Flocking Stories

How do the stories we tell about ourselves bring us together or force us to seek out new paths?

Our latest and most intensive adventure in public computing is an immersive digital art installation that explores how simulations of complex, emergent patterns - such as flocking - might provide new ways to examine that question, at the intersection of art and science. We created this project funded in part by a Paul D. Fleck Fellowship, an Artist Residency in Digital and Media Art, curated by Jean Macpherson at the Leighton Studios, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, from April 17 - May 1, 2019.

Flocking simulations aren’t a set of instructions for an entire flock to follow. Instead, they work by giving rules to each individual bird in the flock. When they all follow those rules, flocking patterns emerge across the whole group. The algorithms that drive these simulations typically give the boids (the digital bird-like shapes) instructions in the form of three numbers: cohesion, separation and alignment. Separation: How far away should I steer from other individual boids? Alignment: How much should I line up my direction with the others around me? Cohesion: How close should I try to stay with the centre of the flock? This is the standard flocking algorithm, created by Craig Reynolds in 1986 and implemented in Processing (the open source platform we used for this installation) by Daniel Shiffman.

Flocking algorithms don’t have to apply only to birds. They can also describe how people build communities, change personal and professional pathways, and are influenced by both the individuals and cultures that surround them. In this installation, we play with the ways that stories and songs can change and influence these rules. One half of the installation explores music and movement. Music was composed specifically to work with the algorithm and effect the movement of the boids. Visitors can also manipulate those compositions and add their own songs and sounds. The algorithm also analyses the frequency and amplitude of the sound, and the simulation then uses that information to shape the interactions and movement of the boids. Low pitch sounds change the separation of the boids, spreading out the flocks. Medium pitch sounds change the alignment, encouraging shared direction and movement. High pitch sounds change the cohesion, creating tight-knit or dispersed groups. The overall effect is a shared experience of dance and movement that responds to the co-created songs and sounds.

The other half of the installation challenges us to think about how can we tell and listen to personal narratives in ways that help us understand the emergence, convergence, and divergence of queer and trans experiences. In this simulation, there are two types of boids: normative and non-normative. Normative boids flock based on the standard flocking algorithm. The non-normative boids move and flock based on the same sound analysis as the other simulation but applied to narratives instead of songs. Each non-normative boid holds a story that, when chosen, will play for the other non-normative boids to listen and react to. The visitors can also listen to the story. Each story tells the listener about the speaker’s experiences of gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality-based marginalizations and resilience. Visitors can also record their own stories to be carried by a boid. Based on the same frequency and amplitude analysis, the story impacts how the non-normative boids flock together, create communities and move through space. But in this simulation the boids are not alone. The world in which they move together is also inhabited by institutions, some supportive and themselves non-normative and others that represent normative and dominant practices and power structures. As the boids pass through or near these institutions they gain or lose energy, sometimes even getting trapped and left behind by the flock. This installation, by combining computational simulations of emergent complex behaviours with rich individual stories, seeks to open new ways to engage in public discussion about gender and sexuality-based marginalization and resilience through public coding and art.

Credits: The artists funded by the Paul D Fleck Fellowship are: Dr. Pratim Sengupta, Dr. Marie-Claire Shanahan, Dylan Paré, John Craig, Basak Helvaci Özacar and Michael Cutler. The entire team contributed to the project, and we are grateful to Derek Beaulieu and Jean Macpherson for valuable early conversations during project conceptualization. Original music composed and performed by Michael Cutler in collaboration with the Boids. Software development and hardware integration led by John Craig, Dylan Paré and Basak Helvaci Özacar. Queer narratives project is being led by Dylan Paré as part of their doctoral work. We used Dan Shiffman's implementation of Craig Reynold's Flocking algorithm in Processing (open source). We want to sincerely thank the Banff Centre and the Leighton Studio's production team for their support and contributions without which the project wouldn’t exist. Funding support from the US National Science Foundation is also acknowledged.