Project Two – Final Post – The Sturgeon Maps

Lower Fraser River White Sturgeon Info Map

My intent with the first Sturgeon Map, the Lower Fraser River Sturgeon Info Map (LFRSIM), was to show the Fraser river from the bias that a sturgeon might have. Important areas for burrowing, feeding, and overwintering are indicated on the map, and the landforms are not labeled. I distorted the river itself to give more space to areas that were known for winter habitats, using scale to indicate possible significance. As a hypothetical experiment, the map is to show that there could be seen to be a river city for fish, with different areas being used for different reasons, almost like our own neighbourhoods.  This sturgeon city exists alongside all the cities of BC’s Lower Mainland.

Both maps are based on data from a paper published by BCIT students (downloadable from that worked on tagging sturgeons and then tracking them over two years.

Fraser River White Sturgeon: Detection of Acoustic-tagged Salmon

The second map is titled Fraser River White Sturgeon (FRWS). For FRWS, I created an inset map above a large illustration of a sturgeon. The map indicates where the acoustic sensors are along the Lower Fraser, and two of the overwintering locations discovered by tracking the sturgeons. 101 sturgeons were tagged in 2009 for this study. Originally I thought that I would include four point of view drawings of the river, from the fish’s perspective but I felt I would be straying too far from map making, and I discarded that direction.

These pieces are focused on map-making, not on further charts or graphs. This is a detour from my first project of the term, which charted weather-related tweets and temperatures over a few days. I was intrigued by my experiments with QGIS, the open-source mapping application, and my difficulties with rendering shape files. The mistakes looked better than the maps that worked, and that encouraged me to introduce a more human element to my pieces. Part of this project also relates to how statistics and data can support bias, and how maps can re-inforce those biases. By choosing to work with maps, my explorations are on how to have a map serve a non-human population, define non-human spaces. I used brush strokes and hatch marks to mimic mottled, engraved map surfaces on the LFRSIM, as I was inspired by the engravings and drawn quality of early map in my research.

Hatch marks and stippled wax

These two pieces sit on the edge of art and maps. They use a visual language from each, the softness of the wax with maps carved into the surface and facts about the sturgeon alongside. The combination of encaustic and data visualization, specifically mapping, was an interesting combination of media. Encaustic is warm but low-resolution, it can take cleaner, digital forms like transfers and printed materials and soften them. This could make it more appealing or engaging to an audience, but at the same time, it could also make it less real, less factual.

Close up of jump rings in map

Close up of source text

Primarily my intent is to show these as an educational tool, something that could be used to engage people and encourage conservation of habitat. My first map relies on a little whimsy to engage a viewer (the line “Sturgeons, like most bottom feeders, mumble and are known for being poor conversationalists.” ), but since the map itself is a hypothetical fiction based on a few facts, perhaps my potential audience would overlook a more blatantly untrue statement.


Close-up of text from LFRWSIM

Many questions came up as I worked on these two maps and from my presentation and discussion with Kate and Luke. I’ve captured some my responses below:

Do these pieces work as stand-alone objects or do they need supporting text?
I felt they could be ideal as educational displays that supported a larger exhibit. The sturgeon in the second piece would be great as an illustration, and I feel encaustic would be worth further exploring for creating animal illustrations to support other research.

Could they be progressed further?
Certainly a large scale encaustic map would be great to work on, or scanning in a map and then enlarging it and working with it as a digital illustration.

Does having a hypothetical fact in a piece devalue the real data in it, or does it make it more approachable by appealing to imagination?
I love surrealism and an occasional non-sequiter, but it’s not for everyone! I know I run the risk of alienating my audience by presenting hard facts with fictions, however I would hope that it would help engage them and add a more human element to an educational piece.

Encaustic Process – Finishing Up

Testing jump ring placement to represent sensors

The jump rings melted into the surface easily and gave definition to the dots of coloured wax I placed into them. The two discs of paper to represent the winter ranges didn’t go as translucent as hoped when saturated with wax.

Filling in gaps with carbon paper

Bumpy brush strokes make it harder to burnish down toner transfers. Lots of gaps in the letters for this title.

Smoothing out wax for type transfers

Smoothing down the spots where type is to go with my scraper, it made it much easier to transfer.

Placing type before burnishing down

Encaustic Process – Map 1 and Map 2

topcoat was a disaster

Thinking I was finished with the first encaustic piece, I liberally applied a topcoat that was specially formulated for hardness to protect encaustics. It did not work as expected, adding a warm tint to the entire piece and then resisting being scraped down since it was so brittle. I ended up having to scrap off half the 16″ x 20″ board, redoing the copy on the board and repainting half of the landforms.

