PandoraBird: Identifying the Types of Music That May Be Favored by Our Avian Co-Inhabitants at DigiHuman Lab Rutgers University

PandoraBird: Identifying the Types of Music That May Be Favored by Our Avian Co-Inhabitants is a site-specific installation that uses computer vision and interactive software to track the music choices made by local feeder birds. The project is in collaboration with the computer scientist Dr. Ahmed Elgammal and the The Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Rutgers University, which is a platform for the artistic uses of computer vision and machine learning.

Aims and Objectives
Our current project involves creating one outdoor, sound-emitting, interactive sculpture. This sculpture or “listening station” plays music in a dedicated genre: classical, country or rock. Lifted into the air on a 10ft. post, the stations will features a directional sound cone in the form of a hood (PandoraBird design, figure 2). This structure covers an external speaker and a customized mp3 player running a music application that has been specifically created for wild birds. This audio hood is mounted over a tray of wild bird food. A small camera, mounted at the tray level uses computer vision to quantify the number and species of birds feeding during each musical interlude. A solar panel and rechargeable battery pack provid each listening station a contained, renewable power source. The PandoraBird project is a mobile, self-sustaining learning system that can be exhibited at museums, sculpture parks and other outdoor venues that may be visited by wild feeder birds. The computer interfaces with the iPod app, effectively allowing each avian species to identify which tunes it prefers in a given genre, and to build a species-specific database of favored music. The station invites viewer participation on the ground and has a webcam that allows humans (all over the world) to watch and listen to the birds’ musical choices.

Background
In 2007, Demaray collaborated with the videographer James Walsh on Listening Stations for Birds, That Play Human Music (art images, figure 1) Created for the woods of the Abington Art Center in Pennsylvania, a forested sculpture garden that is surrounded by the suburbs of Philadelphia, the piece considered the way that life forms, human and otherwise, may interact in a shared environment. Set along a secluded nature trail, this installation was comprised of a series of four sound-emitting sculptures, each playing a loop of either classical, jazz, country, or rock music and offering a tray of wild bird food. While this early work aimed to see what kind of music birds might like, its primary motive was to get viewers out into the woods, to interact with other species and to consider the impact of our presence on other life forms. Observations on the musical preferences of the feeding birds were noted by park visitors on worksheets. While the piece was popular with park visiter and local birds alike, data collection proved inconclusive, largely due to issues with bird observation and identification.

18_BirdStacolor

Listening Stations for Birds, that play human music, Elizabeth Demaray and James Walsh, Abington Art Center, Jenkintown, PA 2007

For Demaray and Walsh, the most difficult part of this ambitious installation was however having to choose the four or five tunes that were played at each listening station. How does one select what songs a bird might like best? The team ended up choosing works that they felt might be considered human masterpieces in each category. They concluded that if they were going to give a gift to these other life forms—if this was in fact an act of trans-species giving—it should be the best that humans have to offer.

With advents in the field of computer vision, The PandoraBird Project is now be able to create an interactive system that may actually be able to identify which specific tunes individual birds prefer. Elgammal’s work group in the Department of Computer Science specializes in using computer vision for fine-grained recognition, which is the problem of recognizing subordinate categories. In a study titled Write A Classifier: Learning Fine-Grained Visual Classifiers from Text and Images (NSF #1409683), his group is investigating algorithms for automatically recognizing localized body parts. This study supports the PandoraBird system by creating algorithms that automatically recognize bird species from images based on text descriptions of these species

Rationale
There is ample circumstantial evidence that many avian species pay attention to human sound. In the US Mid-Atlantic Region, cat birds and mockingbirds replicate noises made by people. In Australia, the lyre bird even learns human tunes and teaches them to successive generations of its young. Utilizing a computer vision system, PandoraBird may allow us to better understand, and ultimately communicate with, the other life forms in our shared environment.

The PandorBird Project Design, figure 2

PandoraBird

Collaborative Design
The offerings in each genre of music are chosen using standard criteria from web-based “music-discovery services,” using melody, harmony, rhythm, form, and composition. The system will initially begin with a small database of different musical compositions in its defined genre. When a bird feeds during one of these melodies, PandoraBird uses computer vision to record its species and length of stay. If the feeding continues to the end of a piece of music, the system will select another melody with similar qualities. The presence of an individual bird at the feeder is logged by the listening station as a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”, for the piece of music currently playing and this feedback refine the system’s playlist.

The Significance of the Project in Its Field
PandoraBird may be the first example of a computer vision system dedicated to identifying the musical choices of feeder birds. The novel algorithm for species identification and interactive system that the project represents may be used for a wide range of future purposes. We plant to share the data base of preferred human songs in real-time during the project’s installation. In a more immediate context however, the authors of this project maintain that if we are to bombard other life forms with noise, we should begin to consider which types of noise our companion species might prefer.

