Plants & Machines



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 in some degrees towards nature. Nature in my experience has always been synonym of pleasure and an inspiration source to create my artworks. In my research I aim to find balance between nature and technology – and I believe nature is a very important factor for the development of our technological world. In the last 5 years I started to create a range of works which are based in such concepts[i] as: the reinvention of the environment[ii]; use of natural resources; if we can see these hybrids of living organisms and machines placed in the world, techno-scientific mutations[iii] and to reshape and redefine our design and tools to amalgamate with natural systems and be more coherent with the natural environment.



The project Symbiotic Machine is a continuation of the project Jurema Action Plant (JAP, 2011/12). JAP was developed during the summer residency at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam, and part of a research with scientist Bert van Duijn, expertise in plant electrophysiology and biodynamic. Much like humans, animals and machines, plants have an electrical signal traveling inside them, but they do not have nerves like humans and animals; nor wires and cables like machines. Machines operate with high voltage and stable current – plants, humans and animals operates with low voltage and unstable current. Would it be possible to straighten electric-mechanical systems from machines to operate with such low energy source, like most biological systems do? Would be possible for a plant 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 changed enabling the machine to drive. This project also explores new ways of communication and co-relation between machines, humans and other living organisms.


In mid 2012 I created another piece titled Prototype for a New Bio Machine (PNBM) – exhibited at Ars Electronica Museum in Linz, Austria. This artwork is an upgrade from JAP, and also demonstrates that not only the Mimosa Pudica has this special skill of electrical signals, but also other plants, 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 discussed the Theory of Evolution in his book The Origin of Species, in order to happen an evolution of any specimen is necessary mutation[iv]. We are in constant mutation as 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, which is a hybrid autonomous system – a perpetuum mobile. When machines are brought into dialogue with living organisms, especially in the artistic context, they perform 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. Symbiotic Machine (SM) was developed with scientists from the VU Amsterdam Laser Lab (Free University from Amsterdam) Raoul Frese and Vincent Friebe; physician Michiel van Overbeek and Leydervan 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 do basic needs of life: be able 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 specific algae is abundant in the Dutch landscape – mainly found in ponds and canals – a filamentous organism that when releases oxygen during the photosynthetic process create bubbles which make this filamentous mesh of algae float.


In order to “hack” the algae spirogyra photosynthesis’ and apply it as an energy source, the algae cell’s membrane has to be broken. SM prototype was designed within the disciplines of engineering, biotechnology, art and design to accomplish a condition – make photosynthesis to continue its life cycle[v], like a plant.


Sealed with a transparent cylinder a motor, an endless worm and a pepper grinder aligned and connected by one single axis compose 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 and to give small propulsion for the machine. 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 by 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. These micro particles in naked eyes looks like a “green juice” which is flushed inside the machine: the stomach.



A tube that comes from the end of the mouth with grinded algae goes though the stomach inside the ellipsoid of revolution. This tube is fastened on a 2-way valve placed in the center of the spherical shape.

Inside the ellipsoid of revolution there is another bowl, just one centimeter smaller aligned in the center. 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 by a plate covered with gold, a spacer in the middle covered with a copper mesh. This set up allows the “green juice” rest between the gold and copper. After the light is shed on the electrons of the grinded algae they flow to the most conductive metal, as a lemon battery. As all the photocells are connected, with the help from the electronic chip LTC 3108 Energy Harvester is possible to store these milivoltages in two AA rechargeable batteries. The electricity provided by this synthetic photosynthetic process is used to power the LEDs placed in the sensors.


The 2-way valve mentioned above is connected as: valve 1 hooked up with chamber 1 and valve 2 with chamber 2. When the stomach works is sent information 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 go towards where there is more luminescence to make photosynthesis. It rests for ten minutes. After the 10 min sunbath the machine has to clean its stomach – and the photocells – to be able to eat again. Water is sucked in again 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 having the valve 2 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 giving possibilities to steer 0; 45 and minus 45 degrees.


