Category Archives: Interspecies

interspecies05 :: spider vision mechanism

I decided to quit playing with form this week and to prototype the mechanic of the interaction. Using 1/16″ dia. wire and small 1″ dia. mirrors, I roughed out the angles needed to bring light from the side of my head and behind my head to my cone of vision. Wearing the headgear is a little disorienting at first, and after a few minutes of wearing it I developed a headache.

However! After some practice, I got pretty good at switching between the mirrors and even looking at multiple things in different mirrors at once. I’ve been wearing this thing for a couple hours now and though I still have a slight headache, I’m getting pretty good with it.

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interspecies03 :: from the darkness like beacons

Outside, over there. That’s where the spider lives.

Silk spigots, ejaculating arms, ballooning babies, sexual cannibalism, rotated and vibrating ground planes, hydraulic propulsion. The path to the spider is strange and scary. It is also filled with subject-object duality, which is equally strange and scary.

Apparently, arachnophobia affects 3% to 6% of the population, which seems low to me. I’m not sure what percentage of the population has a phobia of subject-object duality, I might. It seems however, that I can’t avoid it. The path to the spider has so far offered an excellent dose of exposure therapy.

One challenge of conceptualizing the perceptive system of another being is that I have to encounter some heavy philosophical problems between entities (objects, out there) and observers (subjects, in here).

It seems that at every turn, every magnification of the microscope, I’m confronted with the issue of categorizing things as either subjects or objects … and I’m loathe to say it is my nature. One solution could be to throw the issue out the window all together.

The concept of umwelt offers a way to look at the perceptive experience in terms of subject-object integration (elimination).

“Perceptual and effector worlds form a closed unit, the Umwelt … we meet the operator everywhere, not merely machine parts. For all the cells of the reflex arc are concerned not with the transfer of motion, but with the transfer of the stimulus. And the stimulus must be ‘perceived’ by a subject; it does not occur in objects”

Von Uexküll offers a compelling account of the world of the tick in his introduction to Instinctive Behavior.

“… out of the vast world that surrounds the tick, three stimuli shine forth from the darkness like beacons and serve as guides to lead her unerringly to her goal. The world of the tick shrinks into a framework essentially consisting of three effector cues and three receptor cues. The very poverty of this world guarantees the certainty of her actions, and security is more important than wealth.”

It would seem that the key to understanding the animal’s world lies in the ability to consider behavior in tandem with physiology. The two form a feedback loop of sorts, as peculiar, sophisticated, and diverse as the world that encases their corpses. “All animals from the simplest to the most complex are fitted into their unique worlds with equal completeness.”

So what does this mean for my project?

When studying vision of a spider, I have to look at the complicated behaviors associated with physiology and perception. For instance, many spiders (and insects in general) have poor depth perception but nevertheless are excellent hunters. To get a very accurate sense of depth, spiders may move their head from side to side, using motion parallax to pinpoint their victim, mate, or nest. It isn’t enough to make a helmet with eight eyes, I need to emulate the behaviors associated with spider vision.

As a guide I’ve been using Spider Behaviour, an academic anthology of behavioral ecology on spiders published in 2012. Of particular interest to me are the chapters on biology, cognition, and communication.

Using a combination of photocells, mirrors, accelerometers and gyros I plan on prototyping a spider vision apparatus that mimics the behavioral cues and physiological traits of the arachnid.

Finally, the prompt for Interspecies, ‘What’s in it for the animal?’ Harraway puts it like this:

“…there is a whole world of those who can be killed, because finally they are only something, not somebody, close enough to “being” in order to be a model, substitute, sufficiently self similar and so nourishing food, but not close enough to compel response.”

I think that by combining emerging techniques for expression with the rapidly evolving research from biology, physiology, and behavioral ecology, we might begin to capture glimpses into the world of the Other. Through new insights we might begin to form new relationships with those that we marginalize.

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interspecies02 :: activating the other

I sat in my chair stunned, wondering if my brains had leaked out of my ears. I had just finished the eighth paragraph of Sy Montgomery’s writeup on octopi, Inside the Mind of an Octopus

Athena’s suckers felt like an alien’s kiss—at once a probe and a caress. Although an octopus can taste with all of its skin, in the suckers both taste and touch are exquisitely developed. Athena was tasting me and feeling me at once, knowing my skin, and possibly the blood and bone beneath, in a way I could never fathom.