Repainted with grey

The grey doesn’t look as good, but after I returned the hatch marks to its surface and re-applied the type, it wasn’t so bad. The bony scale on the board is one of a sturgeon’s scutes that a friend of mine in BC gave to me after hearing about my paintings. It has a enticing texture to it after being covered in wax.

collage undercoat and sturgeon POV

The second map I started includes a large illustration of a sturgeon. I experimented with collage to add  to the underpainting of the fish. I also played with the idea of including four sturgeon POV thumbnails, much like my earlier sketches of the prairies. But that felt like I was straying too far away from my intent of learning about mapping. The POV thumbnails got scraped off and the fish got a layer of white wax.

scrapped down and white coat on sturgeon

What I like about encasutic is the ability to add layers of wax and then work down into them, revealing details that are far more detailed than a brush coated with wax could render.

face details after adding grey layer and scrapping back

Starting with the lightest colour of the sturgeon, the white, I added more layers to get a full range of the colour of the skin. Scraping down enabled me to reveal the details of the scutes and skin pattern. I reshaped the head as it was the wrong proportion in relation to the body.

adding a map to the board

I engraved another map of the Fraser River and BC’s Lower Mainland for showing where the tracking monitors and the fall and winter habitat.


scrapping down the burrs on either side of the carved map lines

Engraved lines have burrs which need to be polished down.

sturgeon map with filled lines and filled land masses


darker grey layer on sturgeon


working into the texture on side of sturgeon


testing type and layout for a typographic title

I added a title, and will include a legend for the map along with sources and other map information.

first title transfer crooked, lost the n

Reversing the title before transferring was tricky to place, this one was too crooked so got scraped off!

details on built up face of sturgeon

Wax brushed around the nostrils melts into the depressions, looking more realistic.

Encaustic Process – Map 1

Hotplate setup at studio

Hotplate setup at studio

My studio setup includes a heat gun for fusing new layers of wax onto the board, a hotplate, various scraping and carving tools, encaustic sticks, medium and finishing coats, and a fan to help ventilate the warehouse space. The hotplate came down with me from Vancouver, it’s been used a lot for encaustic and has a mark on the temperature dial to remind me not to burn my wax. Anything over 220 degrees gets the wax paint too hot and it starts smoking. I’ve noticed that the damar resin needs to be at least that hot to melt into the wax, so I mix my medium first without any other paint tins on the hotplate, then I turn it down and add paint tins for melting.

Adding shoreline

The turquoise shoreline is carved and then filled with a contrasting colour of wax. I added several layers of grey paint onto the landmasses.

Different fonts for map labels

I could not imagine sturgeon talking to each other in lowercase type, it seemed a little too cute. So I picked a condensed san serif font

Reversing type for toner transfers

Black laser printer toner transfers easily to the wax surface. The wax acts as a natural solvent and traps the toner. Type has to be reversed in order for it to read in the right direction after application. Once I cut out each word or phrase, I stuck them to the board and soaked the paper with water. The paper fibers can be rubbed off and the toner remains behind.

Toner transfers, not really that great!

Although the toner labels for the river worked, they didn’t seem to stand out enough from the map, and I wanted them to have more of a presence. I carved off the toner, then tried it with printed pieces of paper, cut out and secured down with layers of wax as collage.

Used labels that are pasted down with clear wax

The encaustic medium initially solidifies a little cloudy, but then clears when it cools down.

Carving title

Carving title

The title of the map is carved into the surface using the same technique as the shoreline.

Filling letters with wax

Adding a contrasting colour of wax for the map title.

Revealing the filled letters by scraping down

Revealing the filled letters by scraping down

After I’ve fused the new layer with the heat gun, and it’s cooled, I can scrape down the extra wax on top to reveal the letters underneath. A smaller scraping tool allows for more control of wax removal, so I can be picky about how much I’m taking off.

Fraser River White Sturgeon

The South Arm of the Fraser River is a very active shipping channel where tugs, barges, cargo ships and ferries run regular schedules day and night. Where I was staying in Richmond was right across from the river, and it became my inspiration for the maps I want to create for Project 2. The White Sturgeon, a freshwater fish found in the Columbia, Fraser, Sacramento and other Pacific coast watersheds, is unique in that they grow very large and live for up to 150 years. They are a primitive fish and have been in the fossil record for a long time unchanged.

Sturgeon live in the murky, dull brown, sediment rich water of the Fraser.  They have whiskers on their faces called barbels that enable them to sense prey, like eulachon, an oil-rich herring sized fish or salmon. What intrigued me was thinking about how  sturgeon see their landscape? Are they aware of land masses or just banks that rise out of the water? As the Fraser River twists and branches, islands and channels abound in the lower reaches, which is where the current slows and sediment drops out of the water to form new sandbars and islands.

My first sturgeon map is a text-based map that shows hypothetically important areas for sturgeon. I emphasized waterways and gave more map space to river banks and islands. I indicated land masses as dark, unknowable shapes. Salinity changes from fresh water (a pale yellow) to salty water (a bright yellow). I learned that there is a salt front where the river meets the ocean, a sloped face of salt water that moves inland or back out during the tides. Fresh water floats above the salty water, carrying sediment with it, that then eventually is dropped out of the current.

