Mediated Encounters is an interactive robotic installation of four fish tanks designed to allow Siamese Fighting fish (Betta Splendons) to determine the movement of two grapevine sculptures. This piece allows normally aggressive fish to interact without killing each other and explore their environment beyond the limits of the fish bowls. The fish determine the direction and speed of the robotic structures by crossing any of six light break-beams connected to the computer which activate motors that move the tanks in the direction the fish look to the outside world. I wanted to give these Siamese Fighting fish the ability to virtually leave the tank and meet each other by moving it around. Like many fishes, Siamese fighting fish have excellent sight giving them the ability to see far outside the tank.
If we do not sense the mechanisms by which we communicate with the machine and the machine interface instead senses our presence, desires or needs (expanding and simultaneously collapsing our vision) than this interface can be thought of as transparent. Often the best real/virtual machine interactions are those that are transparent to the user, be it a fish or human being. Still, the kind of communication that the fish are permitted functionally changes the nature of their interaction. This work serves as a metaphor for the kinds of mediated interactions that humans have on a daily basis, by using their electronic communication tools like TV's to formulate notions of the world or using computers and telephones to communicate with each other. It simultaneously speaks to the notion that "nature", as Donna Haraway has written, is a cultural construction which reveals much about the contemporary concerns of that culture, as it transmutes and changes the notion of nature, to suit its needs. These fish have become in essence cyborgs, using the robotic structures to extend and explore their artificial environment.
The continued development of micro-machines, biotechnology and computer systems in the co-creation of intelligent systems will further collapse this gap between the organic and inorganic world. While these machines expand the spectrum of senses available to humans and other animals, I often wonder if these senses will be used with the proper spirit. Intelligent systems, coupled with sense extension lenses, are getting progressively more transparent and embedding themselves in deeper levels of our sensorium. Thus the perceptual aberrations that may occur with these lenses are less and less obvious. Languages, a form of lens or condenser of information, have been subject to far more aberrations in transmission, decoding and truth. These languages have already created a complex virtual environment of ideas and images which far surpass in complexity the electromagnetic spectrum which acts as carrier. We have become disembodied creatures, "mind children" as Hans Morovic says with our experiences and senses distributed outward. The mass media could certainly be considered as one form of extended sense, which is all too often dominated by the commercial system and relies on incessant repetition for commercial success. Paul Virilio says these messages are designed to "infect, not inform". Unfortunately, "consumerist progress-oriented" thinking has prevented us from an adequate discussion of the long term ecological and social effects that particular technologies bring, even when these technologies are known to be harmful to the delicate balance of interdependent natural systems. Still, a balance must be possible.
This co-evolution of human language, dissemination machines, and sense extension is formed and simultaneously forming our attempts to understand the complexity of natural systems. It speaks of a confidence that science can solve all problems or that mathematics and the digital tools we use to scan the world can indeed quantify and measure all. At what point do we become servants to self-replicating technology, it's momentum pulling us in it's wake? Since we rely on natural systems for sustenance it seems logical that human-based systems should be designed with ecological principles in mind, to permit sustainable interdependent systems of humans, animals and the technotope.
Vision-based intelligent systems, either silicon or bio-based, that sense our body languages are a logical next step to systems which already decode multiple human languages on the world wide web. The distributed nature of the web offers hope for decentralized communications (formerly free of commercial and consumerist fodder). As vision-based computer sensing systems become better at recognizing human body languages in relation to actual behavior, social contexts etc., these will become exploitable to begin to decode animal and plant intercommunication. This work is a small step in a direction that asks what is the fish's desire. Perhaps someday we will be able to really ask.
Bettas are found in Thailand and the Malay peninsula, and are called by the Thailanders "pla kat," for biting or tearing fish. Siamese fighting fish are particularly aggressive in the presence of other male Bettas. When they observe another Betta they flare their gills, and swim aggressively presumably to appear much larger. It is common for male Bettas in the same tank to fight to the death, which fight organizers have been exploiting for many years in Thailand. They are top breathers which means they have to come up for air, allowing oxygen to come into direct contact with their blood. Betta fish are not harmed by being kept in small containers, as they often thrive in stagnant, oxygen deficient environments. Male Bettas which are ready to spawn build extensive bubble nests which they use to attract females. Females that are acceptable to males allow the males to bite them on the flanks. When they spawn the female Betta is suspended trance like upside down and the male wraps his body in a u shape around the female. By exerting pressure the eggs are dispelled and fall to the bottom. The males gently retrieve the eggs in their mouth and swim to the surface spitting them into the bubble nest. This can continue for up to two hours with 60-70 embraces and over 600 eggs produced.
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