The project Symbiotic Machine was financed by Stichting Doen. It was exhibited at Het Glazen Huis (The Glass House) in Amstelpark in Amsterdam from 9th March until 27th April, invited by Zone2Source. A pool was created, filled with 17.000 litters of pond water and plenty of algae from the specimen spirogyra. The pool, inside the 150 m2 gallery with glass walls, was absorbing all the images from the surrounding landscape – trees, bushes and people walking – merging this artificial set up with the other beings in the park. A circular back room, with 50 m2 was exhibited drawings; graphics, non-used parts of the machine and a shelf with materials for workshops which happened during the exhibition. Close to the main entrance, another video with a zoom in the machine processing the algae and making photosynthesis. It was interesting observe the audience, as this specific park in Amsterdam has also some other special animals being exhibited as well: an albino kangaroo, a peacock couple, birds and squirrels spread all over the park. So in a way, Symbiotic Machine was just another creature being exhibited. SM was featured at Discovery Channel in Canada, awarded in Japan Media Arts Festival 2014, won Honorary Mention from Prix Ars Electronica 2014 in the category Vostelpine [the next idea], was presented at The Waag Society and Biotalk at Mediamatic in Amsterdam.




[i] These concepts were discussed in the book Oritur (

[ii] “…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?…” pg. 28. Guattari, Felix. Three Ecologies. (

[iii] ibid, pg 28. Guattari, Felix. Three Ecologies.

[iv] “…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.” pg. 198. Darwin, Charles. The Origin Of Species. (

[v] A life cycle with functions was idealized in order to program the machine and activate independent mechanical parts of the stomach: it has to eat, move, sunbath, rest, search for food, wash itself, in loop.






Exhibition Taming Technology, Florence (IT) 2011.

Jurema Action Plant is an interactive bio-machine. It consists in a customized machine which interfaces a sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica).

Jurema Action Plant aims to empower plants by enabling them to use similar technologies as humans use. It is also explores new ways of communication and co-relation between humans, living organism and a machine. Much like humans, animals and machines, the plants have an electrical signal traveling inside them, but they do not have nerves like humans and animals; nor wires and cables like machines. This electrical signal travels inside the cells of the plant. Inspired by this phenomenon, I collaborated with professor Bert van Duijn from the Biology University and the Hortus Botanicus, both from Leiden, on a research into the Action Potential of this plant. At V2_ , we settled upon a solution in which a signal amplifier reads the differences in the electromagnetic field around the plant to determine when it is being touched. These electromagnetic variations trigger movement of the robotic structure, on which the plant is situated, by means of a custom-made circuit board. The thresholds for response are set in such a way that only touching the plant makes it move away from the person touching it.

“Their movement however generally remains invisible to us, because their muscle and nerve-like systems operate at a very slow timescale and their rooting in soil confines their motion to the movement of branches and leaves. These restrictions give plants an enormous disadvantage compared to their main aggressors: animals and humans, in many instances resulting in a loss of biodiversity and even extinction.” (Michel van Dartel, curator V2)

To measure the Action Potential from the plant some electrodes are placed in its branches. When the leaves and branches of the plant are touched this signal changes. This electrical signal travels in the plant and the Action Potential can be measured in any part of the plant, not necessarily where the electrodes are placed. If the plants can fell the touch and this signal travels inside the plant and be can be measured in any part, does it means that plants have memory, consciousness?

Presentation at V2_ Test Lab – ISEA RHUR 2010 – photo by David Jonas-V2_

Oritur projects | Jurema Action Plant from Ivan Henriques on Vimeo.

Jurema Action Plant Firenze 2011 from Ivan Henriques on Vimeo.

Imagine if we could communicate with plants and work together. Is it possible to reshape and redefine our tools to be coherent with the environment? Would we keep on destroying the few existent plants/animals and forests?



As the invitation from CBK Drenthe, Assen/NL, for the exhibition ‘Nature Now‘ the work titled ‘Prototype for a New BioMachine’ is developed. This prototype is the continuation of JAP and beginning of a further research about living organisms connected to machines. Some improvements have been done concerned to interactivity, as it was used another plant, with scientific name Homalomena. This plant has bigger leafs, which increased the interface size. And the improvements are also concerned to stability, redesigning the electronic board which will be able to provide enough flexibility for future developments.

How can we create autopoietic (*) machines that maintain an organized autonomous robotic structure assembling living organisms and machines? Can we re-create a world which is more coherent with all the specimens?

The final goal of this research is to assemble, even more, wet and dry machines to live together, creating a symbiotic relationship. The idea is to work in nano scale – this also happens with JAP and the PNBM as the data which is collected from the plant and processed via the electronic board, are from the flows of electrons. To further research into nano scale will be possible to extend and amplify energy from living organisms to develop an
autonomous Symbiotic Machine.

