Author: Scott Kildall

Interview with Tasneem Khan and Andy Quitmeyer

Last month, at the conclusion of my time at Dinacon, I interviewed the two organizers: Tasneem Khan and Andy Quitmeyer. This was a special time and I was grateful for the opportunity to get their thoughts before I left.

Andy Quitmeyer and Tasneem Khan, towards the end of Dinacon

Scott Kildall: Hi! Would each of you please give a short self-introduction?

Andy: I’m Andy Quitmeyer and am a researcher, who is studying how we can use interactive technology to help us explore nature and other living creatures.

Tasneem: I’m Tasneem Khan and am a researcher and am exploring the idea of using place-based learning with different learner groups to understand how immersive experiences in ecosystems might affect responses.

Scott: And how did you two meet each other?

Andy: Tasneem sent me a random email that said something like “hi, I’m a friend of a friend who said I should check out your work and I’m going to be in Singapore soon”, which is where I was living. And a few weeks later we had lunch. My reaction was “holy crap you’re awesome and driven, let’s run a giant conference together”. And Tasneem was game for it.

Tasneem: We literally discussed that just a half an hour into our lunch. I loved the idea of running it and mixing both our styles. I’ve worked with running programs for large groups of people in weird remote places and Andy has done a lot of exploring and teaching with the concept of “digital naturalism.”

Scott: So you jumped into doing this conference but both had a pretty complimentary background in running conferences and organizing people. So it wasn’t that you came without inexperience just not of working with one another.

Tasneem: Not really. I have had experience with learning groups, curating residencies and collaborative expeditions, but not conferences of this scale.

Andy: Yeah, this is new for both of us. I’ve organized expeditions and workshops but never anything on this scale. This is easily eight to ten times bigger than anything I’ve ever done before.

Drones-eye view of Koh Lon

Scott: Maybe it’s time to explain what Dinacon is. Why do you call it a conference because it being here sure doesn’t feel like one. It feels more like a residency or a hacker camp.

Andy: Dinacon is a six week conference that Tasneem and I are running with the help of lots of other amazing wonderful people. It’s primarily targeted originally towards interaction designers, artists, and field biologist but we’re open to anyone who’s interested in any of these commingling ideas.

Tasneem: I’d say that Dinacon is the coming together of people, which is a conference in the most literal sense. We decided to do it because of a common ideology towards how people should work regardless of their areas of expertise. We believe people can work in a better environment to collaborate in a specific space and apply their expertise to both the field and to real life.

Andy: Yes, it also emerged from a common disappointment in how conferences are often run with a rigid structure where many people care more about what they can put on their C.V. than the actual conference itself. So, we wanted to undo the things that are not so great about conferences and open up the structure and give people time. It’s important to have both freedom and time to relax and soak in both the natural context and the impact of all these amazing people around you.

Scott: Great. And where are we right now? What is the conference venue for Dinacon?

Tasneem: We’ve chosen a tropical island — Koh Lon — which is a small Island off the Southeastern side of Phuket in Thailand. The reason we specifically chose this site, as opposed to any other of the hundred islands you have around here is the proximity to Phuket. This was our first conference of this scale and we had a hundred and thirty people expected from all over the world, most of whom we hadn’t met before. So from a logistics and safety point of view this made a lot of sense, it’s a ten minute boat ride away from a big city, hospitals, airports, anything, one might need provisions and so forth.

Andy: But we’re still quite on our own.

Tasneem: Yes. The great part about it is that the island a has population of only a couple of hundred people. You have access to pristine forest on one hand and the ocean on the other. In terms of selecting a location beyond practicality, one of the things we really wanted was to give people access to a cross-section of environments and Koh Lon gives us that — everything from the ocean to the forest and a range of connecting systems in between.

Workshop in the Dinacon “headquarters”

Andy: The main facilities of our conference are a big main tropical jungle house, that’s the central area, let us call it the headquarters. In front of that is a large campground, a grassy field that’s also surrounded by jungle and a beachfront, as well as little cabins that people can rent out at a pretty subsidized rate.

We also have the Diva Andaman, which is a glorious ship that we were able to use with the generosity of Yannick Mazy, the owner of Diva Marine. So, people can work on the beach, they can work out at sea, they can go voyage off into the forest and just soak in everything and really rapidly test whatever kinds of devices or art projects or things that they want to do that involve nature and just test it right away with the natural resources there.

The one and only Diva Andaman

Scott: Wow. And then with all these sites of activities, what’s the role of chance encounters? What’s the intention here about how people might be interacting?

Andy: I see my role as a conference organizer to heighten serendipity, and so I just try to mix together loads of interesting factors: nature, the people, the places, the devices they might be able to use and just try to increase the chances that these things might lead someone, for example, to make a cool hermit crab project.

Tasneem: With my practice in general and this attempt to push interdisciplinary work across subjects and across spaces. I view it like Andy said but also as way to think through the experience and ask questions – like, what are the kinds of people we want to bring in? What are the kinds of people we hope to attract? What is the work that we have no idea about that can surprise and illuminate each other.

Do this, while curating how can the aspects of place influence people’s work and interactions 

What we make available to participants can change the way they work, the way they think, who they interact with and what they produce in that space.

We have intentionally not put in too much work into programming activities every day because we want that to be organic and flow from the participants and from the place but what we have put a lot of effort into thinking about what to make accessible and the experiences to create for people in order to trigger and drive that enthusiasm and inspiration to work with each other and with the place.

Scott: So then, how did you select these people? Was there an application process? How did you pull through that process and how did you promote these diverse networks?

Andy: We had lots of forms for people to fill out. [laughter]

Scott: It was not bad at all.

Tasneem: We were trying to steer away from the overly bureaucratic approach to conferences and all the ways people need to prove themselves – like you’d only be allowed to enter the conference if you had a certain paper to present. Also, we wanted to be cognizant that that many people don’t have money through institutional backing to spend on a conference.