Implications for Future Project Design Collaborations
Pandora Radio for Birds may be the first project that utilizes new technology to identify which specific tunes individual birds may like. Using this system as a pilot project, we may ultimately begin to create an interactive system that allows birds to make human-type music choices themselves.

The Endangered Species Recipe Book, animals that have gone extinct or are going extinct and the recipes that we have used to eat them, 2014

The naturalist E.O. Wilson, believes that by the end of this century—in our lifetimes, we will lose half of all plants, animals and birds on our planet, if our current rate of ecological destruction continues. The Endangered Species Recipe Book, considers ways to view our ecological moment in the context of our historic interactions with the natural world.

SmEndanger_DLG5264
Installation shot: the Endangered Species Recipe Book: animals that have gone extinct or are going extinct and the recipes that we have used to eat them, 2014

Six major extinction events are chronicled in Earth’s geologic history. These events have occurred over the past 450 million years and typically span periods of tens of thousands of years. We are currently living through the Sixth Great Extinction. Never before has a major extinction event happened this rapidly, and never before has it been caused by a single species, but this one is driven almost exclusively by human actions.

The Endangered Species Recipe Book, considers ways to view our ecological moment in the context of our historic interactions with the natural world. A collaboration between the artists Elizabeth Demaray and Hugo Bastidas, this project utilizes historic illustrations, photographs, text that relate to the cooking and preparation of species now endangered or extinct. The resulting works on paper is series of oil paintings. Each painting depicts a lost species along with an excerpt from one of the historic recipes that us humans have used to cook and eat the animal. These individual works are titled with the name of the animal’s species and hung as a group, salon style. The installation is accompanied by wall text that allow viewers to look up each animals colloquial name, and full recipe in English (some of the text depicted is in the recipe’s native language). While the series may not initially resemble a book, Bastidas and Demaray consider each work on paper to be a page in an ever expanding volume dedicated to human consumption.

Two oil painting on paper from the series are pictured below.

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Detail form the Endangered Species Recipe Book: animals that have gone extinct or are going extinct and the recipes that we have used to eat them, 2014

The Caribbean Monk Seal The recipe for the heart of the Caribbean Monk Seal (last seen at Serranilla Bank between Honduras and Jamaica in 1952) reads:

“Un corazón de foca grande

1 c. Migas de pan o arroz cocido

1 cdta. perejil

1/2 cdta. salvia

1/2 cucharadita de sal

1/4 cdta. pimienta

2 cdas. Cebolla en escamas, ablandadas en agua tibia

Las rebanadas de tocino

2 cdas. mantequilla derretida

Directions

  • Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Place the roast into the hot oil and cook, turning frequently, until browned on all sides. Remove from the skillet and place in a slow cooker.
  • Cook onions and salt in the skillet in the meat drippings until tender. Add the garlic and sauté for a few minutes. Stir in the salt and tomato sauce and heat through.
  • Combine the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, chili powder, oregano, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and orange zest; stir into the tomato sauce. Pour the tomato sauce over the roast in the slow cooker. Add potatoes, carrots and celery to the slow cooker.
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Detail form the Endangered Species Recipe Book: animals that have gone extinct or are going extinct and the recipes that we have used to eat them, 2014

Cover the slow cooker and cook on the low setting for 6 to 8 hours, or until meat is tender. Garnish with sliced almonds before serving.

The Great Auk on the other hand was often described as having large eggs and is paired with a recipe, dating from heavy Auk egg collecting, for Eggs With Brown Butter.

Two ounces of butter, on the point of browning,

Two eggs broken in a basin,

Pepper and salt,

One teaspoon of vinegar.

Information about the artists is below.

Ecuadorian-American painter, Hugo Bastidas, is renowned for his large-scale black and white paintings that span geographic and historic time-frames. Bastidas is represented by the Nohra Haime Gallery in New York City. His works are in numerous private and public collections worldwide. Born in Quito, Ecuador, Bastidas moved to the United States with his parents at the age of four. He received a B.F.A. from Rutgers University in New Jersey and M.F.A. from Hunter College in New York City. His art work can be seen at http://www.nohrahaimegallery.com/detailbio.php?id=8 and http://www.hugobastidas.com. Bastidas is an Associate Professor of Art at New Jersey City University, is an instructor at the Art Students League of New York and at the National Academy Museum and School in New York City. He is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, a Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant and is a member of the National Academy in the United States.

Elizabeth Demaray is a visual artist who knits sweaters for plants, fabricates alternative forms of housing for land hermit crabs, and cultures lichen on the sides of skyscrapers in New York City. With the engineer Dr. Qingze Zou, she is currently creating the world’s first ever floraborgs, robotic supports for potted plants, which allow the plants to move freely in search of sunlight and water. Demaray is the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts NYFA Fellowship in Sculpture, the National Studio Award at the New York Museum of Modern Art, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center and was the 2014 Featured Artist at “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” the National Symposium of the Association of Environmental Science Studies. Demaray is an Associate Professor of Fine Arts at Rutgers University Camden and is an Advisor in the Department of Engineering at Rutgers University New Brunswick. Her work can be seen at http://elizbethdemaray.org.

