Notes from project ‘The Flight’
The original text was written in Korean. This is a translated version.

1. ‘The Flight’

Project ‘The Flight’ began as a continuation of the Project ‘Nested Realities,’ which started in the Netherlands in 2021. Nested Realities was a collaborative project with the art and technology festival STRP in Eindhoven, Netherlands, and the migratory bird research center UvA-BiTS; it attempted to create meanings behind the crossing of wild and digital interactions by using the migration route of the European honey buzzard 600 (bird identification number) from the Republic of Liberia in Africa to the Netherlands. The National Migratory Birds Center in South Korea generously provided tracking records of Cuckoo 62395 from Yangpyeong, South Korea to the Republic of Botswana, Africa, and back to Yangpyeong for this project, which was sponsored by Hyundai Motor’s ZER01NE.

Since the beginning, the core of the project has always been the idea that non-human nature will influence the human realm in more diverse ways through technology.  In this era when the impact of human activities on ecology has dramatically increased due to highly advanced technologies, the project aimed to test what kind of scenarios would occur if there was a transformation in human technology and a change of its direction through the direct and indirect collaboration of various living creatures on Earth. Social responses to environmental crises are limited to human-centered perspectives and by encouraging other-than-human animals, plants and such, to penetrate the human realm including tools, systems, infrastructure, and cities, we may be able to embrace a variety of unintended ecological values and seek alternatives to technology use.  

This project conducted in South Korea with a cuckoo was designed as an experiment to understand how wild birds’ movements could impact the online world and occupy a space for the wild on the Internet. The project followed Cuckoo 62395 on his one-year journey and a data algorithm navigates his path automatically. A long line connecting latitude and longitude coordinates shows where the cuckoo flew over; the program pulls up names of places along the route and searches for them automatically on online platforms like YouTube. The results of the search are then displayed on multiple screens in the exhibition. In the most ideal situation, screens would display searched videos and images in real-time and hence reflect changes on the internet. The images displayed today may differ from those to be displayed tomorrow. This manifests and visualizes ecological chains, and in addition, ecological data serves as a starting point for alternative directions and a medium for creation. Depending on the internet connection, a real-time search may not be possible at some exhibition venues and pre-downloaded files based on the search list will be displayed instead.

A PTT tracker was attached to Cuckoo 62395 on 28 May 2019 in Yangpyeong, and the last data was recorded on 14 July 2020. Dr. Jinwon Lee, who led the research, believes that the cuckoo died at this point. The work begins with the tracker being tagged to the bird and ends when the bird dies, and the algorithm reads each record one by one in chronological sequence.

If birds could use the Internet, they could have seen the videos and this could have been an online navigation guided by birds. We can only speculate on how the Internet will transform and evolve as it embraces nature’s influence. The rest is up to the viewers’ interpretation.

This project was supported by Hyundai Motor’s ZER01NE as well as data provided by the National Migratory Birds Center and advice from the Researcher Dong-Won Kim and Dr. Jinwon Lee of Kyung Hee University.

Autumn migration route of 6 cuckoos. Yellow line is the route from Cuckoo 62395.

Spring migration route of 3 cuckoos. Yellow line is the route from Cuckoo 62395.

Images provided by: National Migratory Birds Center of South Korea

2. Introduction

This is a collection of notes taken from the my mobile phone journal written while riding subway line no.2 between Sindorim and Gangnam station from May to July 2022.

I wrote as my thoughts came to me and the text may not flow smoothly.  This is not a thesis, but excerpts from my own notes that I reorganized to publish because I preferred to share them alongside my work rather than keeping them to myself. When I used someone else’s ideas in my writing, I tried to include references.

Some of the writings may change or be revised in the future. Please read it as if you and I are having a conversation. Please send comments and feedback to my email. Thank you.

3. Artist Notes

Humans, and largely animals, have a special intellectual ability: when taught one or two, they have the skill to analogize and understand ten. Similarly, computers can have a certain level of intelligence, but it requires a new set of algorithms to self-infer the remaining ten.  When a single input is made that calculates ten different scenarios, a new algorithm should be added to predict further fifty outcomes from those ten existing scenarios.

How far can machine learning technology advance in terms of developing its own algorithms and programming new code to expand its knowledge? How much self-programming can be done without the assistance of men? Will machines be able to handle the unexpected errors while programming? I am curious to see if it is only non-mechanics, living creatures that have the ability to expand their own bodies using self-made systems, or if smart machines can actually design new tools that can be optimized for them.