We still had a couple of basic forms. Andrew’s great social media network and ability to reach out to people made a big difference.

Andy: In order for people to get here, we first had just a super simple initial application form, which we sent around. Anyone could apply. It asked people what they might want to do here and to share an idea of what they would spend there time doing.

We also wanted to convey the understanding that a project might change in the next six months between when you think of your idea and then when it gets closer coming here and then of course once you’re on the island, everyone’s ideas blow up or somehow transform.

We had some different criteria because one thing about having an extended kind of conference like this is that it makes certain time slots a bit trickier. So like if everybody wants to come the first of July or something like that, it was a bit harder for us to choose some people. Then we asked people to open their dates be flexible and move around because we tried to fit in as many people as possible.   

Tasneem: We tried to ensure that we had no more than forty people on a single day. So one of the big criteria was just practicality and logistics. If people were willing to move around, they could be most often be slotted in.

Andy: Given our extremely minimal application process, if the applicants showed that they were genuinely interested in Dinacon, that was something I think we evaluated more positively than whatever their project was. We looked at how interested did this person seem about the place, about the people and about the kind of tools they work with.

Tasneem: Many people wanted to come and just learn, but we felt that they needed to be making and doing something that other people can learn from as well. Therefore, one of the main things we were looking at in applications, was their own project ideas and intent.

Hermit Crab Behavior by Margaret Minsky

Scott: So that brings up the three rules of Dinacon…Dinacon pronounced like a dinosaur right?

Andy: I think it depends where you come from I think technically since its the digital naturalism conference, that you’d be dinna-con

Scott: that sounds like a British person saying dinner.

Andy: Yeah exactly.

Tasneem: Which is another thing by the way, so we have been have a subculture of  ‘dinna-con’ that has emerged for people who like to cook, forage, eat and experiment with food.

[laughter]

Andy: But at least from an American perspective of a kid who likes dinosaurs, it’s totally Dinacon.

Scott: OK. So what are the three rules of Dinacon?

Tasneem: First, you have to make something, so it puts emphasis on the creation and your own thought process in the context of our location. Then, you have to document it because we’re all for making things available or accessible and not storing them away on your shelf or in a journal. So you have to share what you do in whichever format you like and finally take the time to engage with, review and provide feedback on somebody else’s work. So those are the 3 rules. To make, document and review.

Andy: They’re still based off this idea of how our academic conferences work but in a kind of inverted model. Instead of writing a paper and then get it pre-reviewed by a bunch of busy people who tend to not have time to give anything but a quick glimpse and be like “oh, well they didn’t cite blah blah-blah.”

So instead inverting that and proposing “Hey, you’re still going to be productive here.” I think people tend to be more productive here than a lot of other conferences, and you’re still going to get valued feedback from people in the rest of your community. Another thing we’re talking about is a real key factor of Dinacon is taking people from very different fields and showing them that their work can be valued by and meaningful to people across these invisible borders we set up.

Tasneem: Here, your work can be reviewed by anybody who is from a completely different field of practice, place and perspective.

Andy: An artist can review a field biologist paper, who can review someone’s robot design.

I think that will truly test how effective your work is in terms of – have people being able to understand and relate to your work. Have people been able to apply it or at least generate ideas that deal with you and your work? That forces an interdisciplinary approach to push people to step outside their comfort zone and express themselves in new formats rather just a written paper. There’s nothing wrong with the paper, but we are asking how can we communicate that in different ways.

The forest/jungle of Koh Lon

Scott: Excellent. So then, can you talk briefly about the term Digital Naturalism? Is it one that you made up? I didn’t find that defined on Wikipedia.

Andy: Digital Naturalism was the subject of my PhD. Research. So in essence, I just made it up. What I was looking to do was taking all of this digital technology that we have available which is really fascinating for looking at nature because it’s the first new medium that we have that can really enact behaviors. If you think about animals, they can take input from the environment, they can sense things and they can also react to the environment, they can move, they can create light, they can make sounds, they can do all these kinds of actions that contribute back to the environment.

You can get these behavior cycles and networks of things interacting with each other and then you have computer technology which is kind of the first technology we have that can also do this: it can take in inputs from its sensors, it can buzz, it can beep, it can turn on LEDs, so it can communicate back. What I’m really fascinated by is how we can use this interactive digital technology to join into these networks of natural interactions and create these dynamic systems between creatures and computers and see what happens. This is a bit in contrast to the way a lot of technology gets used with looking at nature and a lot of sciences.

And that’s where it has much more of just a pure utilitarian use. There’s a bunch of things happening in nature. We want to extract all of this data and then do something with it.

Such as find out where the oil is, see how we can get the honeybees to pollinate our field better, something like that but instead —  well, that’s why it’s digital naturalism, it’s not digital science, it’s not digital field biology because it’s going back to the naturalistic roots of field biology that’s more concerned with learning about creatures and systems for the sake of learning about them and experiencing them in visceral interesting ways and doing this more out of a love and appreciation for nature. That can also be quite useful, can be quite enlightening to people but its basis is more in love then utility.

Tasneem: I just wanted to add to that often scientists or biologists are out there working in the field and you have all this amazing equipment and technology that exists that works really well in laboratories. However, if you look at the sphere of field equipment that can actually survive and do the work that the people serving, probing and studying nature or the environment need with them, it’s so limiting and that’s because the people who develop the technology are very rarely actually embedded in the space where the technology has to be used.

So I guess what Andy’s PhD was about in many ways, the idea that it stemmed from was this need to go out there and build in context and without it having to cost a fortune.

Scott: Directly related to this is the idea you two mentioned to me last week called “place-based learning”. So maybe you can talk about that in the context of this question, how have you seen that working in the jungle or on the boat has affected people’s work from their proposals to the actuality?

