Communicating Bacteria

The Communicating Bacteria Project combines bioart, historical textile techniques and 3D mapped video projections to explore new research currently being undertaken in the field of bacterial communication, to engage a wide audience in the field and increase debate and understanding of this potentially new form of infection control. The project is funded by The Wellcome Trust.


Bacteria have intricate communication capabilities, for example: quorum sensing (voting on issues affecting the colony and signaling their presence to other bacteria); chemotactic signaling (detecting harmful or favorable substances in the environment); and plasmid exchange (e.g. for transfer of antibiotic resistance genes). This is now being investigated as a form of social intelligence as it is realized that these so called ‘simplest’ of life forms can work collectively, obtain information about their environment (and other cells) and use that information in a ‘meaningful’ way. Using signaling chemicals such as Homoserine Lactone, the bacteria pass on messages to nearby cells, which can be either part of their colony or other living cells (including eukaryotic and plant cells).

The project is led by artist Anna Dumitriu; in collaboration with microbiologists Dr Simon Park and Dr John Paul, and video artist Alex May. Dumitriu’s long-term artistic practice is focused around microbiology and collaborative practice. Communicating Bacteria [1] builds strongly on her earlier work – including Cybernetic Bacteria 2.0, a digital media installation presented at ISEA 2010 – and current role as artist in residence on the on the UK Clinical Research Consortium Modernising Medical Microbiology Project at The University of Oxford, Nuffield Centre for Clinical Medicine, which looks at the changing face of medical microbiology in light of the possibilities of (near) real-time genome mapping of bacteria and developments in bioinformatics.

The importance of the public understanding of microbiology cannot be understated. Many businesses play on public fears in order to add value to their products, while newspapers and TV shows fill our minds with images of bacteria as armies of tiny monsters ready to attack unless we buy some new hand wash or detergent. 

The infection control potential of interfering with bacterial communication and quorum sensing mechanisms is at an early stage, however it is known that:

This 'census-taking' enables the group to express specific genes only at particular population densities. Quorum sensing is widespread; it occurs in numerous Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria. In general, processes controlled by quorum sensing are ones that are unproductive when undertaken by an individual bacterium but become effective when undertaken by the group. For example, quorum sensing controls bioluminescence, secretion of virulence factors, sporulation, and conjugation. Thus, quorum sensing is a mechanism that allows bacteria to function as multi-cellular organisms. [2]

Therefore, the ability to block the receptors that receive quorum sensing signals would lead to bacteria that are no longer able to turn on those processes. To be able to block the expression of virulence factors (such as bacterial toxins) would render highly pathogenic organisms far less dangerous. Further down the line an understanding of the exact signaling mechanisms might even lead to the possibility of directing the behavior of bacteria.

The Communicating Bacteria Project involves the development of a body of new work, including: textile designs stained with dyes made from bacteria that change colour depending on the behaviour and communication of bacteria, crochet patterns based on bacterial responses, interactive interventions that are modeled according to behavior and communication between bacteria, and a series of hacked antique whitework embroidered pieces created using genetically modified bacteria.

Textile art has a long history of communicating difficult and complex stories and ideas, from the Bayeux Tapestry to the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The soft qualities of the fabric and the skills of the makers help to reach out to a wide audience of all ages. Dr Simon Park had previously created a number of previous works involving the staining of cloth with bacterial pigments (and slime moulds) and his expertise and inspiration was integral in the development of this project.

The antique whitework (white on white) embroideries are worked in to by hand with delicately stitched images of bacteria and communications networks. Dumitriu’s modern stitches are far heavier handed than those of the original makers, creating an interesting juxtaposition. Additional patterns are created using a genetically modified strain of Chromobacterium violaceum called CV026.  Chromobacterium violaceum is white in its natural state but turns purple when it receives a communication; but, since bacteria grow in colonies and individual bacteria are continually sending and receiving signals it always appears purple. However, the CV026 strain is effectively mute. It can receive a chemical communication signal but cannot send one, so it only turns purple in the presence of a communication from another bacterium. When exposed to unmodified Chromobacterium violaceum it slowly turns purple as the chemical signal spreads. 

Around the time of the enlightenment, the perversely difficult practice of whitework embroidery was considered to be one of the highest levels of achievement for a woman. They would sew in the evenings by candlelight, straining their eyes to see the tiny stitches, hunched over their embroidery hoops, their bodies twisted and constricted by tight corsetry, one pinprick of blood meaning the whole piece would be ruined. This coincided with the period in which many of their male counterparts started to become ‘gentleman scientists’ and to rigorously study the world around them ‘scientifically.’ This was the time when the scientific method was developed and disciplinary boundaries were drawn between art and science. By juxtaposing whitework with her scientific practice, Dumitriu considers these paradigmatic changes in the process of research and current moves towards transdisciplinarity, alongside a consideration of what ‘feminine’ approaches to science might mean.

