Life, Light, Sound and the Borders of Imagination
Many species have evolved organs to detect sound. Images seem to dominate human communication-channels in the 21st century. Yet, the highest concentration of our nerve cells is located not in our eyes or genitalia, but in the cochlea of the inner ear.
The eye is actually a much more crude instrument than the ear. While events at the limit of visual resolution occur over periods of time no shorter than 0.2 seconds, events perceived by the ear normally occur over much tinier amounts of time that are measured in many thousandths of a second. Still, to explore nature, we primates seem to have had a natural tendency to 'look at' things, despite our extremely sensitive auditory sense.
If the first microscope would have extracted audio data, our view of the microcosm would be an impression of sound. We would think in terms of frequencies and phases instead of the constructs of two-dimensional figures currently used to represent the microscopic world. In 2000, Joe Davis (M.I.T.) presented the very first audio microscope at Ars Electronica Next Sex in Linz, Austria. That system made it possible to receive audio data from an optical microscope. The audio microscope converted the frequency and amplitude of reflected light into sound. Data was received at a very high numeric aperture from a laser-illuminated (darkfield) sample of living organisms.
A new, multi-channel audio microscope is presented as a part of the Touch Me exhibition. This improved audio microscope will enhance specificity of received data in terms of reproducible recordings of observed specimens. Technical improvements of the audio microscope allow for detection not only of audio-frequency modulation of light but also of spatial movements of specimens.
For that, the light sensitive detectors in the original instrument have been replaced with multichannel photodiodes. In addition, the image is captured and processed with different electronic and sofware-filters - used to adapt our brains to the noises of the microcosm. For better understanding of the audio data, a video-signal is bypassed to a video projector.
A commercial optical microscope was at the heart of the first audio microscope. The commercial microscope has now been replaced with a custom-made, original instrument. The design has been customized for the purpose of creating a completely portable audio microscope. One objective has been to use this 'optical microphone' to listen to microscopic specimens everywhere without the need to culture them in the context of a laboratory or exhibition.
Future improvements may include waterproof designs and miniaturized submarine audio microscopes. To date, audio microscope technical development has been rapidly evolving and may ultimately result in unprecedented forms of instruments and even, unprecedented applications thereof.
Another advance has been to enable audio microscope data to be output spatially. Received sound is output to a 4 channel audio installation. This setup opens up new ways to understand the fascinating nature of the microscopic ponds we`re now paddling through. Spatially dynamic output also enhances possibilities for concerts played by both human and microorganism.
It`s easy to imagine that improving our 'acoustic eyes' on the microcosm may open up ground for further artistic approaches, but there has also been relatively little knowledge and imagination about the sounds of microcosm in the scientific community.
Increased understanding of complex, three-dimensional folding of molecules marked the switch from genomics to proteomics in the 1990`s. These developments might also indicate borders that normally confine human imagination. It is probably reasonable to assume that patterns of imagination are grounded in our visual perceptions. Yet, the sound of nanocosm may be much easier to comprehend than any understanding we ultimately achieve through the application of geometrical abstractions. We'll just have to wait and see (and listen).
In principle, optical communication of voice and music is more than a century old. Alexander Graham Bell's photophone (ca. 1880) was probably the first optical communications device to transmit human voice on a beam of light. Bell used thin, vibrating mirrors to reflect sunlight analogous to the vibrations of human voice impinging on the mirror. Selenium photo-detectors were used with audio amplification to convert light back into sound.
In addition to the multi-channel audio microscope, we have included several other elements in the installation that will help visitors grasp the nature of opto-acoustics. Car Guitar transforms sound to electrical signals which are amplified and then, through magnetic coupling, modulate the output (light) of heavy filaments in automobile headlamps. Light from car headlights are then converted back into electrical signals and sound with optical detectors and audio amplifiers. Several performances are also planned in which human models are reflectorized so that autonomic audio outputs of the human body are converted to light and back into sound.
Finally, it should be stated clearly that audio microscope is not straightforward result of hypothesis-driven research. No pretense is offered to suggest that these or related artworks represent true scientific advancement. Instead, they have been inspired by the special configurations of paradox and promise.
Thomas Kaiser, Joe Davis