Andy: Oh it’s a lovely mutation that we have been witnessing. Two main things that I see a lot at Dinacon that makes me happy is intergenerational knowledge transfer within Dinacon, you have people coming and going from Koh Lon. The older guard will demonstrate, for example, how to open a coconut. The new people learn from the elders at Dinacon and so knowledge is transferred but then also there is a parallel mutation of practices that we see where someone wants to make this thing and then someone else might contribute something sideways, like “oh here’s this kind of stuff that I do with these weird leaves or these type of corkscrew devices” and then the first person says “huh, I’m going to incorporate that into my design” and then suddenly you have these writhing, wriggling bamboo creatures that are different than either of the original people were even thinking about the beginning.

Island Caterpillar by Hannah Wolfe

Scott: Tasneem, I’m wondering if you can tell me a little bit more? I hadn’t really heard of place-based learning which means in my wide readership, hundreds of thousands of people will not have heard of place based learning, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that really is.

Tasneem: Place-based learning is a big subject, but I will talk about it in the context of Dinacon. Let’s return to one of the initial questions of why eight weeks and how did we designed this? A lot of the way that I think learning happens comes from that act of allowing time in a space in a particular place. If you go back to the origins of art, science or philosophy it all stems from extended observation of systems that then led to inquiry, thought and expression. The subsequent subject divisions are just based on the ways of thinking and the methods we then choose.

Much about ‘learning from place and in context’ is about giving yourself the opportunity to do that if you give yourself the time to explore. One of our main goals has been that, to provide people time embedded in a particular place before going so far as to learning about it, to push them to ask the questions, to spend extended duration of time observing and then asking questions and then moving forward to the next step of whether it’s experimenting, creating or learning from.

Place-based learning is basically that: how do we learn the things that we otherwise compartmentalize in the subject of biology, engineering, sociology or whatever the subject you might choose to look at physics or robotics or chemistry.  How you will remove those barriers and illuminate the context of the place you’re living in. What can one extract from a space and you’ll notice that it’s actually a huge mesh of interconnection of all these different subjects. I can’t start answering questions about the water or the ocean without addressing the chemistry of the water, the composition of the water, the physics of what happens when you go to 1 meter below the surface of the water, the biology of what actually lives in one single drop of water and so on.

So I would say in a sentence — well I don’t want to be defining place-based learning because it’s already defined by many experts — but to me, place-based learning is to be able to learn in context without subject barriers, so more of the emphasis is on the method of learning rather than a linear process. So even though this is not a class it’s a group of people who are yet to explore their own subjects and interests all feeding off and learning from the common systems they are situated at.

All the people and projects at Dinacon have gone through a process of metamorphosis — they came in with an idea (which is why we didn’t put too many constraints on how they have to make their proposal) then the place and people in it affected that idea.

The place has helped refine the question and define the methodology that they then use. We’ve seen that with so many people. Jennifer, for instance, came to do work on this project with food, eating, foraging and documenting herself eating things that she’s collected but she ended up discovering so much – like finer aspects of how to make salt and she then spent her time collecting seawater and making different kinds of salt, which for her was a revelation.

For instance, she explored how one can extract formic acid from a weaver ant  and then use it in the right way to add flavor to a salad. So, her work was not something that I had given much thought to before she came here but it was so rewarding to see how people’s learning process and then the practice and the output can transform.

It wasn’t anything we did, it was just what she observed from the ants and from the ocean, what she learning from other scientists and practitioners, how she then chose to apply it — that’s what place-based learning is.

Scott: Wow. Excellent. Shifting gears here…can you tell me about the different areas for making. What do you have available?

Andy: In terms of the facilities we have a whole suite of interactive electronics, prototyping stuff, zillions of different types of sensors, actuators, motors, breadboards, soldering irons, different things that you would see in an interactive electronics labs, a whole crap ton of Arduinos, the various different flavors and shapes and sizes and powers and things like that.

We also have mold-making equipment for doing casting and natural forms, we have biological workbenches with microscopes, vials, tubes, insect aspirators. We have a whole textile zone, so we have sewing machines, buckles, zippers, fabrics. We have yarn crafting stuff like yarn, plastic yarn, needle, a loom.

Tasneem: Lots of art and craft stuff. So I mean anything you might need from bits of copper strips to glue of every kind and tapes.

Andy: Sharp cutting knifes and hand tools and power tools like drills. little mini projectors, robotic arms that have different heads on them, which can function as 3D printers or laser engravers.

Tasneem: We have a vinyl cutter, a sticker cutter. Since we’re on an island and electricity is diesel generated and that’s not always reliable and it’s not very sustainable, so we’ve set up solar panels as part of our collaboration with Yannick. And we have electricity pretty much all the time, even in the storms.

Island take away sound glasses by Mónica Rikić

Scott: What were some of your expectations with this event and in which ways were the expectations met and what were some of the surprises both positively and negatively?

Andy: It feels a little weird to say but it kind of came out how I expected. We got a bunch of weirdos together and we put them in a really amazing place and things started taking off and they really enjoy working with each other, chatting, cooking, living, sharing tons of cool ideas and that’s kind of what I expected. I was a little bit primed for that from experiences of other places that had kind of similar models that we built off of like PIFCamp in Slovenia or the Signal Fire Arts Residency.

So we’ve kind of seen this model in action a bit before but what I was not as much prepared for is how well it would work and the caliber of the people and how many just brought it when they got there.

Tasneem: People come in for one or two weeks, they arrive with such great energy and they’re willing to give all seven or fourteen days – everything they have which is a great vibe— because we all feed off each other’s energy.

Andy: I think maybe one thing I didn’t expect as much, not a good or bad way but I kind of the life cycle of a person here at Dinacon where the first like a day or two, they’re kind of in a daze and they just show up and are confused or just stoking things in their brain, or maybe swollen with all kinds of crazy stuff.

Tasneem: A sensory overload!

Andy: Totally. So then they start jumping on it and then something switches and then they’re starting interesting projects and they’re helping out with the next round of dazed new people who are coming in. Then they realize “oh, I have to leave.” It’s always too early.

