Thesis Week 5/6: More C4D, a Physical Prototype and Steppers

In the past two weeks I focused on rendering the setup in C4D as this will be the main part of thesis documentation for my portfolio. I plan to do hyperrealistic renders of different perspectives on the installation piece and an animation of one run-through of the piece for the final documentation.

While doing this I started to work on small scale version of the installation to have a physical proof of concept. So far I have built a waterproof acrylic pond for the honey and worked on the linear motion. I need to improve the latter and attach the cloth for a first working prototype/small version of the full installation. I plan to finish it this week.

On the digital side I am diving deep into C4D and Arnold: To get as close to reality as possible I am using CAD-files from McMaster Carr and construct the complete setup from existing/purchasable parts using my own shaders. This makes it as well a lot easier to build it in real life - in case a venue gets more realistic in the next weeks. I spent some significant time on working with physics simulations in C4D (they are ... tricky) and constructed a "working" stepper motor that will eventually move itself along the rail/gear rack.

Another big part of getting a hyperreal look is rendering in Arnold. I am using Arnold materials/lighting and am building custom shaders for cloth and other surfaces (mainly metal) following various tutorials online. I went as well to Mood Fabrics in the Fashion District to get some ideas regarding different materials for the cloth that gets dragged through the honey. Then I transferred these inspirations into cloth shaders in Arnold.

On the simulation side I plan to create parts of the simulated Garden Eden with organic growth engines for C4D, then export them to Unity to get more variation in the environment.

Here a few shots from real and hyperreal space:








Thesis Week 4: focus, deconstruction and paradise

After a lot of reading on the weekend I decided to further focus my piece on a special narrative in western religions: the garden of earthly delights, Eden. My piece will continuously deconstruct and reconstruct the story with a simulation. For this I will use unity ml-agents that explore unity-scene consisting of cuts from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch from the 14th century, "The Garden of Earthly Delights":


The audience of the installation will only see a projection that consists of description of what the agents see in the simulation. As it is Eden, e.g. "Adam", "apple", "snake".







Thesis Week 3: thesis proposal, unity ml-agents, system theory

After submitting my thesis proposal on Friday, my focus on the weekend was on exploring the functionality of ml-agents in unity and reading on system theory, namely the debate between Niclas Luhmann and Juergen Habermas.

I did a few basic tutorials on training agents using reinforcement learning with the unity game-engine with a Tensorflow backend with tensorflow sharp. Here the agent learns to roll a ball towards a cube:




To learn more complex actions with no immediate reward, researchers at Berkeley recently developed a curiosity mechanism for reinforcement learning that motivates the agent to explore and experiment in its environment. Here it needs to pull a switch (red light turns green) first (no external reward), then a pyramid with a yellow cube on top appears somewhere (still no external reward) and if knocks down the pyramid and the yellow cube on top is touched by the agent, an external reward is added. To motivate the interest of the agent in exploring all the steps above before any external reward is added, the model works with an internal reward mechanism running two neural networks against each other: it compares predicted action and predicted observation with the real observation and action and gives out a reward the higher the difference between expectation and reality is. Meaning the bigger the surprise, the bigger the internal reward. Unity incorporated this into their ml-agents recently to model more complex behaviors - which could help me for my simulation of religion and rituals. I trained the example model for one hour, here the result:


To test how well the trained model is able to abstract objects I changed the environment: instead of a golden cube, the agent has to knock a golden sphere of the pyramid to get an external reward. As this scenario varies slightly from training the agent has difficulties to deal with this new environment:

inference (untrained change in environment)

Thesis Proposal: Eden


I propose an interactive sculpture that connects the audience in a gallery setting with a simulation of religion that is invented by neural networks.

I am fascinated by complex systems and the way individuals dynamically organize themselves around the basic human needs for hope and certainty. Therefore my main artistic focus of my thesis will be on emergent behaviors of systems, namely on how the creation of rituals influences the activity of machine learning agents in their environment. In this simulation, the agents are rewarded for inventing new rituals with the elements of their world. The role of the audience will be to temporarily add true randomness to this complex system - and therefore create non-algorithmic chaos. This uncertainty will have consequences on the agents' rituals. The audience is provoked to think about the paradox of a system that seems to be only partially rule-based.

Living in a world we try to make sense of but will never fully understand is the key to human existence. Establishing a sensitivity for our own hopes and fears when faced with the complexity of the world and ultimately create a more intuitive understanding of it is the main goal of my piece.


The theoretical part of my piece is influenced by the works of system theorists/philosophers/sociologists Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Niclas Luhmann, Juergen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, mathematical approaches in modeling complex systems and current research in the field of neural networks, especially deep reinforcement learning. My artistic approach is rooted in the Fluxus-movement, namely Joseph Beuys' performative focus on art as a collective form of healing. 

While iterating with reinforcement-learning examples in Unity/Tensorflow and rendering possible versions of the final piece in c4d, I will do further theoretical research on Derrida and his view on the relationship between society and religion, more reading on the communication models of Luhmann and Habermas and gain a better understanding of chaos-theory (Lorenz attractor).

