Andy Quitmeyer // Art && Code: Homemade, 1/14/2021
Welcome back everyone. Hi I'm Golan Levin director of the Studio for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon and director of the Art&&Code festival. This is Art&&Code Homemade. And we are thrilled to introduce our third speaker and final speaker for this evening Dr. Andrew Quitmeyer who studies interactions between wild animals and computational devices.
He directs the digital naturalism laboratories in Panama also known as the Institute for Interactive Jungle Crafts where he blends biological fieldwork and technological crafting with a community of local and international scientists, artists, and engineers. Andy Quitmeyer. Awesome thanks so much for having me. I'm really excited
about getting to talk in this whole thing. And so yeah I'm like I said I want to talk today about bio-crafting computers. We'll explain more whatever that means in a second. But hi I'm Andy! That's me. I look at how we can use art and technology for interacting with nature, and trying to do this in the wild. And I run a little laboratory with my partner Kitty here in Gamboa, Panama called Digital Naturalism Laboratories or our alias of The Institute for Jungle Crafts. And I'm really excited for this whole event because I wanted to try a different talk than kind of my normal talk here, and this seems like a fun venue to do it. And instead of just showing lots of
different projects and things that we're doing and fun jungle robots- I'll still show jungle robots, so don't worry you won't miss out. But I wanted to get a little bit more into the philosophy of what is going on here and why we're doing some of this stuff. And for us this all really kind of boils down to basically the interactions between three special things in our world.
This is creatures, contexts, and tools. And so creatures, you know about these creatures. They're these delightful little bundles of protein. They capture energy from the environment. They convert it into heat and more of themselves, and that's pretty much a kind of a definition of life- of living things. But one of the coolest things about these living creatures is that they come in an incredibly huge variety and they all have different superpowers and senses and abilities.
And we're still learning about this. And the reason there's so many different types of cool creatures in our world is because of the variety of the environments that they evolved in. The environments around the creatures all pose different opportunities and challenges. And the creatures change and replicate and fill niches in these contexts in order for them to survive and just continue. That's the reason why, you know, in wet places things are good at swimming and have gills, breathe underwater, right. That's how fish work. And that's the reason why in like scary places things are good at hiding.
They have camouflage. The key concept here is that contexts sculpt whatever is inside them. And in order to deal with these different contexts, living things have to develop tools. And for our purposes, 'your tools' are simply anything a living creature uses to interact with its environment.
Maybe it's this bat's little tongue for getting the nectar out of that flower. The tools of this fish are its gills and its flippers for negotiating the context of its watery environment. Or the tool of the camouflage that these katydids have developed all over. It's the reason why agoutis have this kind of behavioral tool of using leaves in order to hide their meals for later. An octopus can use a coconut to pretend to be a coconut. A crow can use a piece of garbage to have fun.
You can have tools that are for having fun. A sloth's unique hands help it sleep in trees. These are all amazing different tools. And this is perhaps a broader definition of tools than you might be used to. You might be like oh those are senses, those are body parts, those are instruments, or those are interfaces. And in biology, some people refer to the tools that
animals have as their proxies for engaging with the context or the extended phenotype. But we're going to make no such distinction on the function or provenance of these things that let us reach out from ourselves. For our purposes all tools are simply extensions of ourselves and every way in which life can engage with the world outside of it. It's just another interface, another tool.
There's my image. This is how people look, right, when they use tools? So this is all great. You have these fun little critters running around in neat places doing stuff with the tools that they have. But there's a subset of these creatures that are a little bit problematic, And that's humans. You're probably pretty familiar with these. You spend most of your time being one I think. Humans are creatures too, and they capture energy and replicate and spend a lot of their time trying to find out what makes them special compared to all the other living things in the world.
I'm a human. How am I- I'm obviously so much more special but how exactly? And it turns out whenever humans make a metric that tries to prove their superiority, 'oh we have language' or 'we do agriculture, we do tool making,' we usually end up just finding other living creatures actually really already do this also. Like honeybees waggle dancing, leafcutter ants doing agriculture, chimps using sticks as tools. So what does make humans actually special? Well one, we're probably the creature that spends the most time thinking about how special we are.