Cuckoos are brood parasitic birds. Brood parasitism is one of their survival strategies, which evolved in such a way for unknown reasons, but men consider this to be a shameless act. Cuckoo brood parasitism though is not an easy feat at all. A female cuckoo bird drops approximately 20 of its eggs one by one in host nests and must go to great lengths to extract one of the host’s eggs to sneak one of its own into the host’s nest. Mother cuckoos have their own way of bringing offspring into the world and rely on others to raise them.  Cuckoos use external systems and extend their actions to go beyond their physical abilities. (In this case, the external system is the host’s biological and instinctive nurturing system.) I see this as a form of hacking because cuckoos hack the system of the host, the vinous-throated parrotbill species, for its own use. Humans and robots extend their abilities through all sorts of machines while many non-human animals use other animals. Men build the machines that they need for themselves, whereas animals hack into the systems of other animals that exist around them.

It is fascinating to see the way animals live in which they hack into one another, take advantage of one another, and form unusual relationships between species. Humans, non-human animals, and machines can all have similar hacking (and hacked) relationships and I wish this ‘hack-relationships’ could be done in more diverse methods so that wild nature can infiltrate man-made technologies. In this regard, I thought cuckoos were ideal for the subject of my work.

What if, like brood parasites who place eggs in a host’s nest, cuckoos can fly and upload files to every corner of the Internet? How complex would the algorithm have to be to enable this?  A completely new approach may be required to reconfigure the system that is optimized for humans in order to make it optimal for other animals. When it comes to specific tools, men tend to have clear intentions and objectives, whereas when non-human animals face a tool designed for humans, they need to first think through what they could do with it and determine if the tool in front of them is not an obstacle but an instrument. To aid this cognitive process, the tools should be able to understand how an animal sees the world and why it moves, and they should be equipped with an animal-friendly interface or a device that allows the animal to recognize the tool. Tools should also be proactive as opposed to passive.

Whether or not the animal is aware of its use, the tool could have been designed to operate based on specific animal behavior. The animal will go about its daily life completely unaware that they are using the tool, while the tool will continue to function under the control of the animal’s movement. The tool’s results are influenced by the tool developer’s intention. Majority of the time developers are humans, and no matter how hard the developer tries to exclude their intentions, the latter will inevitably be incorporated into the tool.

However, it is a whole different story if the tool can modify its own actions or educate itself to add new ones. Tools begin with the creator’s intention, but it can change in response to animal behaviors. This is, in my opinion, one of the most appealing aspects of automation. Depending on how precisely the animals’ behavior can be measured, the tool’s sensitivity may also be improved. The more measurable nature becomes, the more it is integrated into the digital world. Moreover, the reason why automation was chosen for my project is because it can operate independently from humans and can be used to strengthen and amplify the power of other subjects rather than be used in the production process to generate human profit. I feel a sense of accomplishment and contentment in creating a successful automation.

Image of a region in Mozambique. After flying from Yangpyeong to Africa, Cuckoo 62395 spent much of the winter here. Data from National Migratory Birds Center, Image from Google Earth

Everything in the world is a system.

The following is an excerpt from Keller Easterling’s Medium Design:

“Gregory Bateson analyzed potentials in human and non-human arrangements and exchanges as if they were information systems. He observed that a man, a tree and an ax is an information system. Even those contemporary thinkers like César Hidalgo who are foregrounding digital tools in complex economic formulations do not separate digital networks from the networks of people and ‘solids’ in the world. All of these are information systems that ‘compute’.”

After reading this passage, I realized that everything related to my work – the cuckoo, GPS tracker, location data, browsing algorithm, computer, the Internet, every location the cuckoo flew over, everyone who lives in those locations and has uploaded videos of the locations and myself who created this work – functions as an interacting system within a vast and complex network.  Seeing everything -men, cuckoos, computers, woods, axes and rocks- through the lens of information technology enables free thinking outside human superiority, and the division between digital and physical, nature and technology. This, I believe, could be a hint to overcome the limitation of dichotomy between nature and culture as well as an extremely human-centered thinking system. The passage served as an important guide when I produce and research for my work.  

Cuckoo with tracker number 62395. The satellite tracker-tagged bird traveled to Botswana and returned to Yangpyeong, and his migration routes were used for the Flight Project. (Image provided by Dr. Jin-Won Lee)

Mobility of other animals, quite different from us humans...

