I was invited to join the “Thinking with Moss” colloquium about moss held at NYU. After our day of gathering together and discussing the role of moss in the world, we were asked to freely contemplate the discussions and produce something.
It is wonderful to be given such an opportunity.
One thing I was most excited about at the colloquium is that I got to talk about my favorite moss (it grows on big leaves and which gives a delightful smell when you brush against it in the forest) and someone knew what I was talking about! They told me is wasn’t a moss but a kind of liverwort likely a type of Leptolejeunea [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leptolejeunea] or something in the larger Lejeuneaceae family.
It’s one of my favorite smells in the forest. The intoxicating, licorice-like aroma has captivated me for years and led me to think more deeply about ways I want to be engage with this plant. It led me to the formation of two different projects:
The Jungle Smallification Device
“Moss Breath” was the first project I started working on following the “Thinking with Moss”Colloquium. I thought about how much I enjoy the action of breathing in the tiny moss chemicals in the forest, and ways that, perhaps, my breathe could interact with these mosses as well.
This inspired this writing:
“I like to think that plants play an active role in our lives. That they excrete chemical to change our behavior. I like to think about them parasitizing us, in a friendly way, to help themselves grow. Rewarding us with smells and chemicals that make us feel bonded to the forest.
There is a moss (likely actually a liverwort) in the rainforest that grows on the surfaces of big flat leaves. It already steals the sunshine from the other plants around, but when you brush against it, it releases an intoxicating aroma that gives me and other humans pause. Taking a deep breath brings a calmness, and I feel a bond with the rest of the plants around me. Maybe it is wishful thinking, or an escapist fantasy of somehow getting to leave the human world and getting to glimpse into the plant world, but i always imagine these delightful chemicals entering my body and allowing these photosynthetic friends to take over.
For each breath I take of the forest, i grew a desire to breathe back into it.”
I started working on prototypes that could let me complete this interactive cycle between me and the moss. I have been studying bubbles (and even crafted a whole “Bubblepunk” zine about bubble hacking: https://www.dinalab.net/2023/04/10/bubblepunk/). In my research, I found a group of scientists who have been using bubble machines to artificially pollinate flowers. They mix pollen and bubble fluid and fly drones with bubble machines over the crops to disperse the pollen onto the waiting plants’ pistils.
My thought was to use this technique to propagate my favorite moss (or liverwort). I can collect the moss and blend with bubble fluid. I then load this mossy mix into a custom, face-mounted bubble machine. It has an arduino which monitors my breathing and creates mossy bubbles each time I breathe out.
The bubbles land on the surfaces I pass, depositing the moss particles as the bubble pop. The moss spreads with each breath I take.
My goal with this project was to feel infected with the moss. I want to be contagious with green life that I spread about via my own bodily processes.
I have build the initial prototypes for the breathe monitor and the bubble actuator, but want more time to make a beautiful design and craft a video of this concept.
Jungle Smallification Device
Working on the “Moss Breath” project inspired a spin-off project, the “Jungle Smallification Device.” It is a piece of guerilla artwork situated in the rain forest. It grew from the sentiment I had with the Moss Breath project.
I wanted something that would make people feel less in control and, in fact, overpowered by the immense green world surrounding them. At the same time, I thought it would be funny to contrast this message with the inherent narcissism of a mirror. So the idea would be to set up a sort of “ego-dissolving selfie-station” along a rainforest trail.
I found a large fisheye-mirror (the kind normally used along roads with blind corners to help cars navigate). The point of this mirror is that it shrinks and situates you inside a much larger field of view.
I fixed a old broken vinyl cutter machine to cut out text which would curve along the periphery of the mirror. The text says:
“ERES UNA PEQUEÑA PARTE DE UN MUNDO INMENSO” (“YOU ARE A SMALL PART OF AN IMMENSE WORLD” )
I then salvaged some old bits of metal and created a custom holster for this large mirror.
Finally, I got a biologist friend to haul the parts out with me to a nearby patch of jungle. There is a lovely Ceiba (Kapok) tree along a trail i know whose gorgeous roots form a small enclave. This functioned well to frame the big silvery eyeball of this artwork.
We hammered in the metal shaft and cut it to position the mirror at a human visitor level. Finally it was secured it with several metal straps.
The piece stands shimmering apart from the surrounding rain-forest.
It catches your eye as you pass through the forest, draws you near, and then asks you to change your perspective and situate yourself as just a small part of your surroundings.
Mirrors are also interesting from a behavioral point of view (for animals or people), and so i set up a camera trap to see how local creatures interact with this new, strange object. I positioned the camera to not be too noticeable, and also hopefully just catch people’s reactions from the back without seeing their faces.
Results: Installation 1
The results of this first installation came out terrifically!
Unfortunately didn’t catch any animal visitors, but the humans gave great reactions.
Ill post a more detailed description of what happened, but basically after a week of dozens of tourists walking by and taking endless selfies, the nearby hotel sent some guys to literally attack and tear down the art installation (note: this is a public area, not the hotel’s property).
I am really enjoying seeing people’s reaction to this work and the little meditative pause / narcissistic impulse it gives to people passing through this beautiful place. Also really enjoyed seeing the point where this simple, basic kind of piece even drives folks to violently attacking it. I guess the hotel doesn’t want people to think they are a small part of an immense world.