And the second is our ability to utterly obliterate all other life around us. And this is kind of, you know, like the shortcut, the easy, the cheap way out of becoming special. You just kill everything else. And this penchant for obliteration and exclusion that humans have, it ends up even creating two different categories in this concept of what a context is. And this is different places where things could happen.
We now have human spaces and wild space. Human spaces means basically other creatures aren't allowed in. No agoutis, you stay out this is a human zone. Or if we do allow other creatures in, other life forms, it's only the ones that we can really designate and control ourselves. And then by defining human spaces like that, it even then forces us to invent this concept of nature. And this is all based on this idea of exclusion. Exclusion and control.
Human spaces are where we make all the decisions, and wild places or sometimes natural places are those where we never had control or we've given up control, some kind of frame of reference. And of course no space is perfectly one or the other categories. There's a spectrum of exclusivity. And, you know, the type of exclusivity depends on your different human cultural backgrounds and stuff. And, you know, some people might have a super clean house, it still gets infested with ants. But it's the spectrum of exclusivity that humans do which is kind of weird. And now we have this brand new tool: computers.
They can run billions of commands that we tell them to do. And it's the first time in human history we actually have a medium we can tell "do stuff" and it does stuff. But that's super dangerous right because the things that we do as humans already tend to be horrible, right. There's my little Roomba just going around exterminating life. And this kind of brings the main problem of our little story, about creatures, contexts, and tools. You have humans and they're very powerful and self-centered. And they use their tools to modify their environment and exclude and obliterate other life forms.
And I want to help people figure out ways to give up some of this control. And my hope is that there's something in this new programmable medium that we can use to somehow build connections with all the other life forms around us rather than reinforcing separations. And so my initial thought was okay if I want to know about other types of life forms I should go hang out with field biologists. And what are field biologists? Well they're a type of human, so I'll already be a little skeptical. But they're really interested in what other life forms are doing.
And they have different tools that they try to use and extend their body with. And because they're field biologists, they try to do their experiments in places where these creatures actually live. And doing their research in wild areas it keeps the creatures in their own environments. And the goal of this is it reduces unknown variables that might come up if we had instead taken this animal out of its environment, separated it from that environment, and used it in a human space like a laboratory. And the other side of this field biology is by working in the field, it also immerses the scientists in these very foreign, not-that-human of spaces, and it lets their senses and tools be sculpted and honed to all the details of that surrounding context.
We're trying to actually let ourselves be changed to help understand these animal types of environments. But that also means these field biologists are confronted with a huge task of how do you make sense of anything if you're actually going to be trying to study everything, you know. The context in every possible thing and the infinite number of variables around you that you have to deal with. And one of their main responses of these field biologists is to get crafty. So field biologists usually confronted with, from human point of views, very strange tasks.
For example, I want to make a bat go through a three-dimensional acoustic maze. Or I want to see their tongue movement when they pollinate flowers, so I need some sort of crystalline faux nectar flower surrogate. Or I want to hold a single tadpole egg that I can rotate and vibrate and also the holder is optically clear. But there's usually not that many ready-made tools around just for these cases. If you go to Walmart and you ask for a tadpole holder that's optically clear they might not have what you're looking for.
And like a noted frog biologist Dr. Karen Warkentin says she studies frog embryos, that's not something that they're standard tools for. So they have to get crafty and these biologists usually have to end up then crafting their own tools. And these can be tools crafted completely from the ground up. Like these very meticulous Túngara frog models made by Barrett Klein for these frog robots that they use.
Or by modifying industrial commercial or natural materials kind of hacking them together to make new animal interaction tools. But they often have to craft their devices themselves, that's kind of the bottom line. And the reason about this crafting is like Dr. Warkentin notes is because there's a lot of questions that in order to ask you actually have to make stuff. So you have to make stuff in order to ask a question. And the really neat thing about that is for scientists, for these field biologists, the tools they create actually are the embodiment of a question which I think is kind of lovely.
