echo::system is a 5-part series of imagined environments—The Abyss, The Desert, The Forest, The Prairie and The Volcano—viewed both as a multi-media installation and a music/dance performance, conceived by composer/choreographer/performer Grisha Coleman. Through the research and observation of natural and urban habitats, echo::system is a performance of constructed nature that looks at integrated systems and resonant patterns in the contemporary landscape. Performers and viewers co-exist within a sensory rich, immersive environment, witnessing the story that unfolds as a way to re-examine contemporary urban life.

“The Desert”

Excerpt, By Onome Ekeh

In a desert with scant water there is an unsteady drip that pulsates, punctuating the drone of ambient life. A migration to a new habitat was to take five days across the desert. Some say it took forty years, some say the journey is not yet completed. Some say the “Ear-in-the-Sky” masked its frequencies from them because they were obstinate and wouldn’t listen. These are the known facts: The species appear not to move in space, yet they are nomadic. They turn left, they turn right, and spread their territory beneath their feet.

Analysing ecosystems

By Michael Bryant, Evolutionary Ecologist

One way to begin an analysis of surreal ecosystems (in this case they came in the form 
of print collages by Grisha) is to start by trying 
to identify the “players” in a real ecosystem. 
A source of energy is at the top of the list. 
For most ecosystems, the abyss being an exception, that source is the sun. The large Ear suspended in a collage’s horizon seemed to fit that role. Ecosystems are also populated by organisms. The lowest trophic level consists of the producers. Plants take the energy from the sun and use that energy to synthesize nutrients. Herbivores (or primary consumers) then take that captured and converted energy from the sun and further convert the energy into even more herbivores. The carnivores (predators) form the remaining trophic levels in the food web. This flow of energy yields predictable patterns in terms of the number of organisms. The energy conversion is never efficient so each level has less energy than the preceding level, thus a characteristic relative population size of plants, herbivores and predators should follow. Elements in the collages were then classified as they would have been assembled by these thermodynamic constraints. The final step was to take the static and fully developed surreal ecosystem as represented by the collage and populate it in the virtual landscape with interacting individuals. These interactions can also be characterized by typical behaviors. These can be summed up in “The Three F’s” (Feeding, Fighting and Family).

Words such and “energy transfer,” “predator” and even “family” represent formal concepts in ecology. But these same words are part of equally formal concepts in other métiers. Our workshop environment was crucial to expose this. More importantly by challenging each other with “gifts” [concepts from each other’s disciplines] we could better see how concepts overlapped, diverged or ran parallel to each other. A hybrid view began to evolve. Models of a desert ecosystem did not appear out of nothing but rather represent “descent with modification.” Ancestral models (like The Abyss) went through many rounds of selection. True to the organic ideals that were initially sought from the surreal collages, the desert is not a “perfect organism” but one that is “fittest” under the current set of parameters.

To develop a model of an entire ecosystem we considered many factors. We needed decide on a geometry or set of boundaries. We needed to populate the virtual space with organisms from enough trophic levels to make a stable but interesting dynamic. We needed to create the organisms with behaviors (such as feeding, mating and movement) that again lead to interesting interactions but are tractable and show some degree of dynamic stability. The final decisions concerned the genetics of the organisms. This was a particularly important aspect of the model because this extended the dynamics to an evolutionary time scale. The emergent properties of the model’s output stem from the properties of individuals (genetics), the group dynamics (mediated via the movement algorithm) and the imposition of stochastic events in the form of the physical environment (i.e. rain in a desert environment).