Andy, always hamming it up

Scott: How long do people stay here at Dinacon?

Tasneem: One of the things that was intentional was to not have a structure that would define how this must run. So we left it open to participants to choose how long they would stay. I do however feel strongly about extended time — whenever I’ve run programs for students I notice that nothing less than seven days is something I want to engage with. Because when you work with this model of immersing someone in a new environment and the whole idea of trans-locality and what people learn from a new place, you have to acknowledge that fact that the body and all your senses together need time to absorb, assimilate and then respond in a new environment.

For example, for someone who has never been to Asia before, they suddenly find themselves staying in the jungle and riding on a boat… with new sounds, new smells, a new time zone and new flavors. You’re surrounded by all sorts of people and so much information being thrown at every part of your body that you need to give yourself time to take in, to reflect. So in terms of an expectation, I wish that everyone had stayed for a minimum of seven days.

Andy: Yeah I think I think that’s about the average stay of a person here is six days, the longest stay I think has been about twenty days. You’re around that.

Scott: It’s been incredible.

Tasneem: You and Vanessa and I think a few others…you can see the work, the outcomes, the collaboration and the interaction in general around people who stay for long is different from the ones who just got a brief taste of it.

Andy: So our original rules we set up was just something like minimum three days, maximum three weeks and the three day minimum was in response to academic conferences, which often only last three days.

Scott: Can you describe like what might happen in a single day in Dinacon.

Andy: For a slice of a single day maybe people wake up, people kind of slowly getting up at different times. The kitchen might be busy with people cooking different leftovers, things like that, people kind of waking up, getting into the day, someone’s busting out the soldering iron already and like you know carving into some bamboo, making a fun robot caterpillar and then maybe someone decides to take a kayak trip around the island and so they lead people off.

Meanwhile, other people are collecting people saliva to look at the crystallizations of different hormones in them throughout the day and then you’ll have…

Tasneem: A lot of building happening, people making things like robots and working on project boards to actually outdoor building and bamboo crafts.

Andy: Yeah and then usually people are kind of snacking throughout the day, getting some kind of lunch, again it’s still pretty informal. Towards the afternoon there usually tends to be a spike in activity. We have an online forum chat room where we’re keeping each other updated, so maybe the kayak people say, “Hey, we found this weird creature, we’re going to you know bring it back to the microscope” and then someone’s coordinating bringing the microscope back from the ship and people are kind of talking about different things that they’ve shared throughout the day and then maybe food will come in, people might organize a beautiful sunset yoga, suddenly the giant flying foxes — huge bats — come out and people gather around to see that, maybe we go see someone do a presentation or an art performance outdoors or indoors and then suddenly someone posts a message that the water is glowing and they found a bunch of bioluminescence and then everyone runs out to the ocean to start exploring and investigating what’s going on. Why is it glowing and how do you make it glow? So there’s a lot of these serendipitous moments that appear throughout.

Tasneem: And the whole programming of it is also intentionally informal, we have a couple of boards which everyone collectively builds schedules on and general information about the day is put up. And then there’s a online chat room which functions as a board for announcements and coordination as Andy was saying, so if someone feels like sharing their work or going out for a walk or setting up sensors on plants, they usually put it out there and open it up for anyone else who is interested to come and join them, help them, learn from them or contribute to the work maybe with other devices and expertise. So it sort of creates potential for multiple parallel activities and you can plug into anything that you’re interested or create your own. The evenings because of the group dinner, tends to become an interesting reflection, sharing of information, sharing of exciting things that happened that day and every so often semiformal presentations.

Random Forests exercise, one of the many ad-hoc workshops

Scott: Can you talk about what are some of the logistical challenges? It sounds crazy to me and how do you maintain your own energy and positivity?

Tasneem: Like you said this is our project. Curating this experience and seeing it actually come to life is so exciting and the fact that it’s all going so well, puts us in a high-energy state.

Andy: We just kind of roll with it all. Even if I’m like crushing through hours on the spreadsheet that’s just a monstrosity and figuring out what the hell’s going on, it’s still a pleasant experience because of how much joy and activity is going on around you and you know if things get too intense I just go walk around in the forest, go take a swim, the nature kind of revives you.

Tasneem: It helps you put things in perspective. It’s not so tragic if somebody misses a boat for instance, it’s all okay in the larger scheme of events.

Scott: Andy was the one who saw me when I came off the boat when I was like spaghetti noodles were flowing out of my head. [laughter]

Tasneem: And that comes back to what you said of people arriving and how do they that sort of metamorphosize and they learn to sit back and loosen up a bit.

Andy: Yes, many people on their arrival here, they’re upset that the boat was an hour late and they are upset but then they realize it’s okay in the larger scheme of things – it’s a part of working in the field – there is so much to learn in the adventure itself.

Tasneem: We have a lot more confidence we can fix pretty much everything and like Andy was saying it’s got a zillion moving parts but if you were to complete a breakdown the logistics actually, there are a couple of main principles that hold it together — it’s the people primarily.

So we need to keep track of people coming and going to the best of our ability with 56 days of arrival and 56 days of departure. Maybe some sort of grouping would be wiser but then again it wouldn’t have allowed people the flexibility they had this time. In terms of like the moving parts, there are many and those change every day. So that just needs us to be attentive and responsive and be willing to play back and forth with it.

But in terms of the key logistics that hold it together, it’s the people and detailed information on them, any sort of serious medical conditions that we need to be aware of and things like that. Food and water availability for everyone. We were able to make available to participants, the environment and tools that they would need, so we’ve really had to make that most accessible.

And in terms of those four verticals (arrival/departure; health and safety; food/water; Place/access/toold) if we’re able to keeps those together, I think everything else is fluid and manageable.

Scott: I also want to ask about the code of conduct and how do you get people to cooperate and treat each other respectfully? It has been drama-free as far as I can tell.

