Joe Davis (US), Filip Hiemann (DE), Thomas Kaiser (DE), Molly Elizabeth Ferguson (US) Multi-channel Audiomicroscope, Microorganism Farm, Listening Libraries, Golden Girl, Car Guitar

installation, 2005

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
August, 2005

Joe Davis (US)

Joe Davis is a research affiliate in the Department of Biology, the Alexander Rich Laboratory at MIT. As an artist he has done extensive research in molecular biology and bioinformatics for the production of genetic databases and new biological art forms. His teaching experience in the MIT graduate architecture program (Master of Science in Visual Studies) and in undergraduate painting and mixed media at the Rhode Island School of Design has informed his artistic practice. He has exhibited in the United States, Canada, and Europe at Ars Electronica. He is the first artist to use DNA as an artistic medium in 1986 with the beginnings of the Microvenus project. Other of his projects include: Audio Microscope; Riddle of Life project; experiments with Andrew Zaretsky how Escherichia coli respond to sound; in the project Milky Way DNA Davis wants to put an image of the Milky Way galaxy into the cells of a mouse; recorded the vaginal contractions of women, and translated them into text, music, phonetic speech and ultimately into radio signals, which were beamed from MIT's Millstone radar to Epsilon Eridani, Tau Ceti, and two other nearby star systems.

Filip Hiemann (DE)

Filip Hiemann, Filip_Unclickables Workspace deals with the envelopment of experimental audio- and videointerfaces, designed for various demands, so he worked with many musicians, scientists and movie directors for different projects. Hestudied music sciences in Heidelberg and Weimar specialized for new music ofthe last 30 years and medieval music. His interests are up to network musicand realtime composition and its different possibilities along new mediasand technologies.

Thomas Kaiser (DE)

Thomas Kaiser works as a Research Engineer at the Clondiag GmbH in Jena, Germany. His research interests include data analysis/standardization, micro-/nanotechnologies, integrated optics, molecular biology, and currently DNA extraction/purification. In art he worked on (together with Joe Davis) imaging technology based on molecular interaction with potential for extraordinary resolution; proof-of-concept images made from DNA, vitamins, protein, gold and silver featured at L' Art Biotech, 2003 bioart exhibition in Nantes, France; on development of theremin- and audio synthesizing-microscopes; new multi-channel audio microscope development with audio environments, performance; ongoing work in transformations of scientific perception.

Molly Elizabeth Ferguson (US)

She is recognized in professional fields of dance, graphic arts, computer graphics, photography, primary and pre-school art education and curricula, sculpture, living sculpture, museum/gallery production and installation, documentary video and video art, electronics, experimental music and performance.