The shrine began to chirp. Chirp, chirp, chirp, goes the little antenna giving signals to the altar. Surrounding the altar is the facade of the shrine, made up of thick-walled shelves, containing jars of mud that give off electricity to the antenna. The mud is a sanctuary, where the life of every organism originates from, and a source of energy the lives feed on. The biomass, the minerals, and the electricity are all food, charged abundantly in the mud, flowing gently through the channels of wired bacteria. Down the rivers and lakes, the small bacteria colonise the spongy carbon pieces that have become like underground coral reefs. The porous carbon structures stretch from the shallow bottom of the waters, deep down the dark wet soil of about 10 meters. Some deepest clusters reach up to 20 meters underground. This massive-scale structure had been machine-produced by ancient humans and buried under the wetlands to breed the Geobacter and Shewanella. At the beginning of this industrial project, the humans had extensive plans, far too ambitious to achieve; everything that needed electricity on earth to be powered by the earth, the soil. While the plan was there, the doom was near, which the short-sighted humans could not foresee. Much of what was living on the ground collapsed, and the power-hungry machines slowed down. There were dissonant noises, as things melted and dissolved. The world had crumbled, but not everything was gone. There were still human survivors, soaked and crawling on the ground, broken but with the will to live on. The wetlands, old and new ones, were scorched and polluted. However, the muddy world deep under the lakes and rivers was the safest place for the living, the moving, and the un-moving beings. The minerals were trembling and circulating, the bacteria were multiplying with heat. Small fragments of machines were still squeaking with the touch of gentle current, produced by bacteria.

A worm named Pug sits in the jar, in one of the many mud jars organised neatly in the facade of the shrine. To be exact, it is the twenty-third jar from the left on the second row from the top, that contains the most chunky and black soil of all. The soil probably originated from the peatland behind this forest. Pug the worm enjoys the morning sun. The warm rays penetrate the well-maintained surface of the glass jar, warming the water inside where water beetles swim, and at last, touching the worm's skin. Once the sun shines, worms all start to dance, the squiggly dance that every surface worm does in the shrine. Pug the worm learned to live its life in this little world.

“Shhhh. Be quiet, someone's here.” the worms whisper as they one by one slow down their squiggles. Pug carefully observes the visitor as she comes in and approaches the altar. The human visitor comes up to the altar lit with a ray of sunlight and bends down a little to lay down her personal radio. This was a typical one most people bring to the shrine. Everyone here comes to “tune in” to listen. Listening at this moment is a little woman, wrinkly with diseased skin full of blisters, trembling to focus her ears solely on the speakers of her old receiver. The shrine hears her body’s movement and trembles a little too. The signal from the transmitter is very faint. The reach of transmission is just enough to tune in within the altar. As soon as she puts down the receiver near the antenna, the noise dances, and the chaotic grains of sound re-organise into an orderly manner, slowly. The sound, forming into varied textures, though distant, is surely pulsing towards a sequence of patterns that can be understood. This patterned sound is a universal language. Most species can feel it or hear it, none can speak it fully, while all are able to use it.

“Ahhh..!” The visitor bursts out a gentle sigh, as her ears catch the murmuring from the radio. Her short hair faintly swings in the wind, as the breeze enters the window of the altar room. Outside, a huge canopy of the tree’s branches and leaves hugs the small shrine, and the sound of the countless leaves swaying in the wind blends with the sound of the radio. The tree laughs, and sighs with relief. The shrine was built after the collapse, as surviving humans started to gather around the old tree. The tree was also a survivor. The tree was giant. Humans tended the tree as they started to recover together. The tree talks to her human kin through this shrine. The visitors tune in to hear the memories of the tree. The stories from ever since the tree sprouted from a little seed, 1400 years ago. The tree’s memory stretches to the time before the collapse and winds up all the way to the here and now. Humans tell the trees their stories back. What they’ve seen, what they’ve learned, What they’ve experienced. The tree stores the collective memories in herself and tells them again to the children of her kin. The stories circulate and evolve, shape the world outside, and come back again.

The woman starts to tell her story. “Today, my son was playing at the black lake again, following the miners. We still mine carbon from the lake to build power cells for when we need electricity and wireless connection. The island in the middle of the lake is evolving, and we are only now getting to know it better…..” 

