The exhibition context

An exhibition was staged to gain insights into which thoughts and effects the Homo Viridis installation can initiate. The installation was set up in a corner of Intermedia Lab, a large open space with floor-to-ceiling window sections, at The IT University of Copenhagen. In one of the room’s corners, curtains in a dark color hung from the ceiling and covered the walls and nearby window section. By using a large open area, we hoped to encourage participants to move around freely in the installation space. The exhibition was staged as part of the epistemic practice and research inquiry, yet, is important to note that it was part of an artistic experiment and should not be equated with a controlled experiment in a laboratory setting (Borgdorff 2011: 52). We do not see the chosen setting as a neutral space but as one of several variables that have an impact on the participants’ reception of Homo Viridis


Because we wanted to gauge people's immediate impressions and responses to the piece, no prior information was given to the visitors about how to contextualize the work nor the workings of the technical system. However, participants were informed beforehand that any action was allowed in the installation space, except forceful or violent behavior towards fellow participants, the sleeve, or the plant in any way, such as puncturing the inflated silicone skin or ripping the plant’s leaves or tearing its stems. These limitations were articulated so as to ensure the well-being of all participants in the situation and aligns with the project’s understanding of the posthuman as entailing an enactment of an affirmative ethics (Braidotti 2019). Affirmative ethics reject anthropocentric hierarchies and acknowledge how humans depend on larger assemblages and must develop respectful, non-hierarchical ways of interacting to promote social horizons of hope. This practice of ethical care emerges from the constitutive, affective ability to interrelate with human and non-human actors and affect or be affected (Braidotti 2019). 


Participants and post-exhibition interviews

Fifteen people visited the Homo Viridis installation space. The participants were invited by us to come to the space in succession, and the installation space was introduced to them as an interactive artwork. By framing our work as an artistic endeavor, we hoped that the people would focus less on function and practical applications and more on its potential as a trigger of emotions and thoughts. Initially, the rules within the space, explained above, were presented to the visitors, and afterwards we assisted them in mounting the soft robotic sleeve onto their arm to prevent any potential damage to the sleeve or discomfort on the wearer’s arm due to fastening the sleeve too tightly. The participants were then encouraged to walk around and explore the open space, and if a participant was hesitant to engage with the setup, we would try to instigate interaction by asking questions such as “what do think will happen if you touch the plant’s leaves?” or “do you feel anything changing when you are walking away from the plant?”.


During exhibition, we stayed within close proximity to the installation space in order to observe the visitors’ interactions and behaviors within the frame of the work. We invited ten people to reflect on their experience after their visit to the exhibition space. An unstructured interview protocol was used in order to allow for unexpected perspectives on the project to emerge (Blomberg, Burrell & Guest 2002: 970). It consisted of three different phases in which the questions in each phase aimed to facilitate more in-depth explanations of the participant's perspective.


In the first phase, the interviewees were asked to describe what they had experienced in the installation space and to put in their own words which thoughts went through their heads as they were present in the installation space. Based on the answers elicited, the questions in the second phase would initially relate to either the soft robotic sleeve or the plant. If an interviewee had mostly focused on expressing their thoughts in relation to the soft robot in the first phase of the interview they were asked to elaborate further on this, for instance through questions such as “what were your initial thoughts, when you saw the soft robot?”, “describe how it felt to wear the soft robotic sleeve” or “how did you understand the different movements of the soft robot?”. Similarly, had the interviewee focused on the plant, they were asked questions relating to this: “why do you think that a plant is placed in the space?” or “did you think differently of the plant after being in the space for a while?”. After going into detail with either the soft robot or the plant, the interviewee would then be asked to address the other of the two. During the third phase, the interviewees were asked to explain their general understanding of the installation space as a whole, whether they had a feeling that the different elements in the installation space were related in any way and what they thought that their own role was as participants. In the end of the interview, the interviewees were explained how the setup works technically and were able to ask questions in relation to our work.


