Transmedia Assistant Professor Kristin Lucas explores environmental and ecological issues through virtual and augmented reality.
by Alicia Dietrich
Flamingos are a huge part of our visual culture—you’ll see them emblazoned on everything from socks to phone cases to home décor. But as familiar as the images are to most of us, many people don’t realize that these wading birds have seen dramatic declines in population as their natural habitats have been destroyed or modified by human activity and threatened by climate change.
Kristin Lucas, an assistant professor in Studio Art, has been working on a series of projects since 2015 that celebrate flamingos and bring attention to their plight.
“I am interested in the presence and absence of the flamingo in the U.S., and how our strong visual culture around the flamingo contrasts with the bird’s status in the wild,” said Lucas.
When she was invited to do a solo exhibition in 2015 in Gainesville, Florida, Lucas began researching the state’s biodiversity, as well as its industries and the qualities that make Florida unique. As a coastal state, Florida is especially vulnerable to sea-level rise due to climate change, and projections showed that wading birds were going to be among the first species affected by rising waters. As Lucas looked around at the visual culture in the state, she noticed one image over and over again.
“I was seeing representations of flamingos everywhere, but I wasn't seeing the bird in the wild,” Lucas said. “I came to realize how much our relationship to flamingos is virtual.”
As it turned out, wild flamingos have not been common in Florida for nearly a century because of over-hunting in the early 1900s, when flamingos were hunted for their plumage (to make hats) and for their meat. Interested in this idea of presence and absence, Lucas created an augmented reality sculpture park that used postcards of flamingos in Florida to launch an outdoor virtual exhibition that could be viewed through a smartphone. She invited 10 other artists to create virtual sculptures for the show, asking them to focus on themes of land art and land use.
Lucas has spent her career as an interdisciplinary artist and has worked with emerging technologies as part of her practice. When she was invited to participate in a residency program at Oregon Story Board using HoloLens mixed reality headsets, she saw an opportunity to use the technology to create a virtual experience in which users could see one another as having holographic flamingo heads.
"Simply put, Kristin doesn’t think like other artists,” said Jack Risley, chair of the UT Department of Art and Art History in the College of Fine Arts. “She has a remarkable ability to synthesize ideas and methods that appear incongruous. Her work is a mash-up of the arcane and the cutting edge, the cerebral and the visceral, the comic and the despairing. Kristin knows how to command our attention and keep it directed on the exigencies of our fragile world."
Lucas’ work at Oregon Story Board became a prototype for a larger-scale project when she was one of five artists selected to receive a $100,000 Engadget Alternate Realities Grant. Engadget, a blog network focused on covering gadgets and consumer electronics, invited Lucas to create and showcase an augmented and mixed reality project as part of The Engadget Experience in Los Angeles in November 2017.
Before heading to Los Angeles, Lucas was able to continue her research on flamingos through another grant and residency in Israel that allowed her to spend time observing a colony of greater flamingos—the first time that Lucas had ever observed flamingos in the wild. The colony was in a salt pan of a salt factory, and although the flamingos had adapted to living in this human-made environment because of the year-round food supply, it wasn’t a natural habitat for them. Their paler-than-usual color indicated there may be deficiencies in their diet. Also, they weren’t following their usual migratory patterns.
“I saw how much human activity was changing the behavior of the flamingos,” said Lucas. “A local conservationist who accompanied me estimated that 400 or so flamingos had made the salt pan their permanent residence, and that they would be joined by 600 more flamingos during the wintering season. They had been there since the ’60s or ’70s, and they were building nests, but they were not breeding.”
Lucas began thinking about the ways that flamingos had adapted to human-made environments and how she could highlight the ability of humans to adapt to living more consciously with other species as members of an ecosystem.
