Type of project: exhibition
Where: Saint John’s Cultural Centre, Gdańsk, Poland
When: 23 May–05 June 2011
Victoria Vesna (USA) and James Gimzewski (USA)
Prof. dr hab. Ryszard W. Kluszczyński
Laznia Centre for Contemporary Art, Gdańsk;
The Baltic Sea Cultural Centre, Gdańsk, Poland
Organized in the scope of Art&Science Meeting Project
Producer: Anna Zalewska-Andruszkiewicz

Blue morph

by Victoria Vesna

Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?
Edward Lorenz, 1972

Once an artist takes on the challenge of making the invisible visible, or the inaudible audible, s/he is almost immediately thrown into the realm of energy at the edge of art and science. The established art world based on visual culture finds it difficult to place this kind of work. The scientific community, used to working in this realm in a reductionist way, finds it hard to comprehend. Yet the public seems to be drawn to artwork residing “in between”, and there seems to be a universal need for a connection to the spiritual realm beyond what established religions offer. As many speculative ideas in the West circulate around ideas of an energetic approach to matter in general, particularly the body and mind, alternative medicine and other Eastern philosophies are thriving. This essay will show how, in collaboration with nanoscientist James Gimzewski, we have investigated these ideas from the sounds of cells to the concept and realization of the Blue Morph installation at the Integratron.1

Cell sounds: art and science
While in the midst of collaborating on a series of media art|sci projects, Gimzewski (and later PhD student Andrew Pelling) first made the discovery in 2002 at UCLA’s Pico lab that yeast cells oscillate at the nano-scale. Excited by his initial results, Gimzewski was eager to share the data but knew that I would not be able to understand the importance by simply looking at the graph. Knowing that Pelling was also interested in music, he asked him to output the data into sound files instead, and sent me the audio file of live cell vibrations. This was definitely exciting and, through this sound, I could instantly see the importance of this finding. Soon after I asked if he would “compose” sounds from the yeast cells. Gimzewski experimented, as Pollock would, by throwing scotch on the yeast cells and recording the sound of cell death. I used these sounds in a piece that I called Cell Ghosts,2 and Pelling collaborated with Anne Niemetz on a piece called Dark Side of the Cell,3 also inspired by these sounds. Not only art was created from this event; an article on “screaming cells” came out in the journal Nature,4 and a scientific paper was produced in which Gimzewski coined a new word for this kind of data amplification of vibrations within a human audible range for use in research and analysis: “sonocytology”.5 The tool with which the cell sounds are extracted, the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM), could be regarded as a new type of musical instrument. Indeed, it is easy to compare the AFM to a record and a needle that moves across the surface grooves to produce sound – the AFM “touches” a cell with its small tip. With this interface, the AFM “feels” oscillations taking place at the membrane of a cell and these electrical signals can then be converted, amplified and distributed by speakers.

From yeast cells to a butterfly chrysalis
The press on the sonification of yeast cells generated much interest across the disciplinary spectrum – scientists in nano and bio research, the medical community, experimental artists and musicians, as well as fringe spiritual healers and gurus all demonstrated an interest. This diverse scope of attention eventually led to butterflies appearing onto the scene of the research lab, with a phone call phone from a woman by the name of Anna Costello who called Gimzewski after reading about his research on the sonification of yeast cells. She was in contact with a biology professor at the Lancaster campus of the Harrisburg Area Community College, Richard Stringer, who studies butterflies and suggested, with enthusiasm, that Gimzewski try to record their metamorphosis to see what kind of sound would emerge. He reluctantly agreed, and within a week a package of chrysalises arrived at his lab. This research was not immediately of particular interest to Gimzewski. He pursued it only because of his involvement in the arts, and would frequently send me results, asking if I had any ideas of how we might create a piece out of the data. I have to admit that I resisted for quite awhile and found it quite a difficult to imagine what to do with such an overused image/symbol/metaphor as the butterfly. But, occasionally, I would notice the creature; I started to pay more attention to it when I read somewhere that the ancient Greek word for “butterfly” is (psychē), which primarily means “soul” and/or “mind”. It is true that butterflies have, for centuries and in many cultures, signified the elusive quality of beauty, and have brought many to ponder the wonder of change and the power of nature. Poets and artists in the past and present have been inspired, philosophers have used them as metaphors, and scientists have studied their properties. As far back as 3500 years ago, Egyptians portrayed this creature in ancient hieroglyphs. History clearly shows an innate human interest in the nature of the butterfly. And it is the archetypal instinct that moved us both to consider this ephemeral and beautiful insect.