The tree listens carefully. The tree recalls the bottom of the lake, as she feels the cold and humid mud at the edge of her roots. Her vast roots go about the whole forest and the city, and at the west side of the forest is the lake. The little shrine uses electricity from the mud jars, and there are carbon chunks in each jar that originate from deep down the black lake. The tree feels the abundance of electrical charge in the dark mud and shivers. The tree stretches her fine roots and touches the slimy edge of the carbon reef. These structures are irregularly shaped like clusters of many chunks of volcanic rocks, all different shapes and sizes, arranged in erratic ways as the earth had long ago turned around and mixed up the original order into a new one. The deeper parts within the mud have still preserved some original shapes of these which look more orderly and numbered. It is not only the organisms that have been adapting and evolving. The reefs have been growing, with more and more debris accumulating and biofilms forming in tightly packed layers on top of each other, contributing to a more complex and rigid home for even more living matter to accumulate. More and more species rely on these underground reefs, forming a dominant driver of the ecosystem.

The tickle from the tree’s roots wakes up Jodi the bacterium. Small bubbles form as little Jodi yawns a molecule of carbon dioxide. Living is never a problem for bacteria. They are able to multiply and reproduce, copying themselves, pasting themselves, one becomes many, and many becomes one, and again the cycle continues for generations. Jodi is the name of a bacterium, a newborn, fresh and full of energy. Jodi the bacterium likes to move a little and nudge others away so that it can chew on the molecules better. Jodi’s body is about 1 nanometer long, just like their relative stuck next to Jodi who is about half a nanometer wide. And also their 30 thousand relatives that came from the same ancestral body, some older than others, some much younger than others. Jodi sits on top of a massive heap of breathing bodies, which Jodi calls home. Jodi munches on the mud particles, especially acetate, and feels the molecule swirling inside their membrane breaking down into pieces. Jodi let go of free electrons through their nanowires, the fine hairs that connect their family together, and to the carbon reef. The network of hair transports the electrons constantly, while the carbon reef is busy sucking up billions of electrons flushing in through the innumerable network of nanowires. Jodi sees nothing but can feel the surroundings. The muddy world underground is as dark as the universe without stars. Jodi feels the current of water through the unstable mud, and the touch of the tree’s roots from the nearby forest. Munch, munch, munch, Jodi munches on the molecules day and night.

Jodi’s yawn of carbon dioxide bubbles travels from deep down throughout the soil, and it joins the other bigger bubbles trapped in the layers of mud. The gas in the mud gives a soft spongy structure to the soil. A blue-gilled carp notices an air bubble coming up from the ground, twirling up as it expands, rising upwards until it meets the surface. The surprised young carp jumps to the nearby forest, to hide itself among the wires. Reaching from the reefs’ cores up to the surface of the water is the forest of stainless steel wires. Wound in thick strands, the murky wires covered with algae and moss wave in the stream of the inner lake, as if a dense kelp jungle. Wires are busy, as the bacteria munch on the soil and poops out the electrons, the wires transport these electrons up to the island floating on the lake. “The pulse is getting stronger. The tree is breathing and is knocking on the island. A wake-up call.” The carps whisper as they swim across the wire forest. The tree notices the charge of electricity is more than enough. It wakes up the machines to start their 28,039th session of movements, after another hibernation.

Sara the 12th machine keeps the clock in this place. They write, one and two, three and a half. 28039. Sara thinks about the subtle changes of the surroundings, the children of machines that were born in the last session, and their hybrid connections between the hard and soft bodies. Sara is made of bones from deceased animals found in and near the lake, such as feathers of geese, the claws of deers, chunks of plastic fossils, or the branches from the willow trees. Sara’s system can only live on the wetlands since their veins that conduct electricity are essentially water pipes that function as electrical wires. Every machine here has a unique role, and Sara, is a thinker, operator, and also a data storage. Sara listens to the tree’s words carefully through a private channel radio. Noisy messages come in one by one. Sara decodes them and starts writing in their memory: “A woman, Diseased skin. 34 years old. Her child was playing at the black lake again today, following the miners. The people in the village notice the changes of the island in the lake. She seems to be wary but also curious about the island. The people are going to build a boat to get to the island this spring and try connecting with the machines inside the domes. We will try our best to accept their presence and seek ways to work together in managing the island…. The island is not only a place of memory, an archive of the past, but also a gathering of species and machines, forming a resilient ecosystem. The island is now ready for new participants.”

Sara finishes the note gives a date and time to it, and saves it deep in the storage. Sara checks the other machines if they’ve done all the activities needed for this session. The machines finish off the last gestures in caring for the lake. And all start to get ready for the next hibernation. Sara counts, “20 seconds until the 28,040th deep sleep. Please confirm when you are ready.” The machines one by one give the last signals. And at last, the final machine switches off the power. The island is asleep once again, and the tree retreats her roots. The wind sweeps the lake and the forest as the night falls.
Script and soundtrack for radio transmission during the exhibition at Dutch Design Week 2023.

Written by Sunjoo Lee

Voice by Sunjoo Lee
Music by Ko de Beer, Kevin van Wingaarden