“I was inspired by the success story of conservationists in France who collaborated with a salt factory on the construction of an artificial nesting island to encourage breeding and facilitate the survival of a declining population of flamingos in the ’60s. I saw the potential for humans to adapt to flamingos rather than of the other way around,” said Lucas. “I wanted to design exercises for shifting from a human-centered to an ecological worldview in ways that were social and fun at an ethical distance. Habitat disturbance and decline in habitat quality have impacted flamingo breeding, so I made the flamingo courtship march the central focus of my work.”
For The Engadget Experience, Lucas continued to flesh out her idea, and during a tech residency at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York, she used her Engadget grant to hire and direct a production team including a designer, sound composer and software developers to help support an augmented and mixed reality project. Tommy Martinez, who runs the Virtual Environments Lab at Pioneers Works, helped her prototype in augmented reality using Apple’s ARKit platform.
Lucas consulted with international flamingo specialists and integrated their research into her experience. A team of conservationists in France shared their research on the flamingo courtship march, and Lucas used it to create a choreography that she later performed wearing a motion-capture suit. The flamingos featured in her AR experiences were created using human motion capture of her performing like a flamingo.
For the debut of “Dance with flARmingos” at the Engadget Alternate Reality Experience, Lucas created an environment where guests could rotate through different stages of an experience. Guests would be greeted by Lucas and her assistants at the entrance, where they would sample a specially blended flamingo wetland habitat fragrance to create a sense of destination. They would also hear about flamingo habitats and their specific dietary needs.
“I wanted to alter the ground you were standing on just a bit,” said Lucas. “I created a premise of ecotourism with a few degrees of distance, using fragrance design and technological mediation. The augmented reality flamingos are cartoony and flamingo-like yet uncanny because they are animated by human motion capture of someone (me) working very hard at trying to move like a flamingo. This work goes way over the top with exuberance for the flamingo’s mating dance. The choreography is based on scientific research. You could join a colony of flamingos in their mating dance, and dance with other humans in interspecies solidarity to original flamingo-inspired music.”
Guests would then be given an iPad with an app that allowed them to add flamingos to their surroundings in augmented reality. The flamingos featured in the virtual world were representations of wild flamingos that Lucas had adopted, and users could tap on individual flamingos to learn about that particular flamingo’s biographical and migration data.
The next station outfitted guests with HoloLens mixed reality headsets. Everyone wearing a headset could see the other headset-wearers as having flamingo heads alongside a virtual colony of 20 flamingos performing a mating dance. Guests were invited to join in the dance, their flamingo heads tracking with the movement of their headsets. The iPads and HoloLenses were networked so that iPad users would see the guests wearing the HoloLens headsets as having flamingo heads in augmented reality when they viewed the room through the screen.
At the end of the piece, guests could adopt a flamingo in the wild, which allowed the project to support real-life conservation efforts of flamingo colonies.
“The level of visibility from Engadget and Pioneer Works together really created a perfect storm that really catapulted her into a totally new arena, new level,” said Regine Basha, residency director at Pioneer Works. “Environmentalists got really excited about what she was doing. She articulated this project really well and went the full nine yards by incorporating an angle in which you could adopt a flamingo.”
Lucas also developed “FLARMINGOS,” a free mobile app that uses a flocking algorithm, a computational program that simulates the flocking behavior of birds, to animate flamingos performing a mating dance in augmented reality. Users can also adopt a flamingo through the app to support conservation efforts. This fall, an updated version of the app was released that allows multiple users to create a shared augmented reality experience in which they can build a virtual population of flamingos in their area, collaboratively. Lucas plans to continue her research and work during the next year while she’s on research leave from the college.
“We are wading through flamingo tchotchke,” said Lucas. “We have flamingo fashion, we have flamingos in the yard, we have inflatable flamingo pool floats and neon signs, flamingo auto mechanics and motels. There’s a whole economy around flamingo impressions, yet most people don’t realize the threats flamingos are up against. The flamingo to me is a flagship species. I see our affinity for the bird as a gateway to having a deeper conversation about ecology and human activity, and I seek to illuminate pathways to agency through conservation initiatives. My work is as much about humans as it is about flamingos.”