(*) The concept Autopoietic was created by H. Maturana & F. Varela




From a macro to a micro landscape. The plants have a different time comparing to ours and our relation with the nature goes in many different ways.

I am doing a research in ‘green spaces’ in Holland with a specific interest in artificial landscapes as Botanical Gardens, green houses and plants, within the nature in cultural aspects, their own behavior and how the nature is interfered by man. The botanic systematization, the dissemination of different species all over the world and dialogs between natural and artificial processes are also subjects in my field of research.

Video documentation: performance Bird Composition for Zuidpark , winter 2010 (The Hague/NL).

This research of the landscape is a continuation with GEMA project that I have been developing in Rio, since 2007. This research involves natural and urban environment, the change of the landscape through the time due to the cities expansions. How we can have a better living with our environment instead of killing it using the technology we have nowadays? The next step for nature is engineering, creating a self controlled environment and recycle the resources. I am researching also about plants and politics into a bio-scientific sphere. The Mata Atlantica forest was destroyed by the uncontrolled growth of the cities and now Amazonia is also in danger. There are several multi-national companies in Amazonia: a cycle of destruction that starts killing the trees of the forest for agronomy, cattle raising, scientific researches, trafficking of plants, and so on. It is estimated that 15% of the Amazon has been deforested.

There is also a discussion about the internationalization of Amazonia forest which is a political aspect. A dispute of territory is going on and how an artistic practice can make a thought about this relevant issue.

“…better means of preserving, transporting, displaying, and  documenting specimens; …” PRATT, Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes – Travel Writing and Transculturalization, p.28/29

The research about resources of the nature started with professor Bert van Duijn, from the Biology University in Leiden for a couple of months in how we can measure the action potential of the plants.

Graphic of potential difference from the Venus Flytrap hair

One of the plants that we are measuring the action potential is the Venus Flytrap. The matter that intrigues me most is the speed of its action: with this carnivorous plant we are able to see its movement in real time, reacting to insects that triggers the movement of its leaf.

The Venus Flytrap is one of a very small group of plants capable of rapid movement, such as Mimosa, the Telegraph plantSundews and Bladderworts. Its trapping structure is formed by the terminal portion of each of the plant’s leaves and is triggered by tiny hairs on their inner surfaces. When an insect or spider crawling along the leaves contacts a hair, the trap closes if a different hair is contacted within twenty seconds of the first strike.

Diagram of the inner surface of  the Venus Flytrap showing some of the sequence events leading to the trap closing: [1] a trigger hairs bent over; [2] the touch sensation is translated into electrical code, known as a receptor potential, which is confined to just the sensor cells inside the trigger hair; [3] a sufficiently large receptor potential fires a fast-moving electrical wave, known as action potential, which spreads across the trap lobes, [4] the trap doesn’t move, but somehow remembers being touched; [5] another hair (or the same as before) is bent over; [6] a second receptor potential is fired into the sensor cells; [7] a second action potential is fired across the trap; [8] if the second action potential comes roughly within 35 seconds of the first one, the trap is sprung shut. The cell on the outer epidermis expand rapidly, folding the trap lobes over. If no prey is caught, the trap reopens about 12 hours later. But if an animal is trapped, the trap slowly tightens around its prey, secretes digestive juices, and absorbs the remains of the animal over about 1-2 weeks.

Another plant that I am studying to develop a work is the Mimosa Pudica (Sensitive Plant). Its a plant that developed a kind of camouflage/protection. When they suffer any change in their surrounding the ActionPotential changes.

Some points raised while doing the project:

>> machines and plants

>> living machine design

>> engineering ecology

>> the biological equity determine design

>> design be coevolutionary with the natural world

>> design be sustainable through the integration of living systems

>> building and design help in healing the planet

>> working as a concert

>> biotics relationships

>> reshape and redefine our tools and technology

I was invited to realized this project at V2 – Institute for the Unstable Media, in the summer residency 2010, to develop this work with Bert van Duijn, Hortus Botanicus from Leiden and V2 team.

My position is to investigate this phenomena and create an art piece; in van Duijn’s laboratory, to develop scientific researches for our future.

Measuring the action potential at Leiden Biology University laboratory with Bert van Duijn:

Once we could get data from the plant, I did my first try-out transforming these numbers into sound:

*drawings from the book The Action Plant, SIMONS, Paul.

