Category Archives: Crafts

Living Lightning: Critical Making Workshop and Performance


One of the largest projects carried out during my fieldwork demonstrates the abilities of both types of critical tools. Living Lightning developed in Panama during the summer of 2013. It originated from one of our mini-challenges to the scientists-collaborator, Peter Marting, to go as deep as possible into the farthest section of his field site. It grew dark, and the road deteriorated as our truck penetrated deep into the jungle. When we reached our limit, we stood outside and observed the darkness. There were bright green lights we noticed in the woods, and when we stopped, the lights slowly drifted towards us. The huge Pyrophorus noctiluca luminescent beetles were attracted to the running light on the truck. Watching the bright lights drift through the now blank canvas of the darkened forest inspired me to design a workshop and performance that would let us experience this foreign experience of the beetles.

This experience led to the design of a simple, introductory 1.5 hour collaborative workshop, where scientists made their own firefly costume which we then wore into the jungle to re-enact their behaviors ourselves. Fireflies’ visual communication meshed well with my intentions to lead basic technology lessons, as I was able to build off Physical Computing’s version of the “Hello World” program, the standard blink example. These hand-built wearable devices outputted a programmable custom flashing pattern, and take a simple input from a mouth piece (to keep hands free for nighttime jungle-walking) all connected to an 80-cent ATTiny85 microcontrollers. This design gave a concrete motivation, while letting participants quickly tackle most physical computing basics, including soldering, polarity, circuit design, IO, bootloaders, and programming.

As more than a skill building session, however, the workshop component of Living Lightning was created to encourage material reflection following the Critical Making tradition. In Ratto’s original Critical Making workshops, he periodically “interrupted the teams to ask them to reflect on the kinds of help they were getting from digital resources, what help they received from their teammates and others in the room, and how the materials themselves informed their decisions.”[1] Again, while this workshop lead to the fabrication of a functional object, our critical making goals focused on the reflective, collaborative engagement with the materials themselves. Like Ratto states, “Therefore, while critical making organizes its efforts around the making of material objects, devices themselves are not the ultimate goal. Instead, through the sharing of results and an ongoing critical analysis of materials, designs, constraints, and outcomes, participants in critical making exercises together perform a practice-based engagement with pragmatic and theoretical issues.”[2]

Figure 2 – Critical Making in Digital Biocrafting Workshop.- Building Firefly costumes

Figure 3 Performing the Fireflies’ behaviors in their Environment

In our sessions, the participants “purchased” the components, such as LEDs, or wire, at each step of their design by receiving different reflective prompts which they were asked to meditate on while building and discuss with others. Questions such as “What part of your tool can tell a lie?” or “which of your animal’s senses would you want for yourself?” were designed to lead to critical analysis of the technological, biotic, social, and environmental structures pervading this project and their research.

On the Performance Studies side of the project, acting with the devices into the fireflies’ natural habitat, the dark jungle provided additional levels of analysis upon the actions of the different constituents of the performance[DN1] . An interview with a local firefly expert let us design our basic script. This literally follows Crease’s statement about the theatricality of sicence that  “a theory, we might say, scripts a phenomenon.”[3] The mating ritual of fireflies sees the males roaming the forest, broadcasting a specific pattern of light, and searching for a female-specific response. The females sit and wait, and respond only to the most attractive of males. Transforming these behaviors into our performance, lead to a hide-and-seek style game where participants with female gendered costumes, hid in the woods, selectively flashing their costume in response to passing males. The participants had also programmed various Arduino “brains” with different genders and variations of the firefly patterns (and even predatory mimics), allowing them the additional ability to swap personas between different rounds of the mating game that emerged.

The most obvious point for reflection in this performance came from our own experience in tweaking the emergent gameplay. Embodying this behavioral system revealed the pros and cons of light communication in a forest environment for instance. In the pitch black forest, one’s sensitivity to seemingly insignificant variations in flashing patterns was heightened. Crawling through the abstract environment, one felt the strangeness of peering through alien eyes. The sporadic breakdowns back into of normal human behavior that occurred during these sessions, such as talking with passers-by became enframed as inauthentic to this experience, and led to manipulations in the rules, such as “no-talking.” Improvisations[DN2]  one made to correct accidents in behavior, such as approaching another male stirred one’s mind into eager thinking about how actual fireflies made these changes.

This performance also provided reflexive engagement with our animal audiences. Our costumes attracted not only other gameplayers, but sometimes actual fireflies as well. The inverse also came true during some play sessions where an individual was led off into the woods chasing a real-life firefly instead of a participant. These were special moments where we were able to directly observe, from within a dynamic behavioral system itself, the triggers and corrections the fireflies would make as different aspects of our actions and costumes attracted or frightened off the animals. Our back and forth interplay with the creatures themselves confronted directly with Schechner’s statement that, “Whatever the human cultural aspects of play, there are also ethological aspects. Ethologically, play and ritual are closely related. Just as human ritual has roots in nonhuman animal behavior, so play has been observed in many species.”[4]

Lastly, these performances brought our attention to the roles played by the environment and the tools. Like Crease notes, “A performance is fresh and unique when it is synthetically attuned to the specific conditions of the environment in which it takes place”[5] our performance as fireflies was inseperable from the habitat of the inspirational creatures. Unable to fly ourselves, we grew immediately aware of the difficulties of terrestrial navigation in a tangled forest with low-light conditions. Our limited locomotive abilities, made us also aware of the three-dimensional shape of our “stage” and the restrictions we had to place on the performance because of this. Placing ourselves in a unfamiliar context with limited abilities, also drew our attention to unknown components of the environment. For instance, the lack of light drew our attention to hidden patches of a faint bioluminescent fungus which is invisible in most light.

Overlooked environmental factors, such as the thick tangley-ness of the jungle spurred reflection on the technologies behaviors, and how participants might tweak the design for different engagements, such as by sewing in loose wires of the costume to one’s actual clothing. Broken devices also lead to some participants figuring out ways to puppeeterr the flashing of their suits by tapping a battery against the legs of an LED. The persistent periods of restructuring and reflection built a heightened fluency in the participants. For example after one performance session, several participants traveled into the city for the weekend, and on the bus repaired and adapted their costumes for dancing at nightclubs.

[1] Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” The Information Society 27.4 (2011): 252–260.

[2] Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” The Information Society 27.4 (2011): 252–260.

[3] Crease, Robert P. The Play of Nature: Experimentation as Performance (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Technology). Indiana University Press, 1993. Print.144

[4] Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. Routledge, 2002. Print.

[5] Crease, Robert P. The Play of Nature: Experimentation as Performance (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Technology). Indiana University Press, 1993. Print.126