We've been interested in biohacking and biomimicry as possible ways to foster collaboration between us and the life sciences group here at the Explo and to expand the range of topics covered in tinkering studio. Over the summer, we collaborated with an artist-in-residence, Juanita Schlaepfer, who wanted to share some workshops that she has been experimenting with that coincidentally made use of one of the most popular residents of the exploratorium's east gallery.
But first, a little primer about biomimicry and biohacking and how those topics might relate to some of the projects and activities that we present in our tinkering workshop. A few weeks ago Chris Allen from Biomimcry 3.8 presented at the museum, although I didn't make it to the brownbag, I did some research about the group and think their site has a good description of the field which "is about looking to nature for inspiration for new inventions”. I also specifically like the blending of the fields of technology and biology. I think that tinkering, at it's heart, is about pushing the boundaries of cross-disciplinary collaboration and this seems to be an exciting way of expanding those possibilities.
Our first experiment with biomimicry and biohacking involved inviting Juanita Schlaepfer to the tinkering studio for an brief artist residency. I didn't know this before her visit, but Jaunita was one of the first women to work in the machine shop so her roots at the museum, if you'll pardon the pun, go deep. She is currently involved in planning workshops with a plant science education group in Zurich who want to figure out interesting ways to get the public thinking about plants. As a subject for one of her workshops, she's picked the mimosa plant, known for "rapid plant movement" which means it shrinks or folds when touched.
So we borrowed a few mimosa plants from the biology lab and set her up on a workbench in the tinkering studio. The biolab uses the plants in the exhibit "mimosa house" which rotates them so that visitors can experience the "shrinking" effects without over stimulating the leaves. She also wanted to check out the copper tape that we use for paper circuits and some of the colorful plastic bags that we use for fusing.
We were surprised and delighted to watch her work unfold in the studio and after a couple days we all came together to check out the ideas and discuss what she had tried and what ways we might contribute. The basic idea behind the project was that the copper tape connected to resistance detectors on the plant so that as the mimosa moved, different signals could be sent to a computer fan inflating a plastic bag sculpture. So the actual biological process of the plant's response to stimulus could be observed and transformed into a controlling mechanism for a synthetic inflatable art piece that would mimic or reverse the movements of the plant.
It didn't work perfectly but the idea was there. Juanita shared how in her workshops she has tried some kids focus lots of energy on the wiring up of the plants as well as manipulating the electronics and programming of the sensors while others worked diligently on the more aesthetically rewarding aspect of the plastic fused creation. This sounded like a lot of tinkering activities where people decide on their own starting point. I also liked how this type of activity could inspire more tinkering at home. Juanita showed us some results of a project she contributed to called bugnplay where kids worked on their own biomimicry inspired projects and developed some amazingly intricate devices.
I'm not sure where we'll take these ideas but it's definitely inspiring to get a glimpse at a different way of tinkering and brainstorm ways that we can take the topic and collaborate with people near and far.