VIDA 7.0, 2004

The jury for the Vida 7.0 competition in Madrid – Chris Csikszentmihalyi (USA), Daniel García Andújar (Spain), Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (MEX/CAN), José Carlos Mariátegui (Peru), Fiona Raby (UK) and Nell Tenhaaf (CAN) – reviewed 60 artworks that utilise artificial life concepts and techniques. These pieces were pre-selected from a group of 82 submissions received from 24 countries. The Telefonica Foundation in Spain will give out the following awards:

SHARED FIRST PRIZE (4,000 Euros each)
S.W.A.M.P. (Douglas Easterly / Matt Kenyon)
Spore 1.1

Spore 1.1 makes visible, in an ironic manner, the artificiality of our immediate reality by relating the business market to the ecosystem. The artist purchased a plant at the Home Depot superstore and inserted it in a mechanized installation that is connected to the Internet via a wireless connection and programmed with open source software. The installation periodically checks the value of Home Depot’s stock over the internet, activating a watering system: if share values are up the plant gets watered. The underlined paradox is that Home Depot guarantees the well being of the plant for one year and, if the plant dies due to either falling or rising share values it has to be replaced by the multinational, —a contract relating life and death.

Marc Böhlen / JT Rinker
Universal Whistling Machine

For hundreds of years, technologists have tried to design machines that can speak and understand human language — a problem they have yet to fully solve. One 17th century automaton, Baron von Kempler’s artificial chess-playing Turk, famously defeated several of the best players in Europe. All it could say was “check.” Today, if one calls a typical US corporation to get information or to settle a bill, it’s almost impossible to reach a human being; instead, you get a synthetic, automated teller, usually with a chipper woman’s voice. Yet these tellers can only understand a few words, because language, like most aspects of human culture, is difficult to compute, complex and florid. Marc Böhlen and J.T. Rinker are artists whose most recent effort to develop a communication system may be one that computers can finally understand: The Universal Whistling Machine, a tone-based based interpreter of whistles. Using advanced signal-processing computation — similar to the chips in mobile phones — their system can extract whistles from other sounds, and can exchange passages with humans, each other, and even animals. Over time, it builds a database of every whistle it’s ever heard, increasing its vocabulary and range. What looks at first like a simple process becomes ever more interesting, a technical mocking bird that’s either mimicking or earnestly trying to communicate. This project also received the Public award as it was the most voted during the award presentation in Madrid.

SHARED THIRD PRIZE (1,000 Euros each)
Federico Muelas Romero
Dripping Sounds

Some images make reference to certain phenomena that occur spontaneously in nature; from these we often make relations that, beyond making new impressions on us, also generate intimate and pleasant sensations. Dripping Sounds plays with this idea and amplifies a phenomenon that we could consider part of our daily life, transforming it into an augmented vision. At first this visual and sound installation seems to be a weird apparatus, a mixture between a rudimentary cinematic projector and a set of probes unusually connected to big water containers through which liquid flows. The water containers supply the system with a medium in which figures will be generated. By means of a system of dripping, ink enters the water medium generating aesthetic forms that transform and dissolve the ink drops until the coloration changes and the process reinitiates. The image of the drops flows from a state of high concentration to a state of low concentration, or greater dispersion. This refers us to the concept of irreversibility in nature, that is to say, the impossibility for a process to revert from its final state to its initial state. The projection of light not only amplifies this phenomenon but since it displays the image upside down it offers a different way of looking at a well-known phenomenon, simulating that we are in front of a unique film that will never be repeated in a similar way. The viewing area is composed of 20 photosensitive sensors that transfer the movement of the projected figures into independent sounds, giving the sensation of an electroacoustic orchestra of similar instruments, but with a certain degree of difference among them.

Carlos Corpa / Ana María García Serrano
PaCo – Poeta Automático Callejero Online

A robot, unable to walk, moves slowly around in a wheel chair. It seeks out humans to ask for money in exchange for a ‘machine’ poem. Its arm holds a moneybox, which it thrusts to the ‘client’ demanding a response. When a coin is deposited a poem is read out. A hardcopy is then made from a printer on its chest to complete and reinforce the economic transaction.

Are we more likely to give money to a machine that sprouts poetry rather than the person the machine has replaced? The ‘replacement’ does not smell or spit when it speaks. But it is not a shiny neat precision-made machine. It is haphazardly made from bits of discarded material. In its attempts to be decrepit we question its motivation to ask for money. Do we feel sorry for it? Or are we charmed and entertained?