Visitor behaviors and experiences

Visitors that wore the sleeve were frequently intrigued by the haptic responses occurring as they approached and touched the plant. Participants touched the plant, so as to physically explore it, but also the surface of the soft robotic sleeve was touched by a majority of the participants, as the silicone bubbles expanded and the robot grasped their underarms. Some interviewees experienced the physical exchange with the soft robot and the plant as facilitating a more empathic relation between the different entities involved. To these participants, the feeling of vicariously (yet physically) inhabiting the plant-robot system’s augmented mode of sensing also gave rise to a heightened awareness of their own situated, embodied, and limited ways of experiencing the world. For example, an interviewee expressed how she believed that “the plant sensed the installation space” differently from what she had imagined. This was expressed by a different participant as a symbiosis: “when I touch the plant it touches me back - we connect and communicate”. Another participant compared the plant to a sensitive antenna, and explained how he was impressed by the fact that plants, in his understanding, intercept much more than what meets the eye. Although it was explained to the participants, including this interviewee, at the end of the interview that capacitive sensing does not truly provide the signal of the plant sensing as e.g. interception of the action potential would (as explained in the section 'Homo Viridis'), his point suggests that the intended, mediated relation between plant and human sensing was understandable. Some interviewees indeed came to wonder how different species cognize the world differently from humans. 


In general, most participants seemed fairly cautious in the first few minutes of being in the installation space and explored the area slowly by walking around the plant and looking at the soft robotic sleeve at the same time. The majority of the participants eventually began studying the relation between the soft robot and the plant and how they could alter the robot’s state by movement and touch. A few participants were encouraged to try and use not only their vision but also their sense of touch when exploring the installation space. One of the more cautious participants found the interaction in the installation space rather arbitrary and pointed out her difficulty in understanding what the relation was between the robot, the plant and herself. Another participant explained how it took him a while to grasp how he was able to affect the space by touching the plant because he did not want to break anything in the setup by touching it. These observations suggest that clearer instructions and a more deliberate framing might have afforded participants a better experience of the installation's potentials. 


In relation to the soft robotic sleeve, some participants had an impression of the physical connection with the robot as welcoming, due to its soft touch. But the prototype would also occasionally lightly pinch people, which made it appear uncontrollable or even hostile to some interactants, a facet some also remarked was enhanced by its visual appearance. One interviewee explained that he was fascinated by how the tactile and visual properties of the silicone made it appear as if it was a form of actual skin. Another participant noticed that after wearing the sleeve for a while, it would get warmer as it absorbed heat from her underarm. As she expressed it, this further augmented her understanding of the wearable as something organic and living. Other interviewees expressed the feeling of wearing the sleeve as less positive, comparing the sensation to wearing a “(...) a sport band that is fastened a bit too tightly” or a cast made of plaster on the arm. The majority of the participants also remarked that the layer of felt and Velcro seemed distancing, in terms of feeling that the robot was an integrated part of one's arm. However, one interviewee explained how the “uncontrollable” soft robot helped her feel her own senses and improved her somatic awareness. Another interviewee stated that the uncertainty as to where the bubbles would appear again created an impression of an uncontrollable and living creature on the skin. Similarly, a third interviewee expressed that “(...) it did not feel as if I was wearing something technological but instead something with an actual pulse”.  


The experiences accumulated during the exhibition of Homo Viridis lends credence to Verbeek’s (2007) argument that technology can offer new perceptions that would not have otherwise been possible. Incorporating soft robotics technology on the skin does not actually apply any new senses to the body. Yet seeing how some participants formed a more empathic connection to the plant, the situation established with the wearable could arguably be seen as an example of interlacing (Kofoed Hansen & Wamberg 2007: 83). A user and an interface are interlaced when they become inseparably woven together, and complex interactions are generated between machines, media, bodies, and consciousness (Kofoed Hansen & Wamberg 2007: 103). As some visitors of the exhibition explained, the wearable intertwined their own bodies and senses with signals intercepted by the plant and effectively overwrote a small part of their own physiology.

