The UCI Beall Center for Art + Technology presented artist Ian Ingram’s work in collaboration with UCI neuroscience professor Dr. Steve Mahler. The gallery, which was located at the Beall Center for Art + Technology, was open to the public from Oct. 9, 2021 toMarch 5.
The exhibit included 21 pieces, all of which “explore[d] animal morphology, robotic avatars, interspecies communication and technology in natural environments.”
Ingram has held many residencies and fellowships, beginning as the 2008 Artist in Residence at Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute and moving to the 2018 Ars Bioartica Residency at the Kilpisjarvi Biological Research Station in Finland with numerous others in between. He is most currently an Artist in Residence at the Beall Center for Art and Technology at UCI. The pieces displayed at the Beall Center were curated by Ingram from 1998 to 2021, and it featured new pieces Ingram created during his residency at the Beall Center’s Black Box Projects in collaboration with Mahler.
Black Box Projects is an artist residency operated through UCI, which focuses “on the research and development of responsive environments, installations and sculptures by artists who [will] work collaboratively with various UC Irvine research departments.” Residents chosen for the two-year program are able to develop their artwork with the support of UCI’s faculty and current research.
Ingram is an artist based in Los Angeles whose work focuses on the ability of human-made bodies — more recognized as robots — and their ability to communicate with natural life. Ingram’s work intends to “cohabitate, commune and communicate with the animals in their own places [and] explore our relationship with non-human animals, behavior and object performance as artistic media.”
All pieces in the exhibit aimed to promote communication between the natural world and the man-made world, presented as robots that imitate distinct types of animal communication, like the swish of a rat tail or the ruffling of goose feathers. The exhibit included stationary robots and selected videos of the robots interacting with animals in natural settings, like parks or ponds.
The robots fostered interspecies communication through mechanized movement or sound. Communication between humans and animals is difficult due to animal evolvement to communicate within their species. Humans convey meaning through specialized speech or movement, while each species of animal has their own lexicon consisting of animal sounds or body movements.
In a previous interview with the Carnegie Mellon University School of Art, from which Ingram received his MFA, Ingram said that his work “allow[s] for the kind of communion people, including myself, want to have with other animals that is often impossible because of our own bodies and perception systems.” Ingram proceeded to say that his robots are especially created to foster communication between species.
Similar to how humans naturally communicate with animals, Ingram used robots that have animalistic features in an attempt to enhance communication.
“I have used gestural signals: tail flicks, beak wipes, head bobs. With some, like the pileated woodpecker, I have used audible signals, although still brought about from mechano-gestural interaction with the environment, not with speakers,” Ingram said.
Ingram described his work as “playful, humorous even, but cloaked in mock seriousness.” The exhibit embodied this in works like “Lizardless Legs” (2014), a robot made of small white tubes that is able to fold and bounce, which performed push-ups in an attempt to communicate with lizards. Lizards in nature use the “push-up” movement as a mating and territorial display.
One feature of the exhibit included “Danger, Squirrel Nutkin!” (2009), a robot designed to communicate to squirrels, a prey species, of impending threats or danger. The robot consisted of a metal rod standing on a patch of grass with three isolated mock-squirrel tails. The rod was able to flick the tails rapidly, its intention to mimic the alarm system of tail-flicking that squirrels in nature employ.
In the case of “Danger, Squirrel Nutkin!” (2009), Ingram said that when displayed in nature, squirrels often responded correctly by running away from the alarm signal to allow for natural communication. Ingram also detailed how the occasional squirrel would approach the robot and respond with “tail motions of its own far more complex than I have ever [seen] otherwise,” quoted from printed handouts available at the exhibit.
Ingram’s artwork placed emphasis on communication between man-made objects and synanthropic animals, animals who live closely beside humans and benefit from human proximity.
“My residency at the Beall and collaboration with neuroscientist Steve Mahler there led me to a deliberate turning towards synanthropic animals. Mahler keeps as pets a breed of rat called Long-Evans … I became interested in how synanthropic animals’ bodies fit into the built environment,” Ingram said about his collaborative piece “Elongate Evans” (2018).
Mahler currently operates the Mahler Lab at UCI in the Department of Neurobiology & Behavior. His research interests include investigating the neural circuits underlying psychological processes including learning, motivation and pleasure. Many of Mahler’s neurological research studies are achieved through the use of “controlling neuronal populations and circuits in rodents, with the aim of understanding how these circuits control behavior.”
The Beall Center provided explanation catalogs, written by Ingram himself, which gave insight to the background of each art piece. In reference to “Elongate Evans,” Ingram wrote that “[p]erhaps each Long-Evans rat, a breed most often used in laboratory settings, dreams of that ancient, unknown home where its ancestors scurried and scampered, while its stretched, plastic, ziggy, double-tailed robot replacement, Elongate Evans, dreams of someday becoming a real live rat with a burrow of its own.”
Shakira Noriega is a STEM Contributing Writer for the winter 2022 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.