Pupils from Newton Road School took part in a workshop with Simon Blackmore, Antony Hall and Steve Symons, the collaborative group of artists known as Owl Project – our current artists in residence at Fineshade Wood.
The workshop began with a challenge to pupils: Do you think you are more intelligent than ants? The confident children were then led on a bug hunt around the forest. Looking closely under logs and on the forest floor, when an insect was discovered the children were instructed to silently watch how it moved.
Back at our project space The Arches, we learned that insects and ants in particular are incredibly efficient at finding the shortest route between locations. The children made maps of their hometown, Rushden, featuring 12 points of interest. Their houses, their friends’ houses, Newton Road School, the park, the swimming pool, and so on. The challenge this time was to join up the dots with a line taking the shortest route possible.
Using the equipment that Owl Project had brought with them for the day, pupils scanned in their maps and projected them onto the wall for all to see. Owl Project then ran a bespoke algorithm they had developed, which simulated ant movement between the locations in order to determine the most efficient path. Sometimes these were identical to the pupils’ routes. At others they were quite different. We learned that these kind of simulations have been instrumental in developing ways of optimising parcel deliveries.
Another computer simulation that mimicks nature is known as Boids – a shortened version of “bird-oid object” or the word “bird” pronounced in a New York accent. By adhering to a simple set of rules, individual Boids appear to display behaviours seen in the natural world, such as in starling murmurations.
Experimenting with Owl Project’s Boid simulation, pupils added new Boids to artificial flocks and observed what happened to the orderly behaviour when the command was given to scatter. This was replicated with their own bodies in a designated corner of the courtyard at Fineshade that the artists referred to as the Boid Arena. Introducing children into the arena one by one, Owl Project conducted human murmurations, coordinating pupils with the following simple rules:
- Pupils reaching the edge of the arena would “bounce” like a snooker ball and continue moving in a new direction.
- As other classmates/Boids were added they would begin to flock by following the general direction of the crowd.
- Pupils would avoid overcrowding by splitting off into smaller flocks.
- If the artists called out “scatter”, pupils would disperse chaotically before coming back into formation.
Wearing simple paper hats and filmed from above, the resulting video demonstrates how effective the pupils were at exhibiting bird-like behaviour. This content will also feature in Owl Project’s forthcoming exhibition at the Arches, The Algorithm in the Forest.
In the afternoon, pupils worked with the artists to build their own simple robots from electronic components and sticks collected from the forest. When these robots were filmed from above, their chaotic movement was in stark contrast to fluid movement of the Boid-Children in what will surely become a new playground game.
In the workshop plenary at the end of the day, one pupil posed the excellent question, Why are you so interested in ants? Owl Project replied that they wanted to help people look more closely at the natural world around them so everyone can take better care of it.
And the answer to whether these students were more intelligent than ants? Undoubtedly, and far more creative too.
The Algorithm in the Forest exhibition featuring content from this workshop will launch at
On Friday 28 June between 6 – 8.30pm, with a talk led by the artists from 7pm. The exhibition will be open to the public throughout the summer.