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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

Input / Output Examples

In June 2013 I held a small workshop to demonstrate simple devices that scientists could use in the field for sensing or acting within environments.


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Big BCI Day: Part II – Glowing Night

Daan and I make it back to the main labs on the island to meet with Courtney. I chat with her about her research with Leaf cutter ants and computer vision. We were supposed to meet in the lab, but suddenly before my arrival, the ants decided to get moving, and she had to hurry up and capture their activity in the field. She wants to see the effect that an additional cache of leaves will have on the Atta’s foraging. That is, she sets a big pile of pre-sliced leaves next to a foraging trail, and sees how this changes what the ants will do who are marching up to strip the trees. She wants to see if their response to this cache will also be affected by the blocking of more ants returning with leaves.  The idea is to see if the ants in a colony will start using more of the close by piles of “leaf-reserves” if the incoming stream of fresh leaves dries up.

She blocks ants returning with fresh leaves by placing  large U-shaped hunk of mesh over their path which lets ants through but not ants carrying large leaves. This ingenious intervention preserves their same pathway on the ground but just prevents the fresh leaves from getting drug in.

On the way up to visit her, a playful group of spider monkeys play in the low trees just a couple meters above our heads.


We eat and see that night’s BAMBI talk and then gather participants for a special BCI version of the firefly game. A good amount of people wimp out, but we have an awesome group of super cool people joining anyway! This time we play in a slightly more urban environment. I thought it might be too easy in this format (not in thick jungle), and that this might break the performance/game. In reality, however, these more open spaces (yet still very dark) create a very compelling, fun game. In fact, since the fireflies themselves don’t have to deal with the drudgery of walking through tangled vines on the forest floor, and instead float effortlessly about, this part of the simulation may fall closer to the real experience of the fireflies.

The main things that keep breaking in the game were the solder joints on the wires (especially in the mouth pieces). This is also the first time we wore the costumes on our ventral sides which reduced the amount of times you would get unknowingly snagged on things.

After a couple of rounds we recuperate in the visitor’s center before hiking out with the group into the woods to hunt for luminescent fungi. It is tricky to find because in the light there is absolutely nothing to see- No mushroom body, or slimy growths. You have to let your eyes adjust, and suddenly, what you thought was a speck of light filtered from the moon down to the forest floor grows brighter and brighter. Soon you see that the ground is littered with sticks and leaves infested with the fungus.


We set up the camera and take a couple of long exposures. Really long exposures. The glowing is very faint, so we crank the camera open and let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour at a time.


Meanwhile we set up these amazing tents called “Hennesee Hammocks.” They are fully covered, uterine-like sleeping devices. You string up these sacks between two trees like a normal hammock, and stand underneath. Two velcro lips open on the bottom and you are able to sort of reverse-birth yourself into the sack, and it automatically seals behind you.

I drift off to sleep while the camera seeks out photons from the fungi. The tent/hammock surrounds me, a mosquito prophylactic, that still gives the full pleasure of immersion in the jungle.

(these tent things are prone to flowery euphemisms)

Big BCI Day: Part I – Traps

Up at 5am to fix some quick electronics for the firefly costumes. Print off Posters for peter’s performance, hang them up. Grab my gear and hike to boat to hopefully catch the 7:15 for BCI.


Meet Daan there who takes me on a whirlwind tour of the island. First I shadow her methods in her Forestry Management research. She sets up camera traps all over the island jungle to survey the wildlife rooting around. This requires lots of maintenance for the cameras as well as shifting and replacing cameras to catch activity in new spots. Also it takes a shit ton of batteries.

I try to learn about all the quirky and practical problems of doing what, in principle, seems to be a very straightforward task: Put cameras in jungle.


