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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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Vital Morphons

Vital Morphons

For those of you that have been following our project, you might notice that our project name has changed. It is now called Vital Morphons. How did we end up with this new name?

Rewind back to three months ago when Lynn and myself were in the midst of writing our separate theses, researching different topics. Lynn was exploring the technical aspects of actuating mechanisms and the kinds of movement they might create while I had jumped deep into the world of the Planthropocene – a concept that I first came across when reading Natasha Myer’s essay, Photosynthesis. This would begin my wild goose chase in imagining how we, and our project, might become more plant. No, not as in growing stems and buds, and photosynthesizing, but rather, imagining a space in which we might learn from the photosynthetic beings.

As I began to find roots in the Planthropocene, I came across what Daniel Dennett described as, ‘competence without comprehension.’ As clear as it is now to me, reading it at the time, I pondered over what Dennett meant. It soon faded to the back of my mind. It wasn’t until several weeks later when I came across this quote by Stefano Mancuso, founder of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, that it all came together:

‘Plants are the great symbol of modernity – the most valuable inspiration that the human can take from them, is their brainlessness.’

So this is what Dennett meant by competence without comprehension!

Plants thrive because of their faculties and technologies. They are rooted beings that must survive in the very spot they sprang into life. Do they necessarily have the same kind of sentience as human beings? Probably not, but this does not make their technologies and abilities any less relevant than plumbing systems and the internet. We have been sending people into space to look for alien species but all along, we have been surrounded by alien life for we do not possess the faculties and technologies to truly understand the photosynthetic inhabitants of this shared planet. In this, Lynn and I began to redefine what technology means to us and what using technology might mean in our project.

In attributing intelligence, Lynn began her research through studying the importance of material in morphological computation. Compared to traditional research on human behaviour, morphological computation looks into the behaviour of so-called ‘low-intelligence beings.’ While researchers once prioritized the brain as central to discussions of perception, processing and movement, Lynn’s theses research demonstrated to us that behaviour (or movement) emerges as a result of the complex behaviour between the environment and a physical body – as determined by its mechanical and material properties. For example, the properties of a human body allows us to intuitively implement some tasks without ‘thinking.’ Competence without comprehension.

Reflecting back on earlier iterations of our research, we did not explore the behavioural potential of different materials. These works manipulated materials as static entities, highlighting the computation ability of a central control system and the layout of mechanical components. Designing like this resulted in many overcomplicated and bulky structures. As we move towards the goal of ‘brainlessness,’ we want to highlight the inherent properties that are embedded in both humanmade and biological materials. Through this process, the control systems and mechanical configurations can be simplified.

 

Deformation test of different paper under same electric current input condition. 

 Forms with diverse behaviours

In Lynn’s material experiments, she explores paper and plastic. In the research paper Printed Paper Actuator: A Low-cost Reversible Actuation and Sensing Method for Shape Changing Interfaces written by Guanyun Wang et al., the team has developed a system that binds paper and conductive thermal plastic to form a bilayer material that reacts to electric current. Inspired by this research, Lynn experiments with different combinations of paper and plastics with various input currents. By integrating these bilayer components into architectural forms, we are able to create dynamic behaviours according to different degrees of power inputs.

It was at this time, we met Ella and Guillem from Bio-ID. Through conversations, we had the opportunity to learn more about the properties of chitosan – a biological material derived from chitin – a form of polysaccharide found in the shells of invertebrates like shrimps, that is highly responsive to water. In the paper Prototyping of Chitosan-Based Shape-Changing Structures by students at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, they begin to explore energy-free examples of actuation possibilities found in nature, like chitosan.

I began to explore different forms and textures on which chitosan may be applied to. In my experiments, I discovered that the structural materials on which chitosan is applied to, can greatly shape and alter the movement and forms created. This has proved to be fruitful grounds for thinking about application possibilities.

 

A directional experiment: cheesecloth weave set up at a 90 degrees angle (left) and 45 degrees (right)

A form experiment: layering

A material experiment: floristry crepe paper

Curiously, what has come out from both of our experiments is the similarity in movement that both forms of technology offers. Forms that are entirely dependent on the inherent qualities of the material itself. While one responds to heat and the other responds to water, this process has illustrated to us that technology, as we humans like to think of it, becomes harder to define the more humans are willing to give space to other sentient life forms. It is a scary realization but perhaps one we have all knowingly suppressed for too long.

As humans of the Anthropocene, we have long separated nature from culture and in doing so, inflicted a long history of violence on those that do listen to the photosynthetic beings. Theft of ethnobotanical knowledge and the colonial acts of smuggling plant species for profit are all examples of which the world as we know it is built upon. This is why we must urgently seek out heterotopias like the Planthropocene. This is why we believe we must use different logics to better understand the world – such as blurring the boundaries of what technology means to us.

With these two forms of technology in mind, how can we begin to imagine a narrative between them? What form(s) would best speak to the different properties of the materials? How might they coexist together in a space such as you and I might exist with other sentient beings? How might its movement remind us that life as humans know it should not limit the imagination of the kinds of life forms that are possible? As Lynn and I keep these questions in mind, we continue to be excited about where our experiments may take us. Just as the inherent properties of the materials guide their forms, we will let these materials guide our project. This is how we take our first step into the Planthropocene.

We would love to have a discussion about any of these questions or anything else in this post. Please feel free to reach out to us.

 

*For those of you that have been following the project, you might be curious as to what Jin is up to. She has since graduated her 2-year program and we have remained in contact throughout the past few months. She is back home, safe and with family. Jin has really been the first person to show us the incredible properties of biological organisms and materials, like algae. We miss her and wish her nothing but the best!