Here students and teachers can explore the STEM concepts and skills found in the artists work. The STEM Concept tool provides a basic definition of a key concept in Science, Math or Engineering and suggests possible ways it has been applied or illustrated in each artist's work. It also includes artist tips and views on STEM for a personal perspective on the STEM + Art connections.

Tyler Fox
What is your name and where are you from? Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I'm Tyler Fox an artist and PhD student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Personally, I am interested in the unique ways that art can bring together technology and living organisms to create new experiences that would be impossible in other contexts.

I am part of a collaborative non profit called DPrime Research which includes Carlos Castellanos and Steven Barnes. We value collaboration, dialogue and knowledge sharing between local communities, academic research and cultural institutions, with the goal of showcasing alternative visions of the world. DPrime Research is a nonprofit organization that specializes in cultural productions informed by the intersection of technology, research and the arts. We seek enhancement of collaboration, dialogue and knowledge sharing between local communities, academic research and cultural institutions, with the goal of showcasing alternatives to the dominant social and technological models. We make art based in, or inspired by, science. We believe that science and technology are powerful ways for understanding the world, but we believe the same is true for art. We see the cultural distinction between technology and nature as limiting, that is to say that technology mediates our experience of the world in specific ways and is not opposed to naturally occurring phenomena. Instead, we explore the ways that technology can help us appreciate the world at large in new and interesting ways. Similarly, we do not consider art and science as opposing terms; they are different approaches to an understanding of the world and should be seen as complementary and overlapping practices. Art and science can extend one another.

Are you a digital native or digital immigrant?

Digital Immigrant

What is the purpose behind your ISEA2012 piece and what inspired you?

Tyler: Living creatures, even the tiny algae featured in this piece, have extraordinary capacities in life that offer an astounding contrast to our own, human experiences. In this project and the associated workshop, we are exploring these nonhuman capacities in a technical context, searching for potential ways that algae can be combined with technology to create new kinds of experiences.

Carlos: This work examines the interactive and computational possibilities of natural processes (i.e., the chemical computing ‘primordial soup’ that is the focus of this work), and the potential for natural processes to serve as an alternative to the commonplace digital forms of computation. In so doing, this project also questions the arbitrary boundary that has been drawn between the biological and the nonbiological, between the organic and the inorganic. We also wanted to explore a form of computation, a chemical computing ‘primordial soup,’ that was largely forgotten with the rise of the digital.

What do you hope an audience takes away from this piece? 

Tyler: We hope participants take away a curiosity about the ways technology can be used to make us more aware of the world and help to create new and interesting ways of interacting with the world.

Carlos: Our hope is that Biopoiesis will inspire curiosity and new ways of thinking about sensing, intelligence (environmental, collective; not just cognitive), memory (mutable electrochemical traces), and computing. We are happy if people are just curious to watch the growth processes of this largely unexplored medium.

How is your medium or technique unique? How have you integrated, adapted or recombined STEM components to create something innovative?

Tyler: This project pulls on different disciplines (biology, math, computer science to name a few) to understand how bioluminescence in algae works, how to keep the algae healthy, and how to use physical computing to stimulate the algae. By pulling together all of these fields, the project makes for a unique experience between the audience and the algae.

Carlos: Biopoiesis entails the construction of several simple computational devices that are all based upon the process of electrochemical deposition: when electrical current is passed through a metallic ion solution (e.g., ferrous sulfate, stannous chloride) metal is deposited on the electrode that is the source of electrons (i.e., the cathode). In our experiments, information (in the form of an electrical current) is fed to a chamber filled with a solution of stannous chloride and ethanol via an array of electrodes (see Figure 1, below). The resultant electrochemical reaction includes the growth and/or dissolution of metallic dendritic threads in the metallic ion solution--these dendrites contribute to a dynamic pattern of complex electrical and physical growth activity across the entire system. The dendrites are fluid and unstable, bifurcating and dissolving in seemingly unpredictable ways. Thread bifurcation and dissolution, in turn, leads to resistance changes that modify the flow of information (current) through the network. If a subset of electrodes in the electrochemical solution receive input from an environmental sensor (or via some other method), and the electrochemical output can affect that sensor (or otherwise influence the growth of threads), then the network may move towards a dynamic equilibrium with its environment. The dendritic network also carries a decremental memory trace of its previous activities: when the environment changes, the system is perturbed but not immediately reset. Thus, the prior activity and configuration of the system affects how it handles a change in its environment. It can thus learn from its interactions. Furthermore, the system can be trained by providing reinforcement for certain sorts of conductance changes that are produced in response to a particular environmental perturbation A Biopoiesis system consists of one or more input electrodes carrying information (i.e., electrical current changes) from an environmental sensor (e.g., a microphone, a video camera) into the electrochemical solution. The subsequent effects of that information on dendritic growth in the electrochemical solution can be fed back to the environment in any of several different ways.

Can you share your methods for brainstorming and how you get your ideas?

We approach most projects through two processes simultaneously: research and hands-on practice. We meet to discuss and explore interesting natural processes and how we might interface with them. If our interest in a particular topic is still piqued, we move on to research that thing we are currently interested in (bioluminescent algae, electro-chemical reactions, fungi, etc.) while simultaneously working hands on with the new materials and exploring the ways in which they can be manipulated. A brainstorm and a handstorm. We have found that this approach results in a process that promotes new ideas and new directions and quickly resolves practical roadblocks to realizing those ideas.

Once you had your idea how did you approach the phase of designing and planning for its realization?

Since our general approach is to generate ideas at the same time we are working hands on with our current natural process of interest, we might be said to be using a cyclical iterative approach. With each successive ‘experiment,’ we further refine the theory and the presentation of our pieces.

