Inspired by the Slovenian PIF Camp, the first Digital Naturalism Conference hosted more than 80 scientists, artists, hackers and makers on an island in the south of Thailand from May 26 to July 8.
Phuket (Thailand), special report
Walking among hermit crabs at low tide. Making microbial batteries on the beach. Flight testing a drone piloted by a plant. Stepping through sea urchins to escape from the island. Recording a podcast within the submerged “bathosphere” of a pirate ship. Examining saliva crystals under the microscope. Knitting stuffed animals from plastic yarn. Silhouetting yoga against the setting sun. Welcome to the Digital Naturalism Conference, a.k.a. Dinacon.
The inaugural edition was held from May 26 to July 8 on the island of Koh Lon, just south of Phuket, Thailand. At Dinacon, there are only three rules: 1) make something (a robot, a poem, a biological experiment, an art installation, anything…) and finish it; 2) document and share it; 3) give feedback on two other participants’ projects.
The idea of the organizers—Andrew Quitmeyer, biohacker in the field and professor at the National University of Singapore who was fed up with the closed inefficiency of academic conferences, and Tasneem Khan, marine biologist and leader of undersea expeditions—was to bring together a multidisciplinary selection of individuals with overlapping stays (each participant decides when to come and for how long) to exchange, collaborate and create in situ. And where everyone leaves with an artifact, a prototype or a document reviewed by their peers. All in open source.
Andy, who coined the term “digital naturalism” and leads “Hiking Hacks” around the world to build DIY devices that interact with the jungle, chose to organize the entire conference with a modest but 100% independent budget: private donations and crowdfunding, plus a bit of his own money. As a result, participation (including common accommodations and evening meals) was free and accessible to potentially anyone. The recurring theme is to get people out of human-centric labs and institutions to experiment and make things directly in the wild.
As a maritime extension of Dinacon, the Diva Andaman, a 35-meter traditionally crafted wooden schooner designed by Diva Marine, was transformed into a floating makerspace and “vessel for inquiry” by Tasneem and its captain Yannick Mazy. For six weeks, the boat provided a third-space for making, resting and sleeping.
In practice, this fluid anti-conference loosely inspired by PIF Camp evolved into a kind of superorganism, perpetually changing with the ebb and flow of participants present at any given moment—participants who contributed to and built on each other’s projects, who offered presentations and workshops, who set out to explore and forage together, who remained in constant communication via an open source chat app. While logistics were always assured by the organizers, and Andy led occasional hikes into the jungle, once in motion, with no set target or program, the six-week-long event unfurled organically and spontaneously.
On the ground
In Thailand, according to the Buddhist calendar, it’s the year 2561. From May to July, it’s the high rainy season and low tourist season in Phuket. The main site of Dinacon is the Baan Mai resort, located on the northern shore of the island, where only the restaurant has wifi, when the power is turned on. We are the only non-residents who stay overnight on Koh Lon. The island, known for octopus-fishing and its majority of Muslim residents, is inhabited by families of fishers, rubber-tree farmers… and many more plants and animals.
By late June, Dinacon hosts about 30 participants. Most come from the United States and Europe, but also Southeast Asia, India, Australia… The language on the ground is English. Some sleep in private cabins (at extra cost), others in the big house with kitchen and living room—a common space for working and gathering all day, but especially in the evenings, where participants come together around a vegetarian meal, followed by open presentations. Still others sleep under tents on the grass near solar panels that provide extra power for the island, along with diesel. Dani, the Dutch half of Dinacon’s resident documentary team, sleeps every night in a hammock underneath a tarp. And everyone sleeps under a mosquito net.
The day I arrived, on June 24, we witnessed the spectacular fall of a palm tree right in front of the house, which provided the plotline for the first of three microfictions written during my stay. Weaver ants in the trees, a hornbill resting on a branch, a golden tree snake on the trunk, a gecko on the wall, a giant spider in the shower… Our proximity to the local flora and fauna was further reinforced by the flight of fruit bats at dusk and the song of cicadas and frogs at night. At low tide, the beach was colonized by crabs, shrimp, sea cucumbers and sponges, coral, urchins, eels…
Animals, insects and vegetation throughout the island always reminded us how small humans are in the living ecosystem around us. It was also yet another opportunity to ponder one of the fundamental questions of Dinacon: What happens when human creativity and technologies interact directly with wildlife?