One of the biggest parts seems to be finding a good placement. You need a correctly sized tree to attach onto first of all. Next Daan tries to get into the mind of the animal. She walks around the chosen tree and searches for pathways that an animal might take when walking by. Then she orients the camera correspondingly so that it correctly sets off the motion trigger. She can put the camera into a test mode where she then physically crawls (or in this case, sort of apes around) in front of the camera in order to test the camera’s range.


Concerning things that can go wrong with the cameras are mostly on the electronic end. These camera traps seem to have few problems with the lenses, or being broken into. When planting cameras in more publicly accessible areas she does need to put unbearably heavy locks onto the cameras to stop poachers from stealing them, but other than that physically the cameras are quite solid devices.

Electronically, there are many problems. They are often running out of energy at different rates which screws up her schedule. The displays get corroded by the moisture, and sometimes the motion trigger goes berserk and fills the card with meaningless photos.


Our planned route today includes stops at several cameras around the island, the careful collection of a moth that had succumbed to a crazy tentacle fungus, and a stop at the remains of one of the largest trees in the world.

We have a lovely picnic under the moth’s H.R. Giger – styled remains. Sitting quietly in the forest we hear growingly braver stirrings as the creatures adjust to our presence. Different animals around us which remain unseen stir about more frequently in their quests for food, sex, and comfort. The forest awakes around us in this midday-hour culminating in a massive roaring of the howler monkeys. The howling signifies a sort of orgasmic release which then silences the building cacophony.

Following her GPS back in a loop we stopped by a disheveled clear patch in the forest. Limbs were strewn about in this disaster zone, and the eerily cleared space looming above was penetrated by a sharp, snapped obelisk.

Until two weeks ago there stood the island’s famous “Big Tree.” The massive kapok tree held a 13 meter diameter supporting massive, spreading limbs covering all of the nearby jungle. As the Smithsonian noted, “This was by far the largest crown known on the planet for a tree with a single stem.”

I had been to BCI last year when it was still standing, but Peter and I got a bit lost walking around and never found it. It’s fun to get to clamber about parts of the tree that were just previously inaccessible. Gravity and decay brought them down to sate our curiosity.



Toni’s first moisture sensor

Here is my first electronic creation – moisture sensor that can make a servo move with a different speed relative with the soil moisture… device that no one can survive without!

But before to reach these high technological goals I first had to learn few more simple tricks.

My first step was to build circuit that make LED turn on. Then we learn how to use arduino and so to control the electricity and make the LED blinking with computer code. Then we programmed servo to move on its own. Finally I looked up how to make a moisture sensor circuit in Google and I hooked up the sensor to the arduino and the servo and programmed so the sensor make the servo move differently.

Here is the code you can use to build it by your self.

const int VAL_PROBE = 0; // Analog pin 0
const int MOISTURE_LEVEL = 250; // the value after the LED goes ON
#include <Servo.h>

Servo myservo; // create servo object to control a servo
// a maximum of eight servo objects can be created

int goup =1;

int led = 13;

int pos = 0; // variable to store the servo position
void setup() {
myservo.attach(4); // attaches the servo on pin 9 to the servo object }
pinMode(led, OUTPUT);
void LedState(int state) {
digitalWrite(13, state);

void loop() {

int moisture = analogRead(VAL_PROBE);

if(pos >180)

if(pos < 0){
if (goup==1)
pos = pos+1;
if(goup == 0)
pos = pos-1;

if (moisture < 500)
{digitalWrite(led, HIGH); }

if (moisture > 500)
{digitalWrite(led, LOW); }

Leafcutter Ants Secret Code

The video below contains a secret message:

I’ll reveal the secret and how to figure it out on Tuesday, so you’ll have all of Labor day weekend to ponder.

First one to email me with the correct answer gets a prize (don’t email the whole list- serve and ruin the fun!).

First one to email me with how to arrive at the correct answer gets mild applause 🙂

Hint 1: To work with the video, it may be easier to download it all at once. Just pop the link into http://www.savevid.com/

Hint 2: (don’t use the hint unless you have to!): This video is slightly easier to decipher: