Insects & AI with Ursula Damm
By Michal Gavish, contributor
Michal Gavish: You started your career as a sculptor. Could you describe a bit about your background, and tell us how you began working in the SciArt field?
Ursula Damm: I was a teen when the 68’s were just over. I had the strong feeling that my generation would not demonstrate in the streets to change the world. I felt that another transformation appeared at the horizon: computing and the advance of algorithms. The change was not yet apparent, but a more subtle, latent presence of a force which could not easily be identified or managed.
When I started my studies at the Art Academy Düsseldorf, it was the institution of Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, Gerhard Richter, Bernd Becher, Tony Cragg and Guenther Uecker. They all were professors there (the latter were my teachers) – a marvelous place to study sculpture (we would call it installation art today). I built sculptures out of wire and cloth. After being filled with wet soil they became bodily representations of the individual (I myself) – produced through the weight of mud filling cases of cloth. Identity, space, openness, closeness, belonging, distance were the conditions addressed by the forms. For me, my works were about topology and had – besides other connotations - a mathematical, if not physical dimension. In the early 80s it was difficult to find an audience willing to discuss those topics in art. Even if my works found their enthusiasts, the conversations on art were governed by other topics (my sculptures were regarded very “female,” interpretation always guided by the semantic context of this attribute).
Still during my studies in Düsseldorf (1987) I got for the first time in contact with a research center. Together with Günther Uecker we were invited by the "Gesellschaft für Strahlenund and Umweltforschung mbH" in Munich, where we visited scientific laboratories for one week. The visit was followed by an exhibition, where we, the artists, expressed our feelings on what we had seen. This was how Art & Science was practiced at that time. It was unsatisfactory for many reasons: artists and scientists had a different language, different values, different practices, the intersections were fractional and both sides remained in their discursive space.
MG: Your projects are highly collaborative - how do you choose your projects, and how does the collaborative process begin?
UD: The topics of my projects are given by very personal affectations. The subjects appeared sometimes already in my prior, analog works and over time developed their own narratives (such as the mosquitoes or geometrical patterns). Finally the geometrical patterns – tillings – and the wish to draw them more efficiently with a computer, were responsible for my move to the digital. In 1995 I started my second postgraduate studies at the Media Art School Cologne (with Georg Trogemann and Valie Export) and learned programming. Since then, computer scientists were part of my natural surroundings and slowly a new quality of collaboration could evolve.
Narratives of my works were sometimes influenced by encounters – as it happened with Birgit Brüggemeier, who introduced me to fruit flies. Birgit offered fascination, profound knowledge, and information on fly behavior. Her observations on fly songs as well as apparent meaningless dances of male flies – the chaining – woke my interest. I made fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) the leading actors of my installations. In addition, the fruit flies opened another dimension: they are one of the main model organisms in brain research and genetics. An astonishing amount of knowledge on the human is gained by investigating the fruit fly.
MG: In your current Berlin installation, Membrane, you develop “the fictional potential of machine learning.” Fed by a street camera, the machine abstracts the images that it captures based on internal algorithms and user input. Do you see your coded sequences as a contemporary painting practice? Can you compare this photographic process to abstracted landscape painting such as impressionist works?
UD: Working on a computer is largely different to painting: when you are programming, you are not starting with a blank page. You do not need to empty your consciousness at the beginning of a picture. You are not referencing your body as much as with painting. As for Membrane, pictures are delivered by two video cameras and coincidental situations in front of them. One is looking at a public area, the other is nearby allowing the visitor to be subject of the observation. A painting instead is about things you choose and things you drop. It is about reinforcing what your body wants and what your hands are able to do – Membrane, in contrast is about abstraction, produced by a (conceptual) machine in a self-organizing way. It starts with the concept of code. In the case of Membrane I wished to have a highly interactive recursive system offering a visitor the possibility to experience the behavior of code in time and space. Our interface allows to interfere with the parameters of the code, more than to adapt images to the perception of the visitor.