To automate web browsing, bots, rather than humans, should connect to data available on all types of websites via web browsers. Bots follow the cuckoo’s data and become his hands and feet to enable online activities, but the system behind the websites have little idea on what or who is behind the activities. They have no immediate way of knowing whether the bots are working for the cuckoo or someone is attempting to hack into the website or steal sensitive information. Web scraping lies between legal and illegal, depending on the information targeted and the subsequent use of the information. Web scraping itself is used to automate human web browsing and data gathering but it can be controversial exactly how much of automation should be allowed. Human web browsing is limited by human slowness, whereas bots can do it at an unrivaled speed, sweeping all text and images on a loaded web page in just milliseconds. Reading, storing, analyzing and processing large amounts of data at an excessively fast pace can pose a threat to those who run or use websites. Bots’ infinite browsing is limited by various devices such as CAPTCHA, and they must prove themselves to be humans by playing silly games such as puzzle-solving and finding traffic lights among various images. So, how does a cuckoo prove himself that he is not a human or a robot, but a cuckoo? He is neither welcomed nor rejected on the Internet because he never existed and might never exist. Online users are either humans or robots, and humans are welcomed as a source of free resource on all types of search engines and social media sites because they create data. However, bots that do not provide resources but instead sweep them are not welcomed anywhere.

A bot, which is mostly algorithms, accesses a website through an automated browser such as Chromium, and a site can easily recognize that the user is not a human. However, if I build a robot with fingers that uses a mouse and keyboard to physically use a computer, the site will not be able to tell whether the user is a man or a bot, and only occasional random CAPTCHA will be able to catch the user’s true identity.

Increased difficulty in the act of ‘searching’. Purposeful navigations are more and more discouraged.

TikTok, Instagram and YouTube Shorts do not encourage systematic and deliberate web browsing.

Every day, millions of images are uploaded to the Internet. Social media platforms can employ a variety of strategies to manage and distribute massive amounts of images.

Initially, visual media on computers were more likely saved and distributed as archives.  As if a systemized city of information or library network were transported to the virtual world, information on the web used to be organized logically rather than floating around, and specific information were found through a systematic search. This is similar to how we go to the library and search for the subject, author, publisher, and other keywords to navigate ourselves to find a specific book.

The approach to dealing with the data on Internet appears to have had been influenced by traditional information handling systems to some extent. However, it seems that in recent years, a new, different navigation methods with different objectives have eroded the former.

Scroll aimlessly and engross in the sea of infinite random videos.

Computers as archives have certainly not vanished. Smarter archive systems have been developed and computers have been using more complex systems to categorize more information and enable flexible searches. TikTok, YouTube Shorts, Instagram Reels and Stories, on the other hand, prompt random and aimless browsing in the extent previously unheard of. This recalls helpless moments of gratification when people became couch potatoes in front of multiple channels of television. Computers and the Internet both provided unprecedented freedom in image reproduction and distribution as well as an increase in platforms that encourage meaningless scrolling. This may have led to the emergence of a distinct online culture in which fragments of videos are empowered and fully utilized. In the cases of TikTok and YouTube Shorts, the act of searching has become almost meaningless. We used to be fascinated by the suggestions of video algorithm, becoming trapped in a never-ending cycle of clicks, the filter bubble. We now scroll through videos generated by an increasingly more random algorithm, immersing ourselves in an infinite sea of random videos.

The algorithm that I am developing within the project, retrieves the names of the places the cuckoo flew over from Google Map’s API and searches for them across several media sites, the main being YouTube. There seems to be relatively little amount of videos titled or tagged with the actual location names among the countless videos uploaded online. I felt that much of the information on the Internet has lost its ties to the physical locations where it was generated, therefore the Internet may appear to the users as an illusion devoid of substance, a mirage devoid of the physical. Meanwhile, when the location names are searched, a wide range of content is still available, and I believe that all of this collected information tells the story of the bird once more in another way. The algorithm follows the bird’s data and threads the beads in the sea of infinite data. The migration route becomes the thread and all the videos of the locations that have been searched become the beads. Data is abundant, and in most cases, they are grouped by various algorithms and displayed in a specific order.  The navigation algorithm that tracks the bird takes us humans to places we have never been before and forges a new path on the Internet.

ZER01NE hosted a program called ‘Competency Sharing’ every Wednesday in June and July, 2022.

This year’s artists, designers, and engineers gave presentations on their work and topics, which were followed by a discussion. Ko Hui, an artist who has long worked on audio-visual projects gave a presentation about ‘Randomness’. During his presentation, he mentioned a YouTube algorithm that plays videos automatically. As I listened, I realized that I had not yet done an extensive research on Random and at the same time I discovered that all of the data I was always handling contained an adequate amount of random elements.