Sweaters for Plants, FloraBorgs and the Songs We Sing at AESS

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Plant Sweater with text from “Welcome To The Anthropocene,”at this year’s Association of Environmental Science Studies (AESS) Conference at Pace University.

I am a sculptor who is interested in my culture’s interactions with the natural world. The pieces that I make often concern the concept of a biotope—small environments that are shared by multiple species, including humans. This work may also involve the notion of “trans-species giving.” Which is an idea that the commonalities between humans and other life forms are such that we humans may be able to give other life forms a “hand-up” however misguided or conceptually hamstrung we may be by our own culture’s interactions with the natural world.

Above, at the side, and at the end of this post are images of Plant Sweaters, 2014, sculptures that involve live plants wearing knit sweaters. I created this 2014 series and a number of other works for “Welcome To The Anthropocene,” an exhibition at this year’s Association of Environmental Science Studies (AESS) Conference at Pace University. The organization gave me a solo exhibition and dedicated a symposium to my artwork in recognition of the ways that the pieces I make have addressed anthropocene issues over the past decade. The exhibition showcased a number of recent works including a live web feed of the IndaPlant Project: http://elizbethdemaray.org/2014/07/21/indaplant-community-live-on-webcam/, the Endangered Species Recipe Book: http://elizbethdemaray.org/2014/10/30/the-endangered-species-recipe-book/, and a updated version of the Songs We Sing that I originally created for the Lloyd in Amsterdam: http://demaray.camden.rutgers.edu/2013/05/24/the-songs-we-sing-amsterdam-at-the-lloyd/

Upon learning of this honor form Jennifer Joy Pawlitschek, the AESS Art Director, I started to consider which pieces that I’ve been working on that might be relevant to the idea of the

The IndaPlant Project: An Act Of Trans-Species Giving—originally beginning as a collaboration between the artist Elizabeth Demaray and the engineer Dr. Qingze Zou—is designed to facilitate the free movement and metabolic function of ordinary houseplants.
The IndaPlant Project: An Act Of Trans-Species Giving—originally beginning as a collaboration between the artist Elizabeth Demaray and the engineer Dr. Qingze Zou—is designed to facilitate the free movement and metabolic function of ordinary houseplants.

“anthropocene.” As an artist who works in eco-art, new media and art and science collaboration, I’m an oddball in the art world. I make works that are not aimed at being sold, are extremely context specific and utilize a wide range of mediums and technologies. My pieces, which are always the result of a constellation of my preoccupations, may at first glance not look like a continuous body of work. In the past, I’ve countered this issue by typically only exhibiting one work at a time. However, when I considered the anthroposcene in the context of my work, I looked around my studio and I realized that everything I make is directly applicable to this concept. My artwork actually belonging here, at this symposium, has really been the oddest and most wonderful experience for me at the AESS conference. During this meeting of environmental studies people, I feel like I’ve finally found my peers and my home.

The dedicated addition of artists at the conference also played a large role in my experience of

SmEndanger_DLG5264
The Endangered Species Recipe Book, oil on paper, 2014 The work is a series of oil paintings on paper picturing an extinct/endangered species paired with text form a specific, historic, recipe that us humans used to cook and eat the animal.

belonging at the symposium. The association allowed me to assist in curating nine other artists directly onto the environmental studies panels. Two other additional superb artist panels, put together by Peter Anderson, additionally added to the number of really extraordinary artists who participated in the conference. The interesting thing about these artists is that many of them had the exact same experience that I did at AESS; the feeling that we had finally found our family in a way that we never had in the art world.

All of this is a long pre-amble to Plant Sweaters, 2014. I began knitting sweaters for plants when I was in graduate school at UC Berkeley in 1997. At the time I wanted to help the natural world, but felt ineffectual in my efforts. The plant sweaters are a result of my desire to manafest this dilemma. Creating this series for Welcome To The Anthropocene at AESS, has afforded me the time to consider the ways that my orientation to this work has changed over the course of my career. I am still interested in my culture’s interactions with the natural world. The only difference is that now I’m feeling the full effect of my efforts.

_DLG5357 Plant Sweaters, 2014, by Elizabeth Demaray. Sculptures that involve live plants wearing knit sweaters.
Plant Sweaters, 2014, by Elizabeth Demaray. Sculptures that involve live plants wearing knit sweaters.

 

11Demaray PlantSweatdet copy

Art and Science Collaboration from the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences

In answer to quarries about art and science collaboration, below is an excerpt from an article I wrote for the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. The text here recounts several of the art and science collaborations concerning ecological issues that I have authored prior to 2011. I’ve also included some of the article’s conclusion which talks about issues concerning funding, dealing with the media and the role that the arts play in innovation. 

