ABRA in Aalto FabLab-Image by Kaan Ünlü
ABRA in Aalto FabLab-Image by Kaan Ünlü

Projects and Prototypes: ABRA workshops at Aalto

Mind Meets Machine: Immersive Data-Interaction

Pia Fricker, Professor of Practice and Vice Head of the Department of Architecture, Aalto University

One of the larger challenges facing urban design today are generic and often dysfunctional designs due to over reliance on automated design generators available to design buildings, cities and landscapes. It is time for critical reflection! In a time marked by massive urban growth, over-saturated with the diversity and arbitrariness of digital media and rapidly evolving smart city technology, the field of architecture and landscape architecture is challenged to rethink conventional ways of city planning and design. The on-going discussions regarding data-handling stress efficiency and productivity, yet, the abundance of data has created a rich pool of resources to support the creation of sustainable solutions to the pressing societal and environmental challenges we are facing globally. Therefore it is vital that the future shapers of our environment be trained in computationally driven data-informed design methods to formulate visionary places for new forms of experiences.   

Augmented data-interaction is merged with the tangible sandbox environment, in order to formulate sustainable design speculations from both human and AI perspectives. The student designs adresse acoustic patterns, utilization, comfort, and storm-water runoff. The understanding of available technology is composed and rearranged in order to support the field specific discourse which leads to innovative design speculations, based upon this human-robotic interaction. The developed design methodology emphasizes the importance of design iterations through computationally informed feedback loops and radical speculations.

The project “Mind Meets Machine: Immersive Data-Interaction“ explores computational design methods to creatively interact with global and local data. The exhibited projects set their focus on the exploration of immersive data-interaction design tools to enhance climate-smart solutions in the urban context. The human-robotic interaction supports in making the abstract data visible and tangible, to enter a new level of data-informed responsive design with the human and non-human benefit in mind.

Project team: Prof. Dr. Pia Fricker, Kane Borg, and Tina Cerpnjak

Exhibition support: Loviisa Luoma

Students: Marek Kratochvíl, Kaie Kuldkepp, Hanna-Kaisa Koskinen, Ahti Launis, Riikka Lauri, Emilia Lemmetti, Huixu Li, Loviisa Luoma, Eetu Mykkänen, Teo Rinne, Miisa-Maari Ulmanen, Eetu Mykkänen, Yanxia Qiu, Antti Rantamäki, Shenyu Sun, Laura Tuorila, Huijia Zhuang

In cooperation with: Dr. Philip Belesky (RMIT Australia), Mariusz Hermansdorfer (University of Copenhagen /Ramboll DK) and Dr. Ilmar Hurkxkens (ETH Zurich)

Special thanks to: Manueal Fonseca, Ilpo Kari and Pekka Salonen, workshop masters of ARTS as well as to ARTS IT team

Pissing Point

Laura Beloff, Assistant Professor, Head of Doctoral Education & Vice-Head of Department of Art & Media, Aalto University 

This is an art project that follows the recent years’ scientific research and development on bio-batteries that produce energy with the help of micro-organisms. In this specific version human bodily fluid, urine, is used for power production. The amount of power produced by these 5 batteries is tiny; if you are lucky you may observe a LED lighting up in one of them.

The images are from the installation from Kisapati, Hungary where the work was installed along a popular hiking route. https://umwelten.art/ 

If one wants to take part in this experiment and support the maintenance of the system: one can either collect and bring urine and pour it to the ‘funnel’, or alternatively piss directly into it. The ‘funnel’ system can be lowered for pissing/pouring liquid and lifted up again so that gravity will lead urine to the ‘piss-storage’ (a wine-makers bottle and an everyday object for the people in the region.)

The use of bodily fluids is restricted by European Union regulations. The problem appears when someone wants to use others’ bodily fluids for specific purposes and benefit. In this art installation – you give your consent for the use when you donate your urine. Thank you!

These bio-batteries are made from thermo-treated wood. Wood as a material is commonly considered sustainable and biodegradable. In this experiment the wood material will change shape with wet organic matter, as well as organisms inhabiting it will also impact the power production of the batteries.

From an aesthetic perspective; disgust is a part of this work, as well as it is a recent direction of interests by the artist. In this work disgust is related to the use of bodily fluid that is considered waste, as well as to its smell and other properties. 

The artist hopes that the installation attracts many insects – and in this way pushes us to think about the borders we want to draw with nature; which kinds of things, non-humans and various phenomena are acceptable and which aspects of nature we would rather not see – even when they might provide a novel energy production for us.

The project is part of the author’s on-going investigation about encounters between biology and technology. And about bio-batteries – their use, sustainability promises and current reality. It is an experiment in art – openly investigating what kind of questions emerge through art rather than science when art is adopting scientific methods and tools?