Andy: Our code of conduct, it’s kind of based off of two things, one from the Signal Fire Arts Residency, they do these backpacking hikes that are also art residencies, so they have all of these different people who’ve never met each other living in close quarters, doing stressful intense kind of things together and bonding in different ways and so we adapted a lot of things with their permission because I always thought it was a good code of conduct. That basically sums up to – don’t be an asshole, like if someone asks you to stop being an asshole, you know listen to them and don’t continue that process.

Tasneem: If we really had trouble we could ask someone to leave, that was specified in the code of conduct — but nothing has even remotely lead to something like of that nature. I guess it’s really that simple, if you’re respectful and you respect peoples boundaries and equipment, belongings and practice. And everyone’s been as expected, very nice to each other. When new people come in, even people who have been here a while take the time to show them around. And share their work and that’s it and it’s been as simple as that actually and fortunately we’ve never had to go into the details of the code of conduct that we made.

Andy: The other half of the code of conduct comes from, this other big strange wonderful art project called the SV Seeker, where this guy is making his own opens source research vessel for scientists and he’s doing it his backyard in Tulsa, Oklahoma and he basically has built an apartment for any kinds of artists or engineers to like go live there and help him well, then grind stuff on the ship and build parts of the ship and before you go there you have to sign this code conduct that basically is like radical self-responsibility, that like hey you’re coming you need to bring everything that will keep you alive and healthy, you are entirely responsible for all aspects of yourself and so I think between really stressing that with the participant, you know take care of yourself like you’re responsible for all of your own actions and then don’t be a dick to other people. It’s turned into a good mix and I think everyone got that.

Tasneem: No one’s pushed those boundaries.

Scott: In the future, where might this take place and how would you improve this event?

Andy: Yeah definitely, we’re going to have Dinacon 2.

Tasneem: Yes that’s always been the plan.I mean that’s the whole point, we’re not doing this conference because we had a few thousand dollars left over that we had to use in the conference budget. We put this together because it was a part of a larger dream and ideology.

Andy: It came from ourselves and this is what we want to do with our lives.

Tasneem: And given that the response and the participation in the outcomes are so exciting, we are learning from every step along the way, there’s no question of not doing it again and the only question would be where are we doing it again.

Andy: we didn’t know where we were doing this until like October of last year and so we still got a couple months.

Tasneem: I guess once we wrap up here, we’d be actively thinking about that and we’ve thought about several very good ideas in other places, like South America, who knows? Lets see. In terms of doing things differently, I think in essence we are happy with how it’s gone, we might make adjustment to certain logistical aspects but that would be site specific, depending on where it is.

Scott: Anything else you would change?

Andy: No maybe different contract styles with the place for rental but that’s just logistics.

Tasneem: Yeah pushing the participants a little bit more to tell us what date they’re arriving without being too pushy.

Scott: Great and where can people learn more about Dinacon? Is there is a website?

Andy: there is a website, you can go to Dinacon.org and that’s where you have contact information for me and Tasneem and you’ll be able to see all the projects by all the wonderful participants and node leaders and yeah you can find it all there.

Scott: Any last things you want to add? This has been amazing. Is there anything you want to add that you think wasn’t covered?

Andy: I’m just going to plug, if you’re building something or doing art or art, doing whatever you’re doing and go try to do it outside.

Tasneem: I would say the same thing, have a lot of fun using the space you’re in and don’t coop yourself up in a white box.

Scott: Thank you.

Flagscape: Data-visualizing Global Economic Exchange in Virtual Reality

Overview

Scott Kildall is conducting research into data-navigation techniques in virtual reality with a project called Flagscape, which constructs a surreal world of economic exchange between nations, based on United Nations data.

The work deploys “data bodies,” which represent exports such as metal ores and fossil fuels that move through space and impart complexities of economic relations. Viewers move through the procedurally-generated datascape rather than acting upon the data elements, inverting the common paradigm of legible and controlled data access.

Economic exchange in VR

Details

The code constructs data from several databases at runtime including population, carbon emissions per capita, military personnel per capita and a United Nations database on resource extraction. All of these get combined to construct the Flagscape data bodies. Each one represents a single datum, linked to a specific country.

The only stationary data body is a population model for each country, which scales to the relative value for each country and resembles a 3D person using a revolve around a central axis. The code positions these forms at their appropriate 3D world location, such that China and India — the largest two population bodies — act as waypoints as their forms dwarf all others.

Population bodies of India and China

A moshed flag skins every data body, acting as a glitched representation that subverts its own national identity. Underneath the flag is a complex set of relations of exchange that exceeds nationhood. For example, resource-extraction machines are made in one country that then get purchased by another to extract the very resources that make those machines.

Brazil flag, moshed

Flagscape reminds us that our borders are imaginary and in this idealized 3D space, there are no delineations of territory, only lines that guide trade between countries, forms magically gliding along an invisible path. What the database cannot tell us is how exactly the complex power relations move resources from one nation to another. Meanwhile, carbon emissions, the only untethered data body in Flagscape, which affects the entire planet spin out of control into the distance only to get endlessly respawned.

Carbon emissions by Canada and Australia

The primary acoustic element triggers when you navigate close to a population body. That country’s national anthem plays, filling your ears with a wash of drums, horns and militaristic melodies that flow into a state of sameness.

Initial Inspiration

The project is inspired by early notions of cyberspace described by writers such as William Gibson, where virtual reality is a space of infinity and abstraction. In Neuromancer, published in 1984, he describes cyberspace as:

“Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”

Neuromancer

While this text entices, most VR content recreates physical spaces, such as the British Museum with the same artwork, floor tiles and walls as the real, or it builds militarized spaces in which “you” are a set of hands that trigger weapons as you walk through combat mazes. At some level, this is a consequence of linear-thinking embedded in our fast-paced capitalist economy, arcing towards functionality but ignoring artistic possibilities. This research project acts as an antidote to these constrained environments.