I article below details four art projects that I have authored in which science was an integral component and additionally addresses the challenges and rewards inherent in soliciting institutional support, dealing with the media and presenting work in this genre of art making.

As an artist, one of the things that I see in the current state of scientific research is that the study of emergent properties, in areas such as genomic engineering, AI and computer science, finds the scientists of today functioning in an applied fashion. In these fields, researchers make something and then watch to see what it does, which is similar to the way that many artists create artwork. This, coupled with a recognition of the role that the arts play in innovation, seems to have made scientists and scientific institutions increasingly receptive to working with artists. My goal, in presenting artwork in this publication, is illustrate this trend. I used to think that human industry was the greatest threat to the continuation of life on Earth, as we know it. I now both believe and fear that it is our primary hope.

The Hand Up Project: attempting to meet the new needs of natural life forms

The first piece I am going to share is titled The Hand Up Project: attempting to meet the new needs of natural life forms. It is dedicated to land hermit crabs, these are the small crabs with thin exoskeletons that must adopt the abandoned shells from marine gastropods in order to remain housed and protected from predators. The problem is that, right now, there are not enough shells left on global shorelines for this animal to use—so biologists routinely find them living in broken glass jars, plastic bottle tops and any other form of refuge that they can get their pincers on.

Based on what we know about the needs of these animals in their current environment, the Hand Up Project is dedicated to producing alternative forms of housing, specifically designed for use by land hermit crabs, out of biodegradable plastic. The project utilizes an adaptable AutoCAD design and a stereo lithography process for fabrication. The key to this new design is that the spiral in the middle of a traditional shell has been minimized, reducing the overall weight of each house and increasing its internal volume to weight ratio, something that the animal likes.

In its beta version, the Hand Up Project was a great success. Twenty-five percent of the initial crab population chose to move into a new, fabricated, home when presented with the novel structures for a period of two months.

I began this project when I was in the middle of my graduate studies. At the time, I found myself referring to this and other art works that I was making as examples of inappropriate care giving activities.

As might be expected, the project produced what may be the most expensive hermit crab houses ever created and the funding needed to manufacture and distribute the shelters is significant. Although this effort is a minor, genuine attempt to give a struggling life form a hand up, the “art part” of this endeavor centers on the way we propose to fund the new dwellings.  The Hand Up Project is currently soliciting corporate sponsorship in order to fund manufacturing and distribution—by licensing the houses for advertising. In exchange for financial support, the project will produce each plastic shelter bearing a corporate logo before placing the structure back in the wild for the animals to use.

Copor Esurit, or we all deserve a break today

The second project is titled Corpor Esurit, or we all deserve a break today (Copor Esurit is a derivation of a Latin phrase meaning the body hungers). This piece offers a population of ants fast food from McDonald’s for the duration of one month, and considers the impact of the industural food sources on us humans as well as the many other species that, by extension, may also end up being dependent upon modern food production for sustenance.

Commissioned by the Center for Exploritory and Perceptual Arts (CEPA), I paired with an behavioral ecologist form the American Museum of Natural Science and created what may be the worlds largest ant farm featuring a sky line of Buffalo. Spanning 20 feet in its installation at CEPA, the exhibition was built at eye height to facilitate first-hand observation of an animal that is rarely seen at an intimate distance. The exhibit also offered a habitat specifically designed to facilitate the nesting and foraging behavior of ants. Pogonomyrmex occidentalis, the ants chosen for this project, are an ant of choice for commercial ant farms, were they typically reside without a queen, have a life span of between 2 and 3 weeks, and eat a wide variety of foods. The fitness of the population was determined by the population’s longevity and foraging behavior.

demarayAntBox
Nesting part of Copor Esurit habitat. Enclosure is climate controlled and offers vermiculite and other natural materials for tunneling.

Visitors to Corpor Esurit were encouraged to participate in observing the ant’s foraging behavior by drawing diagrams and filling out observational questionnaires in the gallery. These questionnaires helped to identify what foods the ants preferred, and the extent of their foraging behavior. The questioneers also asked viewers to describe their own consumption of junk food. In addressing industrial food production, the interconnected nature of our food chain, and the plight of life all forms facing changing food sources, wall-size menus were posted in the gallery listing the constituents of each human food item offered.

During the course of the exhibition, the colony cleaned house by interning their deceased in specific locations at the perimeter of their foraging areas where they were counted and removed twice a week. The average life expectancy of the ants residing in the exhibit was 23 days, which exceeded their commercial ant farm life expectancy by almost a week.

Ant_longshot
Spanning 20 feet in its installation at CEPA, the exhibition was built at eye height to facilitate first-hand observation of an animal that is rarely seen at an intimate distance. Part of the foraging area is shown here.

Listening Stations for Birds, That Play Human Music

The third project is titled Listening Stations for Birds, That Play Human Music. A collaboration between the artist James Walsh and myself, it considers the fact that although birds are bombarded by human noise on a routine basis, and many species respond to human song, nobody has ever studied what type of human music birds might prefer.

