Project Plan

Scope

This art project will take the form of an interactive installation, situated out of doors in a patch of woodland or other ecosystem. The installation will consist of a screen or projection running an artificial ecosystem consisting of several species, which will be linked to the real-world ecosystem by sensors. The sensors will relay environmental data and visitor generated data to the programmed ecosystem, affecting the screen-based environment in which the virtual creatures live.
There is potential scope to extend the project by using microcontrollers to produce changes in the real-life ecosystem, by using sound, or by expanding into other platforms, perhaps by providing a web-based interface to the ecosystem and/or by using Second Life as an environment for the ecosystem and as a source of data, or expanding into mobile technologies. An artist's book based on the project will also be produced.

Project Plan

Term 1: Research – By the end of this term I will have identified suitable sources of data, including human interaction and weather data (from sensors) as well as data gathered from the web, and ways of feeding this data into a programmed environment. I will have explored a variety of 2D and 3D platforms for designing, programming and displaying the ecosystem. I will have investigated the practicalities of hosting this installation out of doors, including suitable locations, health and safety (weatherproofing electronics), connectivity (wireless, bluetooth etc) and environmental impact. I will also have further contextualised the project by examining related artworks, scientific projects and data visualisation techniques.

Term 2: Prototyping/experimentation – By the end of this term I will have produced a variety of experimental pieces aimed at getting different parts of the system working separately, ready to integrate them into a single piece in term 3. I will have produced prototypes which import web data and display it in interesting ways, small systems experimenting with sensors and connectivity, prototypes of organisms – both visual and functional (how they feed, reproduce and die), as well as isolated interactions between species. I will also have planned out the artist's book, and begun to write it, although the majority of the work on this will have to wait until term 3, when I have a near complete system to refer to and document.

Term 3: Production – By the end of this term I will have produced and installed the finished project. I aim to get some version of a whole system up and working fairly early in the term, as I need to allow plenty of time for calibration and “tweaking” - making sure all the different elements interact in interesting ways, making sure the system as a whole is stable (but not too stable), and of course, several rounds of bug-fixing. I will also be doing the bulk of the work on the accompanying artist's book in term 3.

Success criteria

The project will be a success if it generates interesting emergent phenomena, i.e. if the visual results are not only aesthetically pleasing/interesting but are genuinely produced through the interactions of constituent parts and incoming data, rather than directly designed by me. In terms of audience, the project will be successful if it appeals both to people with no idea of the processes producing the work – e.g. babies, and to scientists or people who wish to explore the scientific and ecological concepts involved.

Resources Required

  • Computer to run the programme
  • Software to programme and display the virtual ecosystem: Probably Processing, but could be Second Life (would need to rent land) or some other 2D or 3D programmable virtual environment.
  • Software to collect and convert web data: some form of web application to process RSS feeds or similar.
  • Web space: to host this web application, document the project and possibly to provide an additional user interface with the system.
  • Microcontrollers and sensors to collect real-world data (and possibly to produce real-world effects): Arduino
  • Display: large screen or projector + surface
  • Space to build the installation: probably a patch of woodland within the college grounds
  • Weatherproofing: materials and expertise to build some sort of housing for the display equipment and computer, plus outdoor cabling for electricity supply.
  • Artist's book: software for page layouts, print costs for a short run.

Research

The starting point for the project is a piece called ambient_light, which I made for my final undergraduate project. ambient_light consists of an artificial ecosystem with six different species of screen-based organisms, connected to the gallery via a set of pressure sensors, concealed in seating units which formed part of the installation. Different patterns of chair occupancy changed several variables in the ecosystem, affecting the behaviour of different species. Interactions between individual creatures and species, and between the gallery visitors and the ecosystem, created complex behaviours such as flocking, population cycles and symbiosis.
Visitor feedback suggested that the project did a good job of illustrating how an ecosystem worked as well as being visually interesting. Some people observed that watching the display had a very calming effect and that it would work well in a doctor's or dentist's waiting room. I was very interested in the way people interpreted the different species' behaviour and motivations. I had taken a morally neutral stance to this: each organism was just trying to get its dinner and have its babies, but many people wanted to know, or tried to decide, which were the “goodies” and “baddies” in the system. Some people felt that the piece was to do with terrorists or other groups of society's “outsiders”, or about the importance of belonging. I was quite happy for people to project these interpretations onto the work, as I feel it mirrors the interpretations people project onto society and real-life ecosystems and species.
Currently, I am looking at the work of artists Sommerer & Mignonneau, Julie Freeman, Jane Prophet and Jon McCormack among others, as well as various scientific papers, online software projects and data visualisations – both digital and analogue. The work stems in part from a reading of Richard Dawkins, Manuel DeLanda and Deleuze & Guattari. Other current reading includes Steve Grand – Creation: life and how to make it (Orion Phoenix, London, 2001) and Mitchell Whitelaw – Metacreation: Art & Artificial Life (MIT, 2004).
In terms of practical research, I am currently exploring data sources on the internet – RSS and ATOM feeds, and ways of using this data in visualisations. As an experimental piece I intend to create a small web application (a widget or a mashup) to convert world economic data into an animated Chernoff face.
I intend to look at the appearance and behaviour of a wide variety of biological organisms and ecosystems to get ideas for how different parts of my system might look and behave, in addition to all the practical research already mentioned above in Project Plan – Term 1.

Personal Development Plan

Strengths: This project will build on my programming skills, either through consolidating and expanding my skills in Processing, or by learning to programme in a different environment. I will also be learning to build tools for communicating between programmes. If I choose to build the project in Second Life or another 3D environment, I will also have the chance to improve my 3D modelling skills. The artist's book will stretch my writing and communication skills and my ability to contextualise my work.

Weaknesses: Through the peer review sessions, I aim to improve my confidence and spoken communication skills. With this in mind, I will also endeavour to present various stages of the project at external events such as Dorkbot meetings. I also aim to improve my business skills to the point where my art practice will at least financially support itself, if not make a profit. As a first step, I have signed up for the Xing event at Goldsmiths, and have registered for some relevant events on Industry Day.

New Skills: Through this project, I will take my first steps in electronics and microcontrollers, and will gain some construction skills through building the physical installation.


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