While working on Membrane, Peter Serocka (the programmer) and me were constantly questioning if our consciousness is comforted by the appearing abstractions or not. Are the generated images more comforting than realistic depictions? Are they too simple? Is a reduction of complexity accommodating my sensory apparatus or would I prefer more delicate color nuances and complex shapes? As an outcome of our experimentation with Membrane, I recognize that neural networks by definition reduce complexity and offer a kind of “aesthetic reductionism,” a process which is necessary while attempting to filter out the essence of the respective video footage. I’m finally convinced that impressionism and other modernist styles of painting have in common with neural networks that they comply more with the human sensory apparatus than realistic depictions.
Interestingly, several artworks using the GAN or TGAN algorithm can offer not only an aesthetic reduction, but new, computer generated fiction – a fiction, developed out of the data of an available dataset. We are still astonished by those artifacts and it will take some time to evaluate them from an artistic point of view. On no account can an artwork be produced by just repeating what reality already provides. Fiction is hidden within the parameters of the generator of the algorithm.
MG: Your fruit fly Karaoke Bar is fascinating. How do you create a sound dialogue with fruit flies? What are the viewer’s responses like?
UD: Karaoke Bar: Singing in the Language of Flies invites visitors to establish a direct exchange with fruit flies through a technical interface. Software translates human speech into the perception range of flies, allowing auditory feedback between people and flies. To blend the human and fly songs, we use a special signal-processing vocoder provided by the Fraunhofer Institute for integrated circuits.
Birgit Brüggemeier explains in a video the meaning of the constituent parts of a fly song. She informs listeners about the syntax and semantics of Drosophila songs, in order to give the visitors a better understanding of fly communication. The video encourages the visitors to sing and speak to the flies. A sound visualization in 3D enhances the auditory perception of the sphere of the flies with visual monitoring of fly songs on a screen: the location, amplitude, and pattern of the sound sources will help the performer to identify her effect on the fly behavior.
A large pile of sand covers the habitat of flies, its weight insulating their buzzing from the noise of humans. The massive sand pile represents the sensual and semantic gap between a fly and a human.
MG: Insects appear again in your project The Outline of Paradise. Here, you establish communication with your insect collaborators by influencing their motions through sound. What were your goals for this piece, both internally and externally?
UD: When I left the county side and moved to a city I begun to miss the sound of the fields and the forest. And when I later returned to the small village in the middle of vineyards, called Diedesfeld, something was gone. I took me a while to figure out that I missed the sounds of insects. This sound was like a confirmation of an ecological balance. Science has proven only now that insecticides diminished insects up to 80 % of their former presence.
Chironomid midges (Chironomus riparius, commonly used in ecotoxicology) were protagonists of several artworks of mine. Double Helix Swing recorded their swarms to nourish an artificial life algorithm. For The Outline of Paradise I invited Christina Meissner, a chello player, to explore how to communicate with the swarms. Soon it became obvious that we could impact the shape of swarms in time by specific sounds. This is why we started a series of concerts. Christina Meissner, Teresa Carrasco (who arranged the sound recordings) and me gathered in Weimar to further investigate the singing of Chironomid midges. In a direct feedback situation between humans and animals, technology should be used only to adapt our senses and make it easier to understand the message of the other (Insect Songs). First, we noticed that Christina Meissner with her chello was able to stimulate lazy midges (stimulation – sound example from our first session) to start swarming intensively (swarming in dialogue). We were thrilled to notice that it was so easy and obvious that humans and midges interfere. Later it was no longer necessary or voluntary to force midges into swarming, but instead to develop a kind of Q&A, to listen and to respond to the phrases of the mosquitoes.
MG: The accumulative motion of the city in Turnstile is very moving as we, the audience, become the subject as we are followed by your camera. We perceive our walking habits as individual, yet at the same time we learn that even our most personal steps fall into patterns of predictable geometries. In your interactive process, the motion of city crowds appears as a collective of geometric motion patterns. Can you talk a bit about the conception of this piece, and what you hope it will reveal to your audience?
UD: Turnstile is an artwork installed at Schadowstraße underground station in Düsseldorf. The artwork is designed as a snapshot of a location comprising pedestrians crossing the square above the underground station, a video camera observing the pedestrians, lifts transporting passengers to their platform and an LED wall situated above the rail lines at the front of the station.
