own. What exhausts the dinoflagellates
too quickly? What is visually
intriguing? What works best under
uncertain lighting conditions?
To understand this sensorial
approach, I turned to a notion of
technical sensation indebted to Gilbert
Simondon’s philosophy of technology.
Simondon provides a concept of
designing with the sensorial, which
he calls technoaesthetic. This approach
considers both the sensations derived
from technical objects and the sensorial
experience of making, whether it is
making artwork, interactive designs, or
a new machine, or working with tools in
general. Technical objects may reveal
new sensorial experiences, transducing
phenomena of the world that lies
outside of our sensorial register into
something that is sensible.
My interlocutors are living
organisms that require certain forms
of care; they need consistent light,
temperature regulation, minerals, and
micronutrients to be able to respond
with vibrant bioluminescence. They
also need the right kind of interaction,
as I learned from my first prototype.
Thus, my time prodding and poking the
dinoflagellates to see how they respond
was the very first technoaesthetic step.
The next step was to figure out how to
put them into relation with a technical
system. In Simondon’s proposal of
technical aesthesis, or sensation,
he claims that technology allows us
to experience phenomena that we
otherwise could not. I do not read this as
some sort of simple prosthesis for human
bodies, but instead as humans being
imbricated within a broader network
connecting society to the natural
world via technical structures. His
sensorial approach engages with natural
processes and amplifies these processes
through technical arrangements;
the amplification—the new form of
sensation or context—emerges through
the sensorial experience of making.
To create a sensorially rich
experience, one must experience
sensorially along the way. The sensorial
experience is not just the end goal of
the artwork, but it is also part of the
process of making work. It involves
an ongoing, reticular relationship
between the designer and, in this case,
The development of my
bioluminescent sculptures was by
no means linear. The hands-on
approach in the studio, for me at
least, was a messy back-and-forth
process of working with code, motors,
wires, vessels of seawater, and so on.
Prodding a bag of algae moves to a
similar setup with vibration motors,
servos, and solenoids to see which
works best. Simondon’s writing about
the technoaesthetic resonates with my
own experiences in developing different
sculptures through multiple modalities.
The development process was led by the
senses, heading toward an amplification
of the dinoflagellate experience into a
meaningful human experience.
The aesthetic experience is a way of
knowing. It is a mode of understanding
material components at hand and their
affordances. As Simondon writes, “It’s
about a certain contact with matter that
is being transformed through work”
[ 2]. Exploring wires, breadboards,
and circuits sensorially is to learn
about stress points, rigidity, and the
suppleness of the components at hand,
much like the process of learning
about bioluminescence described
above. This sensorial activity is a form
of communication between artist,
or technologist, and the thing being
worked, mediated by the tool. It is also
intuitive: “It’s a type of intuition that’s
perceptive-motoric and sensorial” [ 2].
Our contemporary moment is filled
with sensor-laden technology, one that
calls for its own sensorial method.
Simondon claims that within each
technology “there exists a margin of
liberty that enables it to be used for ends
that were not foreseen” [ 2]. Designing
with the sensorial is a messy, open-
ended investigation of the margins.
1. Maldonado, E.M., and Latz, M.I. Shear-stress dependence of dinoflagellate
bioluminescence. The Biological Bulletin
212, 3, (June 2007), 242–49.
2. Simondon, G. On techno-aesthetics.
Parhesia 14 (2012), 1–8.
Tyler Fox is a lecturer in human-centered
design and engineering at the University of
Washington. He received his Ph.D. from the
School of Interactive Arts and Technology at
Simon Fraser University, and his M.F. A. in
intermedia from the Elam School of Fine Arts
at the University of Auckland.
DOI: 10.1145/3229344 COP YRIGHT HELD BY AUTHOR. PUBLICATION RIGH TS LICENSED TO ACM. $15.00
The three stations that make up Biolesce 0.5.