Getting In Touch with Paula Nishijima

IMPAKT Exhibition In Touch

Paula Nishijima is a visual artist working at the crossroads of art, science, and technology. Plug-in Habitat is an installation that explores adaptive structures and collective behaviour in living organisms and systems, by presenting a dome habitat that living and artificial organisms can be plugged into.

The work is named after Plug-in City by architecture group Archigram. What about this Plug-in City and the architecture group inspired you?

I once watched Peter Cook’s interview about Plug-in City, in which he defines it as a ‘method of allowing people to grow their dwellings with themselves’. Plug-in City envisioned a modular city, with prefabricated ‘capsules’ plugged into a megastructure. They could be changed and replaced by the dwellers themselves. This sounds like a ‘self-organised’ city, that would enable the whole urban environment to be programmed and structured for change – as in Cook’s provocative question about imagining the possibility of actually executing such a project.

I have always thought that the favelas in Brazil were an example of self-organised ‘architecture’, as they’re built without an architectural formal project, most of the time by their own dwellers – a sort of ‘method’ to grow spaces like in Plug-in City. Of course, people do this because they can’t afford urban housing. Favelas are considered informal settlements – which incurs the lack of fundamental services distribution, such as water or electricity.
For me, there is an irony in seeing the favelas as the dystopian materialisation of Archigram’s project, and a provocation to make when thinking about how the side-effects of colonial projects are yet persistent and resilient – like a tree keeps spreading its roots under the pavement, disrupting it.

Plug-in Habitat is named after Plug-in City, but the question underlying the artistic research about plants and their adaptive power is also connected to the context of a city built without planning, with improvised ‘capsules’ made out of the available resources.

The precarity context out of which favelas are built is also connected to the harsh conditions and scarcity that the plants I researched deal with – lack of light, drought season, predators etc. There is an aspiration for harnessing the intelligence of living systems, while exploring how modular parts, individually fragile, could connect and compose a resilient system.

Your work includes two artificial modules, one based on cushion plants and the other one based on the so-called ‘pinchos’ in the Asturian vegetation. Could you tell us how you came across them, and why you chose these modules?

I worked in collaboration with Marlén López, who is an architect focused on the application of biomimicry to architecture. During our field research at the Redes Natural Park (Ladines, Asturias), where her lab is located, I came across cushion plants and the spiky vegetation of Asturias. Marlén told me about how cushion plants grow in the shape of a ‘cushion’, creating various architectures that allow them to regulate humidity and temperature within their ‘dome’. I like the fact that it creates a ‘micro-climatic’ shelter for other species of plants and insects, for instance.

The ‘cushion’ form is an example of what they call a ‘parallel evolution’, meaning that cushion plants of different plant families use the same evolutionary strategy to survive the harsh conditions of their environment. I found it quite interesting, as I was imagining modules that could adapt to the change of their contexts – wherever they are, from the earth to space. Cushion plants, therefore, embody this notion on local and global levels, as they exist in different parts of the world, adapting their architecture to those specific contexts.

The pinchos were chosen in contrast to the ‘motherly’ style of cushion plants. During my walks, I was stung a couple of times by the ubiquitous nettles (Urtica)… I then realised how ‘defensive’ the vegetation was in Asturias. The pointed modified leaves are not only a defense strategy, but also help reduce water loss.

‘Pincho’ is the Spanish word for skewer or spike. I like referring to them in Spanish because it’s also part of their culture in Asturias: pinchos are small snacks ‘spiked’ with a skewer, the northern version of the famous tapas. I related it to a sort of ‘culture of plants’ of that region, since many of them are spiky or have thorns. In a way, I might have chosen cushion plants and pinchos for their complementary character, which co-exist and survive the mountain conditions.

In your installation you use a LoRaWAN network and Helium, a decentralised wireless IoT network and blockchain, which collects and stores data from the plant. How important is this decentralised aspect to you?

In the past years, I’ve researched decentralised living and artificial systems. I’m interested in how they self-organise (no leader or boss telling individuals what to do) and how haphazard and unplanned local interactions generate a harmonious, global effect. The roots of complexity… which science has yet to explain.

In Plug-in Habitat, I wanted to experiment with this decentralisation also on the technical side. Prof. Tobias Seidl went to do research with me at LABoral and I asked him to bring me some interesting experiments from his lab to get some inspiration. One of the things he brought was a group of lamps that behave like fireflies when they synchronise their flashing lights during mating season. They can sync their lights without having a conductor say when or how. That inspired how the technical architecture of Plug-in Habitat would work and emphasised the politics I wanted for its system: one that operates without central control.

For your research, you worked together with Professor Tobias Seidl, a specialist in Bionics and ants. Did he teach you anything interesting about ants?

My first work together with Prof. Tobias Seidl was the construction of an artificial ant farm: The Nonlinear Patterns of a Superorganism (2021). He worked at ESA for some time and brought up the experiments that NASA performed with ants in microgravity – which I later adapted to this art installation. He also worked there with brain-machine interfaces during parabolic flight, so he’s a sort of neuroscientist too. All to say that the most interesting things he taught me about ants or swarm intelligence were also about other biological networks, and how they may relate in terms of behaviour and patterns. For instance, ants perform complex tasks without any leader instructing them – no queen ant is ruling the nest. I learned from him about how the root-growing process in plants can be similar to swarm behaviour (also in ants), as each tip of the root (called apex) is like a ‘little brain’, that decides where to grow without having a ‘central brain’ controlling it. When you find out about some life patterns, you somehow internalise those systems, which makes you create within them, and certain understandings become more tangible.

The other artists we are Getting In Touch with are Studio Above&Below, T(n)C, Me AndOther Me and Nadja Verena Marcin.

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