How to Conduct the World's First Electric Fish Orchestra

Science Not FictionBy Malcolm MacIverNov 23, 2010 11:19 PM


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It's been a super exciting week for me and several fellow travelers (Marlena Novak and Jay Alan Yim, ably assisted by Kyle Liske) at the STRP Festival of Art and Technology, here in Eindhoven Holland (about a two-hour train from Amsterdam). It's the world premiere of a bio-art piece, called scale, I've been involved in making and that I wrote a bit about previously for SNF.

In brief, scale is based on the discharges of South American weakly electric fish. By lucky coincidence, the highly regular electric discharges of these fish happen to occur at a frequency that allows them to be heard when they are amplified and played through a speaker. The fish use the discharges as a radar system to perceive their dark world, which are Amazon Basin rivers at night.

The idea behind the piece is to take a dozen different species, and have one individual per species on a tall frame with its own amplifier, speaker, and control circuitry. You stand on a podium in the middle of an arc of 12 of these frames (as shown above), with the fish ordered by increasing electric organ discharge frequency from left to right, and use a wireless game controller (the Nintendo Wiimote) to select which fish(es) you listen to. A touchpad interface on the podium gives you sliders to adjust volume and buttons for real-time effects for each fish. In this way you conduct your own choir of electric fish. One of our motivations for making the piece is that so few people know of these animals, despite their significant contributions to our understanding of how brains work. Over the past 40 years, more than 3,000 scientific papers have been published on how sensory information is processed in these animals. They can be thought of as the fruit fly of sensory biology. Among other contributions, they've taught us about the neural mechanisms for controlling the "volume" of sensory information reaching the brain, and how we subtract away information that we already know---sensory input that is due to our own movement. These mechanisms are fundamental to the working of every animal sensory system. Given how relatively unknown these fish are, we hope that the installation will raise awareness of the many contributions of this animal, as well as highlight the biodiversity and beauty of this group of animals (around 170 species in South America), and the delicate and threatened ecosystem that is their home. The questions of the many participants of the installation (many hundreds by now, as the room is nearly continually filled for eight hours a day) range from the simple to deep. On the deeper side have been questions about the relation between the work, society, and the deep body of scientific work behind it. To me it gets to an element of what art can provide to an exceptionally broad audience: An experience. This experience can become the basis of a motivation---motivation to look up what these odd fishes are, what neurobiology is about, why every species has its own typical electric discharge and frequency, and why evolution would work in this strange way. Motivations can be driven by more abstract things, such as the weighing of evidence. But this seems a less common driver of behavior than personal, transformative experiences. Interactive art, whose palette is human behavior, and whose artistic elements are shaped by an aesthetics of behavior, can be an effective vehicle for such an experience. Its effectiveness lies in raising questions in the experiencer's mind through an integrative, full body experience. The installation continues at STRP until Nov 28. If you happen to be in the area, you should check out the festival---there's a lot of great stuff going on here.

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