OverkillVR, a virtual reality game

It was with these initial conversations around virtual datascapes with Ruth Gibson and Bruno Martelli that I was invited to be part of the Reality Remix project and was included in the AHRC Reality Remix grant which is part of their Next Generation Immersive Experiences call. My role is a “collaborator” (aka artist) who is creating their own project under these auspices.

Spatialization and Materializing Data

Unlike the 2D screen, which has a flatness and everyday familiarity, VR offers full spatialization and a new form of non-materiality, which Flagscapes fully plays with. One concept that I have been working with is that since data has physical consequences, it should exist as a “real” object. This project will expand this idea but will also blur sensorial experiences, tricking the visitor into a boundary zone of the non-material.

At the same time, Flasgscapes is its own form of landscape, creating an entire universe of possibility. It refers to traditions of depicting landscapes as art objects as well as iconic Earthworks pieces such as Spiral Jetty, where the Earth itself acts as a canvas. However, this type of datascape will be entirely infinite, like the boundaries of the imagination.

Spiral Jetty

Finally, Flagscape continues the steam of instruction-based work by artists such as Sol LeWitt, where an algorithm rather than the artist creates the work. Here, it accomplishes a few things such as taking the artists hand away from creating the form itself but also recognizing the power of artificial intelligence to assist in creating new forms of artwork.

Alternate Conception of Space in Virtual Reality

VR offers many unique forms of interaction, perception and immersion, but one aspect that defines it is the alternate sense of space. Similar to the religious spaces before the dominance of science, as described by Margaret Wertheim in the Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, this “other” space has the potential to create a set of rules that transport us to a unique imagination space.

As technology progresses and culture responds, the linearity of engineering-thinking often confines creativity rather than enhances it. Capitalist spaces get replicated and modified to adapt to the technology, validating McLuhan’s predictions of instantaneous, group-like thinking. The swipe gestures we use on our phones get encoded in muscle memory. We slyly refer to Wikipedia as the “wonder-killer”. The flying car is often cited as the most desirable future invention.

Flying car from Blade Runner

At stake with technological progress is imagination itself. Will the content of the spaces that get opened up with new technologies be ones that enhance our creativity or dull it? Who has access to technology-inspired culture? How can we use, enhance and subvert online distribution channels? These are just some of the questions and conversations that this project will ask — in the context of virtual space.

I see VR in a similar place as Video Art was in the 1970s, which thrived with access to affordable camcorders. However, VR and this specific project has the ability to easily disseminate into homes and public spaces through various app stores. Ultimately, with this project I hope to direct conversations around access and imagination with art and technology.

Marshall McLuhan with many telephones

Work-in-progress Presentation

Our Reality Remix group will be presenting its research, proof-of-concepts and prototypes at two venues in London on July 27th and July 28th, 2018 at Ravensbourne and Siobhan Davies Studios. Both free events are open to the public.

Bibliography
Gibson, W. (1993). Neuromancer. London: Harper Collins Science Fiction & Fantasy.
McLuhan, M. (1967). The medium is the massage : an inventory of effects. Bantam Books.
Wertheim, M. (2010). The pearly gates of cyberspace. New York [u.a.]: Norton.

Revamping Moon v Earth

My artwork occupies the space between the digital and analog as I generate physical expressions of the virtual. In the last several years, most of my work with transforming data into sculptures and installations.

But sometimes I return to narratives themselves. It’s not so much a lack of focus but rather a continual inquiry into technology and its social expression. Imaginary narratives seem particularly relevant these days with the subjectivity of truth magnifying an already polarized political discourse.

I recently finished revamping a project called Moon v Earth, originally presented in 2012 at the Adler Planetary Museum. This augmented reality artwork installation depicts a future narrative where a moon colony run by elites declares its independence from Earth. It is now on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art in San Jose.

Here are a few augments from the 2012 exhibition that made it in the 2018 show. My favorite was this pair of newspapers, which showed two different ‘truths’. At the time, “fake news” meant nothing and the idea of seeding false stories into online outlets wasn’t a remarkable.

The last augment — the ridiculous wooden catapult about to launch rocks at Earth — refers to the Robert Heinlein novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. This inspired the my project many years ago. In his plot line, the moon was a penal colony much like Australia 200 years ago and features an AI as one of the three heads of the revolution. The independence-seekers achieved victory by hurled asteroids at Earth as their most effective weapon.

I created this absurd 3D model in the imaginary world of Second Life as an amateur 3D assemblage. It was quick and dirty, like much digital artwork and as we see nowadays, like the fragility of truth.

The turn of Moon v Earth, at least the 2018 version is that the augments aren’t virtual at all, but instead are constructed as physical augments hanging from fishing line or hot-glued against a cardboard backing. At first, I tried working with AR technology, but soon discovered its compromises: a device-dependence and a distance between the viewer and the experience. Instead, the physical objects shows the fragile and fragmentary nature of the work in cheap cardboard facades and flimsy hanging structures distributed throughout the venue.

NextNewGames is at the San Jose ICA until September 16th, 2018

Farewell, Dinacon

I just spent 20 days on a sparsely-inhabited island in Thailand with about 80 artists, scientists and other imaginative people. Everyone worked on their own projects ranging from jungle-foraged dinners to plant-piloted drones to creating batteries from microbial energy. We had no AC for much of the day, got bitten by weaver ants, were surrounded by jungle cats and ate off each other’s plates. And, I absolutely loved the experience.

Microbial Battery Workshop

The gathering was Dinacon, the first Digital Naturalism conference and was co-organized by Tasneem Khan and Andrew Quitmeyer. I was a “node leader” which meant that I spent a bit of time reviewing the applications, organizing workshops and spending longer at the event than most.

Dinacon registration area

The site was Koh Lon, a small island that is just off the coast of Phuket. We stayed at a “resort”, which was actually fairly minimal and had small cabins, common house or options for tent camping. From the main work area, you walk a few minutes in one direction and you’re on the beach. In the other direction is jungle. There were no cars on the island, a handful of scooters, two hundred or so local residents and not a single dog. The soundscape felt entirely tropical with cicadas, birds and frogs filling the airwaves with their chatter. Our dinner was boated in each day and at the small restaurant we could get the three essentials: wifi (when the power was on), breakfast + lunch, and beer.