But as we all know if you've crafted anything, when you're making something it doesn't always come out exactly how you originally thought. Oh this is like oh... Things change and those changes are also going to change your question at the same time. So in order to maintain the integrity of the question you have to figure out ways in which you're crafting your tools effectively. And so the crafting process, this bio-crafting as we might call it, it necessarily includes doing things like rapid iterations where you're sculpting and refining these scientific tools to the exact specifications of the creature, the environment, and the question that you're asking. And then at the same time is doing this type of work on site is very important. Dr. Warkentin here notes again on interviews that we had with her, if every design
requires a trip to Boston and her field site down here in Panama, it's going to take forever, and the tools are never going to get quite to the point where you want it. So this way of bio-crafting of rapidly building your own tools iteratively and on-site is done so in order to ask the questions for your environment, it's all done in order to maintain this research integrity. And the reason why this works is because tools are bi-directional. And what does this mean?
It means that, you know, this is kind of a weird concept, but we often think of our tools as things that we use to change the environment. I'm a human, I have a hammer, I smash things, I'm in charge here, right. But like the classic idiom goes to you know to the person who has a hammer everything looks like a nail. Your tools actually they don't just allow you to change the environment, they change you. They change us. And they change the way that we see the world, we interact with the world. They even change our whole bodies and our senses. So hammers let us squish things, yes, but they also turn us into thing-squishers. This is my persona now. I'm a thing squisher.
The leaf that the agouti was using to hide its food, it's also using the agouti as a tool for planting the babies of this tree that it's from. And the tools that we've created, somewhere they all take on these characteristics and assumptions from the context in which they were built. And so by crafting and customizing their tools at these field sites instead of at studios far away or laboratories far away, biologists are actually working to help their tools become better suited to the context and the research problems and their own original curiosities that came up in these field sites. But now there's a whole new type of tool that scientists can incorporate. And perhaps it's not a tool, but it's a creature right.
Computers are a little funny. Just like a living creature, computers can sense things, they can create stimuli, they can react to their environments. And we call when you have senses and reactions to things those are called behaviors. And whether these behaviors come from natural systems or digital systems, by putting together these senses and reactions of this new digital medium that we have, it can help us understand the designs of both the creatures and the computers. And just like any other tool though, these computers are not developed in a vacuum, and they're not being used in a vacuum. They take on characteristics and assumptions from wherever they were created.
And unfortunately these powerful new digital tools we have they're largely developed in climate-controlled human-oriented environments. And the tools that we develop that means that they're mainly getting feedback during these iterations from the environments around them. And we have to kind of imagine like 'oh will this work in the field I don't know let's'- but we build in all these assumptions about what we remember about the field, and we're not actually iteratively testing them as much.
What's more is if computers then present incredible new abilities 'wow I can track every single ant in the laboratory,' and they work amazing in the lab, but they're not as robust to take on the challenges in the actual world. Like 'oh it doesn't work because trees are round,' this suddenly means in general that it ends up being the scientists, and their organisms are the ones who are forced out of the original environments and have to go into the computer-friendly human spaces. This is them moving over 'goodbye field.' And this isn't where the field biologists want to be.
And it's not really that great for their science. And soon and we see this in many other disciplines, wherever computers are introduced, computers can bulldoze the original goals of research and instead reframe everything in a way that better serves computers. You've all seen this like 'oh well we need to do this because the computer wants it this way,' and my kind of thoughts here just you know, maybe it's the computers and the way that we craft computational tools that actually needs to change instead of the people, instead of the environment, instead of the living creatures. And so part of this is a kind of proposal to let's develop wilderness tools in the wild. Let's build computer stuff in the wild. And of course that's the whole reason field stations exist in the first place, to have a human space right next to a natural place and let the scientists kind of shrink this gap between lab and field and kind of speed up these iterations that they can do.
