XXV.4 July - August 2018
Page: 64
Digital Citation

Designing with the sensorial

Tyler Fox

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Dinoflagellates have their own way of being in the world. These single-celled algae, or plankton, have complex, embodied relations to their surroundings. Of the approximately 2,000 species of dinoflagellates, several are bioluminescent—these dinoflagellates emit bright flashes of blue-green light when mechanically stimulated. Michael Latz, researcher of bioluminescent dinoflagellates at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, describes this bioluminescent response as a form of sense and as a response to fluidic flow [1]. Waves, boats, and swimming creatures, for example, all create enough force to cause a bioluminescent response. Button motors, servos, and solenoids can also create enough force to elicit their flickering response.

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My work brings together such technical and organic engagements to explore a method of designing with, or perhaps through, the sensorial. For several years I have been designing interactive experiences utilizing bioluminescent dinoflagellates as an interactive visual component. One example of my work is an interactive sculpture called Biolesce 0.5. The work comprises three stations. Each station consists of an Arduino microcontroller; an optical heart-rate monitor and vibration motors encased in silicone tubes in a jar, approximately 7 inches high and 4 inches in diameter containing close to 700 ml of seawater; and dinoflagellates. Participants place a finger on the heartbeat sensor, which then triggers the motors in time to the interactants’ heartbeats, creating a bioluminescent visualization of their heart rate. The three stations are in close proximity, allowing individuals to see not just their own pulse visualized in the algal response, but also that of other participants.

Biolesce is a series of interactive sculptures; this particular version is one of the most successful. Success here works on two levels. The audience reception was pleasingly positive. Multiple audience members lingered at the installation, putting their faces right next to the jars and watching the pulses of light for several minutes. Others simply responded with exclamations of joy and wonder, which I have found to be a common response to bioluminescence (I also have a joyous response).

The interaction paradigm is easily understood—the connection between the heartbeat and the bioluminescence was intuitive for most people, helping them understand bioluminescence as an embodied response to the world. When we’re working with living organisms, success is also defined by their experience—for instance, Biolesce depends on a healthy bioluminescent response for the human audience to see. In this case, the dinoflagellates were responsive throughout the evening of the exhibit, which means that the chemical response (a luciferin-luciferase reaction caused by the deformation of the cell) was never fully exhausted. I learned of this possibility early on in my explorations with dinoflagellates.

My first prototype involved a galvanic skin response (GSR) sensor, a toy motor, and a stir stick. The motor spun the stick in a small bottle containing about 50 ml of water and dinoflagellates. It was a brilliant display! It also completely exhausted the dinoflagellates; they needed a day to replenish their chemical energy to be able to emit light again. This was a fundamental lesson that working with living organisms requires care and a sensitivity to their experience.

Thus, I found that to explore any connections via technology required an approach specific to the dinoflagellates’ embodied response to the world. It involved a sensorial approach to understand the affordances and potential of bioluminescence. Following the first prototype, I spent many hours in the dark, stimulating dinoflagellates through a variety of means: dripping from eye droppers, prodding with fingers and solenoids, stirring them, and so forth. I tried to understand what physical responses can be brought forth from the algae, and which were interesting to me. I also explored the affordances of containers in combination with dinoflagellates, including plastic bags, jars, bottles, and test tubes, and a variety of interaction modalities from potentiometers, buttons, and triggers to biosensors of varying degree. As I explored the dinoflagellates as a medium, I constantly asked myself questions attuned to both their experience and my own. What exhausts the dinoflagellates too quickly? What is visually intriguing? What works best under uncertain lighting conditions?

To understand this sensorial approach, I turned to a notion of technical sensation indebted to Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy of technology. Simondon provides a concept of designing with the sensorial, which he calls technoaesthetic. This approach considers both the sensations derived from technical objects and the sensorial experience of making, whether it is making artwork, interactive designs, or a new machine, or working with tools in general. Technical objects may reveal new sensorial experiences, transducing phenomena of the world that lies outside of our sensorial register into something that is sensible.

My interlocutors are living organisms that require certain forms of care; they need consistent light, temperature regulation, minerals, and micronutrients to be able to respond with vibrant bioluminescence. They also need the right kind of interaction, as I learned from my first prototype. Thus, my time prodding and poking the dinoflagellates to see how they respond was the very first technoaesthetic step. The next step was to figure out how to put them into relation with a technical system. In Simondon’s proposal of technical aesthesis, or sensation, he claims that technology allows us to experience phenomena that we otherwise could not. I do not read this as some sort of simple prosthesis for human bodies, but instead as humans being imbricated within a broader network connecting society to the natural world via technical structures. His sensorial approach engages with natural processes and amplifies these processes through technical arrangements; the amplification—the new form of sensation or context—emerges through the sensorial experience of making.

To create a sensorially rich experience, one must experience sensorially along the way. The sensorial experience is not just the end goal of the artwork, but it is also part of the process of making work. It involves an ongoing, reticular relationship between the designer and, in this case, the dinoflagellates and the technical arrangement they are put into relation with. There are multiple chains of preparation, both of the dinoflagellates and of the technology. Art becomes a method of investigation.

ins02.gif The three stations that make up Biolesce 0.5.

The development of my bioluminescent sculptures was by no means linear. The hands-on approach in the studio, for me at least, was a messy back-and-forth process of working with code, motors, wires, vessels of seawater, and so on. Prodding a bag of algae moves to a similar setup with vibration motors, servos, and solenoids to see which works best. Simondon’s writing about the technoaesthetic resonates with my own experiences in developing different sculptures through multiple modalities. The development process was led by the senses, heading toward an amplification of the dinoflagellate experience into a meaningful human experience.

The aesthetic experience is a way of knowing. It is a mode of understanding material components at hand and their affordances. As Simondon writes, “It’s about a certain contact with matter that is being transformed through work” [2]. Exploring wires, breadboards, and circuits sensorially is to learn about stress points, rigidity, and the suppleness of the components at hand, much like the process of learning about bioluminescence described above. This sensorial activity is a form of communication between artist, or technologist, and the thing being worked, mediated by the tool. It is also intuitive: “It’s a type of intuition that’s perceptive-motoric and sensorial” [2].

Our contemporary moment is filled with sensor-laden technology, one that calls for its own sensorial method. Simondon claims that within each technology “there exists a margin of liberty that enables it to be used for ends that were not foreseen” [2]. Designing with the sensorial is a messy, open-ended investigation of the margins.

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1. Maldonado, E.M., and Latz, M.I. Shear-stress dependence of dinoflagellate bioluminescence. The Biological Bulletin 212, 3, (June 2007), 242–49.

2. Simondon, G. On techno-aesthetics. Parhesia 14 (2012), 1–8.

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Tyler Fox is a lecturer in human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington. He received his Ph.D. from the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University, and his M.F.A. in inter media from the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland.

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