HONORARY MENTIONS (in alphabetical order)

Boredom Research (Vicky Isley / Paul Smith)
Ornamental Bug Garden

It should be clear that the jury usually gravitates to the projects that show the darker, more complicated and ethical dimensions around life sciences. But occasionally we find a project that’s simply beautiful. Ornamental Bug Garden is such a project; graceful and elegant, like a dinner date who’s beautiful but a little dumb, but that’s okay, they’re still fascinating. Vicky Isley and Paul Smith programmed this synthetic, aesthetic ecological system, literally framing it on the wall as a living kinetic painting. Below a dangling set of branches, generated with the Lindenmayer system algorithms, is a delicate ecosystem generated by rules of Turing machines and cellular automata. Little shapes jump around and onto each other, spores explode, and bubbles float like pollen. Combining elements from video games, pachinko machines, and ornamental gardens, this delicate art nouveaux tableau is decidedly two dimensional, but we appreciated the mixture of apparently organic elements with unapologetically mechanical bugs.

Jessica Field
Semiotic investigation into cybernetic behaviour

Two ‘decision making machines’ given different capabilities of seeing corroborate each other’s perception of reality. They watch and discuss the viewer. When the viewer behaves differently to how they predict, the machines start to loose confidence in their opinion. They move from certain, to uncertain, to disbelief and then concern. Wonderfully and tragically, each of the main protagonists Clara, Alan and the viewer are flawed. Damaged. Alan is over confident, while Clara isn’t confident enough. As long as Alan thinks he is right he will not listen to Clara’s doubts. But his opinions are based on a slightly inferior sensor, yielding ‘one bit’ readings, while Clara’s are actually more accurate. If Alan loses confidence he seeks Clara’s opinion, and if the viewer behaves in a manner he perceives as ‘impossible’ he becomes totally irrational and worries that the viewer is a threat to his safety. The mechanical drama addresses our inability to achieve complete understanding, but also plays out uneasily familiar gender dynamics. Our pleasure is cruel. As the viewer we take enjoyment from their increasing discomfort as both machines, fuelled by self-doubt, become paranoid and irrational. But we are the ones being fooled by the machines into pathetically believing that we have influence over their paranoia.

Luca Gemma
Life Support Machine

This work promotes the concept and the experience of a therapeutic inter-relationship between people and machines. Rather than expressing a complex behaviour repertoire, the Life Support Machine has a calming predictability that is based on the sound of waves. Thousands of fish scales layered between plastic sheeting rub together driven by a motorized mechanism that expresses recorded waveforms. The repetitive but varied action generates a swishing sound and creates a rhythmic motion that can push bodies around. This synthetic experience is meant to convey a sense of relaxation and well being. Unlike the format of the contemporary gym, there is no exhortation of a punishing fight with one’s body via workout machines. The Life Support environment doesn’t mirror our imperfections or show any judgement. But there is, nevertheless, an uneasy dimension to the atmosphere. The machines exhibit a strange antipathy toward the humans, who are passive and lifeless, so that the poetic mood invoked overall is tainted by more than just its quasi-organic fishy component.

Carmen Gerstl / Jeroen Keijser
Déjà Vu of fresh water, a nightmare environment
Mexico / Canada

Fantastical virtual creatures who tell a story of environmental degradation inhabit this immersive environment, which is presented to viewers in the format of a three-walled CAVE. The principal characters are an Art Deco style mermaid and fish, who swim around in a post-apocalyptic dead and polluted underwater environment. The participant navigates the environment by wearing a Mad Hatter hat, with the mermaid hovering close in front of them and fish whizzing by – which the viewer can choose to kill off. That kind of viewer control epitomizes the dystopic but also critical tone of the work. The mood is pessimistic even though the participant interacts with the world as if it were a game, resulting in a work of satire. Cans of food with old-fashioned labels that show animal species litter the bottom of the sea, and participants drop their own can when they leave the environment as if there is no choice in our world but to litter.

Brian Knep
Healing Series

The visual displays that are projected onto the floor in this series of three interactive pieces are a direct expression of mathematical equations, yet the rules that govern them result in a very organic and human experience. The artist describes the viewer’s input as a wounding, and indeed there is a sense for participants walking across the projection or placing their bodies on it that they’ve caused a laceration in an otherwise very fluid, interlacing pattern. The algorithms being used are reaction-diffusion equations, a simulation of how much of the patterning in nature comes about, such as the patterns and colours on animals and plants. And nature rules here, because the wounds close over as fast as they are made, a pleasure that incites viewers to play and explore.

