Photosynthesis, electric motor symbiotic machine

Ivan Henriques, Symbiotic Machine, 2003

We have been designing our world for centuries. Humans try to control nature – treating it as an enemy –but I believe it is time to shift our technological development paradigm towards nature. Nature, in my experience, has always been a synonym for pleasure and a source of inspiration for the creation of my artworks. In my research I aim to find a balance between nature and technology – and I believe nature is a very important factor for the development of our technological world. In the last five years I have started to create a range of works, which have a conceptual base[1] in the reinvention of the environment[2]and use of natural resources as hybrids of living organisms and machines. Placed in the world, these techno-scientific mutations reshape and redefine our understanding of nature, by achieving a coherent synthesis.[2]

The project Symbiotic Machine (SM) is a continuation of the project Jurema Action Plant (JAP, 2011–12). JAP was developed during a summer residency at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam, with scientist Bert van Duijn, whose research expertise is in plant electrophysiology and biodynamics. Much like humans, animals and machines, plants have an electrical signal travelling inside them, but they do not have nerves like humans and animals or wires and cables like machines. Machines operate with high voltage and stable current; plants, humans and animals operate with low voltage and unstable current. Would it be possible to adapt electromechanical systems from machines to operate with such a low energy source, derived from biological systems? Would it be possible for a plant to power a machine? In JAP we were reading electrical signals of the plant Mimosa Pudica. The result of this collaboration is a hybrid robot – the machine interfaces the plant – enabling it to enjoy technologies similar to the ones humans use. When someone touches the leaf of the plant, electrical signals are exchanged enabling the machine to drive. This project also proposes new ways of communicating and establishing relationships between machines, humans and other living organisms.

Ivan Henriques Prototype for a New Bio Machine 2012, with plant species Homalomena.
Ivan Henriques Prototype for a New Bio Machine 2012, with plant species Homalomena.

In mid 2012 I created another work titled Prototype for a New Bio Machine (PNBM) – exhibited at Ars Electronica Museum in Linz, Austria. This artwork is an upgrade from JAP, demonstrating that not only the Mimosa Pudica but also other plants have this special skill of conducting electrical signals; in the case of PNBM, the plant is from the specimen Homalomena. In order to create these artworks, the prototype (mutation) is fundamental. As Darwin's theory of evolution in his book The Origin of Species indicates, in order for an evolution of any specimen to happen, mutation is necessary.[3] We are in constant mutation in relation to our design as well. These bio-machines are part of the same family tree, mutating to evolve in order to adapt in the world.

The motivation to create the Symbiotic Machine is to evolve JAP, PNBM and to create a new entity as a hybrid autonomous system – a perpetuum mobile. When machines are brought into dialogue with living organisms, especially in the artistic context, they operate in a very complex system with many layers, composing a single being, which redirects the evolutionary vector of machines, and even nature, into a new direction. SM was developed with scientists Raoul Frese and Vincent Friebe from the VU Amsterdam Laser Lab, physician Michiel van Overbeek and Leyder van Xavier, professor of mechanical engineering from the Technological University from Rio de Janeiro (CEFET/RJ), Brazil.

SM is the creation of a prototype for an autonomous system that can achieve the basic necessity of life: to find its own food to have energy to search for food again. This bio-machine hacks the electrons provided by the photosynthetic process that occurs in the algae Spirogyra. This particular algae is abundant in the Dutch landscape – mainly found in ponds and canals – a filamentous organism that releases oxygen during the photosynthetic process, in turn creating bubbles which make this filamentous mesh of algae float. In order to “hack” the algae Spirogyra, photosynthesise and apply it as an energy source, the algae cell’s membrane has to be broken. The SM prototype was designed within the disciplines of engineering, biotechnology, art and design to accomplish photosynthesis as a continuation of the life cycle, like a plant.[4]

Sealed within a transparent cylinder, the SM includes a motor, an endless worm and a pepper grinder aligned and connected by one single axis to form the mouth/anus, like a jellyfish. This cylinder has a liquid inlet/outlet (for water and algae Spirogyra) placed at the end part of the endless worm. The endless worm has an important function to pump liquid in and out to give the machine some propulsion. Once the motor is activated the endless worm can turn to the right or to the left. If it turns to the right it sucks liquid in. If it turns to the left it pushes liquid out. The machine is programmed to pump algae and water in and out based on the information transmitted by the sensors. The pepper grinder that is connected at the end of the endless worm can grind the algae breaking the membrane cell, releasing micro particles. To the naked eye, these micro particles look like a green juice which is flushed inside the machine (the stomach).

Ivan Henriques Digestive system mechanism for Symbiotic Machine 2003.
Ivan Henriques Digestive system mechanism for Symbiotic Machine 2003. 

