A Series of Art & Biology Installations by Stephen Wilson

Reflecting on animal experimentation and the relationships between species, the Protozoa Games interactive installations allow humans and live protozoa to compete in  pinball-like environments mediated by digital microscope and motion tracking technologies. It asks audiences to consider new kinds of access made available through scientific tools and research.  It proposes new ways for audiences to engage this information in cultural niches outside of professional science.


A series of events allow humans and protozoa to work together.  A digital microscope tracks the activities of a variety of live single celled animals such as stentor, paramecia, amoebae, vorticella, volvox, and rotifers and projects the images on a large screen.  At the same time humans are invited to engage in various movement 'games'  in the space in front of the screen.

Motion detection technology tracks the movements of the protozoa and the humans  The computer orchestrates a series of events in which protozoa actions influence the humans and others where humans try to influence the protozoa.  With success at synchronization, lights flash, electornic sound, and computer animations are composed.and web surfing is activated.

The installations investigate a variety of themes:  Human relationships with animals, the ethics of animal and human experimentation, the nature of intelligence and consciousness,  and reflections on the essence of life.  Protozoa, as highly evolved single-celled animals allow a unique perspective on these issues.  The game setup structurally emulates typical animal experimentation forms.

View video documentation of Protozoa Games               - Quicktime format (approx 32mb)  not advised for slow connection

Description of  Events
Follow Me:  The human in front of the Protozoa is invited to try to duplicate the motions of the protozoa.  A virtual rectangle on the floor of the installation mimics the relative positions on the screen rectangle of the microscope.  Using a split screen the installation offers live video of human and protozoa and rewards the human's tracking the movements with a pinball-like environment of bells ringing, lights flashing, electronic sounds, and score increments.
Control Me:   Targets are superimposed on the microscope video of the protozoa.  The humans are invited to try to influence the protozoa to move toward one of the targets. Humans are challenged to try a variety of strategies ranging from domination to friendly appeal.   If more than one human is present, there can be a competition to control the protozoa.  Humans can exert influence by singing/yelling/speaking into microphones on oppositie sides of the protozoa culture petri dish under the microscope or by controlling lights placed on opposite
sides of the petri dish.

What artistic and theoretical themes are explored in the Protozoa Games?

Relationship of Humans to Other Species:  Critical theorists note that conventional paradigms of science seek to place a profound boundary between humans and other species.  Humans are seen as superior and qualitatively different. Conveniently this position allows exploitation, domination, and disregard. It justifies experimentation and infliction of pain if some possible benefit to the "higher' species (humans) can be presumed.Even animal protection laws and procedures draw the line at vertebrates - experimentation on forms that seem distant from humans and without much presumed consciousness (such as insects and protozoa) are not protected. 

Other traditions (for example, the Buddhist and Hindu) note much more continuity.  Humans and other life forms are bound tightly to the same chain of life.   Even contemporary science is constantly surprized by the complexity and sophistication of 'lower' life forms such as the protozoa. Human life depends on symbiosis with sophisticated celluar creatures that make up the body Some analysts of science such as Bruno Latour and Donna Harraway suggest a different model in which humans and other life forms are seen as collaboraors in experiments.  Others believe that humanity could spiritually benefit from more humility and connection with other species.

Protozoa Complexity:  The Protozoa Games present an unorthodox setting for thinking about relationship of species and paradigms of science.  Using contemporary digital microscope technology, they offer visual access to the world of another species, the Protozoa.  The protozoa are chosen because science presents them as one of the simplist animal lifeforms, possibly the evolutionary origin of humanity. Yet watch them!  They show individual differences - some seem frentic, others seem contemplative.  They explore their world in a great variety of ways and enact dramas of survival, affiliation, and exploration not very different from humanity.

Microscopes and Motion Detection/SurveillanceVideo:  Typically humans observe the activities of lower life forms via the instruments of science such as microscopes.  In the Protozoa Games, humans are subjected to  similar observational protocols.  Participants have their movements monitored via motion detection in the same way that the protozoa are being monitored.  Structurally the humans and the protozoa are put on a similar footing.

Follow-Me:  This event turns the tables on the usual scientific protocols.  Typically scientists devise settings to get lower forms to follow their bidding - for example, rats running a maze.  In Follow-me, the protozoa are in charge.  The humans win points by mimicing the movements of the protozoa.  They have to scamper around the installation space in the same pattern of movement that the protozoa use. The fate of the protozoa and the humans (points won) are linked.   It is hoped that this topsy-turvy experiment  leads human participanats to more apprpeciation of protozoa life.

