Elastic Minds is a series of interviews about creative people working at the intersection of various disciplines. With these interviews we would like to explore the network of these creatives and add an element of chance by giving each of them the power to select the next person. Rather than static players chosen by us, they become dynamic parts in the system, able to define the evolution of the entire project.
For our third Elastic Minds interview we are back at Bartlett, talking to Ollie Palmer – artist, designer … and probably the world’s foremost ant choreographer.
Bartlett alumnus and a former pupil of our previous interviewee Ruairi Glynn, Ollie gained attention and international recognition with his Masters degree project
“Ant Ballet ” : a four-stages, six years long research into control systems, paranoia
and dancing insects. “Ant Ballet” is currently in its second stage and forms part of Ollie’s PhD research. Besides hacking ants’ behavioral systems Ollie also works as part-time tutor in the Interactive Architecture Workshop at Bartlett and as a freelance graphic designer.
It is the last week before Christmas holidays and the Interactive Architecture studio at Bartlett is almost empty except for a small number of die-hards. Big difference compared to the busy atmosphere during our meeting with Ruairi Glynn the month before. We discuss Ollie’s projects over an improvised office picnic, careful not to drop any crumbs on the floor… because that’s how you get ants! And surely there is no better way to kick off than with the big passion of the man in front of us: ants.
HFA: Ollie, to get in the mood for our interview, we watched “Phase IV” last night, the 70s sci-fi movie by Saul Bass. It tells a story of desert ants that develop a collective intelligence and use it to gradually overpower humans. In the fourth chapter (phase), people lose their autonomy and become part of the ants’ world. Your “Ant Ballet” is also a four-phase project. How did the movie trigger or influence your own work?
OP: Actually I only saw the movie after I started the research for my Masters degree. But it definitely changed the direction of the project in a sense that it helped me to introduce a clear framework. When I first started playing with the idea of the “Ant Ballet” it was quite hard to figure out how it would all stick together. There were so many concepts involved and strands of narrative to tie in. Splitting it in four phases changed the logic chain and made it work much better.
Besides, there is also a lot of beautiful, evocative imagery and tongue-in-cheekness about that film. It’s so stylised, there is no way you can ever take it seriously. I guess this ambiguity is also present in my work — it’s neither traditional hard science, nor traditional fine art, you need to take it with a pinch of salt.
HFA: Investing six years into working with ants shows quite some dedication towards the little buggers. So, do you and ants go a long way?
OP: (laughs) Oh yes! Ants are amazing. I think we experience a weird mix of familiarity and distance with them. They have this fascinating exoskeleton that makes them very alien and futuristic, but at the same time they are so much part of our daily lives. And once you start looking at them from real close-by, you almost see them as little people, in a funny way. Of course a lot of that is just projection from our perspective as the “superior, more intelligent beings”. For instance I have recently read that an ant’s brain has the same processing power as a Macintosh II computer. Incredible, right? In a way it does not mean anything, but it illustrates how we humans look at these creatures.
What also triggered my interest in ants was systemic thinking. When you first get involved with architecture, you start seeing the whole world in terms of systems. And at the same time I became part of a project called the Open_Sailing, whose aim is to develop open-source hardware and software to enable human activities at sea. This project was perhaps the very first thing that opened me up to the idea of self-organizing systems. We were looking into something called the Swarm operating system, a fleet of robots that are semi-autonomous, but essentially look after themselves. They get a certain level of higher order input, and perhaps a goal to achieve, but the way they go about resolving it is up to them.
Ants reflect this type of swarm intelligence and systemic thinking perfectly. The majority of ant species lack any kind of hierarchy, the myth of the queen as the supreme ruler is complete bullshit. There is no centralized control structure dictating how individual ants should behave and it is the local interactions that lead to the intelligent behavior of them as a whole.
HFA: To go back to the “Ant Ballet”: your aim is to choreograph ants, to make them move through formations that you yourself would determine. How is this going to happen and what will these four different phases consist of, exactly?
OP: So to run through the phases really quickly: Phase I , which is now completed, was a learning phase. It was basically a lot of research, together with scientists from the Zoological Society London and the department of the Organic Chemistry at the UCL, on how — and if at all — we can influence ants’ movements. The initial testing took place in Barcelona and was successful: we proved that ants can follow a trail of synthesized pheromones, produced in lab and laid out for them by a robotic arm.
Phase II , that I am working on now, will be the first actual choreographed ant movement in form of a live performance. It is anticipated to take place in Brazil later this or next year. For this part I would like to get involved with choreographers to learn about the movements in real ballet and find out how I can make ants do similar things. In terms of music I am still in doubt: letting the music dictate how the ants should dance might be too authoritative, so I am researching other options in parallel. There are few ant species that use audible communication, so I would like to understand how those frequencies work and how they can be translated into human music. Adding human-scale elements, either audibly or visibly, will be very important in order to make the whole thing understandable to the audience.
Phase III is going to be an intercontinental ant communication system.
And Phase IV … I am still not sure what Phase IV is going to be. I kind of like the idea of destruction, as in the Saul Bass’ movie. Because it has to end somewhere, right? Otherwise I can easily imagine working on this project for the rest of my life. And as Picasso said, the urge to destroy is a creative urge…
HFA: Could you still tell us more about Phase III, the “intercontinental communication for ants”?