And I thought we should have the same thing for working with digital technology and nature. And yeah for using computers get them into the nature. And so I made some initial 'digital bio-crafting stations' we called them when I was a PhD student. Which was mostly me just squatting in parts of the Smithsonian's field station here in Panama, and setting up my own little soldering stations and stuff and hiding them when we had to.
And we kept developing this and we would run workshops about things doing kind of basic interactions between creatures and computers. Like wearable interactive firefly outfits, or sending messages through morse code. Sending morse code messages through leaf cutter ants with Arduinos. And this even grew into a full-time facility where I'm at right now. We have a house in Gamboa right next to Smithsonian and the rainforest. And we convert it into kind of an art-science maker space with construction shops, 3D printers, laser cutters, prototyping workshops, electronics labs. We have a little art science gallery, that's where I'm in right now. Documentation equipment. And we help run field courses, do field site maintenance for the scientists here.
This even includes trying to repair these ancient bridges that are here for the scientists to get to their field sites, kind of harsh conditions. And even doing fun projects like, you know, making wearable ant farms and building interactive enrichment toys for local animal rescues nearby. And we offer long and short-term residencies when there's not giant global pandemics everywhere. More about that at dinalab.net And the most important part though is this lab is right next to the jungle and the forest and a place where there's these amazing wonderful creatures. But what if we want to get even closer.
And so that's where we start getting into like I'm getting hungry I need to get in these natural environments more and more. And so I was thinking of how do we push this idea of crafting in the context even further. And I was trying to think of how we could shrink this lab and bring it closer to the field. So we have things like mobile studios where we literally just try to, you know, put the lab into a box and drag it out with us like a big trailer.
So for example we're working on these portable rough and tumble jungle trailers with the local sustainable architecture company Chrysalis here. And for the ideas we could loan them out to scientists and they could stay in the forest at their field sites as long as possible. And they even float, and we've even made other floating mobile lab spaces such as the boat lab. The community made modular floating hacker space for community science projects. We used it to kind of draw attention to an endangered coral reef in the Philippines.
We also when I had some students brought them on sailboats that we converted into floating maker spaces to build different types of scientific tools. But there's still some places that ships and vehicles cannot go. And so we can try to shrink this lab even more and push this into the idea of carryable studios. And so these are ideas help really push forward by things like Hannah Perner-Wilson has made these amazing mobile studios that unpack and can store all of your electronics and devices all together that you can then carry on things like we call hiking hacks where we would take a group of people, we would carry all the tools that would normally be in our lab, go to a scientist field site, and we'd live and work out there designing and reflecting upon and documenting upon as many different projects as we could while trying to stay as immersed as possible in this field site. And while we're trying to make different types of probes and tools for experiencing the nature around us.
But then what if you don't want to carry it? What if we push this idea even further and it's just part of you? This is this idea of wearable studios. Again really pioneered by Hannah Perner-Wilson's incredible designs. We realize you can never really rely on anything in this world except that like wherever you are you're at least going to be there.
So if you turn your body into your studio and your body into electronics work surfaces that can be directly incorporated and rapidly prototyped upon having different work surfaces, solder on your knee, keep your information and tattoos on your body, you'll have quicker access and be able to go places you wouldn't be able to with a trailer, even a large bulky backpack. And for me this is kind of the ultimate goal here, where all of this leads a future where one's body, laboratory, and field site are all one and the same. We can be walking, pondering, curious naturalist cyborgs with our different hyphae reaching into every nook and cranny around us and connecting us to the things around us. And so with that that's most of what I wanted to talk with you about. Yeah we can answer questions and stuff. I have lots more random other examples and stuff I can show.
But yeah I would love to just get feedback, questions. Andy thank you so much. This is incredible. I have a bunch of questions stacked up from both the chat and also from my own thing here. But first I actually wanted to bring the attention of the audience to
something that you contributed to and also many of the other speakers as well which is the Art&&Code zine which is downloadable from the Art&&Code Homemade website. And in particular you contributed this thing called the Touch Tire which is a plan for a kind of capacitive sensing tire. Apparently you use the metal mesh that's inside of the rubber tire to sense the presence of an agouti.