Central to the installation is a stunning antique Edwardian whitework dress, with Dumitriu’s additional stitching and a purple pattern created by the process of bacterial communication. The dress was laid out on a one meter square agar plate (a makeshift Petri dish from a DIY centre normally used for mixing concrete and sterilized with ethanol), inoculated with CV026 and left to grow, be absorbed into the fibers and travel along the fine stitches. After a day or so of incubation the white CV026 was exposed to the Chromobacterium violaceum and the communication signal traveled across the fabric as the white bacteria turned purple. This process was filmed using time-lapse photography and the resulting film was projected, using 3D video mapping technology (developed by Alex May) across the dress and related objects within the final installation. The dress having been dried, sterilized and made safe.

The project continues to be developed and work is now being undertaken to develop methods to exhibit the process taking place live and run participatory sessions working with the team. This entails the development of a modular Category Two bio-containment facility that can be constructed within art gallery settings, whilst fully conforming to health and safety requirements and enabling a much deeper level of engagement and understanding of these complex microbiological processes through a powerful and experiential artistic approach.

References and Notes: 

  1. Communicating Bacteria Project Official Website, (accessed June 28, 2011).
  2. Bonnie Bassler’s official website at Princeton University, (accessed June 28, 2011).

The Emergence of Consciousness

The Emergence of Consciousness project is an artistic investigation of the scientific study of consciousness and the possibilities of 'machine consciousness' through the use of performance art and digital media. Dumitriu worked with sensory and movement deprivation (e.g. blindfolds, physical restraints etc.) and augmentation, in an attempt to take on the role of a robotic agent herself and try to understand what it feels like to be a robot.


The issue is that we tend to think we know what a conscious experience is and our inner mental lives are filled with assumptions about the conscious experiences of others, we believe we know how they feel and we assume they have some insight into what how we feel. We have what’s known as a “theory of mind” and are able to identify other “minded” subjects. But these abilities are set to be thrown into question as developments in artificial life (AL) technologies lead to the potential to build robots that give the impression of being “minded” in some way. Thomas Nagel’s paper “What is it like to be a bat” suggests that it is not possible for us to imagine how it would feel to be a bat because bats use sonar to navigate their world, something we could not imagine as we have no understanding or experience of it. However technological advances may offer us limited access to “new” senses, even in the short term and we can learn to incorporate them, perhaps enabling new insights. An example of this is the “Enactive Torch” built by Tom Froese and Adam Spiers, which: “provides the user with one continuous channel of vibro-tactile feedback to the hand, where the strength of stimulation depends on the distance to the object which is currently pointed at. The distance is measured using an ultrasonic sensor.”

Working closely with researchers from the Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics at The University of Sussex during her artist’s residency there Dumitriu investigated notions of what “conscious experience” might mean for a robotic agent in contrast to a human (the artist herself). The project, which was created as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad is inspired by perspectives of embodiment as characterized by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, and situatedness as applied to evolutionary robotics by Rodney Brooks. This research was used to develop a new work, which was performed at Lighthouse in Brighton in July 2010. For the piece Dumitriu attempted to take on the role of a robot agent by reducing (as much as humanly possible) her sensory input down to that of her collaborator a medium sized robot whose only interaction with the world is through its limited sensors and wheels).  Working with an assistant (Luke Robert Mason) her ears were blocked with earplugs, her head and body were wrapped in thick black bondage tape to block out her vision and restrict her movement and her skin was coated with Lidocaine cream (local anaesthetic). She was given a walking cane to sense her world with (as suggested by Dr Inman Harvey as being a close analogue for the robot’s sonar. In the performance the robot attempted to find the centre of the room using a control system evolved using a genetic algorithm and a single sonar sensor, Dumitriu attempted to find the centre of the room using her remaining sensory capacity and a counted the paces she took to get from one side to the other. The robot method is faster in this case and the Dumitriu’s very human approach is a demonstration of the incommensurability between artificial and biological life but nevertheless the work demonstrates clearly just how different ‘machine consciousness’ might be. These ideas were also brought out in digital projections to accompany the performance created artist Alex May.

Taking on the role of a robot agent is not a trivial process. The idea that a robot phenomenology is something that we could access is a contentious and flawed idea, however, an attempt to mimic the phenomenological experience of a robot should be of interest. The possibility of impoverishing the artist’s sensory experience to that of a robot is not achievable and neither is the idea of an artist replicating the functionality of a wheeled robot through her own physicality. However the ongoing performative experiments reveal to both the wider public and to invited scientists and philosophers many of the issues inherent in developing machine consciousness, potentially revealing new insights whilst acting as a form of public engagement in robotics research.