Naturally, most of the projects involved either the jungle or the ocean.
Roboticist extraordinaire Michael Candy made a biomimetic “tree yabbie” with titanium brush feet and a propeller tail to climb up the vertical trunks of palm trees.
Michael Candy talks about his tree-climbing robot:
Alchemist artist Lichen Kelp concocted aphrodisiac “electronic drinks” from gin and tonic, lime and sugar, colored and catalyzed by the deep blue petals of Butterfly Pea flowers picked on the island, augmented by ambient sound triggered by the electrodes of Seamus Kildall, whose Sonaqua circuit board “interpreted” each drink.
Slovenian artist Marko Peljhan (the man behind Makrolab), accompanied by his son Boris, tested his submarine drone to explore the sea, while David Bowen (the “housefly artist”) tested his aerial drone piloted by a tree, in which variations in voltage were converted to x, y, z coordinates. Jessica Anderson and Sebastian Monroy’s Palm Reading project sensed the electrical activity of a palm tree to generate algorithmic images that appeared strangely organic.
Lucy Patterson, former molecular biologist, biohacker and half of the duo behind the Berlin-based DIY Science Podcast, between peeks at saliva crystals under the microscope, gave a workshop along with bioartist Devon Ward to make different batteries from the energy generated by microbes on the beach. Ingredients: sand, mud, charcoal, plant, cloth, nails, graphene, distilled water, sea water, braided and boiled rope, metal wire sponges, copper…
All the while preparing his own quartet concert for plant, earth, air and water, Seamus offered two complete workshops to build your very own Sonaqua board, speaker included. In less than two hours, each workshop participant had a personal Sonaqua to take home, expand and modify to play customized soundscapes.
“Dinasynth Quartet” presented by Seamus at Dinacon:
Among a number of nightly presentations, zoologist and comparative oncologist Valerie Harris explained the evolution of cancer in various animals; game developer Marc Huet demonstrated his digital simulation of a natural ecosystem polluted by plastic waste, based on the algorithmic flocking model of Boids.
But not all was hard science and technology. At Dinacon, in an increasingly relaxed and complicit atmosphere, people deconstructed coconuts, foraged for food (which led to a collaborative map), tasted ants and documented the ongoing Dinnercon, while others upcycled plastics washed up from the ocean.
Weaver ant cuisine by Dinacon:
Kitty Quitmeyer knits and crochets with her own “plarn” (plastic yarn) crafted from shredded plastic bags. Thai eco-artist Prasopsuk Leadviriyapiti (alias Pom) makes sculptures and practical items entirely from recycled plastic and other waste. Just as creative in the kitchen as in the studio, after decorating the villa entrance with a giant translucent jellyfish, Pom concluded her sojourn at Dinacon with an eco-art performance on the beach.
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Pom is one of the coolest people I had met on this trip. She is an eco artist, forager, and a multitude of amazingness. I want to meet more people on the same wavelength!!! This photo was taken after her performance that I live streamed on Insta. She made her entire performance set with garbage she found on the beach including her costume and played a turtle of the sea looking for nourishment.
A post shared by 🏵️ananda🏵️ (@deep_forest_witch) on
All these “Dinasaurs”, as well as all those who came before and after them, engaged with the island and contributed their energy, creativity and knowledge to grow this anti-conference into a superorganism. And each one of us has left enriched. The tribe is now dispersed. But Dinacon will no doubt be resurrected for a second edition, in another time-space, with old and new members.
Big day of cleaning up and final packing and one more big achievement on the banana leaf achievement board: throw an awesome 2 month conference!!!!
Yay we made it!!
— Digital Naturalism @firstname.lastname@example.org (@HikingHack) July 15, 2018
Digital Naturalism Conference website