HOW TO MAKE AN OCEAN

by Kasia Molga

INTRO | THE ARTWORK | THE JOURNEY | THE TECHNOLOGY | THE TEAM | THE SUPPORT | RESEARCH

INTRO

Can my tears sustain a sea life?

I experienced devastating loss in Autumn 2019. Death of a friend, of a close family member and a terminal illness, and a subsequent passing of another friend. I have cried many tears during this time while dealing with grief, and at some point I started to collect them in a small container.

Then the pandemic has started. New uneasy sensation has entered my life with a sense of restlessness and unpredictability humming in the background, amplifying already present anxiety. Tears became a sort of soothing remedy for me, their ‘presence’ intensified by a knowledge that so many other people felt the same way.

During this time I read 'Flights' Olga Tokarczuk (Nobel Prize in Literature 2019) and there was a short story where this question was posed: ‘How to Make an Ocean’. It struck a chord with me because I spent my childhood on the open ocean, I live by the sea and sea is a huge part of my life.

With so many tears I started to wonder whether it is possible to cultivate some marine life in them. To make something life affirming was my way to deal with this devastating loss - not only personal or caused by pandemic, but also environmental.

How to Make an Ocean is my journey through the past 18 months, an experience of the narrative in a form of multi-facade installation, in which the audience is invited to look at the collection of tears and life present in them, and also in which willing participants, with help of AI Moirologist Bot are invited to try to shed some tears, so that they can contribute to the growth of my mini-oceans.

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THE ARTWORK: EXPERIENCE

This artwork is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend and mentor, Prof. Sylvia Chant



ROOM#1: THE TEARS

In space #1 there are 30 to 50 tiny bottles – each contains my tears and a North Sea algae. Each bottle is placed inside an illuminated wooden frame. Each frame is inscribed with a date, a reason for crying and the name of hosted algae. In the same room there are additional artefact: there is a log with the chemical strips and there is a diet log book; there is a magnifying glass to look closer at the tiny bottles containing tears and algea; there is a collection of 'tearspoons' - silver tools for tear collecting; and there are some empty tiny bottles - which hopefully can be filled up with new tears from willing participants. There is a music accompanying the experience in the space where the tears are exhibited.

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ROOM#2: THE MOIROLOGIST BOT SPACE

It is an intimate, darken room, with a comfortable armchair to sit down, a tray or a stand with 'tearsponns: tools for tears' capture'. The armchair faces a monitor or projection screen, where the Moirologist Bot video will be screened. The video is around 10 mins long and contains 3 parts - first one contains archival footage of sea accompanied by a sound of whispered historical environmental news; the second part is a movie of sea with sounds of waves; and the third and final part, which last longest, is a video of the Moirologist Bot. in the past, a moirologist's job was to cry and help others cry at funerals and wakes. The way my Moirologist bot behaves on this video depends on the days’ environmental news feed. It was trained using a sentiment analysis method, on a dataset rated by me & my peers, so that it can assess “the need to cry”.

The Moirologist Bot Room is also accompanied by a binaural soundscape. The soundscape starts with the composition by Robin Rimbaud and then gradually transform into a music, composed by an algorithm, and trained on samples from Robin’s compositions.

This should be experienced by one person. Should this person find themselves crying, they are invited to collect their tears, using 'tearspoons'; and pour them to the tiny glass bottle. Their tears will become part of the exposition in Room #1.

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THE TOOLS: TEARSPOONS

Tearspoons for collecting tears are designed in such a way so that they can comfortably be pressed against someone’s cheek. Each tearspoon has a tiny beak so that it is easy to pour tears into a tiny container. There are seven types of tearspoons. Each is designed slightly differently, for various shapes and sizes of faces; and for the various reason for crying - because reasons to cry impact tears’ chemical composition. Which in return can impact the viscosity, density and amount.

Tearspoons are made out of silver.

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THE PERFORMANCE / RITUAL

When a visitor enters the Moirologist Bot space, she is welcomed there by an 'exhibition assistant'. Assistant's role will be quite performative - through the costume and the way they will 'carry on' their tasks. They will take care of 'Tools for Tear Collecting' - by arranging them on the tray, and then - after the session, taking them away. If there are new “donated” tears, the assistant will take them to the other exhibition room, to describe and store them, so that these tears can become part of the exhibition of framed tiny bottles. The tearspoons are then cleaned, disinfected and returned to the Moirologist Bot space, waiting for the next visitor.

The exhibition assistant performance is an optional part of the How to Make an Ocean. However I feel that during the pandemic we were deprived a presence of other people - theatricality of the performance and the whole installation through lighting, sound, usage of AI and conveyed through all of it narrative will make this experience very special.