And then as a result of an arduino sensing, this agouti I guess the agouti gets a shower or something like this. Can you tell us about tell us a little bit about this particular contribution and how it arose? Yeah definitely. So when you're working with a lot of wild animals like at the animal rescue, we have an agouti and we also have this 400-pound tapir. And so usually electronics like I was mentioning they're not usually that durable. They're kind of wimpy. They don't want to be out in a rainstorm. They don't want to, you know, get chomped up by a tapir. And so it can be hard to think of when we're doing interaction design
you know, a lot of the normal interactions we come up with they're like 'oh this button we're going to press that has a different you know letter on it or something like that' it doesn't really work for a tapir or an agouti. And it also, you know, needs to be rained on and all this kind of stuff. And so I was trying to think of what's the simplest interface we can use that people would have access to that would be really rough and tumble and durable enough to withstand a lot of abuse, but still allow for lots of different kinds of interactions And I had this realization that, you know, there's old tires all over the place, people have access to them. And I realized that tires I guess they often have like a metal mesh inside. And so you drill into it and you can just put a chain through it, something real also indestructible. But metal you can then send this chain, put it around a tree, send it over somewhere, connect an Arduino to it safely away from the tapir, and maybe a climate-controlled space or something like that.
And then you have this thing that you can really beat up and jump on or get rained on and you can still get some data about who's interacting with it in different ways. And from that like at our animal rescue, we have some showers that the tapir really likes playing around in the shower or, you know, hides their leaves in different places. Different animal enrichment to keep their brains going. We can trigger all those different kinds of things like that.
And so this is a kind of thing that I'm working on right now throughout this upcoming spring. I hope to actually get some of those going. So I'll be posting updates whenever possible. Got a couple more questions. So one question is these workshops that you direct,
I realize we're in a pandemic, but can you talk more about the residencies and workshops that you direct? And sort of who comes to them and, you know, is it something that people apply for? Tell us how these happen and how long they last, what people do. Totally. Is this where field biologists develop their crafting skills? I mean like tell us about that. Yeah that's one of our goals. So we work of course with a couple different audiences. So we were actually scheduled to host a bunch of people who maybe more identify as scientists, they're field biologists, they're part of a taxonomic organization. And we were going to host them last June to do a workshop on building different sensors.
But other times we'll do workshops with maybe artists and show them different scientific techniques, and stuff that people are currently doing in the field. But usually what we try to do is always just get a nice mix of people. So at our house right here, our residency, our lab, our Institute for Jungle Crafts we have two bedrooms that we normally would host residents in. But since the pandemic, it's been kind of locked off. But we had people here who were for instance a scientist studying bats, people studying soil microbes. And we had someone who does designs for the Reinas in Carnival. So like fashion design kind of stuff, but is also a very avid birder and bird scientist.
So we try to mix that up a lot. But then and so we do smaller workshops and residencies. We had a whole schedule lined up for both local residents, artists, and scientists from around here in Panama as well as international residents and scientists. We even had some scholarship money to help them come that we're just funding from our own freelance work that we're doing here. But we had to cancel it all last year.
And unfortunately Panama's been under a really strict lockdown which is good that people are taking it seriously. It's very unfortunate that the government here is not doing things in smart ways. And so they're launching kind of discriminatory practices against trans people and having this gender-based lockdown that basically effectively imprisons people who are non-gender conforming. So that's really sad.
But so everything's stopped here, but hopefully it'll start going again and we can help host people. And then our biggest thing that we run is this thing called the Digital Naturalism Conference. And that's where we'll get like 100 people try to rent out a place for some semi-remote location. We did one in Thailand. We did one here. For an extended period of time with the goal of just letting people interact with nature. People had all kinds of different backgrounds from that. People were comics book creators basically everything.
The only key thing was you were interested in interacting with nature in some way. So if you go to dinacon.org you can actually sign up for our mailing list. And we'll send out info in our little mailing list whenever we have the residencies and the conference going again. Hopefully it'll be soon and people all are safer around the world.