In her experiments Dumitriu has attempted to enact “robot experience” with particular focus on Francisco Varela’s work on how a robot might be considered to “mindfully” interact with the environment in which it is embedded. It focuses only on the sensor data it can receive and react to and not concerned with the floods of thoughts and emotions that fill (and pollute?) our human minds. 

The practical aspects of the project are important to Dumitriu’s understanding and Dumitriu built the robot agent from scratch in collaboration with a robotics specialist. The wheeled robot has the capacity to take in a large number of sensory inputs but currently is just using sonar. It is important for the work that Dumitriu understands fully how the robot is constructed in order to deconstruct it psychologically for the audience.

The work done in the Emergence of Consciousness project is now being built on in Dumitriu’s new collaboration with the University of Hertfordshire where she and fellow artist collaborator Alex May have been appointed as Visiting Research Fellows: Artists in Residence in The Adaptive Systems Group (since January 2011). They are now working closely with Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn and Dr Mick Walters to develop a series of speculative robot heads designed to provoke the audience to think about their feelings about the possibilities of living with robot companions. It asks the audience to consider the field of social robotics and what they actually want in robot companions; how they should look, move and whether they should appear to be humanlike or ‘minded’. The first of these heads was exhibited at the Science Gallery in Dublin (April-June 2011) as part of their exhibition “HUMAN+ The future of the species” and included a humanoid robot body built by the University of Hertfordshire with a head created using rear projection 3D video mapping and a hacked Microsoft Kinect that is able to take on the appearance of anyone looking at it (in group situations it creates a composite based on proximity). The idea is that users may prefer a familiar face but the work plays with the sense of the uncanny as users begin to recognise themselves (a disjuncture perhaps between the sensation that something is minded and the knowledge that it is not). The title of that head is “Familiar” and also references the idea of the ‘witches familiar’ (in mythology this is often a black cat), a creature which ‘appears only at a time of need’, ‘can act on the witch’s behalf’ and ‘can change shape’. Technology as witchcraft?

References and Notes: 

Daniel Dennet, Consciousness Explained (London, Penguin, 1993)

Thomas Metzinger, Being No One (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2004)

Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?” In The Philosophical Review, 1974

Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (MIT Press, 1992)

 The Enactive Torch official blog (accessed 23 June 2011)

The Science Gallery official website “My Robot Companion” (accessed June 23, 2011)



Unnecessary Research, what's the point?

This panel outlines “The Institute of Unnecessary Research”(IUR) and presents a new paradigm in the way artists are engaging with the world through transdisciplinary practices. It brings together art, science and philosophy by creating participatory audience experiences. Sometimes humorous and sometimes grotesque, our work pushes boundaries and critically questions the means of knowledge production in the 21st Century.


Artists are innovators, if a new piece of technology or a new medium, becomes available; artists want to try it, to experiment with it- from microbiology to robotics; from tissue culture to neuroscience. Some artists take on the role of a scientist in almost a performative way and some scientists become artists themselves. Philosophy and ethics is always at its core and the work unpacks the instrumentalization of science and art for commercial and political ends.

Forms of “connective aesthetics” (Gablik) are used to engage audiences in participatory experiences that extend and generate new outcomes through exhibitions and events going beyond simple interactivity, throwing authorship into question, as members of the audience are inspired to become Unnecessary Researchers in their own rights.

The IUR was founded in 2005 by Artist Anna Dumitriu following discussions at the “Rules of Engagement” Conference on the nature of Art and Science collaboration, held at York University, UK and organized by Arts Council England. The original ‘blue sky’ vision for the IUR was a major research facility where scientists were employed to work with artists, thereby avoiding the common situation of scientists’ lack of availability/time when engaged in art/science collaborative projects. Scientists tend to view a collaborative art/science project as extra-curricular to their ‘day jobs’, whereas to an artist the collaboration is often key to their ‘day jobs’ in terms of being either a grant funded project, commissioned piece or artists’ residency. This inconsistency is one of the biggest hurdles for art/science collaboration to overcome, often far greater than issues, such as funding, audience engagement and linguistic incommensurability. Key to the notion of art/science collaboration are these reoccurring questions, “What is the purpose of it?” “What can an artist offer to science”, “In terms of art, why engage with science at all?” “What levels of cross-fertilization should happen” and most importantly “what has art got to do with knowledge anyway?” The IUR attempts to work with these questions.

