Sleeping with Bees

Gerbrand van Melle
Designer, researcher and lecturer at AUT School of Art and Design. Leader of MESH Media since 2010.

The incorporation of living organisms is key. The research investigates both artificial and natural methods of object creation. The act of designing and manufacturing occurs in, and in collaboration with a natural living system.

At the centre of the inquiry is a colony of domesticated bees and the manner in which design practice might operate as an enhancer of material, digital and methodological potential. The aim of the design is to obtain a better understanding of systems in which the outcome is unpredictable and individual. Here the makers and users are considered present observers who analyse the act of design as a circular, interdependent investigation into a continuously changing environment. Accordingly, the investigation goes beyond imitation to integration, dissolving boundaries and synthesising new hybrid typologies.

Design as a recalculation of a natural living system includes the material sources, the makers as well as the users. All are considered to be part of one living environment. They grow the value generation from the outset of the design process and continue to define design outcomes until the object can become part of nature again. Humans are part of a natural living system and so is the act of designing. The exhibited design work revisits a cycle of non-industrial growing and consumption, where the commodity beeswax is employed to create objects.

Audio recordings from inside a beehive were translated into 3D shapes. Based on geometric hexagonal tessellation a digital honeycomb cell moved in rotational symmetry triggered by the frequency of the bee wings movement at 190 Hz. These shapes were 3D printed in the beehive’s natural material beeswax. The artefacts were placed back into the hive—the source of the sound and the beeswax—to allow the living organism to respond and create the final objects for exhibition.

Through parallel iterations of sound recordings, sound spectrum analysis, generative model making, additive manufacturing methods and biological growing processes, temporarily representations of the living world will surface. This investigation aims to disclose circularity in creation that is based on natural geometric growing processes and the inclusion of its natural environment.

In this open framework, design iterations allow for a multilayered generation of experiments. The design is generated out of a response, not to one, stable question or the pursuit of an anchored truth, but to a set of continually changing ideas and outcomes.

Here dynamically controlled cyclic processes of generation and regeneration turned into a playful recalculation of audio, visual and tangible existence, shifting from digital to physical existence and vice versa. Such an environment might be called autopoietic. It requires a holistic understanding of its elements. Autopoietic combines auto – meaning self – and poiesis – meaning creation or production. The term denotes a system capable of reproducing and simultaneously maintaining itself. The three principles of such a living system are autonomy, circularity and self-reference.

The impression that living systems are open to an environment results from attempts of outside observers to make sense of their observations. The aim of autopoietic systems is to maintain their own identity and organisation. A system cannot enter into interactions that are not specified in the pattern of relations that define its organisation. In this sense, the system’s environment is a part of itself.

The theory of autopoiesis admits that systems can be identified as having environments, but insists that relations with any environment are internally determined. Systems can evolve only along with self-generated paths. Changes in the environment are seen as input stimuli, to which the system must respond in defined manners. The software that was generated for this research followed this principle, where deterministic parameters of spectrum, amplitude and duration allowed for a probabilistic audio stream to give rise to a materialised version of the immaterial. The same software was used for both the generation of artefacts and the projected visualisation at the exhibition.

Rather than suggesting that such a system merely adapts to an environment or that the environment selects the system configuration that survives, autopoiesis places principal emphasis on the way the total system of interactions shapes its future and evolves. The theory of autopoiesis encourages us to understand the transformation of living systems as the result of internally generated change.

The design is more than a task completion, it is a framework for creative and analytical exploration and discovery. Its multifaceted character altered its shape, role and meaning throughout the process of its development.

Facilitating this to enable unexpected out comes to emerge as well as governing the progress of the work has shifted my attention. The inquiry is no longer predicated on an aesthetic solution. Instead it is concerned with a way of thinking that encouraged reflective questioning and discovery.

Circular interdependency will be further explored through research into
fabrication methods that are based on content and background to create more applied design work for usable objects. Here local living systems are key. Future design outcomes will be directed by an ornamental approach. Continuation and circularity will inform digital and craft based design processes. The aim is to treat the act of designing like a recalculation of a natural living system.

As part of the cyclic interdependency that permeates the inquiry, software and hardware development has occurred through open source workflow and the digital files of Sleeping with Bees will be publicly available now online, accessible via Github and Thingiverse.

The main aim of investigation one has been to synthesise sound and visual components into meaningful material shapes. In combining digital fabrication tools with experimental additive manufacturing, this research has explored circularity to inform design methods and direct interconnected design outcomes.

The aim is to work in nature, and to work with nature, and by paying close attention and learning from natural living systems hopefully we can also make as nature.