Ivan Henriques

Can we build together with living organisms?

Researcher: Ivan Henriques website: //ivanhenriques.com/

Text: Theun Karelse

The biggest organism in the zoo is not the Elephant.

Machine Wilderness at ARTIS Amsterdam Royal zoo is an artist-in-residency programme, but with Ivan Henriques this means not just having the artist in the studio, but all kinds of other beings too. The ZOOdio workspace now has a whole range of guests, including slimemoulds, mycelia (fungi), plants and various other kinds of beings.

Over the past ten years or so Ivan has developed projects in which he closely collaborates with organisms, many of them microscopic. And during this residency Ivan is interested in bringing together different kinds of beings that form networks, like mycelia and slimemoulds in a series of small worlds, that start out as formal geometric shapes but get inhabited by these communities that slowly reshape and make the geometric forms more organic. His central interest is in the communication within and between those networks.

Geometric spaces containing different combinations of species.

An evolutionary line of machines

The machines and robotic structures Ivan has been creating over the past 10 years are ways to explore the lives of plants, microbes, and other kinds of beings. And each project builds on the previous ones, becoming something like a family tree of hybrid-machines. The robots are like vessels that show something we normally might not see; when he built a hybrid plant-robot that drives around an exhibition space, the sense of touch of a plant steering the robot, makes us really appreciate the plants awareness and ability to act. Or the Symbiotic Machine, with its glass stomach that acts as a bio-solar cell, giving a tiny current, because the pigments of the microbes in the ‘stomach’ can photosynthesize. These tiny currents, present in all biological beings and our own bodies, are so amazingly efficient. They are a thousand times more efficient than the systems humans build, our cars, smartphones, refrigerators. Floating in its basin in Zone2Source where it was first shown, the Symbiotic Machine ‘eats’ Duckweed that floats around on the surface. The robot grinds it to a paste which becomes the photosynthetic layer in its stomach, giving it a little energy to find new Duckweed.

Animals as worlds

Ivan loves his time at the zoo. Its inspiring to be among all these different beings and their wide range of behaviors. And where landscape architects like Thijs de Zeeuw design spaces for elephants or ground-squirrels to thrive in, Ivan is making tiny spaces in which he brings organism together. He is making them not for single species but for communities of beings, much like many of the more recent spaces at ARTIS like the monkey-bird-house.

Walking around the zoo we see lots of large animals, but to Ivan the animals are worlds unto themselves. Inside they all have stomachs full of extremely diverse populations of microbes, like tiny rainforests. The 'microbial rainforests' are different in all these animals, the birds, gorillas, tortoises or snakes. Perhaps growing up in Brazil somehow helps him see that more clearly; the deep entanglement of all life.

Preparing structures and food-paths for the organisms to explore.

The elephant in the room in the soil

Key in the communities Ivan is bringing together in the ZOOdio are the mycorrhiza, the networks of infinitely thin connections that from the underground body of fungi. These tiny connections may be very very small, but together they are massive. The biggest organism in ARTIS is not the elephant, Ivan says, but these underground networks. In fact, up to 30% of healthy living soils are made up of these networks and many plants depend on them.

Joining him in the ZOOdio is Jasper Buikx of MICROPIA, which is an amazing place, like a zoo for microbes. Jasper speaks about the care for these living communities of beings and about MICROPIA programmes that play an active role in the ZOO, like making Bokashi from elephant dung to feed the plants. Jasper has an amazing list of microbial symbioses in the park: for example how the sloths are symbiotic with a green algae that lives in it’s fur and in return helps it camouflage with the green color. Ivan organizes a public tour of ARTIS taking us closer to these unseen sybiotic connections within the park.

Studio-visit of Prof Kiers

Communication in the soil

Prof. dr. Toby Kiers also comes to visit Ivan for a chat about #mycorrhizal #fungi and how to tap into the signals that these fungal-networks exchange. Tiny electrical pulses. These are very important she says, because if we would understand that language of pulses, we could listen and learn from them. We could learn about the health of soils driectly through these networks that reach into all corners. Toby studies trade-processes between fungi and plant roots and during Machine Wilderness Ivan has been making food-paths to visualize their activity.
That is the hidden world Ivan is trying to make visible, so that we can experience something about these vital networks through art. Crucially Ivan researches these beings in context, like artists often do, so not by separating or isolating something, but by engaging with it in full complexity. Which is exactly what Machine Wilderness is about; about investigating and prototyping relationships between, human cultures, technologies and living systems not isolated in a lab, but in the full complexity of the world.

Prof Kiers advocates for soil health through SPUN (Society for the Protection of Underground Network), a science-based initiative founded to map fungal networks and advocate for their protection.


Discussing microbes with Jasper Buikx of MICROPIA