There are obvious financial issues with building a major research facility for artists to work with scientists (the IUR favours a underground facility carved out of a rocky island that can only be reached by boat or helicopter (for purely aesthetic reasons)) so it was decided that The IUR should initially be started as a hub for artists or scientists working a high levels of trans-disciplinary practice, strongly concerned with the philosophical implications of their methodolologies, interested in public engagement and practicing in ways that could be described as ‘performative’ in nature. A web site was set up in 2005 and a very low-key performance event took place in Dumitriu’s studio above The Phoenix Gallery in Brighton, England. Since then the has project attracted wide interest and has grown form there, including further performances and interventions at Sussex University, The Whitechapel Gallery in London, ETH in Zurich and as part of many festivals.

The Institute of Unnecessary Research is now an international hub for researchers and artists working experimentally and deeply engaged with their specific research areas. We present our research through performative and experiential methods, engaging the public and new audiences in our ideas.

The IUR uses performance as a means of conveying research; often events have an interactive component, the audience taking part in experiments and research activities thus changing the direction, development and final outcomes of the artwork. Critical theorist Suzi Gablik discusses in her essay on “Connective Aesthetics” that the traditional relationship of the artist to the artwork has come to be superseded, and that this social role of art has become increasingly important, since there is:

“.. a rejection of modernism’s bogus ideology of neutrality. Many artists now refuse the notion of a completely narcissistic exhibition practice as the desirable goal for art”. (Gablik)

Artists have now come to see the process as equal to, or even more important than the outcome, or the performance is more important than the documentation of it. So the means of production of the artwork as a dialogical and collaborative process is also the outcome of the artwork in this model, which is what makes it so relevant to Art/Science practice, it is an analogue of the typical, natural relationship of the artist to the scientist (and vice versa), the journey rather than the destination. Although not inherent in all Art/Science practice it would seem logical to include the audience in the collaboration, with their own vast tracts of knowledge and experience. Gablik states:

“..there is distinct shift in the locus of creativity from the autonomous, self contained individual to a new dialogical structure that frequently is not the product of a single individual but the result of a collaborative and interdependent process”. (Gablik)

This influence of performative, dialogical aesthetics, which comes from the collaborative structure of Art/Science practice makes it a useful technique for reaching out to new audiences in a non-hierarchical way. But these forms of collaboration are not easy and require huge conviction, and effort from all partners involved.

The IUR mimics and subverts the Institutional model it is based on. There are various ‘departments’ each ‘headed’ by an unnecessary researcher. The ‘department’ names are created by the individual artists, scientists and philosophers and based on their personal research areas. When a researcher joins they come up with a ‘department’ name, if they leave (and the IUR is a dynamic group in this sense) it is likely that the ‘department’ is discontinued (at least for a while)

For instance the Head of Crockery resigned his role (from within the online cyber world Second Life in 2006), as part of a multimedia performance at Sussex University, the position of Head of Crockery currently remains unfilled.

There is no official selection procedure for department heads, unsolicited enquiries are responded to with a warning that selection procedures  “are entirely nepotistic”, in fact the IUR grows organically through increasing networks of international contacts.  Current departments include: ‘Projective Geometry’ (Alex May), ‘The Digital Simulacra’ (Luke Robert Mason), ‘Neuroplastic Arts’ (Gordana Novakovic), ‘Textile Abuse’ (Bettina Shuelke) and ‘Viral Contagion’ (Tagny Duff). There are currently 25 departments across distributed locations and the project is directed and co-ordinated by Anna Dumitriu (whilst working on her own research interests which cross microbiology, artificial life, robotics and ethics).

The name “The Institute of Unnecessary Research” is, in many ways, confrontational. It raises the question what is necessary research? Unnecessary does not imply pointless, it often means going beyond the normal (in the Kuhnian sense of ‘normal science’) and crossing boundaries, asking where do we draw the line with what we study or with what can be studied? Unnecessary Research encourages eccentric, obsessive, creative working practices and is an antidote to the stranglehold placed on research by central government and the gatekeepers of academia.

References and Notes: 

Suzi Gablik,, Connective Aesthetics: Art after Individualism in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Ed. Suzanne Lacy (Bay Press, 1995), p85

The Institute of Unnecessary Research official website  (accessed 23 June, 2011) 



Neural Ghosts and the Focus of Attention

In this paper I will discuss the phenomena of cortical sonic hallucination in conjunction with the new artwork Ghost.


Jane Grant
Associate Professor (Reader) in Digital Arts

Plymouth University


Consciousness as attention to memory is a term that neuroscientist Eugene Izhikevich uses to describe a phenomenon in which the cortex re-lives or re-visits a specific pattern of neural activity in the absence of sensory information. The model brain or cortex, deprived of stimulation, journeys around its own temporal architectures conjuring past ‘experiences’ or ‘memories’, pulling them into the present. Evidence that these pathways continue to be re-visited once stimulation occurs again is compelling.

