Roundup: Hybrid Encounters with Tomás Saraceno- Art, Biology and Algorithms

Shortly after 7pm the lights in the concert hall at Hardenbergstraße already get dimmed down and a dramatic spotlight is thrown on a cubic metal frame that sits on the left side of the stage ever since the audience is entering the room. Shortly after one can hear the sound of a saxophone starting to play and the big screen behind the stage now shows a close up projection of the mysterious metal frame:

What suddenly becomes apparent is that the frame is covered with delicate webs all over and its populated by several spiders. Apparently what we’re are witnessing is a musically duet between David Rothenberg, the saxist and also professor for philosophy, and those spiders. But rather than joining into Rothenbergs musical performance the spiders sit mostly idle during the act. But what is its role in this piece and how would it be able to interact with Rothenberg at all?

We have to wait until after the introductions, which are given my Nina Horstmann for the Hybrid Plattform and by Christina Landbrecht for Schering Stiftung, when the artist Tomás Saraceno brings light to those questions: He explains that an array of very sensible microphones is attached to the spider’s net and everytime they move – and hence stimulate those microphones – this signal is amplified and converted into an audio signal, which the audience and Rothenberg would have heard, if the spiders would have shown more activity.

Nevertheless, the performance is able to quickly open up a discussion: Thomas Saraceno seems to strongly identify with Rothenbergs work, the reason probably being, that he also is deeply fascinated with spiders and especially their webs. His own research focuses on methods of mapping these webs which - to Saraceno – is important since it tells humans about the spiders social life. Alex Jordan, working at Max Plank Institute for Ornithology at University of Konstanz, has a similar field of research but approaches it with different methods: He analyzes the interaction potential of animals such as fish (but also spiders) with modern digital technology by combining video feeds with tracking software. His personal interest in the spider’s net lays in its ability to materialize social activity and its bonds between different of the members of the species. Benjamin Wild, replacing the last-minute sickened Tim Landgraff and both working at Dahlem Center for Machine Learning and robotics, uses robots more and more to get a deeper understanding of how group dynamics is formed by behavior: One vivid example is the so called fish robot, a little rubber fish with a motoric system, that imitates alpha male behavior in a swarm of fish. With this setup the researchers are trying to control the swarm of fish from outside. Ingo Rechenberg, professor for bionics at TU Berlin, brought his own robot to the stage of the concert hall: The movement of the "Tabbot" is borrowed from the saharan spider species called Cebrennus rechenbergi (named after Rechenberg), which means it can run but also roll on its legs to get moving faster in the desert.

After going into so many specific contexts and different disciplines, the question arises how one can bring all that information together – or to phrase it with a question coming from Christina Landbrecht: “What is the jump from art to biology to artificial intelligence?” For Tomás Saraceno the attraction of this conjunction lays in its ability to question the common concept of the sensory superiority of humans over other living species. Instead he calls for the idea of “extended recognition” or the ability to make someone perceive what something else is perceiving through art or through technology (for instance with a virtual reality device).

This conceptualization of “recognition” and “perception” quickly brings up the term “animal intelligence”- which than fuels the further discussion: While Saraceno can’t make much use of the term “animal intelligence” he refuses to understand why anyone would deny that animal have emphatic capabilities. For Rechenberg  on the other hand  the term “animal intelligence” seems far-fetched: Instead he proposes that one rather uses terms such as “reflex” when coming up with explanations for animal behavior. Alex Jordan then again questions this proposal by asking if one could speak of (human) intelligence in front of human-made global climate- and environmental catastrophes at all. And if there not rather should be a redefinition of term intelligence.

The discussion continues for some time, meandering around the already established topoi “artificial intelligence, animal intelligence” and “extended recognition”. At the very end there is a second demonstration of the musical performance with the spiders and Rothenberg. Only to be topped off by Rechenbergs own Tabbot-robot moving around on the stage, which later some people at the after-gathering attested a certain resemblance to the Droideka-battlerobot from Star Wars.

Link to Audio