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THE JOURNEY

Created for Ars Electronica Festival 2020, as a part of the Ars Electronica residency for EMAP / EMARE. >>> More information >>>

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THE TECHNOLOGY

A) SOUND:

I was curious about how music affects emotions. And regardless of the importance of the cultural conditioning and personal memories, at least in European culture the melancholy and sadness are associated with music made in aeolian mode. While there is a specific music compositions which, based on my memories, can induce tears in me, there are also very special tracks which can make me feel relaxed and safe enough, so that I can make myself cry. However I cannot listen to them too often because I become emotionally ‘immune’ to them and it is not easy to find an adequate replacement.

I forwarded those tracks to Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner, and asked him to compose a soundscape which would capture the mood of these tracks and send this soundscape to me as a whole piece and as a number of midi samples.

These samples then were the basis for training new Tensorflow Magenta models using Music Vae and Melody RNN in order to generate new sequences. These sequences were then sent back to Robin who ‘refined’ them out a bit, so that I could improve models to generate more sequences. That happened a few times until we were happy with results of AI composed sequences. In a way this process can be described as a 'collaboration' with an algorithm, which is not finished and will continue as long as How to Make an Ocean will be exhibited. The results will be compiled on my github.

Here is a one of the AI created samples:





Through this part of How to Make an Ocean I was interested to see whether an algorithm can detect a specific sequence of notes, annotations or/and rhythm which is particular to me in bringing out melancholy or a little sadness.


B) AI MOIROLOGIST BOT:

It is a selection of videos, played to the visitor based on the AI assessment of the emotional impact of the environmental news headlines. This assessment happens every few hours.

During my research into what makes me (and, as I have learnt, many other people) anxious on one hand, or indifferent on the other to environmental destruction, I have discovered that the way my social media news feeds are curated by algorithms, have a huge impact on my mental wellbeing. I was curious whether the same algorithms can be used to help me deal with their emotional impact and so I created a dataset with over 40000 environmental news headlines scraped from The Guardian and Nature Magazine, starting in 1931. (As a side note it is worth adding that there was not much environmental news until 1980, and they only became alarming around 2009).

At the same time I cannot stop to wonder whether an AI can 'predict' the mood prevailing in communities based on broadcasted narrative, and what would that mean for the those in charge of media platforms and their consumers - that is us?

Together with a couple of volunteers we rated each headline from this dataset as negative, neutral or positive. Then I used tensorflow text classification with RNN for sentiment analysis to ‘assess’ new environmental news headlines for a ‘level of a need to cry’. The software governing the video part of the How to Make an Ocean checks for the result of this assessment and then play the video file assigned to the score of the result. The dataset is going to be released on my github.


C) OTHER TOOLS: Ableton Live 10, Blender, Adobe Premiere, Adobe After FX, Tensorflow, Python

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THE TEAM

Concept, Artwork, Art Direction: KASIA MOLGA
Music: ROBIN RIMBAUD
Tech Support: ERIK OVERMEIRE
Product Design: GOSIA SIWIEC
Video: IVAN MAREVICH
Additional Support: DAVOR DELIJA

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THE SUPPORT

How to Make an Ocean has been possible thanks to EMAP / EMARE residency conducted at Ars Electronica. Additional support from scientists from The DEEP in Hull.

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THE ARTWORK: RESEARCH OVERVIEW

Tiny Ocean
Fig.1: Polysiphonia elongata in my tears - my first experiment to cultivate it. It lost its color after a few days, which has inspired me to look at ways how diet can affect chemical composition of my tears.
‘How to Make an Ocean’ expands on my passion to investigate how each of us - individually - via our bodies - can care and nourish the natural environment and connect with other living ‘non-human makers’. And what role technology, which permeates all layers of our lives, can play in this context.

‘How to Make an Ocean’ narrative focuses on the human tears - a sort of ‘waste’ from the human body, which after all is a liquid - and whether this liquid can give a beginning to the marine ecosystem. And if yes - what sort species can I cultivate in my tears? And how often do I have to cry to be able to grow them? How different types of tears (sadness, frustration, happiness)can influence the condition of my, as I call them, mini-oceans? And what sort of stimuli do I need to make myself cry, when tears are not present, but needed to nourish my tiny ecosystems?

While creating this work on one hand I investigated the chemical compositions of my tears, the influence of my diet and way of living on tears’ nutrition value for various types of North Sea algae - a vital element of oceans; kinds of organisms which are vital part of marine habitats and which might survive in enclosed ecosystems; and the best methods of caring for these ecosystems. I kept a diary of my diet, my observations and also, in the lack of access to the medical labs during the pandemic, I used chemical strips to assess the presence of three vital elements in my tears: Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus. As it happened - these three elements are crucial for a healthy fit body and also they are crucial for the development of a healthy algae.