Referring to recent research in developing the sonic artwork Ghost, and an earlier work: The Fragmented Orchestra, all of which have at their core the Spike Neuronal Network model of Eugene Izhikevich, I will discuss the phenomena of ‘sonic ghosts’, a term I have used to describe the buffering up of the neural past within the neural present. 

 What we experience as consciousness occurs at many different cortical locations and timescales. In the paper ‘Polychronization: Computation with Spikes’, [1] Izhikevich discusses one of the simulated, anatomically realistic models of 100,000 cortical spiking neurons that he and his team have created. These networks of spiking neurons form polychronous (multiple or many times) groups, which fire with ‘millisecond precision’. The connection strength between pairs and groups of neurons is intricately dependent upon the difference between spike arrival times, the phenomenon known as Spike Timing Dependent Plasticity (STDP). The groups of firing neurons are ‘time locked but not synchronous’ [1] and that it is the destination of the spiking and not the activation that gives rise to the complexity of the model. Izhikevich states that these time-based clusters or groups across the cortex, give rise to the beginning of ‘simple thought and memory.’

 These groups are interesting as they form as a result of STDP, not as a consequence of anatomical clustering, emerging from the ‘dynamics of the connectivity between the neurons’. The polychronous groups, because of this continual formation, grow and then disappear, although some ‘live’ and become more permanent in the neuronal model.

 Izhikevich likens the network of polychronous groups to the immune system in which we appear to have antibodies for all possible antigens, ‘even those that do not exist on earth’. He also proposes that these groups contain all possible variation of both thought that is, and thought that is to come – all potential manifestation of human cognition.

A major significance of polychronous groups is that they may represent memories or experience. The neuronal model becomes autonomous, self-activating once a certain threshold is achieved. The model devoid of any stimulation or articulate input generates random memories or experiences not associated with any previous input.  The network has exceptional capacity for memory and it is this memory that is re-visited when external stimulus is not present. Once the network exceeds a particular threshold, an activation of groups occurs. These groups represent an external stimulus which go on to trigger other groups so that the number of internally stimulated groups are equivalent to the number of groups activated when externally stimulated. Izhikevich calls this ‘the focus of attention.’ [1] Therefore when external stimulus is not present, the neuronal model, driven by noisy currents, re-visits some of these firing clusters, following the formation of pathways previously established through external and internal stimulation. In a sense it could be said, that the cortex re-lives previous experiences.

“If the size of the network exceeds a certain threshold, a random activation of a few groups representing a previously seen stimulus may activate other groups representing the same stimulus so that he total number of activated groups is comparable to the number of activated groups that occurs when the stimulus is actually present and it is the focus of attention.” [1]

“One can say that the network ‘thinks’ of the stimulus, that is, it pays attention to the memory of the stimulus. Such ‘thinking’ resembles ‘experiencing’ the stimulus. A sequence of spontaneous activations corresponding to one stimulus, then another, and so on may be related to the stream of primary (perceptual or sensory) consciousness.” [1]

 These streams of primary, perceptual and sensory consciousness are the temporal architectures of the brain, fleeting structures built of time. The structures are remarkable, as the neuronal firing events that the stimulus triggers remain, albeit temporarily, despite that they are no longer being physically, sensorially activated.

The aim of my research is to sonify the events that occur within the cortical structures. Their temporality and complexity are fascinating, in terms of time, the precise, but very fleeting nature of these events, are coupled with the exactitude of the millisecond. Furthermore, each firing event has the potential of infinite dimensionality, complexity in process, thought in the moment of becoming.

The Ganzfeld ‘entire or total field’ experiment sought to explore extra-sensory perception using mild sensory deprivation, white light and noise, in order to negate defined external stimulation. Regardless of the controversial findings in the field of parapsychology, what became apparent, was that the un-stimulated or sensorially deprived visual cortex begins to conjure vague images or impressions of scenes.

Age related macular degeneration consists of loss of vision occurring at the centre of the visual field.  This lack of visual information causes blurred vision and eventually the loss of vision itself. In many cases it also results in the phenomenon of hallucination ranging from mild to impressively articulate. These hallucinations are thought to be caused by the absence of continual visual information relayed from the retina through to the brain, the brain ‘filling in’ for the sensory information it lacks. In Ganzfeld, whist every care is taken to deprive the brain of any stimulus; sound, vision and, of course, movement, the brain is never silent. Another more recent study in short-term sensory deprivation found that people not normally prone to hallucination experienced delusions and apparitions during the short period of deprivation. The researchers, from University College, London believe that the hallucinations are produced by a phenomenon called ‘faulty source monitoring;’ in that ‘the brain misidentifies the source of it’s own thoughts as arising outside the body.’ [2]

The brain, as we have seen from Izhikevich’s model, despite the stimulus being removed, creates its own activity, re-visits past experiences, pulling them into the context of the present.