Created for the woods of Abington Art Center in Pennsylvania, a wooded park land and sculpture garden that is surrounded by the suburbs of Philadelphia, this piece also addresses the nature of a biotope–an environment shared by multiple species where human and animal populations overlap.

The exhibition involved installing a series of four sound-emitting sculptures along a secluded nature trail. Each sculpture or “listening station” played its own genre of human music: classical, jazz, country and rock. Perched on twelve-foot tall poles, each station offered a twenty-minute loop of pre-programmed melodies on an internal ipod nano with an external speaker system and a circular tray of wild bird food.

While our purpose was to observe what kind of music birds might like, our motive was to get viewers out into the woods, to interacting with other species and to hopefully consider the impact of our presence on other life forms. So, much like Copor Esurit, we handed out clipboards with observational worksheets. These worksheets asked visitors to go into the woods, to listen to the music that humans produce and to observe which types of music might be preferred by our avian co-habitants.

Lichen for Skyscrapers Project

The last artwork I am going to describe is titled Lichen for Skyscrapers Project. This project seeks to ameliorate the lack of native vegetation found in global cities by culturing lichen on the sides of skyscrapers and other manmade structures. Lichen, a wonderfully adaptable life form, can grow vertically on many porous surfaces. Once propagated, it forms a protective barrier, insulating its supporting surface from harmful elements while serving to lower the cumulative temperatures and rain runoff in metropolitan centers. This, along with the ability to withstand extreme drought, makes lichen an almost ideal form of “houseplant”. This artwork was originally exhibited as part of New York City’s Art in Odd Places Festival in 2011, which was dedicated to the concept of ritual. As part of this festival, Lichen for Skyscrapers proposed lichen planting as a new ritual for the urban dweller–one that seeks to renew nature in an inner-city context.

In support of culturing lichen on buildings, I held walking tours and workshops on propagation. In addition to handing out an informational brochures during the lichen tours, I gave out sample baggies of lichen slurry to anyone who was able to oversee a planting on an urban structure. One of the volunteers on the project began calling this process “lichaffiti,” like graffiti, because all one needs to do to cultivate it, is to open a high-rise window a few inches and then apply lichen slurry on the building’s exterior surface. If the lichen doesn’t take, it will simply dry up and blow away to propagate itself in other more favorable conditions.

Institutional Support

One of the challenges I have found in soliciting institutional support for this work is that, with these pieces, I am interested in simultaneously presenting contradictory qualities. As an artist, it is my aim to present hope, despair and humor all at the same time—being that these pieces often point to the ecologically disastrous but still hopeful point of human production. These artworks may also, in turn, critique institutions, the scientific method, capitalism, design and even human innovation.

In 2007 I presented the Hand up Project to a gathering of scientists and CEO’s from a high-tech global corporation, at a symposium on art and technology. During my presentation on the plight of homeless hermit crabs there was not a dry eye in the house. The higher-ups at the company immediately solicited project information on the artwork, with the intention of possibly funding the dwellings.  At the time, the companies current add campaign was “Innovation That Matters,” which seemed inline with the goal of the project. Unfortunately, I was compelled to submit to the company a well-known article on the project that I had authored for the journal Cabinet Magazine, which confirmed that the corporate logo on each home was indeed a critique of global capitalism. The article also included the fact that I had originally based my designs for the fabricated dwellings on the work of the famous fascist architect Giuseppe Terragni. I had done this during the projects inception because, at the time, I had been thinking a lot about how fascism was at its core an example of inappropriate care giving—which in spirit seemed to me to mirror our own cultural interactions with nature. Needless to say, that additional information doomed the projects chance of being sponsored by the corporation.

Media

Art is a powerful way to bring science and the work of individual scientist’s to a wider audience because this genre of work carries the possibility of generating lots and lots of media coverage. The Cabinet Magazine article that was mentioned above, initiated numerous interviews on the Hand Up Project and led to the artwork being detailed in an essay by Bonnie Rought, that was chosen for Houghton Mifflin’s 2007 Best Science Writing compendium.

On the other hand, Corpor Esurit was profiled on the front page of the New York Times Science Section, which was thrilling. However, the first time contributor to the Times, who wrote the article, didn’t seem to know how to approach writing about art or science, and did not include basic information provided in the installation’s didactics. Instead the writer got the species of ants used in the project wrong, and then went on to question three entomologists, none of whom were familiar with the installation, about whether or not the correct species of ant was used, wholly neglecting any mention of industrial food production or the intent of the piece (see the previous post for the letter that was sent to the Times concerning these errors).

Work in this Genera: Challenges and Rewards

A question I often encounter is where does this work belong? While scientific institutions are increasingly receptive to art and artists, I have noticed that traditional art constituents—collections, galleries and collectors are not greatly interested in a medium that is difficult to categorize, commodity and exhibit.