Limitations and further work

Although the observations and interviews suggest that Homo Viridis at this point has certain qualities that can evoke timely reflections on human-nonhuman relationships, the exhibition also highlighted some limitations of the piece that could be improved in a subsequent iteration. Conceptually, the piece would be strengthened by integrating hardware that can detect actual signals of the plants, instead of capacitive sensing. Moreover, the code to generate the movements of the sleeve might be altered to add more variation and automatic generation of new movements instead of using preprogrammed sequences. By adding spatial sensors to the installation, the sleeve’s movements could be made to relate to where the wearer is positioned in the space more precisely, which might make for less repetitive movements and provide an impression of the soft robot as more autonomous. 

The observation that participants wearing the sleeve in the installation space and found it difficult to move freely about also made it clear that the current prototype where the hardware is placed underneath the plant might be changed to a more portable untethered version. This would also make it possible to make new version of the work, where several plants were included, each with different senses and relational behaviors. Furthermore, new soft robotic designs and ways of mounting the soft robot on the skin (as described here), that afford a more intimate relation between wearer and robot, could be explored.


Posthuman entity - a contradictory term?

Throughout this exposition, the word ‘entity’ has been coupled with the concept of the posthuman to question whether assembling plants with humans through soft robotics can lead to progressive visions of a ‘posthuman entity’. Entity derives from ‘being’ or ‘existence’ and describes anything that “(...) has a clear identity of its own” or has an “(...) individual existence outside or within the mind; anything real in itself” (Collins Dictionary, n.d.). It defines something that has an “(...) independent, separate, or self-contained existence” or an “(...) objective or conceptual reality” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). In that sense, the word can be used both to describe subjects or to describe a unit encompassing subjects such as a country. An entity can be something concrete or abstract, physical or intangible, existing or made up.


Because an entity has an independent existence and “a clear identity of its own”, it might seem contradictory to couple the term with the posthuman. Particularly because, as explained under 'Research Context', the notion of the posthuman entails a blurring of the lines that, since modernity, have been used to separate humans, animals, and machines. The term propels a view of the human, not as an autonomous, transparently self-aware, and self-governing agent, but as a being endowed with a networked or tessellated subjectivity. Posthumans are not self-determined subjects but instead embedded beings affecting and affected by both animate and inanimate actors. It is therefore not the description of entity as an individual, self-contained element that binds it to the posthuman in our understanding of a posthuman entity. Indeed, the outcomes of the practice suggest that coupling plants and humans together through soft robotics does not lead to a vision of something that has a clear identity of its own but more to a coming together of ecological beings, each with distinct Umwelts, who reciprocally sense and affect each other.


On the one hand, Homo Viridis presents a posthuman entity as something sensual and physical by grafting soft robotics onto the human skin. Homo Viridis could be taken as an argument that a posthuman entity can be actualized as a physical composite of both organic and artificial actors. In this case, soft robotics technology attains the role of a connector and mediator of sensing from one organism to another. The impressions from the interviews point towards the idea that the physical connection thus established might be generative of more empathic interspecies relations. This relates to Walter Benjamin’s (1986: 59) idea that technology could establish a new physis or collective body through which mankind can be in contact with ‘the cosmos’ in new ways.


On the other hand, as the word entity encompasses something which might only have an abstract or intangible existence, the impressions gained from the process equally suggest that a posthuman entity is also established through the thoughts, discussions, and speculations that Homo Viridis initiates. This relates to Braidotti’s (2018: 2, 13) idea of the posthuman as a form of conceptual persona that can act as a navigation tool to illuminate both discursive and material power formations while showing “(...) what we are ceasing to be and what we are in the process of becoming” (Braidotti 2018: 22-23). Through the project, the posthuman entity emerges from conceptual reality as a potential being that can guide discussions and alter what a subject can become. For instance, the installation sparked discussions among visitors about how humans depend on the precarious existences of other species in order to maintain a Western standard of living.


In that sense, although posthuman entity is used here in the singular, we suggest that a posthuman entity is not an individual subject but a composite unit of two or more actors that become interlaced. Posthuman and entity are not opposing concepts, and may combine to generate visions of how organisms and elements can intertwine, and reciprocally affect each other, to co-constitute what is or will be.