In Ghost, eight speakers, eight microphones and a computer are connected to form a ‘memory embedded’ network of neurons. Sounds have been implanted into the cortex beforehand to provide the system with a buffer or ‘memory’. Once installed, live, ambient or performed sounds in the gallery will stimulate artificial neurons, modelled in the computer to fire, sending tiny fragments of sound from the eight microphones to the speakers. When these sounds fail to reach a certain threshold the cortex will journey around its own architecture, re-visiting older, established pathways, using its ‘memory’ as buoyancy when external stimulus dies away. This memory is its own internal noise, its earliest and primary stimulation. These sounds will be heard as ‘sonic ghosts,’ a term I have used to describe internal or endogenous noise embedded in the cortex, which reoccurs when the external stimulation is low or not present in the gallery space.

Ghost will reconfigure internal and external sounds causing a temporal and sonic overlapping of the neural past within the neural present, a rupture in the flow of sensory and endogenous information. As the external sonic events occur these will be drawn in to the cortex building an ever-increasing bed of experiences from which to compose.

One of the initial phases of this model was The Fragmented Orchestra, where groups of spiking neurons formed polychronous groups allowing a rich and dynamic model of firing activity in the cortex.

“The Fragmented Orchestra is a vast distributed sonic structure created by Jane Grant, John Matthias and Nick Ryan. It was installed in the United Kingdom between December 2008 and February 2009. It consisted of 24 fixed geographical locations, including FACT, Liverpool, University of Plymouth, Landscove Primary School, Devon, The National Portrait Gallery, London, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff and Kielder Observatory, Northumberland. At each of the locations, a ‘soundbox’ was installed, which consisted of a microphone, a small computer connected to the internet and a Feonic ‘drive', a device that transmits audio through resonating architectural surfaces. Sound made in the spaces was transmitted across the internet to a server computer in the FACT gallery. In this computer, we ran an artificial neuronal network, an adaptation of the Izhikevich’s recently developed non-linear integrate and fire model that incorporates spatial ‘axonal delays’ between synapses and a spike-timing-dependent plasticity algorithm, which causes the synaptic strengths between neurons to become updated as a function of the differences in signal arrival times.” [3]

In Ghost, temporal and topological memories within the cortex, in conjunction with the phenomena of cortical, sonic hallucination are explored. Further research is needed to monitor the buffering up of the neural past within the neural present in conjunction with STDP. A computer model that creates statistical data and visualization of what exactly is taking place will be developed over the coming year to explore what might be called the thickening of experience. The infinite complexity of how this cortex might perceive what we call experience is extraordinary, a folding in of external and internal articulation, double looped, networks of earlier stimulation extending into the now, sensory architectures building into an endogenous cortical construction of time, the ‘sonic ghosts’ being the hallucination that the audience hears in the absence of stimulation. It is the crossing of the threshold of the internal to the external and back again which translates milliseconds of neuronal activity into moments of sound dispersed across timescales and geographies and the minute spaces of the brain. 

References and Notes: 

  1. Eugene Izhikevich, "Polychronization: Computation With Spikes," Neural Computation, 2006 18:245282,  (accessed May 24, 2008),  
  2. Oliver Mason, Francesca Brady, “The Psychotomimetic Effects of Short-Term Sensory Deprivation,” in Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease Issue 10 (October 2009): 783-785.
  3. Jane Grant, John Matthias, “Shifting Topographies: sound and The Fragmented Orchestra,” in Spatialities: The Geographies of Art and Architecture, eds. Judith Rugg and Craig Martin (Bristol: Intellect, 2011).

Future North

This paper discusses the intersection of climate forecasting, future prophecies, and science at the North Pole in one hundred years in the collaborative video work of artist Jane D. Marsching and architect Mitchell Joachim / Terreform 1, Future North.


Time takes on a different meaning in a landscape where the sun is up for half the year and it is dark for the other half, where there is no vegetation, no fixed land, no animal or biological rhythms.  If the absence of visual cues can result in odd plays with our perception, including mirages, Ganzfelds, and other optical phenomena, it can also result in a destabilized notion of time.  Further complicating this is the fact that the North Pole ice is disappearing, a quickening process outside of our historical images of the landscape.  And finally, the North Pole climate is, as discussed earlier, the harbinger of climate change to come in more equatorial zones.  Its sensitive and narrow climate parameters, more affected by tiny increments of change, show us in stark relief what we are barely able to distinguish in the landscapes around us.  It shows us our future, in a way, and in so doing, is an early warning system.  