This was an Allegory of the Cave type moment for me. Aside from being beautifully written, Montgomery’s piece was beautifully challenging. It was unsettling; and not because of the fantastic, beautiful, and creatively weird concept of tasting with my arms and seeing with my skin. It was unsettling because I was removed from my world and forced to confront an alien ‘otherness’; vaguely familiar, sublimely beautiful, yet monstrously perverse and conventionally absurd.

What would it be like to see with my skin?
How could I even imagine tasting with my arms?
What is it like to hear with my hair?
How can I feel with my voice?
Where did my senses even come from?
Do they overlap?
If they do, where do I draw the line between them?
Is consciousness an emergent feature of an accumulation of my senses?
What can the sensory experience of other species teach me about the world?

I saw mountains (in person) for the first time when I was a teenager. I was blown away by how beautiful, massive, and otherworldly the Rockies are. The experience was striking and surreal; my scale in the world, altered. It took me a couple years to realize that it wasn’t the naturalness of nature that drew the reaction from me, but the foreignness of nature that did the trick.  

Donna Harraway talks about an autre-mondialisation; becoming worldly through “grappling with, rather than generalizing from, the ordinary”. What I take this to mean is that through considering the other, going outside of our general bounds, we might be able to come to terms with the idea that we are already enmeshed in a messy, sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful network of species.

Flashback two years from today; vacation in Seoul; Noryangjin Fish Market.  I point to a small octopus in a tank. The fisherman scoops the octopus out of its glass holding cell and condemns it to a transparent green plastic bag. I carry the bag to a restaurant at the back of the market. Moments later, as I sip on a cold Hite, a plate is delivered to me; squirming tentacles, and a severed head with one motionless eye fixed to heaven. I scoop a tentacle into my mouth, the suction cups contort, squirm and fasten themselves to my tongue, the insides of my cheeks and the roof of my mouth. I shear the tentacle apart with my mouth and teeth, tasting its fibers, sinews, and proteins, not knowing that it may have been tasting, feeling, and seeing me too. 

Did I merely participate in a culinary ritual or did I commit something along the lines of sadistic, bizarro-cannibalistic torture? When did the animal actually die? Did it taste my digestive system? Perhaps it’s still tasting me in some parasitic way. Whatever it was, my expanded understanding of the animal consciousness now changes what it was.

This is what I hope to glean from my project and offer to the animal. The difficulty of exploring animal sensory experience is that it may be next to impossible to overcome the human side of consciousness and avoid anthropomorphization. I can only hope to capture a glimpse, a small one at that, to begin to empathize with the animal, and to perhaps achieve some level of justice.

My investigation will begin by investigating the philosophical issues surrounding animal cognition, some of which have been outlined nicely here. This paper will serve as a point of departure, and a lens through which to focus my inquiries for the rest of my research and work. Secondly, I will research current work in the field of animal cognition and perception. My research will also force me to investigate animal behavioral ecology and psychology. But before I do any of that, I need to focus my research one organism, the more alien, the more marginalized, the more threatening, the better.

interspecies :: animal consciousness and vision

:: animal vision and consciousness :: capturing a glimpse of the animal consciousness through simulated vision.

Most humans have a difficult relationship with spiders, super predators of the insect world. Through the lens of popular culture, the spider is seen as a deadly, monstrous enemy, one that should be exterminated without prejudice. In one sense, the spider represents a terrifying, uncanny abomination of nature, a manifestation of fear. However, spiders play many important roles in our ecosystem, some of which even benefit humans. Maybe if we understood their mode of being, our war might come to an end. If only we could meet under the right circumstances we would begin to understand each other, maybe we would even hit it off!

Unlikely. 

However, I’m interested in exploring the relationship between human and animal (spider) by studying physical mechanics that differentiate conscious experience. In this case, vision. Most spiders have six to eight eyes, with varying abilities to see different types of light.  

What is is like to have an expanded field of vision? Whats it like to have eyes with varying degrees of enhanced and degraded focus? What’s it like to see an expanded or limited spectrum of light?

I would like to build a device that uses photography, video, or mirrors to simulate animal vision in order to partially experience what it’s like be an animal (spider). Maybe I’ll even implant camera’s into my scalp (http://wafaabilal.com/thirdi/), but probably not.

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