Data from the wild is appealing because humans can only manage or control so much. Since we began to use computers, our lives have become more predictable. The streets of the city where I live, how to get from point A to B, estimated travel time, the weather of the day and what will most probably happen in between these events have all become fairly predictable. This is in line with what one participant said at the Co-emerging Economies workshop held at Baltan Laboratory in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Aren’t there fewer coincidences in people’s lives now than there were before smartphones? On the same day when the artist Ko Hui gave a presentation, white Hacker Lee Donghyun explained some of his hacking techniques with examples. He explained that CAPTCHA detects even the slightest cursor movement and can determine whether it was solved by a human using a mouse or by a bot using an algorithm. In addition, Ko Hui explained how to use random (or noise) in the algorithm to replicate inked brush strokes within the digital environment in the most realistic way possible. He said that he used random to create the ink shades seen in the lines as well as shapes and textures created as the brush is lifted off the paper. The mouse cursor moves from point A to point B on the screen, a brush moves from point A to point B on paper and I move from point A to point B in a city. Computers can recognize A and B as two points, ‘A or B’ being two separate points but, in the physical world, what lies between A and B is an infinite universe. In the space between the two points, complex whirlpools form various tremors and coincidences. Computers simply replace this as A or B. Do we not use random to re-generate the lost universe in the computer on purpose? Random determines how to connect points A and B, and what kind of extensive the universe will come in between. Therefore, studying Random, understanding its various types, how each different random is generated, and researching how to use it is critical.  

Image of a region in Botswana, Africa. It is the farthest point of migration from Yangpyeong, Korea. Cuckoo 62395 spent the last bit of the winter in Botswana before returning to Korea in the spring. Data from National Migratory Birds Center, Image from Google Earth

Data connects and mediates between the physical world and the digital world in computers. If there is no data, how can the physical world infiltrate and be incorporated into the digital world? Perhaps the digital world, which originates from the physical world, and the existence of data, which has become a doorway to the digital world, are a collection of fragments that replicate the physical world in crude ways. Isn’t the digital world a representation of the real world, and furthermore, an augmentation of the real world?

I must admit that I was slightly frustrated when I first received the original Common Cuckoo migration route data because the resolution was rather low. I learned later on that the cuckoo’s PTT tracker needed to charge 48 hours with a tiny solar panel and would turn on for 8 to 10 hours. Furthermore, this device was one of the smallest, most lightweight and still relatively reliable one available so far, for tracking cuckoos. Cuckoos are small birds and this is the limitation of current technology. When tracking migratory birds, it is considered successful if the entire cycle of a year can be tracked, according to a researcher at the National Migratory Birds Center. Every year, migrating birds return to their breeding grounds and fly back to their wintering grounds. These two trips are tracked by the geolocation trackers. Cuckoos can be found all over the Eurasian continent, and no one knew where the cuckoos that breed in Korea went during winter. In 2019, the National Migratory Birds Center in collaboration with a research team from Kyung Hee University conducted a research and discovered for the first time that cuckoos that breed in Korea spend the winter in Eastern Africa. They usually spend the winter in Tanzania and neighboring countries and return to Korea in the spring.  A male cuckoo weighs about 120g on average, making it one of the smallest and lightest species capable of attaching a 5g tracker. The tracker should be less than 5% of the bird’s weight and ideally, it should be 3% of the bird’s weight. As a result, a 5g tracker is suitable for a 120g cuckoo for the project.

Cuckoos, interestingly, travel from east to west and vice versa, not from north to south. It is difficult to explain exactly why cuckoos travel all the way to Africa. People could hypothesize but no one knows for certain. What is interesting is that cuckoos from all over Eurasia migrate to Africa before winter. They all gather in Africa during the winter and return to their breeding grounds in the summer. One theory is that during the ice age, the only places where cuckoos lived were in Africa. Then, as the ice age ended, their habitat may have expanded, but they continued to return to the same wintering grounds. (National Migratory Birds Center Policy Briefing, Policy Briefing by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, South Korea) Why do some cuckoos travel in spring to Korea while others travel to Mongolia and Siberia? The scientists say that these locations are encoded in the DNA of the birds. The Earth’s positions that determine their lives are set from a very primitive level of heredity.

I had no choice but to accept the data as it is after learning about the significance of the cuckoo tracking research, the technical constraints of the equipment, and the best ways to operate it. And of course the enormous efforts of the scientists and the cuckoos that have been put into actually collecting this data. Without this collected data, where cuckoos travel to will have always been a mystery to humans and there certainly would have not been the link for the wild birds’ movements to infiltrate the digital world.

