something I wanted to utilize, I wanted to show all the beautiful plants and colours that can be found in Batticaloa. Creating tiers of leaves and flowers combined to look like a kind of rippling outer skin. Vines and tendrils swooping down, around the face and body.
My monster is dripping with layers, flowing down the face, on to the neck and down the body. The leaves, petals and mushrooms work together to create a beautiful, monstrous being that is being taken over by the plants around them.
Once I had assembled the monster’s look I got photos taken by Luci Dayhew (thanks Luci!!) that I was able to use as the base of the collages. After that I spent time combing through my photos from Batticaloa and pulled elements that spoke to me and arranged them with the monster pictures. The final digital collages can be read as three panels of a story showing the progression of the fungus monster taking over the human brain.
The Cotton Cocoons are a product of strolls around the Riviera Resort area and a tour to a local handloom manufacturer. During the strolls we came across some mystical already hatched cocoons and started wondering what metamorphosis took place in there. Speculation for me always has to do with a haptic understanding of what’s happening, so I decided to harvest some cotton from the bushes around and make my own cocoon.
The process involved getting to know the material, spinning yarn and trying out different cocoon shapes with crochet.
Speculative thoughts coming up throughout the process circled around making a human sized cocoon for myself and others, and the necessities involved in such a lifeform. Imagining water pipe systems and air flow tunnels integrated in the cocoons skin, but also questions of comfort like “What are the acoustics like in a cocoon?” and in contrast to beehive structures like sleeping capsules, thinking of expandable, stretchy cocoon walls, that adjust to any size of group, who wants to share a space.
The idea of building a shell out of saliva or sticky webs your body can produce as waste also combined really well with the plastic-bottle-3D-printing-project, since it’s sticking together waste we produce into new shapes.
I also found it to be very interesting to think about the stages of human life, in which we would move into such a cocoon to allow ourselves to change form. Thinking of transitions as a very conscious process, that take time and a specific space.
Over two weeks of Dinacon resulted in a lot of sketches and abstracts for some comic strips about the adventures of Rowolfo and Brambutan (two completely fictional characters). Two short adventures actually made it into existence. One about daily encounters with a bunch of very mean crows. And the second one capturing a magical bike ride at night, where Brambutan and Rowolfo see bioluminescence for the first time.
I went into Dinacon 2022 with the notion that I would make an animal-themed videogame of some sort. It was a very vague goal which quickly became overshadowed by my desire to learn new tools, as I abandoned the fully-featured game engine and programming language I knew well in favour of an engine in its infancy and a language utterly new to me.
The result is a simple tech demo rather than a game, but I learned a great deal in the process and do not regret the choice.
The House Crow
Sri Lanka is home to a wide variety of fascinating wildlife, so the choice of a common house crow as the subject for my project may seem odd. However, I’ve always been attracted to creatures with unique relationships with human populations, and the crows certainly feature prominently in everyday Batticaloa. Their population size may be linked to human waste management problems. We regularly witnessed them stealing food from the endangered sea eagles who were nesting nearby, suggesting that in turn that population size can have an impact on other wildlife as well.
So I began my project with a simple 3D model of a crow, based roughly on photographs I took myself or collected from generous colleagues. I’m not an experienced modeller or animator, so it’s a little rough but suited my purposes.
As I discussed my interests with colleagues at Dinacon many ambitious ideas arose, such as modelling the social hierarchy of the crows, their interactions with other species, and how their population tracks with human waste management patterns.
However, I settled on modelling flocking behaviour, in part because it is something I always wanted to model in a game engine. I was also surprised to learn from biologists in attendance that the algorithms they used to model flocking behaviours were very similar to those I had heard of used in videogames. It should be said, however, that although we witnessed crows in large groups often I don’t believe this demo to be very accurate to the way those groups move about.
The Boids algorithm was developed in 1986 and has applications in simulations and videogames. It’s also very commonly the subject of tech demos such as this one! The gist of the algorithm is the balancing of three goals for each “boid”: separation, alignment and cohesion. All are based on each boid knowing the nearest bunch of neighbours in the flock. Separation is the goal in which each boid wishes to push away from any other boid that is too close. That is, it keeps them from bumping into each other. Alignment is the goal in which each boid attempts to face the same direction as its neighbours. Cohesion is the goal in which each boid attempts to get near the average position of its neighbours. This condenses larger groups into smaller ones, while separation functions as a counter-balance to keep a minimum distance between them. At each timestep in the simulation, every boid recalculates where it wants to go according to these three goals, and steers accordingly. The results of this very simple algorithm are surprisingly natural and varied.
