One of the misconceptions in the digital art domain is that mere technical fascination is often understood as activation of the audience. Hence, it’s worth reflecting on the politics and mechanics of interaction and interactivity per se. As a curator, I have been interested in process-based aesthetics and how it is exemplified within BioArt: that’s how I found myself fascinated by Tyler Fox‘s work. In fact, I’ve known Tyler’s work long before I first met him. My personal interest in his work is rooted in notions of liminality within the viewer’s experience. After having seen his exhibition Patterns in Vancouver, I discovered I had more questions than answers. I spoke with Tyler about this exhibition, his work and approaches to technology and nature.
Tyler Fox, Biolesce 0.5, on display at Patterns, Aberthau Mansion, 2014. Bottles, seawater, P. Fusiformis, heartbeat sensors, Arduino Uno, vibration motors
Maria Fedorova: We had a short discussion after I had a chance to experience your piece, Biolesce, as part of the LocoMotoArt exhibition in August, 2014. As far as I know, you commenced this project back in 2012 when it was first showcased at Gallery Gachet. Can you elaborate on that and tell me a bit more about how that exhibition was different or similar?
Tyler Fox: Sure. The exhibition at Gallery Gachet was really around the work of DPrime, which is an art collective that I belong to together with Carlos Castellanos and Steven Barnes. And we wanted to create a community-based art show that involved workshops as well as an ongoing setup that we did. The idea behind it was that people would come and see the process of our work, participate if they wanted to, and all the works were connected to one another. There were two pieces connected to Biolesce in that show; one of them used vials of algae and the audience would reach up and touch the electronic switch agitating the algae. One of the components of experimental art for me is that you have to be open to failure. Not all of the installations were particularly successful, in a sense that the algae were exhausted throughout the course of the exhibition. Another work exhibited there was, I guess, more successful: the installation was different – a black box and a jar and we used GSR sensors (galvanic skin response sensor, used to measure the electrical conductance of skin as well as psychological arousal), through which viewers interacted with algae and triggered bioluminescence. It was early on in my work and I see it as an experiment, getting to that point of engaged viewing, getting feedback from people through experience. I definitely learned a lot.
…it’s called quorum sensing, these microscopic entities that can sense each other. What an amazing experiential way to be in the world...
It’s very interesting what you are saying about different types of interfaces that you’ve used in your artistic practice. I was thinking about the idea of interfaces and, retrospectively, about my personal experience of your work, about the space and setting and it had a huge impact on my perception of your work. How do you incorporate the space in your work and what use do you make of the gallery setting?
Yes right, the space is actually hugely important! A lot of it is, of course, light.
I showed the early version of Biolesce at the ArtSci Gallery at the UCLA in 2011. In that show, there was a lot of ambient light. Which did two things – first, it washed out the bioluminescence, but it also reduces the algae bioluminescence response, which is based on the photoreceptors of the algae. At the LocoMotoArt exhibition (i.e. Patterns, August 2014) it was a very dark space. Many people were scared to walk in there (laughing).
Yes I remember myself hesitating to go inside at first.
I just had to be very specific with the curator Laura Lee Coles (curator of the exhibition and LocoMotoArt Collective) that I needed a dark space and they were really accommodating and it was great! But I guess this is true for every artwork: the environment is how we interpret the artwork, it colours our perception.
Especially when it comes to installation art…
Yes, for sure!
Tyler Fox, Biolesce 0.2. Video Still, algae lit up vibration motor
Tyler, you organized a series of workshops, at ISEA and SIGGRAPH. I was reading about it: you offered participants to experiment with physical computing, Arduino and explore bioluminescence. How was your experience? What was the idea behind engaging the audience in the active construction and facilitation of the piece? Was the “understanding of the piece” the aim of this experience?
You mean the one at SIGGRAPH?
Yes, let’s talk about SIGGRAPH.
Workshops have really become essential for my practice. It relates back to Gilbert Simondon and his ideas of technical mentality; it really offered understanding of how things function and just that environment of doing the workshop gave me the opportunity to address some of the technical challenges as well as artistic and aesthetic potential, collaboratively. And it also gives an opportunity to articulate the broader idea of algae and media and living dynamic matter. Workshops give you this opportunity to explore things with people, teach them as well as learn from them, see what they are doing, be engaged in the process. Whatever you teach – you always learn something. But I also think that it goes back to Simondon and the idea that, on some level, people have forgotten how to make things; we don’t have this technical fluency and understanding how things are functioning. Workshops are where you can gain this hands-on knowledge.
You mentioned Simondon and his ideas about technology as mediator of our world. How has this “algae” idea unfolded and how is it connected with Simondon’s philosophical fascination?
Ok, I will try to explain. Why algae? I started to be interested in bioluminescence not because of the algae but because of bioluminescence bacteria and bacterial communication. I’m just really fascinated by this idea: it’s called quorum sensing, these microscopic entities that can sense each other. What an amazing experiential way to be in the world – it’s non-human and it’s helps to reflect about the world from a non-anthropocentric perspective.