Harvesting Estrogen from wastewater as an instance of community-based and self-determined act of (health)care.

Johanna Lauritzen (Aalborg University, DK), Aska Mayer (Aalto University, FI)

Estrogens, both natural and synthetic, are considered some of the most potent and common hormonal compounds. They are used to regulate and disrupt hormonal balance, making them an essential part of trans and female healthcare 

Estrogens are commonly detected in wastewater. Currently, conventional wastewater treatment is not able to effectively remove estrogens, so the hormonal compounds make their way into the greater water supply, exposing both humans and wildlife to them.

Meanwhile hormone-based medicine is one of the most guarded fields of institutionalized “healthcare”. The current forms of Trans-healthcare and the distribution of contraceptives or reproductive medicine in systemic contexts can barely be understood as acts of public care but are an expression of external determination and control over bodies.

This parallel juxtaposition, with the individual being confronted with scarce access to estrogen-based healthcare on one side, while on the other side experiencing hormonal contamination of water supplies, offers fertile grounds for the development of DIY-Healthcare and Bio-Hacking by which individuals can regain agency. Taking this initial dissonance as a starting point, we plan to develop and test a protocol for the extraction and purification of estrogen from local water supplies, resulting in the production of a transdermal hydrogel, by which the harvested surplus estrogens can be used. Combining the two realities of the bio-technical and the bio-political, we understand this process as counteracting institutionalized “healthcare”and speculate on possible chances of those protocols for community-based forms of self-determined medical care. We imagine the protocol as a centerpiece, around which a community can gather to offer each other mutual care.


The utilized protocols for detection of estrogens in wastewater and water supplies are based on Mary Maggic’s project Open Source Estrogen and their detailed development of DIY/DIWO-Protocols. We recognize and build on the immense groundwork by various trans and feminist activists globally on making hormones accessible outside of institutionalized “healthcare”. This project wouldn’t be possible without those huge efforts.

//Selected Sources

Fleming, Michael; Achari, Gopal; Hassan, Quazi (2016). Modeling the loading and fate of estrogens in wastewater treatment plants. Cogent Environmental Science, 2:1

Hammond, Rian Ciela (2019). Mapping a Hormone Hyperobject.

Maggic, Mary (2016-ongoing). Estrofem!Lab

Laboria Cuboniks (2015). Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation.

Tsang, Mary; Rich, Byron; Leandra, Gaia; Pin, Paula; Gamez, Carlos; Padilla, Amanda (n.d.). Estrozine 1.0


Aurora Del Rio and Katri Naukkarinen (Aalto University, FI). With the spiritual contribution of Carlos Gomez.

ARBA reflects on the contradictions of national environmental politics, through the aberrant behaviour of Google’s State-of-the-Art Speech-to-Text API. The artists have recorded a conversation on their idea for a collaborative art project: a microbial fuel cell that would function by using the decay process of deceased beings. The artwork intended to open a portal into the hypothetical dimension of the deceased, to obtain strategies to solve environmental-related issues.

During the conversation, specific problems have arisen, like the one of alluring a wilful spirit and not a disruptive one, to open up meaningful reflections on the real possibilities of reaching climate sustainability. Due to human error, the conversation has been recorded for the first 30 minutes on the wrong channel, resulting as noise. The second part has been recorded and run through the speech-to-text API, first in UK English and later in US English, to find out how the content changes according to the supposed national politics underlying the conversation. Differing sentences between the two resulting texts have been run through Open AI’s DALL·E 2, to generate images.

The artwork explores the tension between interpretation and failure, first in its title ARBA as a misspelling of ABRA-project, in the representations of the conversation, and in the noise resulting from the first missed conversation.

If the Flower Were Not Bee-Like

Dániel Szalai (Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, HU)

Referring to Uexküll, J. von: The Theory of Meaning. In: Semiotica. 42-1. (1982), p 71. quoted by Pia in her lecture:

If the flower were not bee-like,

and the bee were not flower-like

The unison could never be successful

Throughout the days spent in Aalborg and Helsinki learning about sustainability, artificial biology, robotics, and art, I have been deeply thinking about my responsibility and possible contribution to the topic. As an artist, I believe, my main duty is to ask questions and raise dilemmas. I do so by telling stories, stories of animals like the OncoMouse.

Mice share more than 95% of our DNA, which means that many diseases, including cancer, affect humans and mice in similar ways allowing scientists to study these diseases and how they might be treated in humans. In early 1983 Harvard University scientists Philip Leder and Timothy Stewart created OncoMouse by injecting cancer genes into mouse embryos. This genetic modification not only made the mice prone to cancer, but also ensured that they would pass the cancer genes to their offspring. On April 12, 1988, OncoMouse became the first animal to be patented in the United States. Since the chemical company DuPont funded much of the research, Harvard gave DuPont priority to license the patent, making the company the sole distributor of OncoMouse.