A tube that comes from the end of the mouth with the ground algae goes though the stomach inside the ellipsoid of revolution. This tube is fastened on a two-way valve placed in the centre of the spherical shape. Inside the ellipsoid of revolution there is another bowl, just one centimeter smaller aligned in the centre. Placing this bowl inside, it creates two chambers: (1) the space between the outer skin and the bowl and (2) inside the smaller bowl. In chamber 1 the photocells are placed in parallel and in series. The photocell is composed of a plate covered with gold, and a space in the middle covered with a copper mesh. This set-up allows the “green juice” to rest between the gold and copper. After the light is shed on the electrons of the ground-up algae they flow to the most conductive metal, as in a lemon battery. As all the photocells are connected, with help from the electronic chip LTC 3108 Energy Harvester it is possible to store these millivoltages in two AA rechargeable batteries. The electricity provided by this synthetic photosynthetic process is used to power the LEDs placed in the sensors.

The two-way valve mentioned above is connected as: valve 1 hooked up with chamber 1 and valve 2 with chamber 2. When the stomach works, information is sent to the machine that the valve 1 has to be opened. The algae flow to this chamber and the machine uses a light sensor to promote movement towards the area where there is more luminescence to make photosynthesis. It rests for ten minutes. After the ten-minute sunbathe the machine has to clean its stomach – and the photocells – to be able to eat again. Water is sucked in with the mouth, and via the same valve from the algae, it pumps more water inside chamber 1 in order to have an overflow of this liquid in chamber 2. The liquid, which is now in chamber 2 is flushed out by the motor turning the endless worm and valve 2 is opened. Fixed on the edge of the structure opposite the mouth, an underwater pump connected by a vertical axis with a servo powers the movement of the structure making it possible to steer front, right and left.

Detail: Ivan Henriques Symbiotic Machine 2003.
Ivan Henriques, Symbiotic Machine, 2003

For the exhibition of Symbiotic Machine in the Het Glazen Huis (The Glass House) in Amstelpark, Amsterdam, a pool was created, filled with 17, 000 litres of pond water and plenty of algae from the genus Spirogyra. The pool, inside the 150 m2 gallery with glass walls, absorbed all the images from the surrounding landscape – trees, bushes and people walking – merging this artificial construction with the parkland setting. Accompanying the installation was an exhibition of drawings, graphics, unused parts of the machine and a shelf with materials used for workshops during the exhibition. Close to the main entrance, another video with a zoom lens showed the machine processing the algae and making photosynthesis. It was interesting to observe the audience, as this park in Amsterdam is also home to an unusual range of birds and animals, including an albino kangaroo that roams freely through the park. So, in a way, Symbiotic Machine was just another creature being exhibited.


  1. ^ These concepts were discussed in Oritur,
  2. a, b "Henceforth it is the ways of living on this planet that are in question, in the context of the acceleration of techno-scientific mutations and of considerable demographic growth. Through the continuous development of machine labor, multiplied by the information revolution, productive forces can make available an increasing amount of time for potential human activity. But to what end? Unemployment, oppressive marginalization, loneliness, boredom, anxiety and neurosis? Or culture, creation, development, the reinvention of the environment and the enrichment of modes of life and sensibility?" Felix Guattari (trans. Ian Pinder and Paul Sutton), Three Ecologies, The Athlone Press, New Jersey, 2000, p. 28.
  3. ^ “Thus a distinguished German naturalist has asserted that the weakest part of my theory is, that I consider all organic beings as imperfect: what I have really said is, that all are not as perfect as they might have been in relation to their conditions; and this is shown to be the case by so many native forms in many quarters of the world having yielded their places to intruding foreigners. Nor can organic beings, even if they were at any one time perfectly adapted to their conditions of life, have remained so, when their conditions changed, unless they themselves likewise changed; and no one will dispute that the physical conditions of each country, as well as the number and kinds of its inhabitants, have undergone many mutations.” Charles Darwin, The Origin Of Species (6th edn)., p. 198.
  4. ^ The machine was programed to activate independent mechanical parts of the stomach, based on an idealised life cycle: it has to eat, move, sunbathe, rest, search for food and wash itself in a loop.

Ivan Henriques is a trans-disciplinary artist and researcher who creates multimedia installations examining different perceptions of time, memory and the environment. He explores hybrids of nature and (technological) culture creating new forms of communication between humans and other living organisms.

The project Symbiotic Machine was financed by Stichting Doen. It was exhibited at Het Glazen Huis (The Glass House) in Amstelpark, Amsterdam (9 March – 27 April 2014), on the invitation of Zone2Source. Symbiotic Machine was featured on the Discovery Channel in Canada, received an Honorary Mention in the Prix Ars Electronica 2014 in the category Vostelpine (the next idea), and was presented at The Waag Society and Biotalk at Mediamatic in Amsterdam on 12 June 2014.