Term Project Essay – The Fish Tank Project

The Fish Tank Project


Digital art is not just art, but also involves the social aspects of human interaction and emotions. The Fish Tank Project conceptualizes emotional attachment to virtual life. When visiting the site, an illustration of a virtual fish is shown, with a form on the side with the option to name the fish, decorate the tank, play with the fish, and most importantly, to feed the fish. When a person fills out the form, the actions are also done to a real fish. The Fish Tank Project was advertised on Facebook and the WordPress Art History blog to acquire people to interact with the website. Just like Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts by Allan Kaprow, where the audience becomes the art and exemplifies a social experiment, the art in The Fish Tank Project is about the audience and their experience.

The Fish Tank Project was started on November 3, 2012 and went on the Internet on the 4rd, under the URL http://arthistory4482.webs.com. A blue betta fish was bought at Petsmart and pictures of the living fish was added to a gallery page. On the front page, a virtual fish was displayed along with a form, a description, and the progress of the feedings so that the fish would not go unfed or be overfed. A blog was added to keep up with how many people were feeding the fish per day and to cite the progress of the project. Later on, a Forum page and a Members page were added where people could join the site as a member and post to the forums to talk about the project. Over an eighteen-day period, the fish was fed twenty-six times from multiple people. There was only a few people who continuously fed the fish most days to make sure he was fed. Social media websites, such as Facebook and WordPress were used to advertise the project to get people interested and participating. If no one fed the virtual fish, the real fish would not go fed, and therefore die. My social experiment in humanity would be a much different outcome than what I predicted. But a few people were interested and seemed emotionally attached to the fish, or cared enough to keep feeding the fish everyday.

When people filled out the form on the website, an e-mail was sent to me, showing what each person filled out. I won’t go into detail about each day, because that information is on the blog for the website, but I will tell about a few statistics. The most the fish got fed in one day was five times, when advertised on Facebook. The least amount the fish was fed was three days without food, when it was not advertised on Facebook. After the third day, another post was made, and after that, a few select people kept feeding the fish everyday. The need to advertise the project was not needed anymore, and the project went on to be successful, and the real fish survived.


The Fish Tank Project bears relationships to many pieces of digital artwork involving virtual, artificial, and real life. The piece with the most similarities is Tardigotchi.[1]  This project was unknown to me before the making of The Fish Tank Project, but has the same concept. SWAMP, in collaboration with Tiago Rorke, created the Tardigotchi featuring two pets, a living organism and an a-life avatar, both in a portable enclosure featuring a computer LED screen with the a-life avatar, and on the other side, the tardigrade in a prepared slide.[2] The owner tends to the real and the virtual creature by pushing a button to feed the virtual pet, which in turn feeds the tardigrade. Also, via e-mail, the portable device can trigger a heating lamp so the pixelated avatar can soak up rays, a signal of warmth from owner to pet.

The concept of The Fish Tank Project involves human emotional attachment to a virtual life form, just as in the Tardigotchi project. Described in a video, the Tardigatochi was advertised for the lonely human who doesn’t want to deal with a cat or dog, which may or may not like him or her.[3] Do the simple interactions of feeding and nurturing virtual life shape emotional bonds? Does the merging of artificial life with biological life make a difference in the attachment? The same questions goes for The Fish Tank Project.

A-volve is another project dealing with virtual life forms. In this piece, people sketch a creature that is projected on a mirror, and into a water-filled basin.[4] Through real-time calculations, the creatures appear to be alive and move through virtual space. This project’s concept is about the survival of the fittest. People can help their creature stay alive by touching or protecting it. Just like in The Fish Tank Project, there is a connection between the virtual and physical world. It’s up to human decision to play an influential role in the virtual environment. In The Fish Tank Project, it’s up to people to keep the real fish alive by feeding the virtual fish. Even though A-volve was created eighteen years ago, the technology used was advanced compared to the technology used for The Fish Tank Project.

