Category Archives: Performances

Transcontinental Hiking / Hack Announcement

We are recruiting field biologists for the upcoming Transcontinental Hiking / Hack. This will be a 9 day hiking workshop through the Panamanian forest going from the Atlantic to the Pacific taking place from June 26-July 5 2014.

The primary goals of the project are to:

  • Design technology for studying animal behavior in situ.
  • Conduct a Basic Biodiversity Survey of the Area.
  • Raise ecological awareness

Chosen Applicants will be compensated with:

  • Free Food
  • Transportation for individuals already located in Gamboa Panama to the start of the Trail, and from the end of the trail back to Gamboa. (You need to arrange your own means of getting to Panama).
  • Electronics
  • Training in basic programming, physical computing, sensor creation, and interaction design

Applicants will be responsible for:

  • Helping design and carry out the scientific survey
  • Documenting the Trip
  • Carrying Gear
  • Participating in the proper training before the trip (Meetings, emails / 1 workshop in Gamboa, Panama)
  • Participating in the mobile workshops during the trip
  • Participating in a documentation workshop after the trip


We have 2-3 slots available. Anyone is welcome to apply by emailing: . Put “Hiking/Hack” in the subject line, and describe why you wish to join our crew.

This is part of my own research in what I call “Digital Naturalism.” I seek to understand how we can develop technology with scientists for the study of animal behavior in natural environments. I seek to design technology for the full ethological process, from early open-ended exploration, to rigorous experimentation, to embodied and interactive dissemination.

Any further questions, please let me know!

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

Groovy Science Band


(Photo from Peter Marting)

Field day with Peter and his Band. They came into town from St. Louis Saturday evening prepped for the Neon Party on the ridge. Today they are working with us as field assistants who happen to break out into the occasional jam. As I ride in the back of the truck, testing out living inside the new bio-survey method “Ladder on a Truck” with Evan strumming the guitar, I have the realization that this moxy adventure could be the premise for a children’s animated television show from the 70’s. Crazy truck of scientist-musicians rolls through forest, experimenting with ant-plants and taking time out for musical interludes.


It was a luxury having so many extra hands available for carrying out the experiments. It also gives those great recurring instances where you have to explain to a whole new group of people on the spot exactly what it is you do.  The restatement of one’s goals and ideas seems to sharped and sculpt your arguments. It runs an evolutionary algorithm on your ideas, and it chips away at the bits of the iterations that fail. But like evolution, it only gives us a locally optimal solution. Evolution will only give the laziest solutions to continued existence, and reinforces the situation a thing finds itself in from previous investment. The process will reflect its embedded environment, and dig the solution deeper and deeper, until entrenched. This is why it might be useful to carry these ideas as they evolve to different mental environments. Keep it flexible, robust.


Had the guys do an acoustic set of a couple of their songs with Peter’s subject animals. The concert featured just a guitar, some rocks, and a cecropia tree full of azteca ants for percussion. Their performance ended up being limited by the aggressiveness of the colony.


We also wonderfully weirded out some groups of other scientists who happened to be passing through in the jungle. Evan and I also testing out a sprinting, moving, musical performance with guitar and harmonica while jogging down pipeline. We all do some jungle vine swinging and then catch Marc Seid’s Gamboa talk at 4pm about various different projects involving insect brains and addiction. The newly arrived Barrett Klein is also in attendance. I give him copies of my field books and he loves them. He says he is always looking for things to show his class about alternate ways of doing and presenting science.


Peter’s jungle ladder has been capturing my imagination more and more.  So much so, that I even wrote a poem about it (adopted from WC Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”). It is a simple household tool, but completely necessary for Peter to gain closer experiences to life with the Azteca. The trees and ants are trying their best to keep others from experiencing their world, and the ladder defeats them. The way we carry it in his truck makes it collect all sorts of interesting debris as we drive through the forest, but because it is in the back, this process remains mostly hidden to us. There’s not much logically missing from this process when we think about it abstractly, a ladder sticks up and waps all the branches and leaves that hang down. But it is such a dynamic system, I have been wanting to feel it more deeply and experience it from within. It also didn’t hurt that the truck was full on the inside anyway. So I set to surf the truck down pipeline and put myself directly in the ladder. Something stung me on the eye, I got slapped around something fierce, and I got bit by dozens of different creatures. It gave me something I am not sure quite yet how to express.