The heartening part of this practice is however that, when the concepts are clear, the general public loves this kind of art, and this genre can become a superb platform for the dissemination of scientific information. When the Hand Up Project was originally shown as part of an exhibition at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, CA, I would go every day to check on the crabs. And I discovered that the lion’s share of the visitors, in the entire museum, could be found crowded around the hermit crab enclosure, watching the animal’s behavior and considering the new needs of this natural life form.

Corpor Esurit, or we all deserve a break today

The ants, in the Copor Esurit installation came from a commercial ant farm supplier. During the exhibition they tunneled, foraged and made good food choices. The life span of the ants in the installation’s habitat was carefully measured and was, on average, longer than that of ants in a commercial ant farm.

Below is a good overview of “Copor Esurit, or we all need a break today” from the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. The project description is the second one down. I’ve also included some of the article’s conclusion which talks about the NY Times review of the project, mentioned in my last post, under the section on media.

I article below details four art projects that I have authored in which science was an integral component and additionally addresses the challenges and rewards inherent in soliciting institutional support, dealing with the media and presenting work in this genre of art making.

As an artist, one of the things that I see in the current state of scientific research is that the study of emergent properties, in areas such as genomic engineering, AI and computer science, finds the scientists of today functioning in an applied fashion. In these fields, researchers make something and then watch to see what it does, which is similar to the way that many artists create artwork. This, coupled with a recognition of the role that the arts play in innovation, seems to have made scientists and scientific institutions increasingly receptive to working with artists. My goal, in presenting artwork in this publication, is illustrate this trend. I used to think that human industry was the greatest threat to the continuation of life on Earth, as we know it. I now both believe and fear that it is our primary hope.

The Hand Up Project: attempting to meet the new needs of natural life forms

The first piece I am going to share is titled The Hand Up Project: attempting to meet the new needs of natural life forms. It is dedicated to land hermit crabs, these are the small crabs with thin exoskeletons that must adopt the abandoned shells from marine gastropods in order to remain housed and protected from predators. The problem is that, right now, there are not enough shells left on global shorelines for this animal to use—so biologists routinely find them living in broken glass jars, plastic bottle tops and any other form of refuge that they can get their pincers on.

Based on what we know about the needs of these animals in their current environment, the Hand Up Project is dedicated to producing alternative forms of housing, specifically designed for use by land hermit crabs, out of biodegradable plastic. The project utilizes an adaptable AutoCAD design and a stereo lithography process for fabrication. The key to this new design is that the spiral in the middle of a traditional shell has been minimized, reducing the overall weight of each house and increasing its internal volume to weight ratio, something that the animal likes. 

In its beta version, the Hand Up Project was a great success. Twenty-five percent of the initial crab population chose to move into a new, fabricated, home when presented with the novel structures for a period of two months.

I began this project when I was in the middle of my graduate studies. At the time, I found myself referring to this and other art works that I was making as examples of inappropriate care giving activities. 

As might be expected, the project produced what may be the most expensive hermit crab houses ever created and the funding needed to manufacture and distribute the shelters is significant. Although this effort is a minor, genuine attempt to give a struggling life form a hand up, the “art part” of this endeavor centers on the way we propose to fund the new dwellings.  The Hand Up Project is currently soliciting corporate sponsorship in order to fund manufacturing and distribution—by licensing the houses for advertising. In exchange for financial support, the project will produce each plastic shelter bearing a corporate logo before placing the structure back in the wild for the animals to use.

Copor Esurit, or we all deserve a break today

The second project is titled Corpor Esurit, or we all deserve a break today (Copor Esurit is a derivation of a Latin phrase meaning the body hungers)This piece offers a population of ants fast food from McDonald’s for the duration of one month, and considers the impact of the industural food sources on us humans as well as the many other species that, by extension, may also end up being dependent upon modern food production for sustenance.

Commissioned by the Center for Exploritory and Perceptual Arts (CEPA), I paired with an behavioral ecologist form the American Museum of Natural Science and created what may be the worlds largest ant farm featuring a sky line of Buffalo. Spanning 20 feet in its installation at CEPA, the exhibition was built at eye height to facilitate first-hand observation of an animal that is rarely seen at an intimate distance. The exhibit also offered a habitat specifically designed to facilitate the nesting and foraging behavior of ants. Pogonomyrmex occidentalis, the ants chosen for this project, are an ant of choice for commercial ant farms, were they typically reside without a queen, have a life span of between 2 and 3 weeks, and eat a wide variety of foods. The fitness of the population was determined by the population’s longevity and foraging behavior.

demarayAntBox
Nesting part of Copor Esurit habitat. Enclosure is climate controlled and offers vermiculite and other natural materials for tunneling.

