Meet the artist giving control of machetes to plants and guns to flies

For more than a decade, artist David Bowen has explored the strange relationship between the natural world and robotics. His latest sculpture uses electrical signals from a houseplant to control a swinging machete.

Bowen began his artistic career 20 years ago as a kinetic sculptor. While completing his MFA in the early 2000s, he began integrating microcontrollers into his work. Since then his pieces have often stood at the fascinating intersection between art, science and technology, translating datasets derived from natural systems into compelling mechanical sculptures.

His latest work, plant machete, is a perfect synthesis of Bowen’s work – playful, absurd and thoughtful. The piece essentially uses electrical signals gathered from the leaves of a houseplant to control a robotic arm holding a machete.

“I’m using an open-source microcontroller called Arduino to collect variable resistor data from five of the plant’s leaves,” Bowen explained in an email to New Atlas. “Each leaf has an adhesive EEG pad that is wired to the analog input pins of the Arduino. There is also a ground wire from the Arduino in the soil of the plant. The received signals are basically variable resistance data on the leaves of the plant.This is similar to what you would receive from a potentiometer (i.e. an analog volume knob).This data is then mapped directly to the movements of the motors of the robot.

The project isn’t Bowens’ first to explore plant signals. A similar recent work called plant drone used the same real-time resistance data to fly a drone. The drone was mounted with an LED and a camera followed the light’s path across the sky, creating a unique plant-controlled design.

The model created by the drone controlled by the plant

David Bowen

Prior to working with plants (or “collaborating with plants” as Bowen likes to describe it), he created a number of pieces from data generated by swarms of flies. Sometimes swarms of flies controlled spotlights or airships, other times the flies directed a robotic drawing arm creating unique patterns.

Flies composed tweets by landing on a keyboard inside a sphere
Flies composed tweets by landing on a keyboard inside a sphere

David Bowen

Bowen said his most startling fly-controlled piece was a 2013 work titled steal tweet. Here, a swarm of flies was housed in a plastic sphere with a computer keyboard. By tracking fly movements via video, each time a fly landed on a specific key, the corresponding character was entered into a Twitter text box.

When 140 characters were reached, a tweet was automatically sent from a Twitter account titled fly colony. At its most active point, the Twitter account had gained over 10,000 followers.

At its peak, the fly colony's Twitter account attracted over 10,000 followers
At its peak, the fly colony’s Twitter account attracted over 10,000 followers

David Bowen

Another piece of fly art that Bowen is proud of is called the fly gun. Developed shortly after the Sandy Hook school shooting, the play is Bowen’s most direct political work.

Here, a swarm of flies in a sphere is tracked by video, their movements controlling a device aimed at a revolver. When a fly is detected in the center of a target in the sphere, the gun trigger is pulled. The flies basically control where the gun is aimed and when it is fired.

Much like the fly gun, Bowen’s latest work entrusts control of a weapon to the natural system. And while Bowen certainly understands the absurdity of his work, he doesn’t view these naturally occurring datasets as completely random. Instead, he sees structure and even predictability in how these organic systems control mechanical devices.

“Of course, my work explores absurdity in different ways,” Bowen said. “But I don’t consider this data to be random. Plants are amazing engineers and super skilled at creating structure and seeking out light and water. Even the flies are quite predictable. In many ways, I view my work as a collaboration between the natural system, the devices I construct to respond to input, and myself.

Source: David Bowen, Instagram

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