Natural Intelligence Techno-Domestic Invasion

Natural Intelligence Techno-Domestic Invasion

Medium: Interactive installation with tomato plant, domestic objects, Arduino-compiled automation of robot arm, light/soil moisture sensor, water pump, UV ray lightbulb.

Date: Winter 2020

Natural Intelligence Techno-Domestic Invasion is an interactive installation imagining the convergence of organic and technological systems as a dominant trait in natural evolution. Agricultural plants are speculated as intelligent entities employing humans and machines in their survival and geographic expansion. Luring us with the promise of their fruit, agricultural plants such as the tomato have seduced humans to cater to their development by artificial means in artificial environments. The tomato's integration with humans and technology allows it to spread into terrains and climates that are naturally unsuitable and unsustainable. The installation functions as such an integrated automated system for vegetation-growth. The tomato plant is watered by a robotic arm when the moisture level is low in the soil. It is provided a full spectrum LED lighting when there is insufficient light detected in the room. The autosensing and auto-responsive system contemplates human-techno assistance as an essential survival trait for plants in the race for survival.

Today, plant-growing hydroponics/aquaponics/lighting stations are manufactured and sold everywhere online or in stores. They are found in homes, farms, labs all across North America. Agricultural plants that are equipped with technological assistance and human care cheat their way through natural selection by invading into inhospitable/incompatible environments and out-trumping the vegetation that naturally grows in the geographic region. We can already see this in the deforestation of jungles where natural vegetation is compromised for the growth of agricultural plants. Human and technological support is increasingly becoming a requisite that determine whether a plant-species lives on or dies out. The piece contemplates how the interplay between humans, technology, and plants are reshaping current and future bio-evolution on the planet.

The installation juxtaposes hard mechanical systems with a soft organic body. They are merged together to form one hybrid form of techno-vegetable. The coupling questions whether nature has become mechanized or machines have become naturalized. The merging of the soft and hard forms blurs the boundaries between natural and artificial entities. The flow of their exchange and synchronized systems imagine an alternative techno-bio form that is increasingly becoming the dominant species on the planet.

The installation is a conglomeration of domestic items such as buckets, lamp, and shelf, with technical equipment such as electronic sensors and mechanical actuators. It reflects the types of environments adopted by agricultural plants which have easy access to humans and technology. This environment imagines the self-domestication and self-artificialization of agricultural plants for survival purposes.

The tomato plant is quiet, puny, and seemingly powerless amidst its surrounding of technology and man-made articles. Behind appearances, however, the entire structure and function of the system is centralized around the plant. All operations of observation and maintenance are facilitated toward this principal figure of the tomato. In accordance with Levi Bryant’s Machine Oriented Ontology, the project thinks of plants as opportunistic agents which control and change their environment for their benefit. Agricultural plants which have traditionally been viewed as objects colonized by humans, are presented as entities with intelligence and command over humans and human-made tools.

In this context, I am not the artist of the installation, but merely a mediator. Having been convinced by the plant’s promise of delicious produce, I have assembled all the necessary technology to sustain its development. I have been recruited by the tomato plant, and the installation is an environment of the plant's design. Through the automatic regulation of light and water, the tomato can now live and grow where I live in Calgary, even through the long winters with short hours of sun.

The system works by series of sensors and actuators. A capacitative soil sensor detects the moisture level in the soil. A hose extends out from a submersible pond pump which spurts out water. The end of the hose is attached to a robot arm that rotates around the plant. When the moisture level is low, the pump is initiated, and the robot arm choreographically hoses over the soil, covering all areas inside the pot. Once the soil reaches a sufficient moisture state, pump and robot arm both cease.

Tomatoes plants require eight or more hours of light a day. A photocell is tracking the level of light in the room. It acts as a button for a solid-state relay that switches on a big light bulb that hangs over the plant. When the photocell senses that there is insufficient lighting in the room, it will trigger the lightbulb to turn on. When the photocell senses that there is enough light in the room, it will keep the light bulb off.

Neopixels are placed around the plant as a way of giving the plant communication capabilities. They blink different shades of colours in response to various conditions of the plant. When the soil level is too dry, the neopixels will blink blue, to communicate that the plant requires water. When the light level is too low, the neopixels will blink yellow, demanding for more light. When these levels are both corrected by the automated system, the neopixels will blink in a rainbow shade to communicate that the tomato is happily satisfied.


  • Bryant, Levi. Onto-Cartography An Ontology of Machines and Media. Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2014, Edinburgh, pp.33-35 Bryant, Levi. The Democracy of Objects. Open Humanities Press, 2011, p 27.