I believe there are at least three other co-creators behind my work: the cuckoo, the algorithm and the set of migration route data. The location data that captures the movement of the cuckoo gains its own independence after being made into a data set, and begins to act as a self-contained individual. This is the seed of creation, and even the low quality of its resolution becomes a distinct attribute.

Near-polar Sun-synchronous Orbit (image by Argos Systems, re-illustrated)

Another shortfall in the cuckoo’s migration route data is the error radius of the coordinates.

The PTT tracker tagged to the cuckoo sends signals to the satellites and the coordinates of the device are measured by the closest one from one of seven Argos satellites orbiting 850km above the ground. A satellite’s measurement of coordinates and their accuracy are determined by the satellite’s position in orbit, the rotation angle of the Earth and the location of the bird. The seven Argos satellites move within a polar orbit that passes through the north and south poles and one round around the Earth takes about 100 minutes. Each satellite has a view radius of 5,000km and if the bird is within that radius, the satellite can receive the tracker’s signal and calculate the coordinates. The system can do its job no matter where the bird is in the world, and track it in real-time. However, it does not provide a precise location analysis. For example, it could tell that the bird flew over a lake but cannot locate exactly which tree around the lake the bird sat on before flying again. Dr. Lee referred to some of the coordinates as ‘bounced’, referring to a very clear error in which, despite being not having a large error radius value, it is considered impossible for the bird to fly such a distance within the given timeframe and those coordinates must be excluded without exception.

5000km Diameter Visibility Area (image by Argos Systems, re-illustrated)

Overlap between areas covered by two successive passes. (image by Argos Systems, re-illustrated)

Whether I consider the errors to be flaws or not in the context of an art project is a matter of personal judgement, since what I am doing is not a scientific research. I am still debating whether to eliminate all ‘bounced’ coordinates, and furthermore to eliminate all the coordinates that have an error radius more than a certain amount. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that I should respect the raw data and prepare the data as closely to the original as possible. Every coordinate has its own set of properties and came to exist inevitably. The movement of the bird flying with the tracker is, of course, the beginning of this fate. Because the bird existed somewhere, the coordinates exist (regardless of how far out of range they are) and therefore the bird’s flutters became capable of influencing the Internet.

According to the National Migratory Birds Center, “the total distance that the three cuckoos traveled was over 20,000km each, with the farthest being 24,012km.”

Out of ten cuckoos with transmission devices tagged to them, signals from six cuckoos were detected until Africa and three were detected until they returned to Korea. The rest were thought to have died during migration.

The National Migratory Birds Center stated that this study confirms cuckoos fly faster to their breeding grounds in spring than they do in autumn on their way to wintering grounds. The cuckoos travel 77 days on average in autumn 142km on average per day, whereas the average travel period in spring to return to Korea was 51 days averaging 232km per day.

    - OhmyNews

The Internet is not a free bird. 

The cross-border routes of migratory birds and our online exploration are both similar yet different. We have access to information all over the world but there are also numerous barriers in the Internet world.

While I was working on this project, I realized how much we rely on Google for web browsing. I noticed that the Google search engine is like a massive octopus with countless tentacles that connects everything in the networked realm. Google Maps and Google Earth serve as if they are bridges between the Internet and the physical spaces. Google has made searching easier and in a sense much more efficient, but we can as well critically measure how much we rely on it and what caves it creates in the Internet.

Google can fetch plenty of data from the various locations the bird flew by, and when this data is requested by specific search keywords (the placenames in this case), Google delivers a selection of data in the most relevant order. Google’s advanced search algorithms and its access to massive amount of data makes search automation far easier, which is a blessing for this project. The project heavily relied on YouTube, also a Google service. YouTube is a video-sharing platform that allows users to upload and distribute videos. The platform appears to have a worldwide dominant position in the industry and by using it I was able to easily find many videos of the locations the bird flew by.  The internet is indeed well watched over and archived by large portals such as Google and this phenomenon could be viewed as a prison that confines me, but it could also be seen as a useful tool that can transport me to every corner of the digital world further, faster and more effectively.