Fernando David Orellana
Unending Enclosure
El Salvador / USA

Technological innovations have brought us many dramatic political and social transformations; nevertheless, our undeniable initial tecno-optimism has become transformed into increasing evidence of new forms of control and power in modern society. New social paradigms are created, thus generating a new psyche derived from this technological world. By using robots instead of humans as the affected objects of study, Unending Enclosure tries to reveal this future, but in a tormented way. The robots are imprisoned in wooden columns, living in a climate of constant fear and distrust. By means of a small vertical window they can see out and we can see them as they execute paranoid movements and convulsions, similar to the characteristics of living beings. A human, from outside this prison, can approach one of the robots and it will generate sounds and vibrations that we could understand as rudimentary forms of communication. But it is just a stupid bot, revealing future states of paranoia. It is questionable that robots will fear, but evident that a technological paranoia exists. In this way the author attempts to simulate or synthesize social behaviours in today’s digital world, transferring the anxiety but also the curiosity of human beings, and raising again the question of who is controlling who.

Chu-Yin Chen
Quorum Sensing
Taiwan, lives in Paris

The title of the interactive installation Quorum Sensing refers to a communication phenomenon in bacterial colonies, which the artist translates into the idea of collective action on the part of a group of spectators. Bacteria coordinate individual behaviours through pheromones. Viewers of the installation gather on a sensitive carpet placed underneath a projection coming from above; as each additional person joins the group, the shifting shape they collectively form reveals more of the projected image of a colony of virtual creatures. This virtual living world is based on alife principles that include evolution through genetic algorithms and nurturing from a substrate based on cellular automata. But it also has some more purely biological ideas built into it: for example, its colony of graphical entities regenerates by feeding from the trace elements of dead creatures. Viewers don’t see these functional strategies, but they experience an ebb and flow of the projected image that metaphorically suggests cycles of the natural world.


José Carlos Martinat / Enrique Mayorga
Ambiente de Estereo-Realidad 2

Technological developments are creating human beings absorbed by digital media that deny natural space (here and now), transforming us into informed but uncommunicative beings. The individual is ‘codified’ in his search for dominance, trying to manage everything that surrounds him. Thus, it is no longer the individual that reflects the world, rather the object reflects the individual. Subtly, through our technologies, the object imposes its presence. The project Stereo-Reality Environments tries to question familiar media objects, making them act ironically. An inquiring reflection is created through the actions of apparatuses in space and their relation with their surrounding elements. This is deployed through the ‘robotization’ of various everyday objects, which question individuals and their indifference to their surroundings. Stereo-Reality Environments 2 proposes the installation of computers that will act as subversive editors, independent and autonomous agents that will publish texts from cyberspace, sending them from the roofs of buildings in the hot spots of Lima. The messages will be produced by means of information extracted from the Internet. Local newspaper headlines from the web are used as input signals of information that will be processed by means of an algorithm that relates them to subgroups of data possibilities extracted from cyberspace. The agents finally publish the information using an intertextual associative logic. The messages will be printed and will fall into the streets as flyers, in an attempt to create new means of awareness or to intervene in the information we usually read in local media.


Gustavo Romano
IP Poetry

Argentinean artist, Gustavo Romano, will use as a point of departure for new work some concepts he explored in his project “LogOmatic” in which a type of automaton recites texts based on images of pre-recorded Spanish phonemes. For his new project, Gustavo intends to develop both software and hardware that will, using texts selected from the Internet as raw material, generate automatic poetry to be recited by poet-automatons. These automatons, called IP Bots, recite the poetry created by his software employing a series of poetry-generating rules. In order to develop this software Gustavo will have the cooperation of writer Belén Gache, who has published numerous essays on literature, visual arts and poetry. The IP Bots will ironically emulate heads having mouths comprised of loudspeakers housing LCD screens, and eyes replaced by network connections and wires.

The Jury would like to award a special mention to the pioneering work of the Critical Art Ensemble (USA) in the field of art and artificial life. We support the freedom of artists and scientists to collaborate in a critical context that helps our society understand the implications of research into biotechnology.


A videotape of the ten winners will be produced and distributed to non-profit art centres, libraries and academic institutions. For this, please contact Alicia Carabias <>.

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