Salt front illustration - click for direct link

Although other sub-species of sturgeon have been found migrating between rivers, the Fraser sub-population has not been recorded yet by HYDRA sensing buoys in the Straight of Georgia, the main body of marine water that the Fraser drains into.

This map takes two of our human mapping techniques, the bird’s eye view and the naming of cities and towns, and converts it to a sturgeon-centric view. One immediate result is that there is no one place that is a center of population, the entire river is their city. In essence, there are shifting neighbourhoods that are populated at different seasons and by different ages of sturgeon.

I’ve been very influenced recently by the writings of Alexander Wilson in The Culture of Nature. He posits that nature includes us, that we share it with everything else on earth and that only through allowing human and non-human species to both exist in the same spaces at the same time, can we live in balance. (Wilson 1998) What I want to show is the map layer that sturgeons see, overlaid on a familiar landscape.


Sketches and Encaustic Studies

The landscape thumbnails that I drew in March are below. I worked with a very limited palette of warm and cool gray pens, to match the winter landscape of dry prairie, gray clouds and dark gray roads. As I drew these thumbnails, I wondered what visual elements make a landscape personal, how can a landscape contain meaning for the viewer, and how does it relate to our understanding of where we are, or where we are going?

thumbnails from the greyhound

west to swift current

west to medicine hat

calgary and the rockies

I found encaustic enabled me to combine the disparate elements of collage, image transfers, fabric and paper, and illustration. The layering of opacity, translucency and colour was interesting. Could I use it with the precise nature of a map or data visualization? How would that affect my ability to tell a story with image? It might fall apart under its own weight but I decided to give it a try for Project 2.

encaustic with image transfer


coffee and techno with japanese paper

Protected: Rapid Fire 3 – Praxinoscope

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Nick – final documentation (pics!)

Protected: Closing Statement

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Project 2 – Final Documentation

While I presented this final project on wednesday, I still view this project as a work in progress.
Like most of my projects, the programming of the system takes a long time to setup and working out the interaction based on feedback from test users also takes a while for me to reformulate my ideas in response to their suggestions. I did have a friend test out this work before the presentation on wednesday to get preliminary feedback. One issue that I need to work out is how the user adds to the buildup of the system.

For every gesture within the space, a counter (capacitor) is increased. If no movement is tracked, the counter slowly decreases over time. The idea is that while a user is contributing to the overal soundscape through bodily gestures, they are also contributing to the ebb and flow of the system. When the counter reaches its maximum, the system stops generating sounds and a larger wave (sound) crashes, bringing the system back to a minimal state. After having a friend interact with the system, they expresses confusion on this part of the system. As I want to keep this elelement, I need to think about how to rework this to make it less confusing.

Based on the feedback from the group during critique several suggestions were to integrate the skeleton tracking (seen on laptop) into the piece. I think I may have failed in expressing that the purpose of this installation is to be centred entirely on audio. A person is to understand how their body movements contribute to the overal evolution of the soundscape. Adding a visual element into the installation would just take away the purpose of the installation. I also believe that working entirely with audio is difficult. As some of the class comments pointed out, I think most people have a better visual language and can understand visual gestures more than audio gestures. One of my intentions is not to create a direct one-to-one interaction between a gesture and an audio being generated. The system has its own internal mechanisms running, and so when a person enters the space, their movements are really only adding to the way the system functions. I think this element is lost for most people. Instead of abandoning my approach I just need to think through these ideas more and test the system out with a variety of people. I dont want to have bend this project just so that it remains within the current computing paradigm. I am trying to experiment and move past the typical idea that bodily gestures create an audio/visual event. I feel that while this approach is how we currently interact with computing technologies (a button approach – ie. trigger a button triggers an event) it is not the only way in which we can interact with systems. Systems in general (societal, economic, etc) rely on their own internal mechanisms and so any external input only really adds to the system but doesn’t really change the way the system progresses. These ideas are some of what I am trying to think trough with this installation.

Here is a short video showing the work in progress:

The code for this project are in 3 separate files.

The first is a processing sketch that tracks a person in the space. Skeleton tracking finds a person when they enter into the space between the speakers. Events are sent to SuperCollider via OpenSoundControl. Here is the code

The second file consists of the synth definitions in SuperCollider. These definitions are like based classes that define what type of sounds will be generated. Variables from Processing are passed into the synth to create differing sounds based on the same sonic structure. Here is the code

The third file consists of the Tasks and OpenSoundControl listeners that trigger events in SuperCollider. The Tasks are how the synths are generated. The OpenSoundControl listeners wait for OSC messages sent from Processing and then trigger various tasks. Here is the code