While fully enjoying the convenience that Google provides, language was still a challenge in the course of the project. Reading and writing in Korean and English was by far insufficient to search deep into the locations in India, China and many other countries where the bird passed by. I had to figure out which language the majority of locals use to post information online and then write the search word using that language. Youtube occasionally shows search results in languages other than the one used in the search keyword, but this is not always the case. The automated search system used in my work still requires a significant amount of manual labour. Perhaps the more sophisticated human tasks are required, the less accessible the service becomes for diverse beings. The Internet also resonates with the regional political landscape: when I found myself relieved and at the same time disappointed that the bird did not fly over North Korea, I realized that the Internet is indeed not like a free bird. What kind of alternative internet could a wild bird suggest? How will it differ from the internet as it is now?

Image of a small village in Somalia near the migration routes of Cuckoo 62395. Data from National Migratory Birds Center, Image from Google Earth

Video segments may be the most accurately reflecting the world among a wide range of data kinds. Video requires a large amount of data and it imitates the physical world with high-resolution, countless delicate pixels. The Internet is the place of humans, built by humans for humans. I think the Internet is like an artificial desert. In a desert filled with sands of data without a single tree, all sorts of data exist and disappear and reappear and the users move, disappear, reappear and disappear again. The amount of data is incomprehensible. This is referred to as a sea of data. A desert and a sea made up of small and big particles that imitate human world.

The European honey buzzard from last year’s Nested Realities project traveled through the Sahara Desert, while the cuckoo from this year’s project traveled through the Arabian Sea. When I connected these physical routes to the topography of online data such as YouTube videos and Google images, I noticed that data are mostly concentrated in areas where humans live, with a significant decrease closer to the middle of the desert, sea, and forest.

The specificness of location names or addresses also has an impact on the number of search results. Wild birds’ migration routes consist mostly of natural, rural or suburban areas, seldom passing through urban areas. Even if the bird flew over an area where humans live, it would have more likely been a rural village rather than a big city. Rural villages generally have less search results on the internet than an urban town. While placenames are composed of several levels from streetnames, districts, cities, provinces, to countries, if I would only include the name of the street of a remote village in Korea as a search keyword, (‘1 Bugok-ri’ for example from the full address ‘1 Bugok-ri, Gonggeom-myeon, Sangju-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do’), YouTube, Google, and even Naver(a popular search engine in South Korea) would not be able to show many results. If I use overly specific names for search words, my work will not have enough videos to play and may fail completely. This is also an unavoidable error when tracing the migratory journey of a wild organism using online data, all of which are processes to trace how much space wild nature and human systems overlap each other and also how separated they are.

Some of the locations where the European honey buzzard passed through had few or no YouTube videos as a search result, while others placenames were not listed on Google Maps. In some cases, specifically named areas were so vast that even when the bird’s coordinates changed, the location name remained the same. This mostly happened in the Sahara Desert with the European honey buzzard.

The cuckoo flew about 2,000km across the ‘Arabian Sea’, which in fact is the name given to the entire area between India and Somalia. When you search the Arabian Sea on YouTube, you will come across a fairly vast array of videos. When searching the Arabian Sea in Korean, the majority of the videos are about various types of politics, trades, wars, and weapons taking place in the Arabian Sea or in neighboring countries. These political and cultural videos do not accurately reflect the lives of animals. However, human history has had a significant impact on animal life. The results of location searches show a variety of videos. Even though they are man-made, seeing the videos as part of the cuckoo’s migratory path leads us to notice something else in them. In the video where an Indian goes to a seaside village taking a selfie and talking about his trip, I wondered if the cuckoo was there somewhere in the landscape of trees, mountains, and clouds behind him.

The speed of data transmission is improving, and the impact that the Internet has on us is growing. Images can be transmitted farther and clearer. The Internet, which appears to have no substance, actually has a physical body. Bigger and more powerful servers process massive amounts of data while consuming equally massive amounts of energy.  Data storage and transmission now consume more energy than the aviation industry. An article from left an impression. The increase in energy consumption is not due to a growth of internet users, but rather to an increase in data transmission speed from 3G to 4G, and eventually 5G. Let’s assume one person spends 10 minutes browsing the web on a smartphone. The energy consumed for 10 minutes with a slower internet speed ten years ago and the energy consumed for the same duration with a faster network speed differs significantly. Google cools its massive servers with seawater. The more we use the Internet, the hotter the oceans become, and high-resolution image transfer emits more greenhouse gases.