Tyler Fox. Detail of Biolesce 0.0, Initial Prototype agitating P. fusiformis
And that was how you started to embed this into your research while in SIAT at Simon Fraser? (Tyler is a member of Transforming Pain Research Group at School of Interactive Arts and Technology, SFU)
Yes, exactly. I started doing more research on bioluminescence and I found the conceptual proof of my idea that I was telling you about earlier: that algae gets tired, it’s need certain environmental conditions: it needs light during the day so it has this luminescent light phase. Moreover, I had very interesting technical challenges as I’m not a programmer by training. I come from a video art background and I wasn’t satisfied with where I was getting to but I knew from my own experience while experimenting with algae that there was something very interesting and evocative and beautiful about bioluminescence and I really wanted to make something that worked from that process. Simondon has this idea of conditioning the present by a future, actualizing potential. And this is really analogous to my own experience of art: constant experimentation with technology but also with non-humans organisms in which something outside the human control is the process. The algae won’t co-operate if you don’t give it what it needs, if you don’t give it the right environment for growing. And it’s not very difficult to realize that the whole world is like this, not only the human world. It’s made up of all these living and non-living entities that are in constant dialogue and making art with it is just a way to appreciate it. It’s a constant shared experiential exchange.
Totally! For me Biolesce is very multilayered and I’m struggling to extract one particular focus and perspective to approach this artwork, I will be honest. I guess what will be curious to talk about is the aesthetic of response and the way it is exemplified in this work.
Between the algae and human?
Yeah sure, well I don’t expect someone viewing it to understand the Simondon philosophy and think about it when approaching my work because it’s very much related to why I’m doing the work. But I really think that this idea of shared sensorial experience will get through. I have this feeling that during the shows people were getting this kind of experience.
Like what? Can you give an example?
There were a couple things. There is a heart beat sensor and a few people who had their finger on this sensor, they would come really, really close to the jar. One woman in particular, she had her face right against of the jar and she probably stood there for a good 5 minutes. It was clear that she was really into it and it was a gratifying experience for me. Watching someone who is feeling this is excellent! And then I had a few conversations with people who indicated the idea of shared experience, sensing them on some level, interacting with algae as a form of sensation. What I didn’t know going into this project and only discovered few months ago was that Michael Latz, biologist and bioluminescence researcher, argues that bioluminescence is a form of sensation; he is talking about flow sensitivity and algae is experiencing its place in the world. So there was something very interesting there and I think people acknowledged it.
Tyler Fox. Biolesce 0.5, on display at Patterns, Aberthau Mansion. 2014. Bottles, seawater, P. Fusiformis, heartbeat sensors, Arduino Uno, vibration motors
Since you’re working at the intersection of the terrains of bio and science, am I right that there are ethical issues while working with living organisms?
Sure! There are some political issues the way I frame it when we think about sensorial aesthetics experience and about what is right or wrong. I think care is very central when we think of this particular field. And other bio artists such as Oron Katts did a lot of writing around the notion of care. On the one hand, it’s very pragmatic because if you don’t care for the living organism – you don’t have an art piece because it’s dead. And at the same time, to have a successful art piece, whatever you are working with, you have to understand what it needs and what it needs to live. And outside of making the artwork, there is this work of thinking and reflecting and caring – which is an ethical approach, a care-centric model.
Right. I’m thinking from the third-person perspective and putting myself in the position of your audience, someone who comes see your work. And you work with living organisms, taking it from its natural environment and mediating experiences of natural phenomena that are not accessible for human perception. This domain is still new and quite critical.
Yeah, that’s a great observation! I got a lot people asking if algae are “comfortable” and how it “feels”. I think there is a problem with this term “agitate’ because it has a negative emotional connotation.
Right. Something that affects, negatively.
But in fact I’m really talking about physically agitating, moving algae. In GSR pieces, it measures energy state and not your emotional state. But what I first learned was that a few people thought that it’s taking out some emotionally negativity, which I don’t think is technically correct. Algae are not being harmed, I mean – they survive, they live. So all these signs shows that they are fine. Interestingly, I found that some viewers were immediately interested in their own bodies, and curious to know, looking at heartbeat sensors if they are ok and healthy. These personally-oriented responses are very interesting too.
This is so interesting! I want to conclude by asking you about the body: our body and the way we use our body to experience artwork is very significant especially in the context of flow sensitivity you mentioned when you referred to Latz and bioluminescence as a form of sensation.
Tyler Fox. Detail, preparing motors for Biolesce 0.5
The body is central! In the process of getting to know the algae, I’ve done a lot of experiments using vibration motors, trying to understand what is possible with installation works that didn’t involve human interactivity at all. But working with algae has always been for me a way to think about the world, which is a dynamic living entity, both specific to bodies and in comparison to our own bodies. It’s really inspired by post-humanist theories and how the embodied enaction of any living entity has its own sphere of being in the world and its very unique to that body. And this position comes from a very ethical point of view, going back to your previous question
So, what is central to working with algae is how do you create an environment or an experience where you can have this shared lived experience simultaneously across different sensorial regimes. It’s not like you are sharing this experience with other humans but with non-human organisms, which in my case is algae. And that goes back to that woman who had her face right against the glass: that really happened to her. That kind of experience was always the goal.
Tyler Fox is an artist and researcher. His work focuses on nonhuman relations and the ways they shape our experience of and relationship to the surrounding world. His art practice is deeply rooted in Gilbert Simondon philosophy and post-humanist theories.
Tyler received his MFA in Intermedia from the Elam School of Fine Arts in New Zealand as well as two BA degrees from the University of Washington in Art History and the Comparative History of Ideas. He is currently a PhD candidate at the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University. He is also a member of Transforming Pain Research Group and a member of several art collectives.