Did you build a model or prototype for this piece? if so, how did you decide what to make it out of and can you describe the process?

There have been many prototypes and implementations of these two projects, the Biolesce project and the Biopoiesis project. The project itself spans multiple implementations over the past few years. The successes and failures of each implementation create spin off ideas and corrections for future implementations. One could say that each implementation was a sketch for the next implementation(s).

Did this piece require doing research and if so can you share why it is important and how you go about it? Is there any advice you can offer about this phase?

Yes, it required learning about the building of microcontrollers (both projects), about bioluminescent algae (Biolesce) and about electrochemistry (Biopoiesis). We have spent a great deal of time going through publications about algae and electrochemistry. We have also spent a lot of time online looking at and doing tutorials for physical computing--both hacks and creative approaches to using technology. Hacks of existing technologies and parts have lead to innovative ways of dealing with some of the challenges we faced during the development of both of these projects.

How did you test and evaluate your design? For example, did it work the first time or were there many versions before the final one? Do you have standard ways of testing your work?

Initially we evaluate our pieces on our own, by assessing a number of issues: aesthetics, clarity of purpose, etc. However, because art is meant to be seen, our next step is to share our work with other people: (friends, teachers, peers, colleagues) to gauge their response and to receive feedback. When making art, and when doing science, it’s important to get multiple points of view when evaluating an idea or a project.

What can you share about the process of success and failure inherent in the test and evaluation phase?

As is true for science, when making art, failures are important. Art is often as much about the failures as the successes, and failures will generally outnumber success. But failure is good. When things fail, they help us identify problems, identify a different starting point, or choose a different method. Too often, if a particular approach succeeds then alternative approaches are never tried. Failure allows us to approach a project from multiple angles and choose which one works best.

What criteria did you use to evaluate your piece, or your work in general?

Wonder. But more specifically: The engagement of our audience with the pieces. If people are talking (or arguing!) with us, with each other, about the pieces--then, in our minds, we have largely succeeded.

What do you get from sharing your work with others? This question addresses the greater question of why we create art in the first place? What is its role in society? Why is it important for us to create and share art?

We get valuable feedback on our ideas, which often leads to new ideas. We also get to hear about different experiences, so we get a greater sense of what our work means from people with very diverse backgrounds.

Did you have to collaborate to realize this piece? If so why? Is there anything you would like to share about the collaboration process?

Yes, collaboration was needed, because the projects require skills from different areas. However, DPrime is founded on collaboration and community. We feel strongly that the point of our work is to share, and that thinking about things from different vantage points results in richer, more powerful artwork. We do this not just by working on one project together, but by creating connections between our projects, this forces us to find new ways to collaborate and push our projects further.

Do you come from a STEM background or an Arts background? What is the STEM skill or concept that inspired or formed this piece, or your work in general?

Tyler Fox: Arts, Steven Barnes: Arts and STEM, Carlos Castellanos: Arts Biopoesis: Pulls from biology, computer science, electrochemistry, and engineering Biolesce: Pulls from biology, engineering, and computer science.

Our schools, organizations and governmental institutions are racing to understand what is not working in our educational systems and what we can do to improve the learning environment for students, particularly for girls and minority populations which are lagging further behind in STEM. Your experiences may help students and adults discover common frustrations and insights that could help to bring awareness to problems that have not been tackled yet, and may inspire action or solutions. What was your experience with STEM in middle and high school and what would you change if you could?

We are taught in the school system, from a very young age, that there is one place/space for science (a textbook, a class, a room, etc.) and another for art. We believe there should be an effort to recombine these approaches to understanding. In addition, we fell that most students are currently only taught about the products of science and art, and not about science and art itself. Both are explorative processes that require hands on encounters and the development of certain types of thinking skills.

The arts and the sciences are often seen by the general public as completely opposite and incompatible fields. ISEA2012 is an opportunity to highlight creative explorations that integrate these worlds. Can you share any differences and/or similarities between artistic and scientific creativity that you may have personally explored by uniquely merging the two in your work? Or you may choose to share the more general question of what the arts and sciences have in common, or differ?

There are certainly differences in the framing of art and scientific creativity: Who is it for? What are they getting out of it? What are we trying to show, or prove? Often, scientists are concerned with methods, so that the technique or experiment can be widely replicated and generally accepted. Often, artists are concerned with the unique and ephemeral qualities of the specific art object. Yet these are generalities, and not always true. Art and science share a great deal, especially creativity. Creativity can always be seen as a guiding principle to what we’re doing. Art and science both involve making physical objects and devices--ones which are geared toward understanding and experience of the world.

How do you think artists can benefit from science / scientists? and/or visa versa, how do you think scientists/science can benefit from artistic creativity?

Science and art should be seen as complementary approaches to engaging with the world.

It is no secret that in most parts of the western world, the sciences have a higher perceived value than the arts. Do you think the arts are as important as science? If so why, if not why not? What are your thoughts on this that you would like to share with students who are now beginning to explore their life paths?

Of course! Art can allow for the creation of intense experiences that challenge the viewer either experientially, conceptually, or logically. These experiences offer us the opportunity to re-evaluate our perceptions of the world. Science does this as well, but art and science provide different ways of doing it. Both are important. Both are valid. For some time now, science has been placing increasing emphasis on the production of information--the products of science. This has come at the expense of riskier forms of exploration and creativity, arguably the true heart of scientific practice. A scientific career in the 21st century demands x publications per year, and a practicing scientist is usually penalized for exploring outside of their comfort zone. We believe this is a major problem with the sciences at the moment (This is not to say that artists don’t face similar issues).