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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Experiencing the Big Idea

  • Author(s): Harrison, Dew
  • Ch'ng, Eugene
  • Mount, Sarah
  • Moore, Sam
  • et al.

Shrewsbury Museum Service invited Dew Harrison to create a work relating to Charles Darwin for the bicentenary of his birth in the UK town. Her research is practise-led and uses computer technology to interlink series of related thoughts and ideas, in multimedia form. Texts, images, animations and sounds are networked into one overarching ‘concept’. The complete concept is then exhibited as a looped projected film or interactive screen work offering a contemporary understanding of a complex issue. She had previously worked with the ideas encapsulated within the work of Marcel Duchamp, in particular his Large Glass, which she transposed together with his boxes of notes and associated previous work, into one hypermedia system. Duchamp being the instigator of current Conceptual practice, his thinking began the shift of value within art from aesthetic to idea. This new challenge was to explicate the ideas of Darwin by synthesising them into one concept which could be grasped through audience interaction. Harrison is interested in relational works that invite an audience to participate together in revealing an understanding of the ‘concept’ on display. Earlier works used mouse and keypad to access a work, now the interfaces can involve sensors and physical movements for more playful and instinctive engagement. To develop the new project, Harrison worked in collaboration with two programmers and an animator to explore the ‘big idea ‘ of evolution and elicit an understanding of Darwinian adaptation through interactive installation.

For the new installation entitled Shift-Life they have produced an alternate, or fantasy, biological life as a project which delivers an implicit understanding of Darwinian evolution and examples the rapid life changes necessary for survival in accelerated alternating climatic conditions. Shift-Life is an installation which focuses on ‘hands-on’ possibilities for witnessing an evolutionary process in alternate life forms as they struggle to adapt to a volatile environment. In response to Darwin’s idea, the aim of this work was to create an ‘alternate’ biological life as a set of artificial or virtual organisms that possess similar biological processes to their ‘real’ counterparts, such as growth, reproduction, and adaptation. The virtual life forms exist in a nutritional (trophic) relationship of prey/predator, and include both rooted (sessile) and free ranging (vagile) organisms. Animal-intelligence was programmed into the virtual organisms to allow them survival strategies. The project also involved the construction of an enhanced mixed reality-based virtual environment to support the organisms. The climate of the virtual environment was directly influenced by the data gathered by wireless sensors (phidgets) in the real world landscape (sand box), plus implements (lights, shakers, pourers…) that altered the parameters (temperature, humidity, acidity, stability…) and so allowed visitors to change the condition of the virtual landscape.

The installation comprised of a large ’sand-pit’ box representing the virtual world terrain, this encouraged interactivity for visitors who could physically manipulate a set of implements to radically alter the living conditions of the fantasy creatures in their virtual ecosystem, projected into the installation space. By pouring liquids, switching on lights, moving objects etc., in the sand box, visitors could see immediate responses to their actions played out in the animated ecosystem as the life forms adapted to survive. Interacting with the real world landscape and observing the instant affect a visitor’s actions had on the animated ecosystem projected into the installation space, proffered an understanding of how causing changes in environmental conditions, forces evolutionary developments on the life-forms in them.

2009 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin in Shrewsbury and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. As part of the national celebrations underway, Shift-Life was exhibited at Shift-Time – a festival of ideas in Shrewsbury, summer 2009. It was still in its prototype stage and, following this beta-testing, it will be modified and enriched with extra behaviours and more sensitive environmental changes as we develop the project to more closely demonstrate Darwinian ideas for further exhibition.

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