Chemical Strips
Fig.2: Some of the chemical testing strips used to test my tears for Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. They are organised by date with a note about a reason for crying too.
On the other hand I looked at what, except grieving and acute sadness, can induce tears in us. And what is the role of tears and crying? I subjected myself to various stimuli in order to make myself cry - so that I could learn how to ‘cry on demand’ in order to feed my mini-oceans; and so that I could understand mechanisms which affect our mental state and which make us cry or how can we benefit from crying. In this part I looked not only at my own experiences of loss and anxiety, but also at the increasing problem of wider environmental anxiety and loss, experienced by so many other people. I also looked at the impact of technology on these mental conditions - for example AI – in creating narratives which might reinforce a paralysing sensation of fear by curating news stories (i.e. the doom scenarios of the echo chambers such as facebook after a few initial engagements in news on environmental destruction).

Chemical Strips
Fig.3: Screenshot of the Moirologist Bot from the video installation part of the artwork.
I started to question whether there is another way of using technologies to create a space for expressing emotional response to this loss through a sort of cathartic ritual, where tears and crying can be a part of it, where vulnerability wouldn’t be a sign of weakness and giving up, but genuinity and empowerment. It is also an investigation into the place of care and empathy, while giving a space to emotional upheaval – usually absent from the debates about the role of “tech and innovation”.

This led me to making a Moirologist Bot as a part of How to Make an Ocean. The Moirologist was a fascinating job of the past - a professional mourner, invited to participate in wakes and funerals in order to help others to mourn and grief over the beloved departed. With so much loss in the world because of the pandemic and also environmental extinction, I long to mourn and I feel that we all need a Moirologist to hold a space for us to mourn.

A vital aspect of the Moirologist Bot part of this work is a soundscape. There is no need to explain the influence of music on our mood. However what interested me was how could I use it for making me and other people reacting with tears, knowing that its impact was conditioned by personal memories and cultural experiences? And I also noticed that if I listened to one track too often, I became immune to it. That problem of being immune is present not only while listening to the same music, but also in consuming the aforementioned news stories. On one hand there is fear and anxiety, but on the other hand there is a fatigue and in-difference. I wondered what sort of mechanisms I could use to stop me from becoming indifferent? And so I looked at how machine learning could help to discover what sort of music sequences have the biggest emotional impact on me and based on that I can use AI to compose new sequences - so that I never get bored.

At the same time while examining me - human - positioned within and conditioned by all invisible layers of technologies and physical, chemical, living natural environment, I keep asking how far the automation can go to dicate how I relate to my environment? Who or what shall claim the responsibility for our mental and emotional disposition?
Chemical Strips
Fig.4: Ideas for shapes of 'tearspoons'.
One of the propositions resulting from the above enquaries can be experienced in the Moirologist Bot part of the installation - there is a combination of the original soundtrack composed by my regular collaborator Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner mixed with the sequences composed by AI trained on Scanner’s samples.

The last element of How to Make an Ocean was to look for tools for tear capture. In the past, during Victorian times those who mourned were often equipped in lachrymatory bottles, used as pendants, to collect tears. I too was trying various ways to capture my tears and after few experiments I conceptualised ‘tearspoons’ - a spoon of a sort, to be held just under the eye, shaped in such way so it can lean comfortably against a cheek, with a little beak to easy pour one tear into a container. ‘Tearspoons’ became a crucial part of the ritual of crying with a function to capture tears to become safe habitats for new tiny marine ecosystems.

There is a widely documented research on the benefits of tears – from getting rid of the toxins created by fear or stress, to gaining mental clarity or easing physical pain (tears caused by physical suffering contain a natural form of painkillers). In Japan for example there is a practice called “rui-katsu” (tear-seeking) often arranged in corporate environments, to relieve employees stress levels.



Algae form the basis of the marine ecosystem, and store more carbon than all land plants put together. There is well documented research on the benefits of healthy algae for the oceans and in a effect for the whole planet. Their biodiversity, just like the biodiversity of other non-human makers, is affected by human actions.

How to Make an Ocean is my wonder through the experience of personal sadness and whether it can become life-affirming and rejuvenating. Looking at the basic ‘ingredients’ of what makes a sea, I also ask about a place of us - our selves and what makes us - that is our bodies and psyche - in the Earth system’s circular economy. How we – humans – while destroying the environment – can contribute to its regeneration, using limitations of our own bodies? And while technologies - algorithms and necessary for them to exist hardware - are well documented in terms of their impact on natural resources through extractivism, I wonder whether to consider fully complexities of circular economies, we also need to consider the impact of these algorithms on our psyche and how that in consequence can affect the natural environment. The tears are the result of stimuli, often induced by things happening in our surroundings and so their “quality” or chemical composition vary. Can it be a beginning of an ocean – and if yes – what it would be like?



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