Selfie with Koh Lon in the background

The participants came from all over the world and arrived and left at random times such that there was constant inflow of new friends and outflow of sad goodbyes. Each day, we had about 40 people on the island. I could nerd out on my project, kayak in the water, take a break on the ship that we had access to (Diva Andaman), find myself sitting in a chair sharing ideas, play with hermit crabs or get away from everyone and walk in the jungle. Helping one another was something that effortlessly emerged in our temporary community.

Saying hi to the Diva Andaman

Questions that I asked myself upon arrival was will happen when you assemble a group of project-creating strangers in a natural environment, where you can take a break by putting on a pair of swim trunks and walk into the ocean? What does building things in on the island with its outdoor space and natural light do to your creative practice? How can I prototype an artwork that collaborates with this specific place?

I quickly became a lot less efficient and much more connected to people and place. I ended up creating better work and my body was utterly relaxed. Any shoulder pain I might have in an office space dissipated quickly. There were no Google calendar invites, no afternoon soy lattes and certainly no eating at my desk.

I found myself in daily arrhythmic patterns of production, often sitting on my neighbor’s the porch with headphones on and composing audio synth code, then stopping suddenly and reveling in nature. I would get interrupted to see a tree snake or find myself lost in conversation with someone’s project. In the evenings, we usually had self-organized small workshops or informal talks. I drank beer sometimes but also often went to bed early, worn out from the humidity and brain swell each day.

Arduino coding by susnet

I did make a thing! This experiment — a potential new artwork has a working title of DinaSynth Quartet. It is a live audio-synth performance between a plant, the soil, the air and the water, which is an electronics installation that is designed exist only outside. I connected each of these four “players” to sensors: plant with electrodes, ground to soil sensor, water to EC sensor and air to humidity.

Each one used a variation on my Sonaqua boards — a kit which I am actively using for workshops — to make a dynamic audio synth track, modulating bleeps and clicks to their sensor readings, creating a concert performance of sorts.

I’m not sure exactly where the work will go next, but I’m happy with the results. It was my first audio synth project and I’m far from being an expert, calling my approach “beginner’s mind”. However, most of the participants liked the idea and the specific composition that the jungle played.

I already miss everyone there: Jen, Tina, David, Rana, Pom, Sebastian and so, so many other delightful friends. And this is one thing I love about the life I’ve created for myself as an new media artist: after events like this, I now have friends who are doing inspiring work all over the world.

Jungle-foraged dinner party

 

Kira’s birthday party
Putting on a heart rate sensor on one of the local cats
Sonaqua Workshop in the common space
Local lotus flower

 

Millipedes were everywhere

 

Soldering work in the main space
Dani doing a lizard dissection on the beach at susnet

 

Andrew holding a snake

 

Little Niko, my favorite of the Dinacon Cats

Dinacon: 2 more environmental synths

Dinacon — the Digital Naturalism Conference on island of Koh Lon in Thailand — has been amazing. It’s been an opportunity to meet and collaborate with other artists, scientists, hackers, writers and more. The caliber of the participants has been extraordinary.

My art experiments have been around creating audio synth compositions from the environment, using low-cost sensors and custom electronics to make site-specific results.

In the last two days, I’ve made two composition-circuits, this one (below) which uses a soil sensor and tracks moisture in the sand.

And this one, which uses electrodes on plant leaves to simulate what the plants might be “saying”.

The GitHub repo for all my experiments is here.

Dinacon: First Audio Synth Recording

At Dinacaon, I’m conducting many experiments with electronics using audio synth and environmental sensors to make site-specific compositions.

I’m extending my Sonaqua custom boards to use the Mozzi audio synthesis libraries. Yesterday I put together my first mini-composition.

These will eventually lead to more dynamic 4-channel compositions and could also extend into some live performances by plants and the environment.

This is the first of several environmental sensors that I’m deploying in the environment — a humidity sensor produced by SparkFun.

With some post-processing in Adobe Audition, I smoothed out an annoying low-pitched whine. I still have loads to learn about the transition from algorithmically-generated sound to recording and getting the glitches out — I’m certainly no audio engineer.

But, I’m pleased with what my little board can do and am excited about more environmental sensors on this amazing little island of Koh Lon.

Oh and here is the GitHub Repo for Sonaqua_Dinacon.

Dinacon: A walking tour of Koh Lon Island

As I often do, when I get to a new place, I get lost. I follow the advice of Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost and just wander. Before establishing patterns, your perceptions are the most open and so the day after arriving at Dinacon, I wandered around the island and just looked at things.

Various boats at low tide.

Lots of garbage, unfortunately. I saw this as an opportunity. Perhaps to do some cleanup or more likely to use as scavenged materials for some sculptural-sound installations. This would harken back to my work several years ago as an artist-in-residence at Recology.

Patterns in architectures. Patterns in nature.

An active school.

Small trails everywhere. There are no cars here and so one thing I noticed was the soundscape is different. Sometimes you’ll hear the sounds of a motorcycle or scooter, but even then, only occasionally.

Some sort of nest on a tree.

Intersection markers with plastic bags and red paint.

This island is quite large and much of it is impassible.

Holes in the sand into which crabs scurry.

So many coconuts.

Various signs, hand painted and more.     

   

Abandoned architecture.

 

New paths freshly cut by locals.

And as I was warned, if I venture out at low tide, I might be returning at high tide. Fortunately the water is warm and I was wearing shorts, so could wade back home.

Some thoughts about the work I’m doing here and ways I can engage with the space:

— Nature: there are plenty of plants, some amount of critters such as ants. How can I collaborate with various critters and foliage? Some of the things that are easily scavenged are bamboo, coconuts, dead coral and shells.

