Cognition emerges from many different types of agents as part of a stream of interaction and sensation. Architect and design theorist Nicole Koltick and Design Futures Lab have set up a compositional experiment allowing a robotic arm, mineral crystals, and an interactive landscape to co-evolve, mutually producing an ecological space of their own, away from human incursion.
Phenomenal Machines is an extended research investigation querying sensation, effect, and the relational potentials between multiple discrete, yet entangled non-human agents occupying a defined space. Our underlying philosophical motivation borrows heavily from recent posthuman philosophical thought including speculations on computational phenomenology. In this project we speculate on several distinct sensate embodiments entangled together. How does one object, perceive, or sensate? In line with speculative realist philosophies, this project presupposes that all things mineral, biological, human, and non-human hold equal claim to interactions, perceptions, and sensations. We sought to produce several distinct non-human agents with differing methods of affecting and sensing. The resulting assembly and the discrete systems embedded within comprise imprecisely located cognitive machines. The locus and outcome of this cognition produce diverse effects, which are made visual in this project.
We developed three distinct agents each with differing material and behavioral qualities and resultant effects. Each engages in interactions, and produces and absorbs sensations across the system. Each of the discrete parts have a parallel to natural systems and are loosely described as embodying the same synthetic ecology or machine. The composite parts of the exploration include:
Each of the composite parts embodies their own set of behavioral features, which interact in varying degrees. Of primary interest are the interactions occurring between systems and the emergent effects produced, suggesting causality and aesthetic implications across systems. The robots in the project have machine-vision capabilities and utilize basic vision algorithms to discern both color and rough geometric features. This in turn enables them to interact within the landscape influencing crystal formation and growth in both color and form. The landscape presents a more abstract agency with its sensing abilities obscured and its behavior seemingly randomized in response to crystal proximity and robot behavior. The crystals in the project embody their own set of behavioral characteristics in terms of growth, yet they have been “tuned” through design by manipulating their substrate geometry and influencing their colors and architecture through chemistry. They are “sensed” by robots and the landscape, and are subject to perturbations both beneficial and negligible by both of these external agents. Their growth can be facilitated, amplified, or disturbed by both the actions of the dynamic terrain (through secretion of salt solution or expansion and contraction of the dynamic surface) or the interventions of the robots operating within the terrain (through placement, movement, and disruption).
The transfer or translation of effects from one entities’ behavior to the next produces a blurred narrative and calls into question issues of sensation and relation—where does the cognitive or sensate agency reside? Issues of perception and phenomenology are then foregrounded against this backdrop. The project involved extensive design research into small-scale autonomous robotics, material effects (extensive modeling, digital fabrication, and material experimentation), and chemistry (crystal performance tuning). The film, which depicts this entangled ecology, speculates on the sensations and effects of each agent (robot, crystal, terrain). This film captures the extended narrative of the natural “machine” as it unfolds over several days, utilizing moving image, time-lapse footage, and digital overlays, to convey multiple points of reference within this dynamic habitat. The film allows the phenomenological speculation to be heightened and amplified; further emphasizing the varied yet entangled sensations, effects, and phenomena of the non-human systems embedded within.
We are interested in the production of effect through indirect and intermingled means, through the combination of non-human agencies including the digital and the mineral. Design intent is embedded within multiple inflection points throughout the project, and the introduction of stochastic emergent processes allows for unexpected effects resulting from a multiplicity of agents both material and machines. Design research that moves between theories, process, and outcomes must originate through a complex negotiation of intentions and effects. The production of effect is highly subjective, yet aspires to an objective legitimacy. One can embark upon or presuppose that a given line of process may produce a known effect. Yet this supposition can be upended in both negative and positive ways by the very real influences of process. Translations may occur from theory or philosophy into narrative. A narrative of effect is quite formless and the procedures one enacts to arrive at an effectual outcome are challenging to discuss or quantify. One important thread of inquiry embedded within this work is to examine the complex intermingling of intent and effect through multiple determinate and indeterminate processes, materials, and outcomes.
In the relatively nascent yet rapidly expanding field of Design Research, there has been an over-emphasis on pragmatics and a primary focus on problem solving. We were interested in how one might begin to develop a framework of design for non-human agency, not to solve a problem, but rather to probe how intentionality and indeterminacy become blurred. Our deliberately promiscuous approach to design research ensures the production of both intended and indeterminate effects. The production of effect has been viewed as a frivolous or secondary endeavor. It is seen more as a delightful side effect but in some way illegitimate or unseemly. The explicit intention to effect is noticeably absent from most contemporary design-research discourse, and yet, there is intense value in examining our biases and approaches to effect in the production and assessment of design work. Effects can be associated with aesthetics in examining their assessment and standing. In a climate increasingly championing data, assessment, and quantification, the fuzzier realms of beauty, effect and desire, have been subsumed. Speculative design work or design-fiction projects assert an emphasis on the posing of questions and more open-ended conjecture, which affords the production of effect as key criteria, and not an afterthought. It must be emphasized that the production of effect and the overall aesthetic of a given project is always a consideration, yet this focus is too often sublimated by rationale and not discussed as a relevant or defining feature of a given investigation.
We set out to make a new species of robot that would engage in a poetic or beautiful activity. We began experimenting with basic robot design with a concurrent exploration into the potentials of intersecting an autonomous robot within a synthetic ecological landscape. These investigations started with highly simplistic existing robot platforms through which we began to understand behavioral potentials and the range of capacities a given system had. Our assessment of the current robotic landscape indicated that the primary development of robots involved primarily pragmatic or economic concerns. Our research into the potentials of salt-based crystals was closely tied to the broad range of effects we were able to generate through the introduction of varying underlying geometric substrate forms, changes in mineral solution, and color processes.
We explicitly pursued these amplified visual effects while maintaining the desire to explore a concurrent narrative exploration of a multilayered set of agencies, producing unexpected emergent effects. Throughout the project there are a series of translation protocols. These protocols include the human‒machine, machine‒material, human‒material, and machine‒machine. Embedded within the design, fabrication, artifacts, and film are a set of continual negotiations and translations between the digital and the material. The registration of artifacts reflects a broad range of translations and embedded visual effects. We use the objects we make to interrogate some of the very methods used in their construction and the larger constructs and networks through which these tools and techniques are situated.
In our work there is a concerted effort to inject and amplify multiple agencies including processes, materials, designers, algorithms, software, hardware, and platforms. These entanglements, which span the analogue and the digital, give rise to a series of increasingly diverse and hybrid sets of relationships and effects. We are interested in the myriad ways in which new speculative-design artifacts and ecologies can be envisioned, developed, and deployed to enact and make visible a series of under-examined transactions, operations, and agencies.