Dinacon, the maker camp at the edge of the jungle in Panama

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The second edition of Dinacon concluded in Gamboa, Panama, after four very full weeks of August at the intersection of excursions into nature and experimental art-techno projects.

Gamboa (Panama), special report, Cherise Fong

One year after the first Digital Naturalism Conference in Thailand, the principles of Dinacon, held this year in Panama, are still the same: interact with the natural environment, exchange with other “Dinasaurs” and create on site.

This is the applied concept of “Digital Naturalism” as defined by Andy Quitmeyer, instigator of Dinacon and its exploratory and creative activities in the field, who organized and personally hosted this extraordinary summer camp on the edge of the jungle, where one hundred artists-technologists-researchers-scientists crossed paths at various times throughout the month of August 2019.

Television set found in the Chagres river and repainted by Jesse outside Dinalab. © Cherise Fong
“Sustainable Zine”, Sid Drmay’s 100% biodegradable ’zine, with pages and ink made from organic materials (banana, rambutan, mushrooms, pigments…) found in Gamboa. © Cherise Fong

Far from the idyllic isolation of Koh Lon, the small island off Phuket where Dinacon1 took place in 2018, Dinacon2 was held in the heart of a well-established scientific and historical ecosystem in the post-colonial village of Gamboa, at the confluence of the protected Soberanía rainforest and the intercontinental Panama Canal.

In this context, the topography of this ephemeral summer camp was spread out over several physical locations, namely Dinalab, Andy’s home makerspace and the main workspace open to all Dinasaurs, and Adopta, where all meals were served and where most of the participants slept, also part of a larger local conservation project instigated by Guido Berguido.

Adopta Field Station, where Dinasaurs ate and slept in Gamboa. © Cherise Fong
Breakfast at Adopta. © Cherise Fong

Life at Dinacon

After dinner, while some participants remained in the dining room to chat and others continued working on their projects, one Dinasaur might use the convivial space of Dinalab to give a focused presentation or workshop. During the last week of August, Josh Michaels gave a presentation on machine learning without machines (using the analogy of an image pixelized beyond human recognition to call attention to the inherent prejudices of AI); Tiare Ribeaux gave a kitchen workshop to brew bioplastics, according to her own recipe; Grace Grothaus demonstrated an example of photogrammetry based on her experiments with a dedicated software and lightbox.

Brewing bioplastics with Tiare Ribeaux in the Dinalab kitchen. © Cherise Fong
Photogrammetry demonstration by Grace Grothaus. © Cherise Fong

One afternoon, Hiroo (read his interview in Makery) gave an Ayurvedic honey workshop in the form of a gustatory, immersive and purifying experience that ended with a burning sensation directly in the eyes. One evening, Scott (Seamus) Kildall (read his interview in Makery) offered his expertise in Arduino to anyone in need (after exposing the very limited control of my deconstructed bicycle light, he helped me connect a motion sensor to my LCD display in order to eventually trigger 16-character strings of poetry…).

Hiroo cleanses the eyes with local honey at Dinalab. © Cherise Fong
Arduino workshop: Seamus (rear center) helps Janne with the code for her cyborg arm, Monica works with Ruben, Andy demonstrates different applications, others do tests to measure body temperature. © Cherise Fong

Another day at Dinalab, Ramy Kim interviewed a few Dinasaurs about smells associated with concepts and emotions associated with smells. Jorge Medina, Panamanian biology student and regional bird expert, lent me his voice to record the Spanish names of creatures seen during my stay.

Jorge Medina in the doorway of Dinalab. © Cherise Fong

Dinacon even extended to the famous Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), a newly built research center symbolic of the expatriated community of scientists established in Gamboa as early as the 1920s. Throughout the month, Dinasaurs were treated to private group visits of the Ant Lab and Bat Lab, as well as the protected pond for túngara frogs, a native species known for its chiptune-like calls.

In the Ant Lab, we observed several contained colonies of leaf-cutter ants, where certain individuals were color-coded in painted dots to identify them by age. Current research involved the intergenerational memory of leafcutter ants to pass on the food preferences of the fungus that they cultivate. We were even invited to place a tiny piece of their nest on our tongue—tasted like mushroom!

