LIFE Summer Research Grant Reflections: Digital Naturalism: Entomology VR Inspired by Maria Sybilla Merian

This is the third blog post in a series written by the 2022 recipients of the Duke University Libraries Summer Research Fellowship for LIFE Students. You can find the other posts here and here.  Noelle Garrick is currently a sophomore.

“Art and nature shall always be wrestling until they eventually conquer one another so that the victory is the same stroke and line: that which is conquered, conquers at the same time.” – Merian

I love bugs. I remember my mother highlighting glistening beetles and fuzzy moths in the glow of our porchlight, imbuing me with an appreciation for the behaviors and strangeness of insects. It is estimated that there are millions of species of insects that we will never encounter, many quietly slipping into extinction unstudied. With the global population, I have watched their numbers dwindle as the years pass. The public perception has remained one of distaste, blind to these creatures’ beneficial function and beautiful adaptation.

When I approached my mentor, Kristen Tapson, with a desire to create experimental artistic commentary on this phenomenon in partnership with the archive, she guided me in developing a project plan that centered themes both bold and unappreciated- women in
science, insects, dynamic illustration, meditative virtual reality (VR). On the one hand, I was determined to use my skills as a computational media student to capture the experience of insects, leveraging game design frameworks to craft an application that would honor both the robust source material and its real life counterparts. It was a labor in service to awareness and conservation. At the same time, the goal of the project was not a product, but a process. The archives contain a wealth of information in volumes that I found intimidating. Even as a student, it lay nested in esoteric depths of academia that deterred me. I was curious if working from these academic texts and images, developing a pipeline for recontextualizing them as 3D models for use in VR environments, would increase accessibility and engagement.

What followed this past summer were hours of discussion dissecting the compelling aspects and challenges of bringing archival materials to VR under the supervision of Lee Sorenson, Librarian for Visual Studies and Dance . Through weekly meetings, we refined research questions and narrowed down materials. Slowly, the archive lost its daunting aura. Overlapping histories and collections that were difficult to decipher gained feasibility through Lee’s expertise. I familiarized myself with ideal source libraries and search terms and took measures to ensure I incorporated them justly.

Our research centered on Maria Sybilla Merian, one of the first female naturalists who produced extensive volumes of entomological illustration in the 1600s. Merian’s life was one of
boldness and transformation just like her artistic subjects. The dominating scientific attitudes of the time period, in theological perfectionism and inattentiveness to uncovering the secrets of iinsects’ lives, characterized them as indivisible entities. Merian’s process was one of the first to challenge this characterization, providing accurate and intimate depictions of the rich metamorphosis of insects and their associated environments. Her detailed documentation helped lay a strong foundation for modern entomological studies. She would nurture various species from their pupal form to adulthood, sketching the stages in between. Our research focused on the images and descriptions from Merian’s first book Raupen (loosely translated to caterpillar), published in 1679. Merian illustrated this book in her early 20s and 30s while living in her home in Nuremberg. We felt this, as one of her earliest works, captured the dynamic and exploratory qualities of her processes and musings. Merian’s respect and nurturance for her subjects translated into rich stylistic detail that I wanted to capture in my translations of her work to 3D models.

In terms of modeling approach, my process improved over the course of the summer as I learned new techniques to remedy past mistakes. Essentially, I had to sculpt representations of the key figures in a given illustration in the modeling program Blender, and then carefully map the fine details of each illustration into its corresponding model representation. Initially, I attempted to model excessive details from square bases that sharpened the softer qualities Merian tried to capture in her moths and caterpillars. It wasn’t a gentle approach but it produced valuable output on what not to do. Eventually, cylindrical-based objects provided a reproducible and accurate result that flowed better with the linework. One key limitation of VR experiences is the level of detail it can render in the environment. This revised method of modeling from cylinders supported significant detail in a computationally efficient way.

Armed with an arsenal of virtual bugs, I began development in the game engine Unity to bring them to life. One can think of the animation process as having similarities with the movement of the human body, which is not positionally fixed and rigid but rather a system of components receiving signals from the brain. Similarly, building out a virtual body that is life-like and compelling requires conceptualizing the subject as a sum of its necessary components. I needed separate pieces to represent the body of the insect and two opposing planes for the wings. The wing planes need to be given coded instructions to rotate around the hull of the body in an erratic pattern to simulate fluttering. The central body needed to subtly totter on its axis with the force of this fluttering. The entire entity needed to be responsive to other components in the scene, chasing after light sources and flowers.

Merian greatly inspired my own process. She was patient and open to transformation. She was motivated by passion for her subject matter. These are values I wanted to embody in my technical production. They are takeaways I assert as valuable to future VR development. In evolving the tech, it is important not to look at the product as one of spontaneous emergence. It is merely a larva, a transitional body that we should analyze closely for nuance so that we might understand how the next chapter comes about. Similarly, the experiences created in the VR medium should be transformational and varied. It’s important that we use it for advocacy and experimentation that go beyond pure entertainment. The desire for immersion and rich sensory experiences continues to expand, with terms like “Metaverse” drawing ominous conceptions to a fully virtual environment that parallels our own world. It’s important that this virtual revolution does not channel all of its creative power onto a narrow set of interests, subjects, and experiences. Ethical questions arise about how to ensure that we take this technology as an opportunity to self-reflect and build awareness through meaningful and enriching creations and experiences. This project contributes to these conversations in terms of subject matter, intention, implication, and effect. Creating this experience, which centers undervalued species and a less known artist, is a contribution to the body of work setting an example for experimental and ethical VR immersion. It has an intentional goal of not just entertainment but awareness. In terms of its implications, the process itself takes meaningful strides towards reproducibility, which ensures that more people can pull meaningful and niche subjects into the esoteric immersive space and be empowered to tell stories.

Calling attention to the quote at the beginning of this article, there is an inherent contradiction to my work. On the one hand, the artist and subjects I am working with are highly natural. They existed in a time and space vastly different from my own. The experience I wanted to create was a case for the fascination and vitality of insects, for the patience incited by nature. All the same, the artistic medium I choose is highly technical and arguably the opposite of natural experience. It is a manufactured illusion for the senses that could not possibly compare to the real thing. I believe Merian’s view implies that this contradiction, this “wrestling,” is a necessary part of the process that benefits both competitors. Art and nature need each other and can be mutually liberated through their inevitable clash. All the same, it’s important to acknowledge the function of my work. It is not meant to exist as its own reality. It is merely a tool for introspection and advocacy, ideally redirecting the audience towards further learning and experiences.

Moving into next semester, I plan to continue polishing this project. I want to add more content, more interaction and functionality. The understandings gathered from this process are valuable for future work inspired by the archive. I hope to instill future projects with historical and cultural depth. One of the limitations of the current process for developing the images into functional 3D assets is that it still requires modeling skill to be properly functional. In the future, we will explore procedural modeling programs that streamline the image-to-asset development process for a more general audience.

Comparative Media:


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