Here Physarum Polycephalum explores its natural habitats using soundscapes and reactive visuals. The soundscape of the room also plays effect on these visuals exhibited, that alter our abstraction of the relationship between the biological worlds and the Anthropocene.
produced by: Oliver Schilke
Exploring multispecies storytelling has become a dominant narrative in my computational arts practice. ‘Multispecies stories challenge anthropocentric narratives that tend to depict the bodies of other species as rhetorically passive resources for human appropriation’. Global multispecies suffering has become a part of the Anthropocene. Through my work I want to expose people to the distress the Anthropocene has on the environment and to give us an imaginative perception of multispecies relationships that we are damaging.
In this installation I use computer vision to track the growth of a slime mould called Physarum Polycephalum using colour tracking. This position that is tracked is fed into Max/MSP to range over soundscapes from different natural habitats where you would find Physarum Polycephalum. These soundscapes are translated back into openFrameworks controlling visuals that reflect the locations of these habitats around the world and also visualise the audio data. The audio data that is visualised is effected not only by the natural soundscapes but also the soundscape of the room, this disrupts the visualisation of these natural worlds which is a visual reflection on how human activates in the Anthropocene have impact on and damage our biosphere.
Concept and background research
Before this project I came across a very unique organism called Physarum Polycephalum, which represents a group known as slime molds. Physarum Polycephalum develops an elegantly branched network structure to explore its environment for food. When we received our brief where the theme was interaction, my thoughts were on how might the slime mold be able to interactant in my project.
Microbial worlds being harder to visualise, can be easily overlooked and taken for granted. Plants and animals strongly implanted in microbial worlds that change all aspects of plant and animal biology. Physarum Polycephalum are part of numerous complex microbial worlds in which all are essential to life on earth. This slime mold’s role is that of a decomposer, it breaks down plants and animal matter, so the nutrients are recycled back into the eco system.
I thought through this project it would be interesting to explore soundscapes of global habitats where you might find Physarum Polycephalum. When researching soundscapes, I came Bernard Krause, a musician and soundscape ecologist. Krause has dedicated his life to the recording and archiving of natural soundscapes. He expresses that ‘every soundscape that springs from a wild habitat generates its own unique signature, one that contains incredible amounts of information’. He also concludes that a soundscape is made up of three basic sources:
- Geophony – non-biological sounds from any given habitat. Wind in the tree’s, water in the stream, movement of the earth.
- Biophony – generated by organisms in a given habitat, at one time, in one place.
- Anthrophony – All sounds generated by humans.
Natural soundscapes can allow you to evaluate the health of a habitat. Krause has used these natural soundscapes to generate soundtracks for films, albums and museum installations. 40 years ago, when he started recording it would take 10 hours to get 1 hour of useable material. Now due to global warming, resource extraction and human noise to name a few, it can take up to 1000 hours or more to capture the same thing. Learning this information is what led me into focusing my narrative around these natural soundscapes and the effect of the Anthropocene on them.
My artistic research was revolved around installations that focused on multispecies storytelling and soundscape evolution. These projects led me into thinking about how nature can be visualised, heard and mentally perceived in imaginative ways. ‘The Great Animal Orchestra’ by United Visual Artists is an installation I attended at 180 The Strand. It exhibited the recordings from Bernie Krause, using spectrograms to form an abstract landscape which helped me become aware of how to encapsulate an audience using simple graphics and a natural soundscape. The outdoor installation ‘Voice of Nature’ by Thijs Biersteker was an interesting project to research in how it uses real time data from a tree to create generative visual. It was also interesting to think about how the tree and the visuals were displayed together as one, merging them into one entity for exploration. ‘Displuvium’ is a project by fragmentin which I was able to go see at the Lumen Prize winner’s exhibition. This project examines the human desire to control nature, in this case meteorological phenomena by visualising how several entities have chemically intervened on clouds to induce rainfall. This was particularly interesting to me as it gave me the chance to examine how a singular installation can be visually representative of different places around the globe in such an elegant manner. It is also closely related to my narrative in looking at how the Anthropocene is damaging our natural environment.
The First thing I decided to tackle for this project was the communication between openFrameworks and Max. I did this by using OSC (open sound control) communication. In openFrameworks I used the use the addon ofxOSC to help me do this. The openFrameworks programme would send the point location of the colour tracking to Max. For the colour tracking I used a PS3 eyecam and the addon developed for it to be used in openFrameworks, over the petri dish of slime mold. One problem I faced using this camera is that it was hard to focus on the petri dish as it clicks between 2 zoom modes. To counter this, I had to tape the lens halfway in between these zooms to get the desired focus. Originally, I had the petri dish on the flat screen itself to have visuals pulsating around it, but I got feedback from the tv that interfered with the colour tracking, so I decided to keep these two entities of the project separate. I decided to have the visuals displayed on a horizontal screen as I wanted the focus to remain on the soundscape but also visible enough that people could inspect at a closer proximity, also bringing them closer to inspect the slime mold itself.
When Max receives the colour tracking information it would get fed into the nodes object. Following a tutorial ‘Generative Soundscape in Max/MSP’ by Klatko Baracskai taught me how to use this object by attaching sound files to each of these circular nodes on an XY grid which when the point was in proximity of one of these nodes it would affect the volume of the track being played, the closer to the centre of the node the louder the sound. These audio samples also have a function which enables them to loop smoothly from the end to beginning which would enable the installation to run fluidly without any interruptions.
Max would then send out the data of the audio and the node proximity information. The audio data that was sent out of the room and natural soundscapes only effects the low, mid, high and global sliders at the bottom right of the screen. The other audio visualisations; time domain, frequency domain and the spectrogram got their data from a microphone which picked up the natural soundscapes playing through the speakers and the soundscape of the room. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to feed the audio data straight from Max into these functions to get cleaner results.