Visitors to Corpor Esurit were encouraged to participate in observing the ant’s foraging behavior by drawing diagrams and filling out observational questionnaires in the gallery. These questionnaires helped to identify what foods the ants preferred, and the extent of their foraging behavior. The questioneers also asked viewers to describe their own consumption of junk food. In addressing industrial food production, the interconnected nature of our food chain, and the plight of life all forms facing changing food sources, wall-size menus were posted in the gallery listing the constituents of each human food item offered.

During the course of the exhibition, the colony cleaned house by interning their deceased in specific locations at the perimeter of their foraging areas where they were counted and removed twice a week. The average life expectancy of the ants residing in the exhibit was 23 days, which exceeded their commercial ant farm life expectancy by almost a week.

Ant_longshot
Spanning 20 feet in its installation at CEPA, the exhibition was built at eye height to facilitate first-hand observation of an animal that is rarely seen at an intimate distance. Part of the foraging area is shown here.

Listening Stations for Birds, That Play Human Music

The third project is titled Listening Stations for Birds, That Play Human Music. A collaboration between the artist James Walsh and myself, it considers the fact that although birds are bombarded by human noise on a routine basis, and many species respond to human song, nobody has ever studied what type of human music birds might prefer.

Created for the woods of Abington Art Center in Pennsylvania, a wooded park land and sculpture garden that is surrounded by the suburbs of Philadelphia, this piece also addresses the nature of a biotope–an environment shared by multiple species where human and animal populations overlap.

The exhibition involved installing a series of four sound-emitting sculptures along a secluded nature trail. Each sculpture or “listening station” played its own genre of human music: classical, jazz, country and rock. Perched on twelve-foot tall poles, each station offered a twenty-minute loop of pre-programmed melodies on an internal ipod nano with an external speaker system and a circular tray of wild bird food.

While our purpose was to observe what kind of music birds might like, our motive was to get viewers out into the woods, to interacting with other species and to hopefully consider the impact of our presence on other life forms. So, much like Copor Esurit, we handed out clipboards with observational worksheets. These worksheets asked visitors to go into the woods, to listen to the music that humans produce and to observe which types of music might be preferred by our avian co-habitants.

Lichen for Skyscrapers Project

The last artwork I am going to describe is titled Lichen for Skyscrapers ProjectThis project seeks to ameliorate the lack of native vegetation found in global cities by culturing lichen on the sides of skyscrapers and other manmade structures. Lichen, a wonderfully adaptable life form, can grow vertically on many porous surfaces. Once propagated, it forms a protective barrier, insulating its supporting surface from harmful elements while serving to lower the cumulative temperatures and rain runoff in metropolitan centers. This, along with the ability to withstand extreme drought, makes lichen an almost ideal form of “houseplant”. This artwork was originally exhibited as part of New York City’s Art in Odd Places Festival in 2011, which was dedicated to the concept of ritual. As part of this festival, Lichen for Skyscrapers proposed lichen planting as a new ritual for the urban dweller–one that seeks to renew nature in an inner-city context.

In support of culturing lichen on buildings, I held walking tours and workshops on propagation. In addition to handing out an informational brochures during the lichen tours, I gave out sample baggies of lichen slurry to anyone who was able to oversee a planting on an urban structure. One of the volunteers on the project began calling this process “lichaffiti,” like graffiti, because all one needs to do to cultivate it, is to open a high-rise window a few inches and then apply lichen slurry on the building’s exterior surface. If the lichen doesn’t take, it will simply dry up and blow away to propagate itself in other more favorable conditions.

Institutional Support

One of the challenges I have found in soliciting institutional support for this work is that, with these pieces, I am interested in simultaneously presenting contradictory qualities. As an artist, it is my aim to present hope, despair and humor all at the same time—being that these pieces often point to the ecologically disastrous but still hopeful point of human production. These artworks may also, in turn, critique institutions, the scientific method, capitalism, design and even human innovation.

In 2007 I presented the Hand up Project to a gathering of scientists and CEO’s from a high-tech global corporation, at a symposium on art and technology. During my presentation on the plight of homeless hermit crabs there was not a dry eye in the house. The higher-ups at the company immediately solicited project information on the artwork, with the intention of possibly funding the dwellings.  At the time, the companies current add campaign was “Innovation That Matters,” which seemed inline with the goal of the project. Unfortunately, I was compelled to submit to the company a well-known article on the project that I had authored for the journal Cabinet Magazine, which confirmed that the corporate logo on each home was indeed a critique of global capitalism. The article also included the fact that I had originally based my designs for the fabricated dwellings on the work of the famous fascist architect Giuseppe Terragni. I had done this during the projects inception because, at the time, I had been thinking a lot about how fascism was at its core an example of inappropriate care giving—which in spirit seemed to me to mirror our own cultural interactions with nature. Needless to say, that additional information doomed the projects chance of being sponsored by the corporation.

Media

Art is a powerful way to bring science and the work of individual scientist’s to a wider audience because this genre of work carries the possibility of generating lots and lots of media coverage. The Cabinet Magazine article that was mentioned above, initiated numerous interviews on the Hand Up Project and led to the artwork being detailed in an essay by Bonnie Rought, that was chosen for Houghton Mifflin’s 2007 Best Science Writing compendium.