In the demo, each of these goals is exposed as a weight with a slider. You can adjust them individually and observe the resulting change in the flocking behaviour. It sometimes takes a minute for the effects of changes to become obvious, but by varying these weights you can create larger or smaller flocks in tight or loose formations.
Bevy & Rust
The game engine I chose for this project, aptly named Bevy, is still quite early in its development. What attracted me to it was its open-source nature, cross-platform support, and its use of modern programming paradigms. It’s also programmed in Rust, a very new, low-level language which has rapidly gained popularity in the FOSS community.
It stands in stark contrast with Unity, the game engine I have used both as a hobbyist and professionally for more than a decade. Unity is rich with features, but is owned by a large private company and is married to paradigms and a language (C#) which are falling out of fashion. Moreover, Unity’s business practises include a cozy relationship with the US military — something that doesn’t sit well with me, personally. While I cannot avoid it at my day job, I was determined to learn something new at Dinacon, and have enjoyed my experience so far with Bevy.
The demo, including full source code and crow asset, can be found at:
The goal of this project was to build a solar-powered short-range analog FM transmitter from scavenged parts taken out of broken AM and FM transistor radios, to equip it with a simple microphone, and to place it where it could listen to the “natural” environment but also to the people moving around that environment. It would broadcast that sonic landscape to any person tuned to the right signal on an FM receiver. The idea was to highlight the fact that human presence affects the world in both sensed and unsensed ways, and the presence of a body affects the functioning of an antenna as much as it affects the soundscape. The radio functions as a sort of artificial organism, beholden to the sun for energy to continue “living” and carrying out its daily activities (listening and transmitting what it hears) and serves as a stand-in for non-human biological organisms that we interfere with, for better or worse, everywhere we go.
I gave myself the constraint of using as little gear as possible to scavenge for parts from the old boards (just solder braid, an iron and basic pliers, no ovens or blowers like I would use in my lab) but I also gave myself a backup in the form of kit boards that were the same circuit I intended to build, in case of some misfortune.
What ended up happening was a sort of 3-fold project: a still-in-progress field guide to minimalist scavenging of useful parts from broken tech, the intended solar-powered FM transmitter, and an ad-hoc collaborative performance between myself and William’s solar powered analog bird.
The three parts:
Working to dissassemble the boards with minimal gear proved challenging, mostly because of power outages and multiple broken soldering irons. But that difficulty just spurred the idea to create the field guide zine.
The title page is here:
Learning to determine what is and isn’t useful from a piece of broken tech is an important skill in a world that increasingly requires all of us to consider use and re-use carefully, and learning to remove it safely is equally if not more important. Some of the useful parts separated from the radios:
The field guide will be in ongoing development with the Media Archaeology Lab, and will be tested with volunteers and students for usability before publishing.
I assembled the kits I brought along as a backup because of the difficulties with disassembly – here’s a dissassembly in progress and me being slightly exasperated:
Once the kits were put together I got the circuit running off of solar cells – fortunately straightforward. I scavenged those mostly from solar powered garden lights and fountain pumps, so they’re pretty ideal for areas with unforgiving climates. Scavenging usable parts from discarded consumer tech is an extremely cost-effective way to get not only parts but also fully functioning circuits that can be integrated into projects – often with less effort and better results than building things fully from scratch.
Once the kits were assembled and tweaked to appropriately take power from solar rather than a DC power supply or battery, they worked beautifully. Here I am finishing up the kit:
The signal strength was even more dependent on the strength of the sun than expected, which was an excellent discovery and really added to the overall feeling of tenuous aliveness that the radio had. Here it is perched on a coconut in the courtyard:
And me tweaking the signal:
The performance with William came about when we were both toying with our solar-powered projects and realized that we could make them talk to eachother. William’s project’s speaker was placed directly beside the transmitter’s microphone and we were able to pick up that transmission on the receiver from a pretty significant distance – inside the building at DreamHive from across the yard. The projects were shown together perched on a plumeria in the yard for the open house. Here we are tinkering:
And here are some better shots of both the bird and the transmitter:
Ultimately a really fun way to play with the attributes of both projects.
The circuit diagram I worked from was published in Radio Is My Bomb and has been published on Tetsuo Kogawa’s website along with instructions and parts lists. The analog circuit kits I adjusted for use follow the same basic circuit as Kogawa’s simplest FM transmitter, and required only adjustments to the power jack to work well with the solar panels. I did swap out a resistor for a lower value in the power line but that was probably ultimately unnecessary.