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Symbiont 2002
click here for the 2001 version
click here for documentation describing the 2002 version

Camera: Noah Bartlett

Description of the 2001 version.
Text by Hannah Henry
Photos by Wilfred J. Jones

The Symbiont is an interactive installation. It uses, as interface, the breathing patterns and chewing frequency of a willing participant .
By engaging with the installation, a feedback loop between human and machine is created as the subject and the Symbiont develop a co-dependency.
Physically, the Symbiont is an amalgamation of the mundane, specialized, and obscure: a vinyl massage chair , various TV screens, digital video equipment, and obsolete military/ industrial materials.

Aesthetically, the physical construction of the Symbiont is informed by drawing and sculpture as much as by technical considerations. The structure and shape of the video content is influenced by the mechanical motion of the sculptural elements as well as by the viewer's behavioral responses to the machine.

The Symbiont was programmed using Cycling74's MAX/MSP and's nato 0.55 modular. The interface technologies are a combination of Infusion Systems, ICUBE, and the EZIO interface. The actuators range from stepper motors to DC motors, pneumatics, and hydraulics. It utilizes a B/W G3 300 and an 8500/ 180 Power PC.

The Symbiont has been in the research and construction phase for six years. The building of the Symbiont has required extensive research in fabrication, programming, mechanical movement, and electronics. The process of its creation is ongoing, constantly mutating and recombining as new questions arise and new technologies are discovered.

symbiont from above and behind
long shot of the symbiont

A single viewer is led into a private room where The Symbiont lies sleeping in near darkness. Lit only by soft pools of light, it idles in a hypnagogic state, appendages twitching in fitful repose. As the viewer approaches, the Symbiont's assistant stops programming and rises to help the viewer into the dreaming contraption.

The viewer sees a collection of screens sprouting cables and wires, around a gold vinyl chair. They are mounted on various mechanical and hydraulic devices that begin to stir, acknowledging the new presence in the room. Lights begin blinking and indistinguishable sounds are emitted as the Symbiont emerges from sleep.

view of the niagara massage chair
The viewer is seated in a 70s era massage chair facing two monitors. The Symbiont awakens as it senses the viewer's presense as a new nipple is attached to the speaker. To converse with it's new acquaintance, it tentatively extends it's robotic arm offering a sterile nipple. By biting down on the nipple, the viewer is able to hear the sounds uttered by the Symbiont. The sound vibrations travel from the nipple through the teeth to the ear like an inner voice. Inside the nipple are pressure sensors that determine the intensity and frequency of the sucking.
The viewer then "consumes" the images on the screen as the video skews and scales according to the chewing motion. The data from the flex sensors on the breathing belt allows the Symbiont to pattern its own rhythms and responses to the viewer’s breathing pattern.
As the viewer inhales and exhales the vibration of the chair ramps up and down, echoing the participant's breaths. When the breathing rhythms go out of phase, the viewer is compelled to compensate. The distinction between who is controlling wh
o becomes blurred.


The Symbiont nurtures a malingering need for constant attention. When it becomes evident to the Symbiont that the viewer's attention is beginning to waver, it begins to act like a child having lost the attention of its mother. It pinches and clings retracts its nipple until it regains the attention of the viewer. During the whole event, the assistant is there to offer both technical and moral support.

The Symbiont is a commentary on our increasing desire to have interdependence with technology, acting as a parody for machines we depend on in our daily lives. These machines range from the Stairmaster to personalized home entertainment to life support. As technology moves into more areas of our lives and brains, the technology conversely becomes more dependent on complex human machinations to survive. What results is a more complicated, emotional experience between ourselves and our creations.

close up of the nipple speaker

Photos and descriptions of the Symbiont's components
Photos and text: Hannah Henry

Each participant is given a fresh nipple which they can keep at the end of the session. The subject bites down on the nipple and sounds are emitted from the Symbiont which are "heard" by the subject through vibrations caused in the skull.

Early version of the Nipple Speaker featuring a speaker magnet from my Grandparents radio.


close of an earlier version of the nipple speaker

One of the two screens is mounted on a slider which turns to face the participant once she is seated. The wires and other inner workings of the screen are bare as well as the mechanical apparatus it is mounted on. In this way the Symbiont is vulnerable to inspection, much as a naked baby in need of help and attention. Black and white photo of the big screen. photo by hannah henry
this photo is faithful to the description starting with "This image documents..."


This image documents an earlier version of the Symbiont, which utilized a tool which is currently being developed. This is the eye-tracking device. The participant's head must be immobilized (by a brace in this case) in order for a lens to follow the precise movements of the eye. In this image, the eye of the subject is visible on the screen and the nipple has not yet been inserted into the mouth. In the version of the eye-tracking system that is currently in process, the movements of the subjects eye will trace a pattern across the screens of the Symbiont.

The mounting apparati of the monitors are also programmed to swing and tilt in a kind of dance in response to the attention the participant gives the Symbiont. The monitors reflect the thoughts and emotions of the machine as it responds to the relationship that ensues. These are expressed through the rhythm and structure of the video and sound. tilting monitor on slider
Here the nipple is being inserted by the Symbiont into the subject's mouth via a motorized arm. This is how the Symbiont will "speak" to the participant, with sound vibrating through the teeth. The nipple also works to immobilize the head to enable the "precise" tracking of the subject's eye movement. When the Symbiont becomes displeased with the subject's responses, the nipple may be taken away. close up of an early version of the nipple speaker and myself
picture of an early configuration of the chair with an over built nipple speaker. After some beta testers complained about their gums vibrating after the fact I re-designed the current one The chair is the lap and torso of the Symbiont. It is a reclining massage chair of gold vinyl, made in the seventies. When the subject is seated, the chair tilts back with a dramatic jerk. Once the subject's breathing patterns are monitored, the chair vibrates in response to the rhythms.
orginal symbiont logo that appeared on the orginal site. The letters of made from an image of my skin using a key to create the letters. the edges were fuzzed out in photo shop. The letters y, i,n,and t are sideways.