A babel tower of data will not fall easily. Even if the tower can only exist by destroying nature, information-obsessed humans will find it difficult to destroy the tower. To match humans, whose bodies have been vastly expanded thanks to science and technology, I would like to see non-human nature use all kinds of technologies (already created by humans) to expand their bodies, transform and change the technologies. Despite the fact that the Earth’s ecological balance is in jeopardy, humanity will not abandon the Internet, airplanes, neoliberalism, and capitalism. Moreover, it is questionable whether the tools we use are to blame and whether pursuing desires and dreams and acting on them are all harmful. Human activities have significantly changed the natural environment and I wish non-human animals who are being forced to adapt could invade us back. For instance, if birds, trees, mushrooms, beetles, mosses, and grasses are also Internet users, how will the Internet or digital world differ from what it is now, and what purpose and values will it serve?

When I work on animal projects, people always ask me the same questions. “Do you do this to raise environmental awareness?” and “If you had the opportunity, would you switch to environmentally friendly materials rather than use plastic?” are two of them. Of course, I am concerned about the environment and pollution while working on a project about animals and plants. On the other hand, working with animals and plants does not mean that I begin with the clear intention of protecting nature. Even if the intention is to protect the environment, I believe that reducing the use of plastic, stopping airline travel or quit doing what I have been doing will not be enough.

As stated in Benjamin Bratton’s The Terraforming, Instead of dismissing nature as the background of human history we should recognize that nature is an active subject, and they, like us, have been constantly changing their surroundings. Beyond calling for environmental protection, we should acknowledge the agency of nature. Even if we throw plastics into the environment, there are worms that digest them. Similarly, we must understand that humans are not the only ones who benefit from nature; nature also interprets, utilizes, and changes us. I am interested in seeking alternatives based on this premise. An inspiring artist Semâ Bekirović once said in her book Reading by Osmosis, “Nature interprets us”.

Even if I comfort myself with numerous thoughts and create works of art to find alternatives, I can’t help but be skeptical. Art, in my opinion, is a very human act. This contributes to environmental pollution, especially when an art project is completed by being displayed. Exhibitions are there for humans and works of art have to be more gleaming and glamorous in order to compete. Putting up a show in a polished exhibition space saturated with capitalist aesthetics while the artwork represents ecological thinking is diametrically opposed. Near future, I’d like to experiment on the process of (intentionally) removing both exhibitions and audiences from an art project.

Nature is measured.
Is nature forced to be measured?

An Interview with professor R. Fuller of the University of Queensland, Australia

The professor mentioned that developing and/or inventing technologies that can measure the world more delicately will be beneficial to future research. He added that human bodies and existing devices have limitations in measuring the unknown and that if we can measure nature at a higher resolution than what we know of, humans will be able to better understand nature. What if tens of thousands of drones the size of a small fly could travel around the world, penetrate the forest and measure even the tiniest details in the forest?

However, nature conservation efforts are not always proportional to the advancement of measurement technology.  After all, how we handle the environment depends on human decisions and wills. So no matter how delicate the measuring technology becomes, if the technologies that destroy nature do not improve, advanced measuring technology will be nothing more than a tool to see natural destruction more clearly at a higher resolution.

“We will just see more clearly how the Earth is being destroyed.”

The professor has long studied the public’s perception and psychology of environmental conservation efforts.  ‘What effects motivate people to protect nature?’ I heard from many scientists and ecologists that scientific research helps in understanding and especially quantifying the knowledge gained on nature and, as a result, it serves as a proof in backing up the arguments towards conservation policies.  The more we quantify nature, the more we can use the numbers as a basis for conservation, and the figures are effective in persuading others in a capitalist society. I used to believe that people needed to spend more time in nature in order to feel the need for environmental protection. However, professor Fuller said being surrounded by nature does not necessarily mean understanding the importance of conservation. His several studies found that people living in cities, as opposed to rural areas, better recognize the importance of environmental and ecological conservation and/or restoration and make efforts to achieve it. Humans seem to go through a fairly complex process of rational reasoning to arrive at the concept of ‘protecting the environment.’ Seeing and breathing in the green does not guarantee the understanding of complex ecological relationships. To convince someone of the value of a well-balanced ecosystem and how conservation should be implemented, we must first learn about nature’s invisible role and infer from it.

“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” - Baba Dioum, 1968.

A quote by Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forestry engineer. From Instagram friend Lyn Mason’s post.

Gimcheon research site of Dr. Lee.