In Telegarden, by Ken Goldberg and Joseph Santarromana, the idea of the Internet and community effort is brought forth. In this art installation, web users are allowed to view and interact with a garden filled with living plants.[5] Members are able to plant, water, and monitor the progress of their plants with movements of a robotic arm. The garden creates an environment of social interaction and community in virtual space. This project is similar because it’s about feeding an organism one physically cannot touch, through the Internet by inviting people from different areas to communally keep a living organism alive. The survival of the fish or plant is based on the social network of people.

What my project fails to do, that Telegarden successfully accomplishes, is that the community of people online interact with each other through the forums. People share a common interest of gardening, and are able to discuss the progression of their plants on the website. On The Fish Tank Project website, a Member’s page and a Forum’s page was put up so people could discuss the project, but nobody utilized these options, since the project only had a month to develop.

Another project involving community effort is Teleporting An Unknown State, by Eduardo Kac in 1995. In this project, a single seed is planted in soil under a projected light.[6] Online users control the light by sending a photo of the sky from where the person is located. The light teleports through a projector and the light from the “sky” is emitted on the plant. This acts as its own agency, where humans have the will to help keep the plant alive. This project, just like my project, uses the Internet as a life-supporting system. This sense of community shared by participants ensures that the plant grows. Networking was essential for the survival of both organisms in both projects in this case. There were doubts about Teleporting an Unknown State being successful, just as I had doubts about The Fish Tank Project. Would humanity fail as a community in keeping the real fish alive? Would people not care enough to feed it and have the organism die off?

In Galapagos, the use of aesthetically beautiful virtual organisms keeps some organisms alive compared to others. Does aesthetical appeal boost people’s incentive to feed a virtual fish, and help develop emotional attachment? Would people not care to feed the fish and let it die if it were an ugly looking creature? Galapagos answers some of these questions. It involves an interactive display of twelve computers that show virtual organisms that simulate growth and behaviors of a population. People select which organisms they want to keep alive and growing by stepping on sensors. The aesthetic appeal of creatures is based on growth and survival. The creatures that had very few stepped-on sensors die off and are removed, replaced by new offspring by two of the surviving organisms. Genes can be mutated, sometimes not in the favor of the organism. The more interesting organisms survive and evolve. The Fish Tank Project shows a beautiful virtual betta fish, helping people’s incentive to feed and keep the fish alive.

Another element my project failed to create was the use of live streaming video, like the project Uirapuru has.[7] In this project by Eduardo Kac in 1999, virtual reality is merged with teleprence on the Internet. Video of telerobotic fish is seen in a gallery streamed live on the web. I wish I had the technology to be able to stream the fish in The Fish Tank Project to show the fish being fed and played with. Uirapuru also uses the dual status of a virtual and physical fish in physical space through the web. Uirupuru’s avatar moves in virtual space according to the telerobotic fish in the gallery.

The projects discussed above were all done in the 1990s, before Facebook and MySpace was created. The Fish tank Project is relevant to the year 2012 because of the use of social networking to advertise the project. Back in the 1990s, social media was not prominent on the Internet. In the early 2000s, social media was created, but just started developing, not yet used by a widespread of people. By 2012, the use of social media has outreached to billions of people.[8] And because of this wide use of social media, unknown projects can be advertised and can reach a broad variety of people faster than it would have back in the 90s.  These projects discussed before barely presented social networking, but not in a broad and widespread manner as Facebook and MySpace show. Through the use of Facebook and blogs as advertising for The Fish Tank Project, and the ability to add a blog, member’s page, and forum, the project was able to be successful.

In Men, Machines, and The World About, an article by Norbert Weiner in 1958, the discussion of human behavior is examined. His article involves robotics and machines, not virtual life, but the theory is the same. In one example, a machine is made to control the temperature of humans, where it will predict based on outside conditions what temperature is correct for the person. But in emergency situations, a human can decide what to set the temperature at incase the machine fails. The theory is that humans, not machines, are in control of living organisms. Humans, though flawed, can make the best choices, rather than machines. In his experiments discussed in the article, the question of what will be the human’s decisions and how will they affect the outcome of the particular experiment is asked. Humans are in control of the outcome for The Fish Tank Project, to keep the fish alive or leave it to die. Allan Kapow brought the idea of “the art is the life you’re living.”  In his piece Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts in 1959, the audience becomes the artist by given a list of activities to do within the exhibit. The experience is the artwork. I believe the same goes for The Fish Tank Project. Kaprow’s art seems to show a social experiment of human behavior and how different people interact with what is given to them. Both the article by Weiner, and Kaprow’s art show human decisions, interaction, and behavior. In The Fish Tank Project, the social experiment of human emotions and interaction was the concept that brought the idea for the project.