Jungle Ladder
so much depends
a jungle
mounted in the
truck bed
writhing with


Surfing the Forest Truck



stills (1)stills (2)

Jungle Soap


For my second “Digital Naturalist” collaborator, Toni, we met up late one night to discuss which famous work of performance art she wanted to reenact in the jungle.  We discussed Joe Beuys, Yoko Ono, (she brought up Abramovich’s piece with the gun), and more of Kaprow’s happenings. She really enjoyed reading about the piece for “Raining” where various objects in the world were painted and then waited on for the rain to wash away (pictures of boats along gutters, trunks of trees painted red, people’s naked bodies). She eventually chose an adapted, and condensed version of Kaprow’s “Soap” to perform where we would cover our bodies in Jam and wash them in the river.

(video documentation of the entire performance)


My goal with these performance art re-enactions was to expose my scientists to different modes of experiencing the strange worlds they encounter everyday in the jungle. Our perception and learning is not absolute but rather state based. The things we pay attention to and the way we comprehend these interactions are steered by our physical and mental states. The insects you notice while walking through a jungle may be different when walking through that same jungle naked and covered in jam.

Another reason for these happenings is to provide and opportunity for the scientists to stand back and reflect on their own practices as these strange performances with animals. Casting this frame of “performance” around the scientist’s work allows him or her to sort of see their own methodologies with new eyes, and pay attention to aspects of their interactions with animals which may have been taken for granted, or simply adopted flatly from standardized ways of experimentation.

For Toni, she saw the performance as a way to explore the irrational in order to clean out the logic machine operating within the everyday scientist. This “logic vacation” let the scientists attempt to let down their guard of incessant meaning-making. It was a way to wash the mind and restore its logical gates to their proper functioning. I argued along with this that too many scientists were always worried about the “meaning” behind doing certain actions, when in fact, meaning making is the core-automatic process of our brains. Our brains find meaning and connections between all the random bits of stimuli we receive, whether these connections make sense or not. We find faces in rocks on cliffsides, and claim instances of Deja Vu when two events from of all the sensory data we happen to take in during our lives intersect. Instead I argue that novel action, not meaning is what’s rare to find in the world. Borrowing from Robert Crease’s work in his book “The Play of Nature” I claimed that the way to discover interesting new behaviors is by performing new behaviors in the world itself. The phenomena we then call forth will be then put under the lens of our brain’s semantic scrutiny.

Like all the performances, I first created engaging posters to hang up around the Smithsonian. This served several purposes:

  1. It prompted curiosity about our research.
  2. It let us reflect and abstract upon the core principles of our performance to be.
  3. It kept my scientists committed to their performance. In this tumultuous world where daily routines are shattered and driven by the weather or wills of the animals, these posters served as temporal staples; locking in their commitment to the strange or odd act they had agreed to.


Tienda guy’s wife had an accident on Friday and the shop shut down. Not only were we worried about her health, but to a lesser extent, we also realized that there was no other source of large amounts of jam within miles.



So I got up early on the day of the performance and showed up at the little shop as it opened to make sure that if it was not going to open, we might still have enough time to find a ride into the city and secure the jelly. Luckily everyone was fine back at the Tienda, and I bought ALL of their jelly. (After buying all their ice another day, the Tienda guy is starting to get a bit weirded out).


Toni and I prepped before heading out. We finalized our performative script for the day. She wanted us to:

  • Cover our bodies in Jelly
  • Hike through the woods down to the waterfall on Mendoza River
  • Bathe ourselves in the waterfall and pool
  • Hike back

So that’s the invented ritual we aimed to follow. Like how Schechner defines a performance as “ritual modulated by play”, -how we would adapt this theoretical model of action to the real time and place became the actual performance.


It rained a ton, which made the normal way of walking up to the waterfall (along the edge of the river), quite impossible (especially if we wanted to keep our jelly on). The rain also kept the insects at a minimum which we had anticipated being one of the main experiences of our journey. Instead  one of the main things we noticed were about how a body, unencumbered by backpacks and clothes, can move through a jungle. Peter noted that he was able to sneak up on a deer due to his ability to move ultra-silently. The jelly served as a way to highlight all our intereactions and brushings against different insects, dirt and vegetation.

Sometimes the steepness, or thickness, of the terrain would force us to walk through the river, and the jelly made you perpetually conscious of exactly how deep you had entered this fast-flowing flooded river.

The sweetness of the jelly came as sudden suprises. During the trek, little bits would drip with your sweat and land in your mouth, causing quick explosions of rare flavor to take precedent over your focus.


I also took the opportunity to physically emulate the actions of the primary hero of my research, Niko Tinbergen. Here’s a candid shot of him doing fieldwork out in the Netherlands paired up with a shot of the fieldwork of my own.


Jungle Fluids

Jungle-Fluids-Poster IMG_9834

Doing any performance is much harder than you ever think. Our plans were set and Peter and I joined up to gather morning coolers before La Tienda Opened. 7am Grab the super nice volunteer Dallas along the way. It is crazy early for a bat person.