A smaller colony of leafcutter ants, with visible nest (bottom left) and queen (top right), in the STRI Ant Lab. © Cherise Fong

Outdoor playgrounds of greater Dinacon

Just a few kilometers from Gamboa is Pipeline Road, already world famous among birders, which wanders deep into the Soberanía forest—a precious path into the world of creatures that hide under the canopy, by day and by night: howler monkeys, capybaras, coatis, anteaters, ants, cicadas, fireflies, frogs, snakes, fluorescent mushrooms… and hundreds of species of birds.

Pipeline Road at daybreak. © Cherise Fong
Tree frog seen on the floor of the Soberanía forest. © Cherise Fong

Just before dawn, Ashlin Aronin dipped his DIY infrared camera into a pond, while Lisa Schonberg listened to conversations among ants and Kristina Dutton set up omnidirectional microphones along the path that she would pick up on the way back. I recorded the drumming of a woodpecker, the chatter of parrots, the elusive song of an ant-thrush… That same night, Andy led an adventurous group of rubber-booted, headlamped hikers through a stream to observe local jungle nightlife.

Extending northeast from Gamboa and the Panama Canal is the Chagres river, teeming with wildlife and vegetation as far as the eye can see, where we venture out in kayaks at dawn to explore this burgeoning landscape. Two days in a row, we saw a caiman (the same one?) gliding by silently near the shore. Lisa and Kristina plunged microphones, hydrophones and underwater video cameras to capture uncommon sounds and images. I paddled further up the Chagres with my binoculars and saw a caracara, turkey vultures, toucans, jacanas, egrets, herons, terns

A caiman lurks in the shallow waters of the Chagres river. © Cherise Fong

The Chagres was also the site of deployment for the “Datapods” created by Seamus and Michael Ang for their project Unnatural Language. The site-specific installation sonified electric variations in water and plants through customized circuits attached to both bamboo debris and plastic garbage found in the river. And since the second rule of Dinacon is that every project must be documented, I stayed on the river to help film the artists deploying their Datapods in the wild.

Bamboo Datapod ready to sense and synthesize electric variations in the leaves of plants on the river. © Cherise Fong
“Unnatural Language” film crew (right to left): Michael Ang, Scott Kildall, Ruben Oya, Cherise Fong, Mónica Rikić. © Michael Ang

At the heart of this vast territory of exploration is the little village of Gamboa, like a residential suburb of the Smithsonian, just a 40-minute drive away from Panama City, which survived the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century by preserving its particular history through active community, abandoned buildings (church, post office, swimming pool…) and traditional houses, all on the doorstep of the tropical rainforest.

Aerial view of western Gamboa and the Panama Canal. © Andy Quitmeyer
Rabia Williams installs one of her AM radios made at Dinalab in a tree in Gamboa. Artist-documentarian and the great-granddaughter of Trinidadians who worked on building the Panama Canal, she is especially interested in the socio-political history of the place. © Cherise Fong

Right in Gamboa around the clock, we are very likely to hear or see among our resident neighbors: agoutis (ubiquitous but skittish) in the garden, a sloth hanging in a tree, black vultures perched on garbage cans, adult and juvenile owls between branches, chatty parakeets at dusk, scintillating blue butterflies, sprinting basilisks and other lizards… and the always impressive armies of leafcutter ants and symphonies of túngara frogs singing at high volume until you approach, laying their eggs to hatch in nests of foam inside puddles of mud in the street.

Three-toed sloth in Gamboa. © Andy Quitmeyer
Blue-headed parrots in Gamboa. © Cherise Fong

At Dinacon, every excursion, every hike in the woods, every walk around the block is a new opportunity to meet these creatures, invisible or inaudible, hidden in plain sight or just under the surface of our immediate or expanded environment. An opportunity to interact with them artistically, scientifically or playfully—and maybe in passing, to fall in love with the jungle.

Read Part 1 of our report on Dinacon2

Read our article on Dinacon1 in Thailand in 2018

Interview with Andy Quitmeyer on “Digital Naturalism”