It might be hard to take something called the Poo Printer seriously. But this is no prank, no jokey experiment with excrement. It’s an exercise in social engineering, says the printer’s creator, artist Fabrizio Lamoncha—one conducted within the walls of an art gallery with a fleet of live collaborators.
The project consists of a group of caged male zebra finches whose droppings are aggregated and sequenced to produce what Lamoncha calls an "analog generative typography."
Housed in a custom frame the artist fashioned out of wood, the birds feast on a central feeding tray, which keeps them in their positions. The frame consists of reconfigurable, modular components that take the shape of the desired letter. The birds eat and defecate, creating a legible typeface, Lamoncha says. It takes a couple of days for the finches to form just one letter, but the end product is beside the point.
Central to the concept is Lamoncha's understanding of Big Brother and how a subject's behavior can be altered through surveillance. After extensive study, he found he could modify the finches' group behavior to achieve his goal of producing "the best quality product possible and a maximal efficiency of bird droppings." To do this, he toyed with the birds' natures, forcing them to constantly react to an outside presence—people—until they had absorbed the effects.
Zebra finches are hierarchical animals, and males regularly harass each other as a way to move up in the pecking order. Lamoncha found that this social hierarchy was, however, eviscerated by the presence of a human agent. "Though the finches have adapted very well to the captivity conditions, they are still afraid of humans," he says. The birds perceive people as a threat, one to which their instinctive response is to group together. Through constant monitoring—sometimes live, other times represented by images and film of himself—Lamoncha says he was able to flatten the finches' power structure into a peaceful collective.
Though he knows some might be turned off by his experiment, he insists that his tactics were harmless since he was just playing with instincts the birds already had. To him, the Poo Printer is part of a wider "artistic research framework" in which the birds are research participants. He encourages debate that probes his methods and results.
Ultimately, Lamoncha is attempting to show how easily anything can be commodified into "a marketable artsy product." This includes living creatures—even a useless analog printer that runs on the synchronized droppings of zebra finches.
As for the stars of the show, Lamoncha says he chose them for their sociable dispositions. Zebra finches are known to collect peaceably and groom one another. The gender specificity was practical. A mixed group of male and female birds would have made the experiment impossible, but male birds alone, Lamoncha explains, made for fairly docile subjects who would gather in pairs for grooming. Here, he says, "They are happy and peaceful with each other."