OP: Think of it as a “Skype for ant colonies” . As I have the ability to print ant trails, this is like a telephone speaker. And I can monitor the ant movements through computer vision and colour density analysis, so this is like a telephone microphone. We will set up receivers and transmitters on both ends of the world. I can print one colonies’ movements to the other colony, and vice versa.
The funny thing about the ants’ communication is that when you are laying a trail of pheromones, no individual ant knows what the greater picture looks like. It’s only
from our point of view, this ‘God-like’ perspective, that we can see the complexity of their trails.
You can visualise it as a giant blind chess game. Phase III builds upon my interest in Game Theory, a fascinating domain of strategic decision-making. I find it interesting that it progressed from a bunch of mathematicians discussing abstract theories amongst themselves in very lab-like scenarios and think-tanks, to real concepts influencing world politics for many years.
So based on such blind resource gathering, my ants will essentially play an intercontinental game of chess against each other, competing for resources, fictional or otherwise, against an invisible enemy, without even knowing they are doing it. You could call it absurd.
HFA: What would happen if you took people as your test subjects instead of ants? Do you ever wonder about that, late at night?
OP: Hmmm, right, how can I scale this up? (laughs) I guess I could create a cold war, but I am not sure. It’s actually what I am trying to research with my PhD: the element of mind control in built environments and how much you can actually influence the movement of people.
One of the things that interests me the most and that is a key part of the research I do, is the notion of unilateral communication. There is no information hierarchy with most ants, they’re just pumping information into the environment around them, adding their little bit of ‘making sense’ to the world they inhabit. Their voices are equally loud. This may seem limiting at first, but if we consider how we humans behave in cities, one could also categorise that as unilateral communication through the environment. Buildings and environments do not react or communicate with what is happening around them, but people communicate via the environment around them.
HFA: There is a strong element of control in your work, the way you overrule the ants’ natural system and bring in something external that makes them behave differently. Are you also interested in the whole nature/nurture debate?
OP: Absolutely. To give a personal example: it was kind of funny coming to an architecture school without having an architectural background. As soon as you start talking to people and attending lectures, you find out that architects simply love to control stuff. And I mean this in a very loving way, but you remember the image Ruairi showed you the other day of God as an architect*? I think that is the picture epitomises the mindset of many architects. And I think it has to – after all, you design huge things which directly influence peoples’ lives. And whether it is in the area of the built environments that control the flows of people or in the mentality area that alters thinking, it is definitely very interesting.
HFA: This is a nice segue into another topic: your background and how you ended up in the architecture unit of Bartlett. How are your frameworks different from the ones of the architects?
OP: I trained as industrial designer. Actually I started as a graphic designer, then went on to industrial design and then to architecture design. So I kind of moved from 2D to 3D to big 3D. The way that you look at things as a designer is generally a lot smaller; you are looking at the individual object as opposed to the object in a system. Architects, on the contrary, tend to approach their work from a more holistic point of view. They start from a master plan and then work down to the details. Also, there is a tendency within industrial design to completely fetishise the object, something that I probably still do too much. But then there is also a tendency within architecture to idealise grand narratives that nobody understands except for the architect. I guess I would like to be able to balance both approaches.
HFA: In parallel with the “Ant Ballet”, do you have some short-term projects that you work on at the moment?
OP: I generally tend to have four or five projects on the go at once. If I have any less than that, I find that I do not do them well. Lots of the projects tend to be commercial, mostly graphic design work.
I am also working on a script for a film, together with my sister, who is a fantastic writer. It is in a way part of the “Ant Ballet” project, although it might be even closer to an earlier work of mine, the “Godot Machine” – a device to monitor and control the movements of a single ant. With the film we are trying to explore some mathematical and philosophical questions based on an old Russian research on how to physically engineer people to be “the perfect proletarian”. At this moment we are still in a very early stage, looking into funding possibilities, deciding how big the production will be and such.
HFA: Ollie, thanks for a great talk. The last question that we ask everyone is:
who should we interview next? But this time we have a small condition; it cannot be anyone from Bartlett ;-).
OP: One person who is at the intersection of like million things, and is a very good friend of mine, is Cesar Harada. He is the mastermind behind the “Open_Sailing” project, which he developed at Design Interactions at the RCA, through that he became a TED fellow, has done a lot of environmental research and campaigning, is into programming and hacking stuff and so on. He is just insanely brilliant – one of the few people who you could actually call a polymath. Besides that, he is also a lovely person, with a great sense of humor. He is not always in London ‘though, he comes over every few months, spends a brief period of time and then goes off again. So if you interview him, please let me know because it would be nice to come and say hello to him.
Ollie Palmer is in the midst of a PhD at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, from where he also holds a Masters with Distinction in Archietctural Design. He is a designer and artist. He collaborates with Open_H2O and Protei (open source projects developing oceanic technologies), has travelled around the world, hitchhiked across Iceland and taught I.T. in the depths of the Amazon. He tutors in the Interactive Architecture Workshop at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL and contributes photographs to Getty Images. He lives and works in London.