The video images on the front wall of Schadowstraße underground station are generated in real time. The footage shifts our focus from the platform to the pedestrians crossing the station square overhead. To achieve this, a camera captures the movements of pedestrians above ground and custom-made software interprets these movements as ‘energy sources’ or ‘virtual fuel’; consequently the temporal-spatial accumulation of events unfolding above the underground station is manifest on the screens installed on the station’s LED wall, ultimately becoming a virtual interpretation of the location’s lively hustle and bustle. Small, virtual beings use the motion-energies to build a temporary, fluctuating architecture that ebbs and flows in accordance with the stream of passers-by.
The artwork encompasses urban space and its geometries. Geometries define the earth up to a point; when humans settled, geometries were also used to map the near and far, the inside and outside, the you and I. In short: geometries map the physical coexistence of human beings. Geometry orders habitats. It interprets, structures, and alters movement within a space; it is a component of the ‘language’ of habitats. It records the flow of movement, the swarm behavior of humans (and animals) within urban environments and the surrounding areas. The aim of the geometric tessellations is not the measurement of a space. Geometry is used to record the motion or inertia of people within a space and thereby identify basic characteristics of the terrain: spacious or restrictive? Open and with perspective? Attractive to people? Who or what is dominating it: nature or architecture? Animals or creatures? Can one sense neighboring architectures from the given space? Is the structure of the (urban) landscape recognizable?
Turnstile is an interactive installation and thus in essence ephemeral. It was not designed to alter the city’s structures, but to influence our perception thereof. Turnstile exists in a temporal dimension defined by algorithms; it develops relationships and discards them; it plays with various agents to create an image composed of pedestrians, plaza, light and geometry.
Ultimately the geometrics are based on a planning vision with a pragmatic focus: to challenge the ridged framework of the right angle, which has infiltrated the modern city, and extend it into a canon of varying angles and geometric primitives. This way, urban planning can tackle the complexities of a real situation - without diggers or demolition balls - by incorporating axes and alignments near and far into the design process.
The geometry of motion (i.e. the movements of pedestrians across the square above the underground station) in the interactive installation Turnstile follows a particular grammar: the interplay of local events, pedestrian activity and social interaction becomes its architecture. The diverse possibilities of the algorithmic performance soften the radical position geometry naturally holds and instead pose a hypotheses and make an offer to the citizen; an architecture that is formed from the actions of the passer-by.
MG: Your artistic tools are highly scientific. Could you describe the process of building one of your experiments/projects? How do your artistic ideas become part of the work, are they your primary motivation or do they develop later, as the results of your observations?
UD: Curiosity is a key driver and this is what I share with scientists. Compared to scientists, I allow myself to play around, to tease the audience or to speculate in my promises. Another advantage for an artist is that we can report our observation without explaining them or offering an interpretation. Instead, we position them in specific (unusual and experimental) settings to create contextual meaning. Thus, we are experiencing thinking patterns long before they are becoming subjects of scientific experiments.
MG: Your projects all have scientific and social aspects to them. In addition to your art production, do you hope to provide scientific contributions, or perhaps social or anthropological observations through your work?
UD: I definitively do not want to contribute to science - instead I would be happy to alter it.
Just as in science, art regards the experiment as an “instance of the incalculable.” We believe that open-ended experimentation allows one to conduct undirected research in situations whose complexity and novelty transcend comprehensibility, although demanding positioning. Where calculability ends and situations become indeterminable, art – unlike science – can take a path without failing the artist's own standards.
MG: Do you have any upcoming or current exhibits you’d like to share?
UD: At present, Membrane is shown at "Entangled Realities" at the HEK Basel (who co-produced the work together with the Bauhaus University Weimar) until August 11th, and the Drosophila Karaoke Bar is shown at MoMUseum Vilnius until July 22th. Karaoke Bar as a part of the "Shared Habitats" exhibition of me and my students will be on show at Campus Ars electronica from September 5th to September 9th at the Kunst Universität Linz.