Symposium from Kiers Alec McFarlane on Vimeo.



This project has been a fascinating journey over an extensive range of topics. From its inception it has explored the area between three key questions.

Firstly – how continuous processes of change are accepted and understood (or not) by cultural artefacts; Secondly – to what extent can an inanimate machine appear alive? And thirdly – why do technology and nature have such a confrontational relationship, and why is this not challenged?

Very early in the project’s development I wrote a short manifesto – a ‘mini-festo’ which helped to steer, and constrain my ideas and solutions. In short it stipulates that using non-toxic materials is a priority, and that the focal point of the final artefact should be the living parts, and not the artificial, mechanical parts.

While this complicated things, when it came to inventing a pliable material that could be moulded by a machine, it has resulted in a solution that I think is satisfying on many more levels than a solution involving toxic materials would have been.

The project proposals show a clearly evolving idea. Initially the goal was influenced strongly by 3D printing technologies, then interactive entertainment – (while I was considering interacting with an audience through a type of physical game), before finally settling on the expressive output of an autonomous feeling artefact.


The first idea was called ‘Termite Road’, and is essentially a mobile robot that extrudes a mixture of cement and mud to create undulating forms the represent peaks and troughs in data that it has access too.

The second idea was called ‘Garden Grid’, and also involves a mobile robot but instead of layering substrate, it lays mud cubes that are filled with seeds and insect eggs. The living content of these cubes represents a slightly mysterious scoring system connected to a game that is being played by the machine with the audience.

The third idea abandons the mobile robot altogether. Firstly it imagines a production line process that makes earth cubes, but soon the shape of the device evolves into a tower who’s height increases over time. Coloured mud is pumped from the base to the top of the tower. The colour and seed con tent of the mud represents the moods of the hidden machine as it filters data – first data it receives from local sensors, and later data that it finds online using its wifi antenna. This incarnation is called ‘Earth Antenna’, and it is the artefact that I intend to show at the end of the course.

Over the course of the masters there have been several moments when the concept underpinning the project grew or consolidated profoundly – and often this was the result of finding key work from other practitioners.

Early on, a strange device by Kelly Dobson called the ‘Omo’, helped me to understand the range of psychological games that a smart device can play with its human environment. Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Strangler Cairn’ (which features heavily in my Research Paper) was a fantastic discovery that gave validity to my idea of art using life to bring unpredictable change to a manmade artefact. And Tony Cragg’s two bodies of work: ‘Rational Beings’, and ‘Minster’ helped me enormously when I came to considering the project in purely aesthetic terms.

The final outcome of this work and enquiry is a wooden machine that builds a tower of mud around itself with its telescopic arm – while it listens and reacts to various data sources. Initially the data is provided by sensors in its immediate environment, but its intention is to reach into the internet where it will be able to access various IoT data depositories. The telescopic arm carries mud from the base up to the top of the tower where it is deposited, and it also carries the antenna cable along the height of the tower. Therefore the taller the tower the better the receptivity of the device and ultimately the more online data it can access.

There are several tensions within the work. It is a machine made from wood, mud, and growing plants. It has a cold, programmed, logical intelligence and why fie connectivity, but it relies on a damp, fragile, and smelly structure to assist and express itself. It is a manmade artefact which has been designed and built for an apparent purpose, but within itself are seeds which have an unpredictable (potentially calamitous) effect on the structure which ultimately brings this reliability of purpose into doubt and question.


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