I will to talk to Gene Kogan about the main technical setup for the project, contact Ben Light to go through my fabrication plans and schedule an office hour with a faculty member of NYU Department of Computer Science with a background in deep reinforcement learning. For interaction design considerations I will consult Katherine Dillon and artistic advice Danny Rozin. 


Adorno, T. W., & Horkheimer, M. (2016). Dialectic of enlightenment. London: Verso.
Baring, E., & Gordon, P. E. (2015). The trace of God: Derrida and religion. New York: Fordham University Press
Ha, D., and Schmidhuber, J. (2018). World models. arXiv preprint arXiv:1803.10122.
Hui, Y., & Stiegler, B. (2016). On the existence of digital objects. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Londei, A. (2014) Artificial neural networks and complexity: an overview. Rome: Archeologia e Calcolatori Supplemento 6
Luhmann, N. (2013). Theory of society (Vol. 2). Stanford Univ. Press
Smith, L. A. (2007). Chaos: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

So far in my research I gained an overview over applicable theories, thinking frameworks and tools. Most of it in the field of system theory, complex systems and devotional practices/artifacts in various cultures and times. 

In the next weeks I will go deeper into the mathematical side of complex systems, the relationship between religion and sociology, the nature of rituals and reinforcement learning as a modeling tool for sociological behaviors.


My academic background is in the fields of sociology, politics and literature. I am familiar with the theoretical frameworks that are relevant for my thesis, especially the sociological and philosophical part. My private interest is in french philosophy of the 20th century with a focus on Existentialism. I have been creating artworks using machine learning / neural networks since three years after taking Gene Kogan's machine learning for artists course in Berlin (1 month intensive course). I recently took a udacity class for a deeper dive into the maths of machine learning and am now proficient enough to build my own basic ml-architectures in Pytorch from scratch. I have used the higher level interfaces of Tensorflow and am experienced with training and deploying GANs and CNNs on various remote server platforms. Last summer I did a 3 month internship at Havas New York as AI researcher in the Creative Department and built multiple prototypes for a client. 
I explored in depth the element of true randomness in Project Development class with Danny Rozin and built a meditative sculpture that lets the audience engage with a rock (via measuring its truly random decay of subatomic particles with a geiger counter and mapping that to the audience actions) and true randomness. 

I will use deep reinforcement learning for my setup. As this is different to the works I have done so far in the field of ML (most of it was language or image based and generative), I will focus on getting a good understanding of the algorithms underlying the Unity-ml agents and then decide which framework is the best for my piece: stick to unity, or building a pure python backend or even entirely browser based. The reward function for sociological behavior has to be developed from scratch and I have to decide if I want a physical entity (robot) in the piece. The latter depends on how much time I have left after settling on the ml-framework. 
The form of interaction of the audience with the sculptural piece is technically set, I can rely on my knowledge from my last piece using geiger-counters to get true random numbers.

I envision the piece to consist of 5 random number generators that are embedded in stone-sculptures. The agent-simulation will be projected on the floor around these rocks with projection mapping techniques. The audience is encouraged to engage with the sculptures through a small hammer. Knocking the hammer against the rocks will trigger and feed random numbers into the simulation and confuse the learning process of the agents. They will then modify their observable behavior and approaches to come up with new robotic rituals - the projection on the floor will change accordingly. 

So far my draft schedule will look like this:

  • February - 2 weeks of theoretical research and first prototypes with unity-ml while getting on top of deep q-learning in Pytorch. Rough draft of exhibition setup/fabrication ideas, early user testing

  • March - 2 weeks narrowing down final version of ml-side and finalizing choices on fabrication/setup, deeper user testing. 2 weeks of building network and fabrication

  • May - debugging, final technical touches, setup

Thesis Week 2: Iteration, Experiments

After a lot of tinkering I finally found a working architecture for my image classifier (still just on flowers, should be fluxus performances frames soon) using densenet and a lightweight one layer as new classifier:

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 1.51.34 PM.png

The accuracy on a test -dataset is now around 75%:

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 1.45.51 PM.png

While doing this I iterated a lot on traditional catholic holy water fonts, as I wanted to look at spiritual rituals/actions that have been used in traditional religions (I used Catholicism as I grew up with it) and try to rethink their design. I wanted to incorporate the hand movement towards an object that is in the focus of attention (here either cubes or a golden sphere:


Some experiments did not work that well and just look strange:


Others had something but need a lot more iteration:


As I mentioned earlier in my blogposts that I somehow want to use honey in the installation (as a symbol of healing) I started experimenting with the real flow plugin for c4d to get photorealistic renderings of liquids. Unfortunately the renderfarm I used for my usual renderings doesn’t support the plugin and I have to render locally on my mac (which is very very slow - one frame takes a day to render). Anyway, here a little test for honey simulation:


I thought about a design object that consists of a digital and physical layer, combining them in an optical illusion: the golden sphere gets inserted in the object, then gets displayed on the screen, seemingly “floating” through the honey. Ideally the user has the feeling this happens to the real sphere: