Waves of light

I (Corresponding author) have always been visually drawn to the neon pulsations of bioluminescent ocean life; when studying on a BA course at Central st Martins school of art & design I began to enquire further into the nature of these phenomena. How is it that these creatures are able to emit light? What do they use it for? These are questions I began to raise to myself during this period.

As an artist, being unfamiliar with the laboratory environment I was aiming to recreate these light shows using digital software. When I discovered a vision shared among synthetic biologists to use bioluminescent DNA to light our city streets, I knew it was time to get hands on working with whatever bioluminescent properties, if I could.

After some enquiries I began experimenting with cells of microscopic algae (dinoflagellates) in my London flat. Working in the dark, I aimed to use sound to stimulate the cells, not only to reveal their response to music, but also to see how they might interact with the geometric forms found in water during cymatic experiments.

Due to the unprofessional conditions I was working in, the vision I started with was becoming harder to grasp. I was witnessing some positive effects, none of which could be captured by the standard DSLR camera I was using. As well as this, the substance was weakening after every attempt, and every exposure to unwanted light meant large delays. After much failure, I contacted Dr. Latz of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, UCSD. After explaining my vision, and the difficulties I was having, he invited me to California to collaborate, offering the scientific and technological support I certainly needed to document the beauty of bioluminescence.

I had put together a sub woofer rig, which was the venue for each experiment. This took the form of a large wooden box, placed in side was an amp connected to a synthesizer, using this I was able to gain full control over the visual displays.

Dr. Latz had supplied different cultures of the bacteria, using mostly the strongest one I would fill the speaker to around eighty percent. Once ensuring everything was in place I began creating sounds from software on my laptop and from the synthesizer, Layering frequencies and testing different forms of music. Twisting the dials of the synthesizer franticly would result in dramatic changes between the cells and the water, the behavior of the algae, however, would remain surprisingly unpredictable throughout which keep the five days of constant recording exiting. At times the algae would form bodies, grouping together in clusters almost like a deference mechanism. At other stages the algae would travel in linear paths as if they were cars on a highway. I think the most visually impressive moments where when the substance was suspended in a small container, raised about an inch away from the speaker. When a blast of low frequencies was introduced, this would cause a star burst like effect followed by almost aggressive, manic action. The unpredictability of these experiments certainly raised further enquiries for me to revisit.

We used a Sony A6 mirror-less camera to capture all footage, including the bioluminescent materials shown on the cover of this issue of Materials Today. Since external light weakens the bioluminescent strength, I worked in complete darkness during all of the shoots. As expected, the most impressive results would come from lower range of frequencies. The exploration of bioluminescence, captured and communicated through art is certainly something I intend to revisit in the future. The full project can be seen at bio-sonar.co.uk.

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DOI: 10.1016/j.mattod.2017.09.019