To give my digital naturalists some practice at alternative forms of performance, I am having them recreate famous performance works in the jungle with their creatures. The first one to go was Peter, who from a list of famous works of performance art chose to reenact Alan Kaprow’s piece, “Fluids.” In “Fluids,” Kaprow built large structures of ice around LA and left them to melt. We were going to try out the same thing in the Neotropical rainforest. A place where ice scultpure art is not only uncommon, it actually introduces a whole new state of matter to the animals that typically only live in the thick sweltering heat of the jungle.


Scene from Kaprow’s Original “Fluids” work.

We noticed the gas levels in the truck were dropping rapidly though. Suspected a leak. Needed to drive into the city to the nearest gas station (20 miles away). Caught in Traffic, gauges still dropping. Pulled into station with needle bottoming out. Fill it all the way to the brim with diesel, but it only takes 5 gallons. Gauge must be faulty. Hurdle 1 done.


Get to La Tienda. Guy seems a little weirded out that we actually came for the “mucho mucho mucho hielo” I requested earlier in the week. 60 bags total. Loaded 40 into coolers and my newly emptied out pelican cases. Wrapped the remaining bags in a white tarp (that Peter used for harvesting Aztecas from Cecropias). KC saw us loading ice and decided she was game to join the crew.


Loaded first installation at the gate to Pipeline road. Met Sunshine’s group there with us. Explain concept and move a fallen tree a bit. They seem to actually like the concept.


Get to our first cecropia tree. It cannot be one for Peter’s official research, because that would screw up his longer term experiments. Pile the ice around for installation #2 and freak those ants THE FUCK OUT. Peter and I have never seen them so angry, and come down so far from their nest near the top of the tree. They seem to be sustaining the anger longer than with flicking or tapping the tree also. Want to get some gorgeous dolly footage of the installation, and realize the dolly is gone. Maybe left it at the Tienda?


Drive back to town, setting up installations along the way. This time around a foraging leaf-cutter trail. Drop off KC, cannot find dolly. Maybe it bounced out of the truck? Drive back to dallas who has been performing a manual time-lapse for us and guarding the tree from the rain. No sign of camera dolly. Bring him lunch. Eat and discuss, and suddenly he has a batmeeting he needs to go to. Peter leaves me at the cecropia ice installation, whose inhabitants are still attacking full force (for over 3 hours by now).Time passes trying to get aesthetically pleasing macro shots of Azteca performing unseen behavior where they shake or pull their frozen compatriots from the icy depths. They are able to revive many. The ice is taking much longer to melt than thought.





After an hour, Peter pulls up in truck. He saw my weird, large mammalian body sprawled in the road and thought I was a tapir. He now has Marc Seid with him and three interns. They are happy to report that they found my dolly! They pull out a brown metally mess. After having driven over it 4 times ourselves, and with at least 3 other run overs by other trucks, it had peeked itself out of the deepest puddle on pipeline. Nothing was bent, only one simple screw had come off, and after I rinsed off the mud and re-lubed it, it worked good as new!


Marc became fascinated with our ice installations. He gave me the high compliment I had been looking for with all this craziness: “This is …. not stupid!” We studied the deformations and restructuring of the foraging leaf cutters in close detail as they responded to this strange stimuli.

One installation, near the river, revealed to us, the vastly different heating and cooling properties of the leaf littler and hard rocky surfaces.

IMG_9807 (2)IMG_5207IMG_5241IMG_5247IMG_5263

Didn’t wrap up until around 7pm. A good solid 12 hours out in the field. The azteca and the ice were still battling as we left.


Jungle Ladder

Peter and I have hiked out to his secondary field site down old Gamboa Road. Unlike pipeline, this old road is barricaded, so we cannot drive our equipment down to his trees, and instead have to take his cameras, tripods, and full sized ladder through the jungle and up a creek. We set up the first of the days experiments around 8am. Howler monkeys lazily gaze down upon us. Probably resting after all the sunrise screaming. My second official day shadowing him, and he has already worked many of the kinks out of his process. All the cameras are charged, no tripod switching, timings are all down pat with additional buffers for recording ant movements.

Tested out my macro extension tubes on Peter’s 100mm canon macro lens. Makes for double mega macro that’s also super hard to use in the field. Managed to snag this pic however, resting the camera on the top of my boot.


Checking in with him about his journaling, and he reports that it is going well. In particular he liked one of my guidelines in the journal where I have him act out a portion of a performance that he had witnessed that day. “It always makes me think of new things when I actually perform. I think about specific parts about how the antennae move, or that person acted which I would not have otherwise noticed.

We packed up as the rain came down. Peter gave me my first lesson in driving stick. The jungle is a good place to learn to drive.