On the 2nd and 3rd of June 2022, I visited the cuckoo research site in Gimcheon with Dr. Jin-Won Lee and his research team. Dr. Lee has been studying cuckoos for the past ten years. Every spring, cuckoos return to South Korea after a long journey, and the team routinely captures and releases cuckoos during their mating season. Dr. Lee will travel all over the country again this year until the end of June. On the first week of June one Thursday afternoon, I took the train to Gimcheon to meet him while he was working there. He picked me up around 16:30 in the afternoon and we drove to a point where the mountain and village meet. We drove through the foothills of the mountain, paying close attention to the sound of cuckoos. We pulled over, got out where they might be, and counted the number of cuckoos and their locations based on their singing of ‘cuckoo-!’. The team put up a net in a field with few trees and placed a 3D printed female cuckoo replica and a Bluetooth speaker. This method of attracting cuckoos was discovered after three years of research. They raised the replica and played a loop of bubbling calls of females attract male cuckoos. While male cuckoos were poking around the net chirping ‘cuckoo, cuckoo’, Dr. Lee and his research team kept a close eye on them. As soon as one was caught in the net, they sprinted.  They lowered the net for a few moments before gently removing the cuckoo from it.  

3D printed replica of a female cuckoo and a bluetooth speaker.

All cuckoos were measured using the same system. The research team was very skilled at carrying out the series of processes. The tasks were executed in groups of three. They measured and recorded the weight, beak length, body length, and wing length of each cuckoo and collected sperm, blood, feathers, and parasites. Every cuckoo reacted differently: some screamed, others resisted, and still others remained silent. The team made a record of the responses as well. Before releasing cuckoos, the team photographed them from the front, back, side, tail, and wing open. The collected blood will be analyzed in the laboratory by amplifying the DNA.

There are four types of cuckoos found in Korea: the Common cuckoo is the most prevalent and the rest are Oriental cuckoos, Indian cuckoos, and Lesser cuckoos. I was fortunate to see Common cuckoos, as well as Oriental and Indian cuckoos on that day, which is unusual, and Dr. Lee referred to me as person with ‘bird luck’. Cuckoos sing ‘cuckoo’ whereas Oriental cuckoos make a ‘boop-boop’ sound. The sound Indian cuckoos make is difficult to describe in words. Cuckoos only sing during the breeding season and then stop. Cuckoos do not sing while traveling from Korea to Africa and back. Female cuckoos make a ‘kwik-kwik-kwik’ sound, also known as a bubbling call.

Oriental cuckoo with a PTT satellite tracker on its back.

When the Oriental and Indian cuckoos were caught in the net, Dr. Lee and his team were overjoyed. The cuckoos were measured and tagged with a PTT tracker before being released. The tracker is designed like a backpack that a bird can carry on its back, and tying it up and fixing it with strings by hand requires a lot of time and concentration. The tracker is an electronic device made of plastic and various metals, and seeing it on the backs of the cuckoos was strange, like witnessing the birth of a cyborg cuckoo. Like my friend Jeongeun said, the cuckoos with trackers appeared valiant, and I felt indebted, grateful, and delighted, at the same time, to see the birds doing their best to help seek symbiosis with humans. Everyone wished them a safe and healthy return from their trip to Africa. Cuckoos fly alone for 20,000kms round trip. However, Dr. Lee assured me that they would not be alone. There are many cuckoos in Korea alone and they all fly towards the same direction around the same time as cuckoos scattered across the Eurasia continent. He believes that they will recognize each other and eventually fly together during their migration. His eyes, guessing and imagining the unknown world of cuckoos were unforgettable. Perhaps there are countless connecting links to and among non-human beings that we are unaware of. We may have only touched base with a very small portion on its surface.

Humans undoubtedly feel limited in communicating with other species. We are still curious and intrigued by them. While I was talking to other artists at ZER01NE after watching a video clip filmed at the cuckoo research site, other artists shared some interesting questions and opinions with me. One compared the process of measuring cuckoos with a ruler to the time in history when humans had no knowledge of other races and went to measure them with rulers. Others found the entire 20-minute process from cuckoo capture to measurement completion to be too violent. We can’t inform the animals of our intentions or ask about their feelings or lives because we don’t speak the same language. When will technology be advanced enough to gauge, understand and communicate with these creatures without having to capture, measure, and collect blood samples? Meanwhile, it occurred to me that learning to understand each other without hurting one another is impossible when we know so little about each other. What should we do when different species with different bodies, languages, lifestyles, and goals meet? This is not something taught in schools. Humans choose certain methods of interaction with other species in the name of science; I find it a shame if only scientists could have a relationship with them. I hope that more people will talk about and try to find respective ways in connecting with non-human beings. Being considerate of one another is essential in the course, however just as when two divergent objects collide, it results in scars; perhaps there will be trials and errors, pains and pleasures in the process of adaptation. Just as a scar appears after a wound has healed, we embody the impact of others, and our body and mind will have transformed a little towards one another.

The End. :-)