Article categories: Issue 79
April 19th, 2012

My artistic practice sits in the broad field of translating nature through technological means. A key aim is to perceive elements of the world from a different perspective, one suggested by the intervention of technology in natural systems, usually via some form of sensor. The interpretation of the data in these works is to some extent subjective. Algorithms in the code determine how data is analysed and mapped to various outputs – sound, animation, or motion. I’m currently questioning whether these works are actually translating nature, or translating data…

The three works briefly described here are all data affected – they feed from, analyse, and translate data generated by local or remote sensors. They comprise: a fully produced audio visual installation (The Lake); a sculptural prototype (Lepidopteral) and; a proof-of-concept for a kinetic maquette (Bird and the Moon). None of these pieces would be active (or digitally alive) without this form of biological or environmental data input.

Lepidopteral, 2012

Key words: remote data, group behaviours, butterflies, moths, nitinol, arduino, prototype

Lepidopteral is a multi-object computer-controlled kinetic artwork that responds to environmental data fluctuations. The work questions whether biological behaviour can be simulated by a minimal activation of moth-like objects. The motion here aims to expose changes in a data feed by placing value on the fluctuation of data rather than its actual values. The environment being sensed is the agent that interfaces with the work.

The artwork is inspired by a piece of video footage shot at Lago di Fiastra in Le Marché region of Italy in 2005. Here, butterflies had clustered all around the lakeside, looking at first glance like small crocus-like flowers. On closer inspection it was easy to see they were all butterflies engaged in reproduction or egg-laying. As a congregation they sat gently raising and lowering their wings, sometimes synchronised, sometimes completely still. It struck me that when we think of moths and butterflies we tend to think of them in flight rather than at rest.

Lepidopteral aims to explore subtlety and gentleness within an auto-motive work, to represent some calmer elements in nature, such as the butterflies described above, but without direct interference to, or use of, biological materials. The work seeks to simulate ‘liveness’ and natural motion – abstracted nature, perhaps – through mechanical and electronic means.

To create a work with minimal mechanics, and one that is silent, Lepidopteral uses muscle wire to control the flap of small nylon wings on an array of objects. Muscle wire (known as Nitinol or Flexinol) is a ‘shape memory’ alloy that contracts when a current is passed through it, the current that each of the objects receives is determined by the fluctuation in data received from local sensors, or from external feeds through the internet site, Pachube. The work comes to life, gently and gradually as the data received changes.

Lepidopteral – close-up from translating nature on Vimeo.

The Lake, 2005

Key words: bioart, fish, sonification, animation, local data, real-time, bio-acoustic tagging, installation

This work explores how technology can be embedded within a living biological system to generate an animated sound composition. For me, fish embody effortlessness and fluidity, they are elegant and graceful – attributes not usually associated with technology. I was curious to know whether data captured from fish could be used to create rhythm and flow, and to reflect biological characteristics in a digital landscape of sound and animation.

The Lake was a site specific art installation located by a fresh water lake near London, UK. Housed in a steel cylindrical tower nine meters tall, visitors entered through an arched doorway and looked up to see a circular projection screen filling the space above them, displaying an animated representation of the movement of fish.

Each of the sixteen ‘fish musicians’ were implanted with a bio-acoustic tag generating 3D positional data every two seconds. The data was captured and analysed in real-time, providing vector information, acceleration, and shoaling behaviour. This data generated the visuals and triggered pre-recorded audio samples that had been captured in and around the lake using a hydrophone. The dynamic musical composition was broadcast via four speakers hidden in the tower and was synchronised with the animation.

For six weeks, 24 hours a day, the installation provided an insight into the watery world of the fish. Many visitors to the site, mainly anglers, returned to view the work daily, commenting that it gave a sense of being connected to the hidden world of the fish that they were often close to but couldn’t see.

The work was supported by NESTA and launched in July 2005 and has been exhibited in London, Brazil, Russia, and Croatia. It is featured in Art+Science Now! and Evolution Haute Couture: Art and Science in the Post-Biological Age. A BBC radio interview is available here.

The Lake: fish1_snip

The Lake (rhythmic) from translating nature on Vimeo.

Bird and the Moon, 2011

Keywords: the uncanny, taxidermy, light, moon, wisdom, remote data, local sensor, real-time, arduino, nanode, proof-of-concept

Bird and the Moon investigates the use of taxidermy to represent live environmental data fluctuations. A ‘seasonal affective disorder’ (SAD) lamp, basically an array of white LEDs, was hacked so the brightness of the lights responds to data received from a remote site – in this instance a light sensor at the University of the Arts (UdK) in Berlin. Access to the real-time data is provided by Pachube. The bird was modified by replacing it’s neck with a small servo motor so that it’s head could move. As the light increases in brightness (or, conceptually, as the Moon rises) the bird looks toward it. While the moon is at its brightest the bird is mesmerised and fixates on it.

For demonstration purposes a local sensor enables the bird to respond to changes in ambient light level at its own location. The work is a proof of concept, made for CruftFest 2011, as part of the QMUL Media and Arts Technology programme

Bird & The Moon from translating nature on Vimeo.

Julie Freeman

Julie Freemam is a PhD candidate in Media & Arts Technology, Queen Mary, University of London. She has a long list of individual arts achievements, collective works and cultural recognition. A more extensive list of Julie’s achievements can be found at

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