— Trash: what could be scavenged or collected to make temporary sculptures. Would this expand my practice here or should I stick with my original plan of electronics that make sounds? Perhaps I could put speakers inside of things that amplify the sound, like discarded gas cans.

— Architecture: there are some beautiful abandoned buildings and structures that no one seems to care about. I could probably do a performance or something in these spaces.

 

And finally, jungle cats!

Sonaqua at Currents 2018

I jokingly referred to my Sonaqua artwork as “the most annoying piece at the festival”. The exhibition was Currents New Media 2018, which was an incredible event.

It was a hit with the public and invited multi-user interaction. Kids went crazy for it. Adults seemed to enjoy the square-waves of audio glitch all night.

So yes, perhaps a tad abrasive, but it was also widely popular.

A number of people were intrigued by the water samples and electronics with what looked like a tangly mess of wires. It was actually a solid wiring job and nothing broke!

After working at the Exploratorium for a couple of years, I adjusted my approach to public engagement so that anyone can get something from this artwork.

How does it work?

The electrodes take a reading of the electrical current flow in various water samples that I collected throughout New Mexico. If more current flows through the water, then this means there are more minerals and salts, which is usually an indicator of less clean water.

The technical measurement is electrical conductivity, which correlates to total dissolved solids, which is one measure of water quality that scientists frequently use.

The installation plays lower tones for water that is more conductive (less pure) and higher tones for water that has less pollutants in it.

The results are unpredictable and fun, with 12 different water quality samples.

The light table is custom-built with etchings of New Mexico rivers and waterways, indicating where the original water sample was taken.

 

 

 

 

 

Gun Control (revisited)

My writing (below) was originally printed as part of the Disobedient Electronics project by Garnet Hertz. It is a limited edition publishing project that highlights confrontational work from industrial designers, electronic artists, hackers and makers that disobey conventions. 

 

Gun Control (revisited)

In 2004, I created Gun Control — a set of four electromechanical sculptures, which used stepper motors, servos and cheap cameras that were controlled by AVR code. The distinguishing feature of each unit is a police-issue semi-automatic replica handgun. You can purchase these authentic-looking firearms for less than $100.

The make-believe weapons arrived in the mail a week after I ordered them. That night, I closed the blinds, drank too much whisky and danced around my apartment in my underwear waving my new guns around. The next morning, I packed them in a duffel bag and took the “L” in Chicago to my studio. During the 45-minute commute I felt like a criminal.

Each gun is connected a stepper motor via a direct-drive shaft and flexible couplings. I used a lathe and a milling machine to make custom fittings. I hid unsightly electronics in a custom-sewn leather pouch, resembling some sort of body bag.

As people enter the Gun Control installation space, the cameras track their movement, and the guns follow their motion. Well, at least this is what I had hoped it would do. However, I had committed to using the first gen CMUCam and its blob-tracking software was spotty at best. I was under a deadline. It was too late to spec out new cameras. Plus, these were the right size for the artwork, which was using decentralized embedded hardware. I shifted my focus to building a chaotic system.

I re-coded the installation so the guns would point at different targets. They would  occasionally twirl about playfully and re-home themselves. I programmed the stepper motors to make the armatures shake and rattle when they got confusing target information. The software design embraced unpredictability, which made the whole artwork feel uncertain, embodying the primal emotion of fear.

Gun Control was my heavy-handed response to the post-911 landscape and the onset of the Iraq War. I exhibited it twice, then packed it up. It lacked subtlety and tension. At the time, there was not enough room for the viewer.

Just last month, I pulled the artwork out of deep storage. I brought the pieces to my studio and plugged in one of the units. It functioned perfectly. Upon revisiting this piece after 12 years, my combination of guns and surveillance seems eerily prescient.

Mass shootings have drastically increased in the last several years. Surveillance is everywhere, both with physical cameras and the invisible data-tracking from internet servers. Documentation of police shootings of unarmed African Americans is sadly, commonplace. I no longer recoil from the explicit violence of this old artwork.

I coded this using AVR microcontrollers, just before the Arduino was launched. It was tedious work just to get the various components working. I can no longer understand the lines of C code that I wrote many years ago. The younger me was technically smarter than the current me. My older self can put this historical piece into perspective. I plan to re-exhibit it in the coming years.

GitHub repo: https://github.com/scottkildall/GunControl

DIY Water Sensors Workshop

This write-up is a bit tardy, but that’s what happens when the holidays hit. In December, I hosted a DIY Water Sensors Workshop at Autodesk Pier 9 in collaboration with The Center for Investigative Reporting.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work at Autodesk, first as an artist-in-residence (2014) and for the last few years, running their Electronics Lab and more recently their Simulation Lab (VR/AR). For the workshop, we hosted a combination of journalists and members of the Autodesk community.

The idea for the workshop sprung out of my Sonaqua artwork. The project sonifies (makes sounds from) water quality by testing for electrical conductivity (EC), which is an correlates to pollution — the more heavy metals and minerals, the higher the EC. It’s one of a number of measurements that scientists make in the field, along with indicators such as pH and Dissolved Oxygen.

That’s a brief summary of the artwork and what I wanted to do was make basic module circuit available for anyone to use. We breadboarded the basic circuit and within a couple of hours, everyone was up and running, making sounds from water samples that they brought in.

Working with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) was valuable — afterwards, we got into a long discussion about data journalism. I was impressed with their breadth of projects and related works which include:

Sonifying the Seismic Activity in Oklahoma – tracks earthquake activity increases due to fracking

Wet Prince of BelAir – uses satellite data to find water-wasters during the big drought.

Cicada Tracker – a project by WNYC & Radiolab using Arduinos to predict the cycle of 17-year cicadas

   

 

After a few hours, the breadboarded circuits were complete! I mailed circuit boards, designed in Autodesk EagleCAD to the workshop participants a few days later. There are always production delays, but they did get the boards in time for the holidays.

Photo credit, Blue Bergen, Autodesk