The glass-like fragility of this artificial forest, built of an intricate lattice of small transparent acrylic tiles, is visually breathtaking. Its frond extremities arch uncannily towards those who venture into its midst, reaching out to stroke and be stroked like the feather or fur or hair of some mysterious animal. In keeping with Beesley’s own description, his enchanted environment complies with the laws and cycles that determine the millenial assembly of a coral reef, with its cycles of opening, clamping, filtering and digesting. Capacitance-sensing whiskers and shape-memory alloy actuators create a diffuse peristaltic pumping motion, luring visitors in to the eery shimmering depths of a forest of light. Hylozoic Soil implements a distributed sensor network driven by dozens of microprocessors, generating waves of reflexive responses to those drawn into its vast array of acrylic fern stalagmites. Different levels of programmed activity encourage the emergence of coordinated spatial behaviour: thirty-eight controller boards produce specific responses to local action, while a bus controller uses sensor activity collated from all the boards to command an additional “global” level of behaviour. The forest thus manifests a haunting, breathing organicity, as it stirs to envelop and charm its human explorers. In keeping with the tradition of biologist artist Ernst Haeckel’s Riddle of the Universe (1899), which traced actions of organic and inorganic nature alike back to natural causes and laws, Beesley’s Hylozoic Soil stands as a magically moving contemporary symbol of our aptitude for empathy and the creative projection of living systems.
About the authors
Philip Beesley is a professor of architecture at the University of Waterloo who practices digital media art and experimental architecture. His work in the last two decades has focused on field-oriented sculpture and landscape installations, with extensions in stage design and buildings. His projects in the past several years have increasingly worked with immersive digitally fabricated lightweight ‘textile’ structures, and the most recent generations of his work feature interactive kinetic systems that use dense arrays of microprocessor, sensors and actuator systems. 2008-9 installations are slated for Montreal’s Champ Libre, Pratt/Brooklyn, a series of installations at the Ars Electronica centre in Linz Austria, CITA/Royal Academy Denmark and Surrey Gallery of Art, BC. Distinctions for his work include the Prix de Rome in Architecture (Canada), the Governor-General’s Award, and the international FEIDAD 2008 Design Merit Award for digital media art and two Dora Mavor Moore Awards. He holds degrees in visual art at Queen’s University and in architecture at the University of Toronto, both summa cum laude, and received a diploma in technology at Humber College, He was a member of art and performance collaboratives Open Series and Studio Six/Kataraque in Kingston and the George Meteskey Ensemble in New York. Periods of study were undertaken in Rome at the Vatican and the American Academy and in New York with the Wooster Group. Prior to beginning his practice he apprenticed in instrument making and in lighting design.
Robert Gorbet is Assistant Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo, with cross-appointments to Mechanical Engineering and the School of Architecture. He holds BASc (1992), MASc (1994) and PhD (1997) degrees from the University of Waterloo. He is also a practicing technology artist, and has exhibited technology-mediated works internationally since 2002 in collaboration with artists, designers and architects. He is an award-winning instructor, teaching courses in professionalism and ethics, microcontroller interfacing, and robotics. In 2004 he helped develop Technology Art Studio, a course combining engineering and sculpture students in interdisciplinary project groups to create technology-mediated sculptural works.