A Keystone Arching to Bridge the Gap – Machines in the Wilderness


A text by ecologist Matthew Creasey, based on his presentation during the Symbiotic Systems workshop. Matt was also a participant in the Cornwall workshop.

Arch – from the latin arcus, meaning ‘any part of a curve’
Architect – from the Greek arkhitéktōn, meaning ‘chief builder’

  • Arch – chief or principle
  • Tecton – builder
  • Derivatives such as architective, meaning ‘used in or proper for building’, may be formed from the Latin tectus, meaning ‘to cover, shelter or protect’


Keystone – “A central stone at the summit of an arch…locking the whole together” *

Keystone species – “a species exerting a major influence on an ecosystem, [especially] one on whose activities the survival of other species depends” *

            *definitions from the OED online (http://www.oed.com)


Humans and ecology:

Since the 1st or 2nd century BC, and perhaps earlier, various peoples have positioned keystones at the zenith of their arches, to lock the other stones in place and distribute weight evenly among them. Roman architects, master builders, used them in the construction of the cities to provide shelter, food and water to their flourishing civilizations, which in turn were incendiary for so much human artistic, scientific, political, societal and technological innovation.

However, although such keystones have been at the top and centre of human building for millennia, they have held their place in the anthropogenic world for a brief moment compared to the period of time for which another type of keystone has been in its position, locking together Earth’s ecosystems. Keystone species are organisms which fulfill a pivotal and structural role within ecosystems. Their influence cascades through the web of life and to remove such a species would leave a missing link causing the collapse of many ecological interactions and other local extinctions. One example of a keystone species is the humble fig wasp (Agaonidae). Each wasp is only 2mm long and lives for just 2 or 3 days, but they are the sole pollinators of fig trees (Ficus spp., Moraceae). Females hatch out of the fruits, taking with them pollen, which they transport to other figs in the area as they find figs in which to lay their own eggs. And the figs are vital. Not only do they produce bounties of fruit which feed many species, but different trees do so at different times, meaning that figs are almost always available somewhere in the forest. Thus a critical food source for a whole pantheon of species relies on an insect no larger than a flea.

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To give an idea of scale, a Vespula vulgaris worker is 10x larger than the fig wasp.

But keystones are a comparatively small element of both ecological systems, and of human architectural design. So why have I focused on them here? Well, I think they exemplify two themes which are central to the concept of machine wilderness: (1) the interconnectedness of our world, and (2) how introducing or removing a single element in a system or structure can have a fundamental impact on that system’s ability to function. In explorations of machines in the wild, other ecological concepts like food webs, niches, and mutualisms could all also provide inspiration for ways to join the the human and wild made.


The workshops:

At Machine Wilderness Kernow, various ecological concepts were explored in the mudflats and woods of the Cornish coast. Water, reeds, the salt and the air. Most groups envisaged and built waterborne creatures. One swam across the surface of the creek, propelled by the wind, and harvesting plastics using its extended arm. The creation of a 2nd group took the shape of an electrically charged, wind and solar powered jellyfish, which collected and filtered out pollutants from the murky waters of the creek. Another lived freely among the reeds. Each individual collected biological, climatic, or chemical information, and shared this with others of its kind, collectively building a repository of information as deep as the surrounding mud.

In Amsterdam, participants spent their time exploring the lakes and woods of Amstelpark, deep within the urban landscape. Inspired by other projects which captured methane, a key gas in global climate change, which is produced by many forms of life.

Wherever we are in the world, the concepts of Machine Wilderness could, will, have relevance in an evolving and changing world. Two different approaches naturally emerge when exploring and implementing the ideas of Machine Wilderness – (1) biomimicry and (2) integration. In the first, humans can find inspiration from processes and species in the wild, and copy their designs to create new and innovative machines. In the second, through collaboration between ecologists with a complex understanding of biological systems, and the creative minds of artists, inventors, technologists and creators, we can find ways to integrate human made creations into natural systems, or natural phenomena into our human worlds. Thus, perhaps, we can bridge the gap between the wild and the human, reach common ground, and explore new, innovation and sustainable possibilities for the future.

And finally to return to the humble fig wasp, one might say that they are already ‘bionic’ organisms. The figs into which females must bore through to lay their eggs, are tremendously strong. To puncture them, the wasps have developed zinc tipped ovipositors, metalled spearheads on biotic birth canals to solve a puzzle of nature. Mechanics which truly are wild.

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Symbiotic Systems workshop, April 29-30, 2016

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Prototyping symbiotic sytems based on specific landscapes in Amstelpark.

Artist Ivan Henriques led this two day workshop starting with a nice extensive introduction to his work in creating hybrid systems like Jurema Action Plant, Symbiotic Machine and his recent Caravel.


The first day started with terrible weather. Luckily we had a fantastic introduction to ecology through Skype by Matthew Creasey who participated in the Cornwall workshop. In his presentation he explored the ecology of machines in the wilderness. His thoughts are published in more detail in this blog post. We found having an expert tele-present works really well and what could fit better to Machine Wilderness that a Skype ecologist?!


After lunch the sky looked brighter and we set out for an exploration of the Amstelpark’s varied landscapes and what symbiotic systems we could imagine there. Not from a viewpoint of eco-engineering, but from the perspective that technological systems and infrastructures are already intertwined with landscapes but not very symbiotically. Our systems and infrastructures are predominantly and perhaps progressively not designed to share that space, but dominate it. The extent of this may be illustrated by the fact that we’re discussing weather our dominance deserves to be named as a new epoch; the Anthropocene. Machine Wilderness and Ivan’s Symbiotic Systems workshop re-imagines this power-balance by prototyping participating systems. Through participation we may relate more intimately and more holistically with biotic environments, ecological flows and their energy regimes.



On the second day scientist Vincent Friebe of Biosolar Cells with the help of solar cells expert Dr. Magdalena Marszalek introduced us to technology that bridges biological and man-made energy regimes: dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSCs). He gave a fast and furious reminder of photosynthesis and set participants out on a mission to collect pigment/dye from sources in Amstelpark like flowers, fruits, and leaves that grow there. The team went out and soon spread all over the park kneeling and bending over possible pigment sources.

We used these materials and incorporated them into dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSC). The pigment is extracted by grinding the material to a pulp with a mortar and pestle, with liquid nitrogen if needed, which makes the material brittle and easy to pulverize down to a fine powder. Water or acetone is added to the pulp, which is then strained through a cheese cloth to extract the pigment in a liquid form. The resulting dyes were kept in little jars and catalogued, and then painted aquarelle style on the substrates. Functionality was assessed by measuring voltage and current, with rather spectacular results!


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Schematic of electron flow through a Dye-sensitized solar cell (DSSC).


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Catalogue of various Pigments, pigment sources, and application on TiO2 plates.



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Various Pigment sources in Amstel Park.


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Catalogue of pigment sources.


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Putting the D in DSSC.


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