This project I created reminds me of a website called Neopets.[9] It was more of a game, where people pick a virtual pet, species made up by the creators, and one could feed it and play games in a virtual world. I remember as a kid getting addicted to the games to get more points, so I could buy more food and toys for the pet. A Japanese toy called Tamagotchi also relates to my project. This was popular in the 1990s. It was what inspired Tardigotchi, because this toy was a round object that could fit in your pocket that held a virtual animal that you had to virtually feed to keep alive. These two developments from the 1990s show how emotionally attached one can get to virtual life, as if it were real.

People can easily get lost in the virtual world, believing that it is real life. As the Internet and social networking is growing, people are using these tools to generate a real world experience. Facebook and texting is a replacement for actual socializing with friends. Amazon is a replacement for shopping. Roleplaying games such as World of Warcraft bring people to a fantasy world to escape from the real world. Toys like Tamagotchi replace the need for a real life pet. Emotional attachment to virtual objects and the virtual world generates a new social problem in today’s society. The Fish Tank Project barely portrayed this dilemma. People are starting to replace real life experiences with virtual ones. These websites and games are now becoming a way of life. Mobile smart phones, which are nomadic, are able to pull up Facebook, Amazon, games, and any website from any location. Instead of going out and playing baseball with friends, one can now just play the game on the iPhone. People on average send out 50 texts or more a day on their cell phones, giving them the sensation of socializing. The Web 2.0 and technology are constantly reinventing and growing to create the new way of virtual life.

The objective of The Fish Tank Project was to discover people’s human behavior towards virtual life. My questions were: Will people actually feed the virtual fish to keep the real fish alive? Will anyone develop an attachment to the virtual fish, and keep coming back? Many people, strangers to one another, came together as a community to feed the virtual fish online. Some remembered to continuously feed the fish so that it would not go a day without food. I believe this answers the question about emotions toward virtual life. Perhaps my project is flawed, because there was also the motive of keeping a real fish alive, but the actions of people going through the Internet to feed this virtual fish was still a factor. If this project were to be redone, I would create another variable and make another website without the factor of the real live fish being fed. But my social experiment through digital art was successful. Digital art, like The Fish Tank Project, is not only art to view and admire, but concerns itself with the social function of art, such as human interaction, behavior, and emotions.

Fish Feedings – Shows list of all the people who have fed the fish and on what days.

[1] Tardigotchi was created in 2010, more information found at http://www.swamp.nu/projects/tardigotchi/

[2] A tardigrade is a common microorganism measuring half a millimeter in length.

[4] A-volve is by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau in 1994.

[5] Project started in 1995 and went on for seven years. Won many awards and prizes.

[6] The exhibition in New Orleans ended on August 9, 1996. On that day the plant was 18 inches tall. After the show, Eduardo Kac gently uprooted the plant and replanted it next to a tree by the Contemporary Art Center’s front door.

[7] Project exhibited from October 15 to November 28, 1999 in ICC Biennale, which proceeded to win an international award. More information at http://www.ekac.org/uirapuru.html.

[8] According to statistics, 1.2 billion people worldwide use Facebook, 98% of which are 18-24 year olds who already use social media. Only 11% of the Earth use Facebook.

[9] Neopets with created in 1997, featuring a virtual world with virtual pets and virtual money, which can be also bought with real-world money.

2 responses to “Term Project Essay – The Fish Tank Project

    • Added a picture of the real fish, working on a video if I can figure it out. Also added a document of the list of fish feedings to the end of the paper.

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