At the North Pole the future is brought into the now. The endless streams of data, charts, graphs, and field images chart a landscape not dying, but transforming itself irrevocably away from the one that has enthralled us for so long.  The sublime unchanging wilderness is becoming shabby around the edges and full of a nervous pathos.  Whenever landscapes, cultures, technologies, etc., change quickly, our culture rushes to create new mythologies, new representations, to fill the gap.  The rapid industrializations of the nineteenth century with the introduction of fast-moving trains, distance-bridging communications technologies, and labour-transforming factories, created cultures fascinated by simultaneity and fractured time and visual perception, among many responses.  Futurism, Cubism and other movements were experiments on the forefront as the changes took place, tracking and testing new stories and new ways of seeing.  

Today we are struggling to adapt to changes in our familiar images of the North Pole.  The sad icons of dying polar bears and melting glaciers don’t quite encompass the complexity of the disappearance of an entire terrain, an entire cultural phenomenon.  Artists are grappling with this uncertain terrain, hoping to show us what is happening and what it means to the larger world.  The same work is happening in the offices of scholars and workers many other disciplines: economists, climatologists, politicians, educators, and many others.  What will the future bring at the North Pole?  What is the significance of its disappearance?  What will it become?  What will we become in its absence?  In this scenario, we can translate the age old adage “as above, so below” quite literally: “as far, so near.”

The challenge is to take the abstractness of these graphs and charts, the overwhelming complexity of the data, and the sense of otherness in the landscape, and to translate it into terms we can grapple with in our prosaic lives.  In climatology, studies of forecasting and predicting have to evaluate the risk factors and uncertainty of these models of future events whose actual outcomes have not been observed.  Looking at the future of the climate of a specific biome requires complex forecasting not just of weather, but of economic, human, and technological parameters a century from now.  This is so difficult that climate modellers have determined a “sweet spot” for climate predictability in a hundred-year parameter.  Our culture demands this century marker, and policy texts have used it, including the IPCC reports, the Kyoto Protocol and others.  The sweet spot, “maybe between 20 and 50 years out, is where the emissions scenarios don’t matter too much and where the trends start to be discernable over the noise of year to year weather." [1]  The point is to think about what we can know about one hundred years from now, particularly in a terrain so sensitive to climate triggers.  Climate predictability can answer that question for 20 to 50 years hence, but falls into “total uncertainty” at a century out. 

If science with its sensitive data and complex models cannot provide us with a satisfactory and entirely certain vision of a future North Pole, then who can?  The social sciences, such as economics, use one set of data, futurologists, inherently interdisciplinary in nature, use many sets of data but profess that the future cannot be predicted. This absence of clear vision haunts us today.  We have at our fingertips and on our screens reams of data that attempt to outline this future, but the images are hazy, or too complex, or simply too uncertain.  But as the future presses down upon us more and more, as ice melts quicker, as climate triggers become more apparent, as short-term predictions become reality sooner than expected, we long for future stories that can help to frame our predicament.

One such example is the very concrete phenomenon of sea-level rise and subsequent flooding.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 gives six scenarios for sea-level rise over the next century.  The lowest prediction is 7 inches and the highest is 23 inches. [2] A more drastic prediction has been made by Aslak Grinsted, a geophysicist at Copenhagen University, who estimates that the sea will rise by a metre over the next century. The finding was reported, among other places, UK Daily Mirror in an article entitled: “Sea will rise ‘to levels of last Ice Age.'" [3] Jonathan Overpeck, director of the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona in Tucson, modelled a 6-meter sea-level rise submerging most of Florida. This data was discussed in the venerable National Geographic in a similarly spectacularly titled article: “Warming to Cause Catastrophic Rise in Sea Level?" [4] In Hollywood, Roland Emmerich’s 2009 film 2012 shows the Statue of Liberty falling in the face of the enormous tsunami of sea-level rise.  Today you can find numerous transparent blue overlays of sea-level rise in your home city as you search Google Earth.   In one version you can look at what happens to your area if subjected to sea levels of 1 m to 14 m. The latter amount is the stuff of Emmerich’s movie.  It feeds off our fears and offers a satisfying narrative.

However, a 1-meter sea-level rise has been considered in many climate models.  It doesn’t depend on catastrophic events such as Greenland’s ice sheet melting.  On the other hand, a 3-meter sea-level rise is possible, though more likely it would take two or three centuries. This would flood most of Boston and other port cities. [5] It would be accompanied by major shifts in land use, significant migration, water scarcity, and myriad other climate-induced human affects.  At the same time, the North Pole would be totally ice free for much of the year, an occurrence which we are on the verge of now.  At that point, transportation routes would be established and geographic boundaries clear.  The North Pole would be an accessible and open ocean, with a whole range of new stories of tourism, travel, marine life, etc.