**Thanks to: Takuto Fukuda, Matteo Marangoni, Bert van Duijn, Michael van Hoogenhuyze, Kasper van der Horst, Taco Stolk, Khim Lalai, Lex van den Broek, Nenad Popov, Melissa Coleman, Lars Kynde, Edwin van der Heide, Pablo Sanz, Aline Couri, V2_team, Hortus Botanicus Leiden.


Relandscaping#1 from Ivan Henriques on Vimeo.

Relandscaping #1 is a video art done during my MA in ArtScience at Interfaculty in The Netherlands, The Hague. The sequence register the course between The Hague to Amsterdam. Using MAX MSP software a video patch is generated from the same source in real time and recorded. The video is filmed through the window of a train, processed, recorded and reproduced four times simultaneously. Four different times of the same image in one screen. The title refers to a series of works which I am doing that are connected with the concepts of Landscape and Time.

This video is also a development of an installation that I did before called [in] Variáveis. All the images are constructed from the same space it is exhibited. In [in] Variáveis, there were two projections: one was in 15 seconds of delay of the real time and the other was filming the fist one, in real time. What you experience in the installation is that you could see yourself arriving at the gallery already being there, and all the movements you were doing afterwards. And also be inserted two times while the visitors are being filmed again; your 15 seconds of past and your real time. How can I relate the real time image in a more complex system, including Time and Landscape as the main subject?

In Relandscaping #1 I decided to make this relations of different times of images but in a moving situation (a parallel with the Estúdio Móvel Experimental, where the car is also in movement), filming and processing the landscape from Holland. And also relate the time with two more images. Why this specific landscape? Some moments of this video the four images are exactly the same. As most of the landscape from the Netherlands is flat, in some moments of the video, you can see a composition from these images without changing the horizon line.

“All of us live in an artificial landscape generated by the crisscrossing of endless number of artifacts each of which has been the result of a plan, a decision, a discussion about a certain order of the world.” Latour, BRUNO

There is a saying about the Netherlands “God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.” In fact, a large part of Holland was created by the sand, from the many rivers that flow through it. Notable Dutch rivers are the Rhine, the Maas, the IJssel and the Scelt. Due to Dutch intervention, were created many polder which have made many lakes and parts of the sea dry. And also the etymology landschap comes from Dutch [land-schap (“-ship”)].

2010 | 10 pictures 148 × 210mmRelandscaping #2 | 10 photographies, 148 × 210 mm each | 2010, The Netherlands

Relandscaping #2 is a series of pictures from the same sand hill of a construction. Only my position was changed.

The cultural landscapes are in continuous change each time in a more artificial way to contemplate the evolutions of  our society, political, economical and ecological issues, that are in constant disputes of power and categorization for many years. From Rio de Janeiro to Den Haag, Tokyo to Dubai, and so far.

I have been working with concepts of space and time perception emphasizing real time phenomenon as in my past works, as SUPERPOSITION series (2006/07), [in] Variáveis (2008), Estúdio Móvel Experimental – E.M.E., 2009.

photo by Silvia Leal | 2009

Estúdio Móvel Experimental | photo by Silvia Leal | 2009, RJ – Brasil

EME is a mobile residency program which makes part of a research developed with G.E.M.A., 2007, which is an interdisciplinary interface to explore the urban and natural landscape of Rio de Janeiro and its biodiversity with the support of national and international research partners of arts, sciences and technology, inviting local and non-local artists/institutions to realize site-specific public art interventions and to work together around Rio State.

Rio de Janeiro State is in a continuous process of landscaping: the building of luxury condominiums and the growth of favelas that have been developed since colonization and intensified after the slavery abolition in the 19th century. In Rio State exists a serious environmental decline (mainly in Guanabara Bay) such as landfills, siltation, destruction of mangroves, industrial pollution and environmental accidents. Is estimated that, by the Portuguese arrival in Brazil in 1500, Mata Atlântica, Atlântica forest, covered 98% of Rio de Janeiro territory. With the uncontrolled growth of the city, the forest covers now less than 17% of the State.

Most of the landscapes in The Netherlands are also in a constant change.  Over the centuries, the Dutch coastline has changed considerably as a result of anthropogenic intervention and natural disasters. Looking through the window of trains allover the country, you can see fields of  urban landscapes and natural landscape. How our relation with landscapes change our perception of time and space?


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