Control-Me:  This event structurally replicates conventional scientific experimentation.  A culture of protozoa are put under the microscope and subjected to a variety of instrumentation in order to influence behavior.  But this experiment is somewhat wacky.  Humans win points by trying to influence the protozoa to move toward a target area in their environment.  What can influence the protozoa?  Various species of protozoa are known to be phototropic (attaction) or photophobic (repeled) by light and/or sound.  In this absurd parody on experiments human participants can vary their strategy - by turning on red and green lights on either side of the protozoa culture and by yelling/singing/talking into sound tubes on either side.  The scientific literature are mum on the influence of light color and different varieties of sound.  In someways this environment fufills some of the requirements of a genuine experiment.   What strategies will the humans use - domination, friendly appeal?  Will they beg, sing, demand, frighten, plead....?  The humans are part of this experiment also.

Pinball:  The visual/aural environment suggests pinball.  Lights flash; the projection screen looks like a pinball machine, score points accumulate; bells, bouncers, and boingers sound, previous hi scores challenge, and  clocks indicate time running down. Pinball machines suggest a time of innocence at the dawn of the electronic age.  They offer a environment of benign challenge in which physical and perceptual skill lead to victory.  They are social situations in which friends and strangers compete and cooperate on a mediated task.  Can protozoa become part of the fun?  Pinball offers an intriguing arena to explore possible ways that different species can interact.

Art & Biology:  The electronic revolution of the last decades have had a major impact on the culture.  The arts are beginning to explore the implications.  Some analysts believe the research in biology may result in even more revolutionary change in the next decades.  It is important at this early stage of the revolution that artists learn about these developments at a deep level and develop art works that probe their implications.  Protozoa seemed like a good place to begin.


Logistic Requirements

Space Needs

- A space in which the visitors can move.  For example a 4m x 4m spaces could work. Outdoor spaces are possible.
- An appropriate place to mount the projector (either suspended from the ceiling or on tall pedastal - 2m - so projection is above participant heads)
- An appropriate space to mount the video person tracking camera high above the scene - preferably from the ceiling at height of 2.5+ m)

Host gallery needs to provide:

- A macintosh computer
- Wires and cable connections to a display projector (long cable for ceiling mount) and for tracking video camera
- A data display projector (800 x 600 min)
- Microphones, amplifiers, and small speakers
- Small ights to be contrlled by the computer
- Access to phone line or dsl for Internet connection
- 1 pedastal  for the microscope  and enclosure for the computer.  (some method of security)
- 2 stands for the lights and talking tubes people will use to talk to the protozoa

** Note there is some flexibility in the space needs.

Artist will provide:

 The digital microscope, the movement tracking camera, interface box to read sensors and activate lights, firewire interface box for video, the protozoa culture


Sample Layout - Installation 

Click here to see enlarged view of installation layout

Technical Description:

- Macintosh Computer
- The Intel QX3 digital microscope (live video of protozoa in demoslide culture)
- Digital camera (motion tracking)
- Microphone (small speakers on each side of protozoa culture)
- Lights (computer controlled on either side of culture)

- Macomedia Director is the organizing software
- TrackThemColors Xtra for Director (track motion of both the protozoa and the humans in the installation area. )
- EZIO board and serial xtra (read touch pad, control display lights)
- Modem or DSL (Internet access controlled from Director)

Future Extensions

Extensions of the Self (under development):  I am working on a method by which the visitor contributes his/her own organisms (perhaps by spitting or contributing other bodily fluids or skin scrapings).  The visitor then plays the 'games' with their own or other visitor organisms.

Internet Events (under development):  Joint activities of the protozoa and the visitors create web pages in real time.  Visitors from the web can join the festivities so that local visitors, remote visitors and protozoa all collaborate together in real time.

Exhibition History

Protozoa Games was shown as part of the Ylem Show - Interfacing Ideas - Blue Room Gallery  - San Francisco (2003).  A revised version was part of the BioDifferences Show in the BEAP festival in Perth Australia, September, 2004.  Revisions 2008

Stills from Installations

Contact Information and Acknowledgements

Protozoa Games were created by Stephen Wilson, Professor, Conceptual Information Arts Dept, SFSU    More Information about books and other installations at:  http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~swilson/    swilson@sfsu.edu

Thanks to Andrew Chung (for fabrication) , Torrey Nommesen (for installation assistance),  Greg Serpa (for documentation), Julia Redoica (for protozoa help), Brian Wiener, Alan Giorgi, and John Brewer (for technical support),  Barbara Lee (for initiating the show), the Blue Room Gallery, Professor Danny Rozin (for creating the Track Them Colors Motion Detection software) and Professor Michael Roedemer (for creating the EZIO interface System) and Geoffrey Smith for the SerialXtra (allows Director to communicate with devices such as the EZIO.)

Invitation to the Ylem Show