On the other hand, Corpor Esurit was profiled on the front page of the New York Times Science Section, which was thrilling. However, the first time contributor to the Times, who wrote the article, didn’t seem to know how to approach writing about art or science, and did not include basic information provided in the installation’s didactics. Instead the writer got the species of ants used in the project wrong, and then went on to question three entomologists, none of whom were familiar with the installation, about whether or not the correct species of ant was used, wholly neglecting any mention of industrial food production or the intent of the piece (see the previous post for the letter that was sent to the Times concerning these errors).

Work in this Genera: Challenges and Rewards

A question I often encounter is where does this work belong? While scientific institutions are increasingly receptive to art and artists, I have noticed that traditional art constituents—collections, galleries and collectors are not greatly interested in a medium that is difficult to categorize, commodity and exhibit.

The heartening part of this practice is however that, when the concepts are clear, the general public loves this kind of art, and this genre can become a superb platform for the dissemination of scientific information. When the Hand Up Project was originally shown as part of an exhibition at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, CA, I would go every day to check on the crabs. And I discovered that the lion’s share of the visitors, in the entire museum, could be found crowded around the hermit crab enclosure, watching the animal’s behavior and considering the new needs of this natural life form.

PRESS UPDATE:

As an animal rights activist and artist I was pleased to see the article “Artists vs. Animals: 15 Artists Who Have Enraged Animal Rights Activists” attached to an article about an artist who makes paintings via fly puke (their word not mine)  in the the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/16/fly-puke-paintings_n_3605267.html#slide=1755206. I was however, understandably, dismayed to see that one of my own pieces is included in this infamous lineup. In justice to us readers of the Huffington Post, it should be pointed out that the inclusion of work “Copro Esurit, or we all deserve a break today” in the article is misleading–or at the very least in need of qualification. The animal rights website that had initial concerns about the piece publicly declared that no ants were hurt in the making of the project: http://animalnewyork.com/2010/art-piece-was-not-a-mcdonalds-death-farm-for-ants/. Marina Galperina, the author of that post states in the article 10 Controversial Works of Art Using Live Animals “At first Elizabeth Demaray’s Corpor Esurit installation sounds horrifying: Lots and lots of ants sequestered into two chambers, one for their colony to nest in and the other, down a plexiglass tube, filled with McDonald’s food products that they’re forced to gorge on… Only, not really. Ants usually eat seeds, fruit, and plant material, and so they did — nibbling on apples, the seeds on the buns, and the insides of chicken nuggets, which are mostly corn anyway. The ants are fine. ”

A NY Times article about the project contained a major error, the type of ant used, and much information on the project was not included in the review. While the exhibition curators were thrilled about the attention that the article generated, Dr. Chris Johnson and I spent  several weeks tracking down well-concerned writers in the blogosphere who had concluded that we were hurting ants. In a letter to the Times I stated:

To the Editor: 

I am pleased that the Science Times chose to dedicate a quarter page to “Corpor Esurit, or we all deserve a break today” (8/24/10), an art piece that I created in consultation with the respected animal behaviorist Dr. Chris Johnson, and several zoological institutions that keep ants. However, the review was incorrect regarding the species of ant in the exhibition and neglected a few important details.

 Pogonomyrmex occidentalis, the species of ant that is actually housed in the exhibition, is also a harvester ant and, like the Pogonomyrmex barbatus—the species discussed in the article, it is an ant of choice for commercial ant farms, where it typically reside without a queen or brood. Pogonomyrmex occidentalis was not chosen at random but selected after careful consideration of its diurnal activity, foraging distance and nesting behavior, and of the wide array of seed foods and non-seed proteins it consumes. 

The exhibit itself was funded by a grant from the Center for Exploratory and Perceptual Arts in Buffalo, and was built at eye height to facilitate first-hand observation of an animal that is rarely seen at an intimate distance. It includes a climate-controlled nesting area and offers these animals ideal tunneling material and foraging space. Observational questionnaires filled out by visitors to the gallery indicate that the ants are actively foraging for a wide variety of food items, while handouts listing the constituents of each food choice indicate that many of them are derived from seeds such as wheat and corn. Longevity in the population was also addressed at a gallery talk that Dr. Johnson and I gave on July 11th. The average life span of Pogonomyrmex occidentalis in an ant farm is less than a month. During the course of the exhibit, the colony cleaned house by interring their deceased in specific locations at the perimeter of their foraging areas.

This project is a consideration of industrial food production, the interconnected nature of our food chain, and the plight of life forms, including humans, facing changing food sources and habitats. I look forward to seeing all of these topics addressed in future sections of the Science Times.

 Sincerely yours,

 Elizabeth Demaray

A good overview of the project can be found at the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences and is partially reprinted in the post below.