For more than a decade, artist David Bowen has explored the strange relationship between the natural world and robots. His latest sculpture uses the electrical signals of a houseplant to control a swinging sickle.
Bowen began his artistic career 20 years ago as a kinetic sculptor. While completing his Master of Fine Arts in the early 2000s, he began incorporating microcontrollers into his work. Since then, his work has often sat at the fascinating intersection of art, science and technology, translating data sets drawn from natural systems into compelling mechanical sculptures.
his latest work, plant sickle, is the perfect packaging for Bowen’s work – fun, silly, and thoughtful. The piece mainly uses electrical signals collected from the leaves of a houseplant to control a robotic arm that bears a sickle.
“I am using an open source micro-controller called Arduino to collect variable resistance data across five leaves of a plant,” Bowen explained in an email to New Atlas. “Each sheet has an EEG sticky pad attached to it which attaches to the analog input pins on the Arduino. There is also a ground wire from the Arduino in the soil of the plant. The signals received are basically rheostat data across the leaves of the plant. This is similar to what you might get from a meter. voltage (aka analog volume knob). This data is then assigned directly to the robot’s motors’ movements.”
This project is not the first project by Bowens to explore plant signaling. A similar recent work is called drone factory I used the same real-time resistance data to drive a drone. The drone is fitted with an LED and the camera follows the path of light across the sky, creating a unique factory-controlled graphic.
Before working with plants (or “collaborating with plants” as Bowen likes to describe it), he created a number of pieces using data generated by swarms of flies. Sometimes swarms of flies are controlled Spotlight or blimpsand other times the flies are directed a automatic drawing arm Create unique patterns.
Bowen said his most surprising piece of fly control was in 2013 called Work Tweet fly. Here, a swarm of flies was housed in a plastic ball using a computer keyboard. Tracking flight movements by video, every time a fly lands on a specific key, the corresponding character is entered into the Twitter text box.
When 140 characters were reached, the tweet was automatically sent from the Twitter account with the title Flying Colony. At its most active point, the Twitter account gained more than 10,000 followers.
Another work of art that Bowen is proud of is called the Fly Pistol. Developed shortly after the Sandy Hook School shooting, this piece is Bowen’s most outspoken political work.
Here, a swarm of ball flies are tracked by video, with their movements controlling a device that shoots a gun. When a fly is detected in the center of a target inside the ball the trigger of the gun is pulled. The flies essentially control where to aim the gun and when to fire it.
Much like a piece of fly pistol, Bowen’s newest action hands gun control over to the natural order. And while Bowen certainly understands the absurdity of his work, he doesn’t see these natural data sets as completely random. Instead, he sees the structure and even the predictability of how these organic systems control mechanical devices.
“Of course my work explores doodling in a variety of ways,” Bowen said. But I don’t see this data as random. The factories are great engineers and super efficient in creating the structure and searching for light and water. Even flies are quite predictable. In many ways, I think of my work as a collaboration between the natural system, the devices that I create to respond to input and myself.”
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