PIFcamp remote: How to sense ants like a symbiont

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As the 6th edition of PIFcamp basked and bathed in Soča, Slovenia on August 2-8, 2020, node leader Andrew Quitmeyer gave an online workshop from his Dinalab in Gamboa, Panama to build individual ant sensors—and commune with the colony.

This year, the picturesque Soča Valley, situated in the northwest of Slovenia, is crawling with ants: tiny red stinging ants that live in the mountains, tiny black ants that commute hundreds of meters from their lumpy nests, larger black ants that are red in the middle and burrow under the roots of trees, and really big black ants where the PIFcampers gather to eat.

One busy worker in Soča. © Katja Goljat

PIFcamp 2020 may be smaller than usual, with only a few dozen local participants on site, but it invited potentially anyone in the world to join in select activities and festivities around art, technology and nature through online live streams. So it was only natural that the first flagship remote workshop of this year’s alpine summer hackercamp was Andrew Quitmeyer’s Wearable Interactive Ant Farms (“Mymecorpora”).

Andy Quitmeyer is no stranger to PIFcamp. He was first invited to Soča to give workshops in 2017, and he was so transformed by the experience that it inspired him to launch his own Digital Naturalism Conference (Dinacon), based on the same principles of art-making, hacking and sharing in the wild—first in Thailand in 2018, then at his newly inaugurated Digital Naturalism Laboratories (Dinalab) in Panama in 2019. While this pandemic year has disrupted many best laid plans around the globe, it wasn’t going to stop Andy from joining PIFcamp, even if it meant remotely.

Andy Quitmeyer streaming live from Panama, at PIFcamp. © Katja Goljat

Andy has also been diligently tracking the movements of ants for the past ten years—with varying success. He has tried computer vision for infrared photogates (ants are too small), rangefinding (target zone is a 1mm dot), thermal sensing (ants are too cold), capacitative sensing (ants are too dry), vibratory sensing (ants need to walk on the microphone), optical motion sensing (requires custom lenses) and modulated light sensing (bingo).

Interactive ant farms

For his four-day Wearable Interactive Ant Farms workshop, Andy substituted his initial ant-sensing solution of photoresistor arrays with arrays of more accessible, more flexible, “ant-sized” SMD LEDs. He also wrote original code to increase their sensitivity, and dedicated one session to successfully connecting them to an Arduino board to create LED gates—preferably red, because ants can’t see red light.

As it turns out, Andy explains, LEDs can also be sensors (reverse bias LED sensing). When you shine light on an LED, it charges up in reverse, “like a very crappy solar panel”. So if you plug a few SMD strips into the board as inputs and run the code, this creates a highly sensitive LED sensor array strobing fast to illuminate the ant from several directions, while recording the ambient light of the scene several hundred times per second. The voltage output of each LED clearly shows when an ant is passing through the gate.

At PIFcamp, co-organizers Tina Dolinšek (a.k.a. Tina Malina) and Simon Gmajner, along with first-time PIFcamper Rea Vogrinčič and occasional observers, followed the Wearable Ant Farm workshop livestreamed inside the big tent every day before dinnertime. They conscientiously soldered components and experimented with various tubes and containers for their future ant farms.

PIFcampers Simon and Rea follow Andy’s live stream inside the tent. © Katja Goljat

With Andy they discussed collecting the ants, from sucking up single workers to rerouting trails and acclimating colonies, humidifying their captive environment with moisturized cotton or felt, keeping them happy with sugar water, being careful not breathe on them (a little CO2 makes them furious, a lot of CO2 makes them faint)…

Simon the “Ant King” talked about funneling ants through an endoscope, creating a labyrinthine obstacle course or an ant highway between chambers, across picnic chairs, through a construction site; Rea, concerned about the ants’ possible frustration from being confined in plastic tubes, fantasized about the sensation of unseen ants walking on naked skin…

A few of Simon’s captured ants congregate on the moist felt of his ant farm-in-progress. © Simon Gmajner
One of the ants approaches the LED gate. © Simon Gmajner

Which led Andy to suggest practical actuators for potential audio, thermal, electric, hydraulic, and of course, haptic output from these crawling ant colonies: piezo buzzers, synthesizers, servomotors, Peltier heaters, spray pumps, lubricators, vibrators… “Can a superorganism be a super orgasm?” asks Andy. Can formication be a form of fornication? And why would anyone want to “wear” a living ant farm in the first place?

Human-ant symbiotic cyborgs

Andy harkens back to his earlier days as a digital naturalist striving to experience an ant colony in an ambient, visceral manner. One time he had the ants’ movement trigger electric shocks on his tongue, another time he forced himself to meditate as they swarmed belligerently all over his tree-hugging body. His goal was to gain an innate understanding of the ants’ living flurry of activity—to be in symbiosis with the superorganism, as Cecropia is to Azteca. In short, to “be the tree”.

“Cecropia-Azteca Symbiosis” by Andrew Quitmeyer and Peter Marting (2012):

And so in the case of the wearable formicarium workshop, Andy invited PIFcampers to interact intimately with ants—not just to dominate the insects as biofashion accessories triggering artistic or sensational effects, but to allow themselves to be subsumed by the superorganism, as the ants course through their human body, and to surrender their corporal autonomy to the colony. In the end game, we would all become human-ant symbiotic cyborgs… (if not ant-controlled zombies!)

On the ground in Soča, if effectively capturing a significant number of ants and convincing them to shuttle through human-made red-light contraptions proved much easier said than done, the workshop participants made many detailed myrmecological observations of various local species along the way. “PIFcamp is all about learning,” says Tina, as everyone agreed that they had certainly gained new insight into both ants and LEDs by the end of the week.

Workshop participants Rea, Simon and Tina, with Andy at PIFcamp. © Katja Goljat

Meanwhile in Gamboa, Andy has since pursued the project and closed the wearable interactive ant-farm loop to offer us a prototype Head Hallucinator: “As the LEDs sense ants, they change their flicker frequency, changing the hypnagogic hallucinations you see in your eyes (with the ants).” Stay tuned…

Watch the introductory session of Andrew Quitmeyer’s “Wearable Interactive Ant Farms” workshop on August 3, 2020.

PIFcamp is organized by Projekt Atol and Ljudmila, in cooperation with Kersnikova Institute. PIFcamp is part of the Feral Labs Network, co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.