The node proximity information gave the viewer a visual representation on a map of the country that the soundscape was originating from. The alpha value of each ripple was mapped to the proximity of each node giving a smooth transition between the locations. This same technique was replicated for the visuals of the right of the map. These visuals are of images of each location with its pixels replaced by lines and mapped on the z axis according to their brightness on the image. The proximity data from the nodes was also used to randomly displace the x and y coordinates of these lines, the further away it was from the node the more the lines would be dispersed. This gave a smooth transition between these images allowing them to blend from one image to the next.
Self evaluation & Future development
All in all, I was very pleased with the outcome of this project. When running the installation, it was pleasant to see how it would evolve and change between locations and a growth of the slime mold can be quite unpredictable. It ended up growing around in a clockwise motion around the dish with gave the change for many of the locations to be played during the time I had it running. Unfortunately, due to the circumstances of the quarantine I was unable to build the structure of the installation. I would have liked to build housing for the screen and the camera. It would also have been great to think about different ways I could have grown the slime mold, creating mazes and other complex shapes for it to grow round and see how each one would affect the installation. Another way I would like to test in the future is to grow the slime mould on natural surfaces like rotten wood, dead plants and fungi to see how it would behave in its natural environment. I think exploring how it would behave in this way would give the installation a further character and strongly reflect the narrative.
A main part of the narrative in this project was the effect of the Anthropocene on the biological world, and this is reflected through the visuals but what I would like to do from now is build a natural soundscape of my own using numerous small samples of geophony and biophony in which the soundscape of the room will interrupt the fluidity and the natural rhythms of the soundscape itself bringing the portrayal of the narrative into a singular entity.
When creating this reactive soundscape of my own the visuals I have made for this project become obsolete. Considering this I think I would remove the screened visuals from this piece as a whole and replace them with physical light around a room that reflect the atmosphere of the soundscape. With little interference they can reflect an organised and fluid movement and when the soundscape of the room starts becomes disruptive it breaks the rhythm of the lights as it will the soundscape, creating a more chaotic atmosphere.
Multispecies Storytelling in Intermedial Practices - http://www.labae.org/multispeciesstorytellings
McFall-Ngai, Margaret. ‘NOTICING MICROBIAL WORLDS’. H. A., 2017, 20.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Nils Bubant, Elaine Gan and Heather Anna Swanson. ‘ARTS OF LIVING ON A DAMAGED PLANET’. ‘GHOSTS AND MONSTERS OF THE ANTHROPOCENE’. Univercsity of Minnesota Press, 2017-05-09.
Importance and Roles of Decomposers - https://biologydictionary.net/importance-roles-decomposers/
Physarum Polycephalum - https://microbewiki.kenyon.edu/index.php/Physarum_Polycephalum
Physarum Polycephalum - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physarum_polycephalum
Decomposition by Physarum Polycephalum - https://www.carolina.com/teacher-resources/Interactive/decomposition-by-physarum-polycephalum/tr46105.tr
Biology of Physarum Polycephalum - http://www.phychip.eu/objectives/about-physarum-polycephalum/
Bernie Krause: The voice of the natural world - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTbA-mxo858
‘The Great Animal Orchestra’ by United Visual Arts - https://vimeo.com/364836175
‘Voice of Nature’ by Thijs Biersteker - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGbmut3hy7w
‘Displuvium’ by fragmentin- https://www.fragment.in/artworks/displuvium/
‘Trees: Pinus sylvestris’ by Marcus Maeder - https://jar-online.net/exposition/abstract/trees-pinus-sylvestris
‘Interterrestrials’ by Baum & Leahy - https://www.baumleahy.com/INTERTERRESTRIALS
‘Microbiocene’ by Baum & Leahy - https://www.baumleahy.com/MICROBIOCENE
‘Fryers Forest, Lake Haridas - Victoria, Australia’ by kangaroovindaloo - https://freesound.org/people/kangaroovindaloo/sounds/147582/
‘Sain Ka’an Biosphere Reserve - Quintana Roo, Mexico’ by felix.blume - https://freesound.org/people/felix.blume/sounds/328292/
‘The Tef_é National Forest - Amazonas, Brazil’ by felix.blume - https://freesound.org/people/felix.blume/sounds/407583/
‘Moganshan (Mount Mogan) - Zhejiang Province, China’ by RTB45 - https://freesound.org/people/RTB45/sounds/325321/
‘Bialowieża Forest - Poslaskie Voivodeship, Poland’ by urupin - https://freesound.org/people/urupin/sounds/428074/
‘St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park - Belmopan, Belize’ by RTB45 - https://freesound.org/people/RTB45/sounds/148422/
‘Khao Yai National Park - Nakhon Nayok, Thailand’ by RTB45 - https://freesound.org/people/RTB45/sounds/147958/
‘Målsjön - Kristdala, Sweden’ by straget - https://freesound.org/people/straget/sounds/415646/
‘Tusindårsskoven - Funen, Denmark’ by jeo - https://freesound.org/people/jeo/sounds/251789/
‘ofxFft’ by kylemcdonald - https://github.com/kylemcdonald/ofxFft
‘ofxKinect’ by ofTheo - https://github.com/ofTheo/ofxKinect
‘ofxPS3EyeGrabber’ by bakercp - https://github.com/bakercp/ofxPS3EyeGrabber
‘ofxOsc’ by hideyukisaio - https://github.com/hideyukisaito/ofxOsc
‘Generative Soundscape in Max/MSP’ by Klatko Baracskai - http://www.zlatko.hu
‘Transform: Landscape’ from Form+Code by Anthony Stellato - http://rabbitattack.com/