Glowing Lichen: Visually Sensing Social Spaces

Most of the living species on earth are moulded by the context in which they are inserted. For example, in nature, lichens growth and survival depend mostly on the elements that they absorb from the air. The environment they are inserted in may affect the way they look — shape, color, and growth rate — or even dictate their survival and reproduction chances [1]. As individuals, we are usually minded in our own perception of reality and we might not be aware of how our actions affect the environment that surrounds us. Our individual actions shape that community instantly. In turn, these actions contribute to establishing a mood or feeling for that unique moment.


Inspired by the Lichens behavior and visual organic beauty we ask the following: What if our group behaviors and characteristics of a public space could be absorbed by a special species of digital lichens and then reflected by them? Can we build a more conscious relationship between humans and spaces through a media-art installation that evolves based on the audience actions?


Glowing Lichen: A Sensitive Ecosystem


We present Glowing Lichen as a media-art installation that explores a series of sensitive connections between a physical-digital artefact and an audience. Taking advantage of the flexibility that bio-inspired artefacts provide to simulate behaviors and express them visually, we propose a way of connecting sensitive artificial organisms to a public space [2]. The installation comprehends two luminous organisms that cohabit in the same ecosystem and react to the surrounding environment in distinct ways. Just like an organic lichen, these digital agents are sustained and fed by the characteristics of their current environment, to which they try to adapt.

Figure 1

Overview of the ecosystem: organisms and surrounding environment. Active subjects can interfere directly with the lichens and passive subjects (e.g. touch) interfere indirectly (e.g. noise).


Each glowing lichen has unique characteristics and behaviors that resemble human personalities, as well as a survival probability that depends on the environment conditions that they are exposed to. Thus, each organism has an individual predisposition, i.e., personality — it can gravitate across four types: calm, happy, nervous and aggressive [3]. The transformations in the ecosystem that endure over time will alter its balance (life span) and reshape the organisms’ behaviors through changes in personality traits:

  • Calm: The calm lichen prefers environments with little movement. When approaching an audience, the lichen collapses by decreasing its size. It is disturbed by direct interaction and changes position to avoid it.
  • Happy: Happy lichen prefers hectic environments and direct interaction. Its personality is demonstrated by frequent movements and constant random changes in the color of each of its LEDs, thus provoking a joyful festive atmosphere.
  • Nervous: The nervous lichen prefers well-lit spaces with little movement. It is uncomfortable with people approaching and is highly unstable with their direct interaction. This discomfort and instability are demonstrated by the loss of color and by fast and frantic random movements.
  • Aggressive: The aggressive lichen behaves confidently and seeks confrontation. His personality becomes more evident in noisy and agitated environments. Approaching people causes a color change of the lichen to red, and direct interaction causes sudden and frantic changes in the intensity of light, thus alerting the public to its aggressiveness.


Through color (hue, brightness and saturation) and a variety of movements we represent the properties of the artificial lichens’ surroundings and reflect the emotional states of these organisms. In the end, this results in a series of emergent behaviors of two artificial organisms growing unique aspects spawn by the environment they inhabit.



Figure 2

Participant interacting at the exhibition with two organisms: calm and nervous (left to right).


Making Visible the Invisible


In Glowing Lichen, technology becomes an instrument to create a dynamic experience. As the environment we are referring to is open to constant change, the technological approach makes it possible for the lichen to dynamically adapt to it. Through sensors and algorithmic processing, the digital organisms are able to “observe”, “listen” and “sense” their physical and social surroundings.

Although this project has already been available in an exhibition (see note), its implementation may benefit from being placed at other locations. We also think it is important to work on how to compel the viewer to interact with the system and hence create a closer relation between the public and the organism. Moreover, we see an additional potential in exploring interactions between organisms as if it was a co-evolutionary system between organisms and environment. For example, see how the balance/tension develops towards each other, and test until the point where they exchange information between them, merge or kill each other.


Regarding the death and life of these organisms, we believe its expression and emotion states can highly improve by introducing health levels, instead of the existing binary alive/dead. Specifically, in the transition between “healthy — weak — dead”. Moreover, we would like to explore the birth of new organisms in a way that they can be influenced by the characteristics of the environment in the moment of birth and by the characteristics of the previous organisms, i.e., taking in consideration the previous organisms death causes.

Note: This installation has been previously exhibited at a media-art festival (Reboot Fest — Digital Arts and New Media festival, in Lisbon 2019.), allowing a first experiment of the artefact in a social space.




[1] n.d. Lichen. Accessed 12 2019.

[2] Dorin, Alan. 2004. “The virtual ecosystem as generative electronic art.” Workshops on Applications of Evolutionary Computation. Springer. 467-476.

[3] Plutchik, Robert Ed, and Hope R. Conte. 1997. “Circumplex Models of Personality and Emotions.” American Psychological Association.



  • A. C. Rodrigues, B. Sousa, P. Machado, and A. Cardoso, “Glowing Lichen: Visually Sensing Social Spaces,” in ISEA 2020: 26th International International Symposium on Electronic Art, Monteral, Canada, October 13-18, 2020, 2020.