This is the scenario among so many possible futures that we picked when I approached Mitchell Joachim, visionary architect and founder of Terreform1, with the question: if we had to live at the North Pole, what would our inhabited space look like?  The end result is a 3-minute animation of port cities all over the world being flooded.  As they flood, they are overlaid with ecotariums, a greenhouse-like structure that would maximize energy intake, include enough land and water to create habitable terrains, and be specific to each culture and landscape. These city-ecotariums then were detached from their larger landmasses and floated up towards an open north polar ocean, where they merge into one larger, nomadic, modular global city with shared resources. 

The resulting animation is paired with another future prediction for the North Pole.  A colour-field animation looks at the rise in temperature of 7 degrees Celsius over the next century.  Degrees are coded with colours, just as cartographers use, with cooler temperatures being cooler colours, and warmer temperatures being warmer reds and oranges.  As the temperature rises (under the control of randomizing software), the colours slowly warm.  At the beginning of the piece, the colours of summer temperatures are in the pale yellow range, but after a hundred years of temperature rise, the summer colours are now warm orange verging on red.  At the same time, an opera singer sings the headlines from Google News from 2007 when I searched for items associated with the term “North Pole”.  News headlines range from the first kiteboarder at the Pole, to oil company drilling, to climate science, to watercolour classes in a small city in Alaska called North Pole.  From the geopolitical to the mundane, from science to pastimes, the news headlines create a map of the North Pole as our culture imagines it today.

The pairing of these two videos – one a minimal evocation and one a lush narrative –with an operatic aria creates a complex space where data is offered in widely varying forms, which converge and diverge over time.  The story of our future is given in versions that are based on our vision of the future now, on scientific data, and on future studies and interdisciplinary imaginings.  Each one of these pictures is inherently full of risk and uncertainty, or, in the language of the IPCC, low confidence and high uncertainty.  But they offer provocative and many-layered sensorial experiences that catalyze wonder, that offers a possible mythology, and that transforms the abstract and distant into a story.

Finally, different stories – the myth of the “first” explorer to reach the North Pole, the hole leading to a civilization at the centre of the Earth seen in flyovers and satellite images of the planet, webcams that offer both scientific data and an elegy to our image of the icy North Pole, a vision of a possible future nomadic urban cluster comprised of floating port cities from around the world – all circle the same centre.  They are concerned with a terrain that is somehow at the heart of our culture’s imagination of a mythical and spiritual north.  And yet this north is changing.  The more it is charted, graphed, and pictured, the more our fears for our future in the face of catastrophic climate change cling to it like barnacles.  Stories are needed to tell us about what is happening and what might happen.  Science, with its cautious and specialized language and graphics, can give us information.  But with only data, our imaginations are left to their own devices.  The work of artists and writers is to weave the data with sensory experience, with perceptions in real time and space, with human emotions and memories, with cultural histories and predictions.  In these stories, we linger over what is not known, over what might be, and over that which we hope for. 

References and Notes: 
  1. Peter Cox and David Stephenson, “A Changing Climate for Prediction,” in Science 317, no. 5835 (2007): 207-208, (accessed March 23, 2010).
  2. R. K. Pachauri and A. Reisinger, eds., “Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report,” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, 2007, (accessed June 14, 2012).
  3. Mirror News, “Sea Will Rise ‘to Levels of Last Ice Age,” Mirror, 2009, (accessed June 25, 2011).
  4. Stefan Lovgren, “Warming to Cause Catastrophic Rise in Sea Level?” National Geographic News, April 26, 2004, (accessed September 4, 2010).
  5. Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, “Map of Boston with 3 Meter Sea Level Rise,” Ocean Portal, 2009, (accessed September 4, 2010).

Building a Breathalyser

In this workshop with Joachim Pietsch you will gain hands-on experience and will explore sensor-based interactive systems built with the Arduino microprocessor. You will build a breathalyzer using the MQ-3 Alcohol Sensor. The readings will be taken and visualised in Flash or Processing. Time to break out the Raki! No previous experience with electronics is required.
Saturday, 17 September, 2011 - 12:00 - 16:00
Alcohol Sensor Workshop
Alcohol Sensor Workshop
Alcohol Sensor Workshop
Alcohol Sensor Workshop
Joachim Pietsch
30 EUR (+ 30 EUR for Arduino board if required)

To pay online for this workshop, please click here.

To pay online for Arduino Board, please click here.

Please contact the Workshop Leader joachim.pietsch [at] to discuss alternative payment methods (such as paying cash at the door).

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