I believe that the story of the OncoMouse brings up crucial ethical dilemmas and moral questions regarding (bio)technology, academics and big pharma. At the same time, I also find it fascinating to regard OncoMouse as a metaphor. 

If the Flower Were Not Bee-Like is a work in progress.

Co-Ability / Aberrant behaviour in system aesthetic

Renata Dezso, (Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, HU)

The work background is the doctoral research of Renata Dezso with the title ’co-Ability, Aligned arguments for the dissolution of a human “centre”. To generate critical and new insights into our value system in human-centred societal challenges, the case study approach with digital craft practice and the theoretical work processing critical disability studies’ literature were the sources of essential points for developing the term ‘co-Ability’. These two practices, one academic and one experimental, formed the understanding of topical, procedural, pragmatic, and conceptual articulations to reconsider the potentials of various entities (biological and artificial) enhancing the shared competence rather than dwelling on the oppressive nature of human-centred norms.

At Umwelt Art & Science Summer Academy, the experimental digital craft artworks were created and exhibited with the title ‘Co-Able formations in nature’ in Hungary Mount Saint George, exploring an artistic expression of co-Ability in nature informed by the previous research. The artefact was created with generative methods of research through design contrary to the terminal problem-solving approach typically employed in the design process.

The digital craft artefact is further developed at the ABRA (Artificial Biology, Robotics and Art) workshop at Aalto University, focusing on aberrant behaviour in system aesthetics to understand better embodied thoughts on relationships in soft networks. Jack Burnham discussed rethinking art as a system or network of social-technical processes shifting the emphasis away from artefacts and towards the idea of networks and systems. The exhibited work is in the development process, pointing to the junctures where technology, bodies, and cultural theory intersect in a decentralised soft assembly in which Art, Technology, and Science act as equal partners for enhanced sustainability.

Protonotations; choreography-driven exploration of protocells movement

Maros Pekarik & Elisa Pettina, Trento University (IT)

The project is an explorative study of biological organisms and biochemistry through experiments with protocells. At the moment we are focusing on the self-propelled motions of chemical objects while we study and report on factors (like shape and chemical composition) influencing the behaviour of these chemicals in both individual and swarm scenarios.

Because the motion of these chemical reactions resembles living organisms, our aim is to develop a series of protocell choreographies as building blocks for devising dance, visual and sonic performances presented at the exhibition and executed by the visitors of Art Quarter Budapest. The visitors will engage in the execution of these dance performances by activating chambers with the supply of reactive material necessary for protocells to move - therefore live and dance.

The movement of the protocell dancers will be monitored by a mounted camera and sonified in real-time, creating atmospheric and playful soundscapes. The character of the protocell movement (like speed, direction etc.) and overall choreography will have a direct impact on the sonic output of the performance. 


Marija Šumarac (Aalto University, FI), Edit Blaumann (Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, HU), Sólja Holm Mortensen (Aalborg University, DK)

The current climate crisis has resulted in more extreme weather across the globe. Some countries suffer from long lasting heatwaves and extreme droughts while in others, storms have become harsher and more frequent. Especially the droughts and heatwaves have resulted in unexpected deaths. This project is a research into algorithmic patterns found in nature which, if not to negate the problem, might be a support to ease the symptoms and sustain human life in these extreme conditions. 

EMPATH: A true Intelligence, artificial or not, comes from embodied knowledge

Hege Tapio (i/o/lab, NO) and Yu-Han Tseng (Aalto University, FI) 

Hege Tapio, artistic concept and model development / Yu-Han Tseng, development of Arduino programming for EEG signals (five channels of band power) and transform them into visual particle effects and different motor behaviours. 

The project is connected with Hege Tapio’s current PhD research and explores how we might envision possible and speculative convergences of machine technology and human bodies, with focus on the areas involving emotions, sensing and empathy. The current research and development on emotional intelligence is mostly reflected in affective technology which primarily is based on reading and interpreting human emotions through the analysis of facial expressions, tonal voice and biometric signals.

The most referred research on affective technology stems from Affective Computer Research Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has been a driving force to develop our understanding on the importance of emotion technology.

Andrew McStay, professor of Bangor University (UK) and leader of the international research group The Emotional Research Lab is contributing to our understanding of the possible implications of this technology. His book (from 2018) «Emotional AI: The Rise of Empathic Media” McStay is pointing out how the need of empathy and feeling of connectedness has increased in our “hype cycle” of AI systems, and that “one might reason that AI has no value until it is sensitive to feelings, emotions and intention.”

The project seeks to explore how the use of EEG signals and soft robotics may contribute to a visual, tactile and embodied translation of brain states. The project might be extended to include plant peptide, and 3D extruded models of molecular structures.



Radical Speculations: Artificial Biology and Robotics meet Art and Architecture