Sounds of metamorphosis
It was the experience of listening to the sounds of the metamorphosis – excruciatingly difficult to capture – that finally got me very excited about doing something with the results. Gimzewski and his research team examined the mechano-structural properties of the Morpho Peleides butterfly to provide insight into the developmental process and intrinsic optical properties. The sounds were acquired and recorded by detecting nano-scale motions of the pupa surface using the AFM and optical beam deflection during the developmental stages of metamorphosis. Raw data files of the caterpillar membrane “sound” vibrations were sped up and amplified by arbitrary amounts depending on the individual sample. Imaging of wings was an individual effort by Gimzewski who made a trip to the FEI company in Oregon and through his close relationship with the CEO Don Kenia, got access to the most cutting-edge Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) and obtained one of the best operators in the field to work with. Use of highly sensitive instrumentation provided images of both the surface and internal wing structure, with is mostly black space. The nano-scale architecture inherent in the butterfly wing produces its brilliant color through photonic crystalline effects. The images produced are of the highest resolution and detail that I have ever seen, and I started thinking of how to connect the sounds to the optics to produce a meditative space for an audience. The goal became to create a space that would introduce a contemporary metaphor of this ephemeral creature.

Butterfly effect: symbolic of our times
Collective Butterflies in our Stomachs. Seeing and hearing the images of the metamorphosis created a breakthrough in the creative block around working with the butterfly. The sudden realization that change does not happen gradually, as is assumed, but is in fact a series of intense bursts of energy with a rest period that vibrates in anticipation was an important discovery. The sounds were what we would interpret as pain, which is counter to the idea of the gentle, beautiful creature we have previously perceived as the butterfly. Indeed, I was not able to find any reference to anxiety and pain when researching metaphors and ideas around the butterfly. I did however discover that nature’s nano-photonics used in the blue colour of the wing was used in anti-counterfeiting technology. The link to the financial crisis that was starting to happen at the time, and continues to surface – in bursts – was not only with optics, but with sound, as well. The financial markets’ patterns, drastically moving up and down, are almost identical to the graphs of the metamorphosis of the butterfly. Could it be that we are having a collective metamorphosis and the markets are our mirror? The sensation of feeling “butterflies in the stomach” is most often experienced prior to important events, related to nervousness, and can be experienced in situations of impending danger. It is possible that the condition, frequently felt by an oncoming new experience or relationship, is caused by a surge of adrenaline. One could look at the current condition of humanity as a collective state of nervousness, especially in relation to the current economic ecological crisis, which is global. The “butterfly effect” has been very much in the public imagination in the last two decades with numerous movies, Sci-Fi novels and even games, with central plots around the idea that one butterfly could have a far-reaching ripple effect in the subsequent historic events. This idea was first proposed by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury in his short story about time travel, A Sound of Thunder, which incidentally is the most re-published science fiction story of all time.6 Almost a decade later, Edward Lorenz was using a numerical computer model to rerun a weather prediction when, as a shortcut on a number in the sequence, he entered the decimal .506 instead of entering the full .506127 the computer would hold. The result was a completely different weather scenario. Another decade would pass before he used the now famed title, Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? in a talk at the 139th meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972.

The Integratron
Throughout and in parallel to working on our various collaborative projects, I was fascinated by a structure in Landers, a small town in the California desert, about two hours away from Los Angeles called the Integratron. It is a 38-foot high, 50-foot diameter, non-metallic structure designed by the engineer George Van Tassel as a rejuvenation and time machine. It emerged at a time when much speculation and inspiration around the idea of vibrations, electromagnetic fields and the invisible realm was circulating, no doubt influenced by the discoveries of Einstein and Nikola Tesla, as well as the theosophists, who started introducing spiritual teachings from India and Tibet to the West. An abbreviated eccentric history, very much relevant to this project, follows. In the 1930s, Frank Critzer, a middle-aged German immigrant prospector with an interest in short-wave radio arrived in Landers, CA, and staked a claim at the Giant Rock, reputed to be one of the world’s largest free-standing boulders. He excavated about 400 square feet of space under the rock into a one-room subterranean home with the door facing west, and a storage room toward the east with a radio antenna to the top. Critzer’s eccentricity was suspected by nearby residents, who left him alone, but during World War II, he came under suspicion as a German spy because of his radio hobby, and was killed in a botched law enforcement raid in 1942. The burned out room under the rock was closed and locked for years. But, before his unfortunate end, he met George Van Tassel, a former test pilot for Howard Hughes and Douglas Aircraft, who later took over his “apartment” under the Giant Rock and operated an airport at the site. Van Tassel believed the rock’s crystalline structure possessed great channelling power by virtue of its piezoelectric characteristics. He led weekly meditations in the excavated room under the rock from the 1950s to the 1970s, which he claimed led to UFO contacts. Van Tassel claims that UFO channellings and ideas from scientists such as Nikola Tesla led to the unique architecture of the Integratron. He spent 18 years constructing the building. Van Tassel’s meditation sessions led him to develop the building with direct input from his alien designers, who gave him instructions for a machine that could rejuvenate human cells using the natural energy found in the atmosphere. He called the device The Integratron. The 16-sided dome was built of wood and concrete and held together by glue and gravity- electrically neutral materials. The generating core was made of copper wire. Had it been placed in operation, candidates would have walked through the building, essentially a huge air capacitor, while wearing white outfits. The charges, distributed over a wide range of frequencies, would affect every cell.

Blue Morph at the Integratron
There is little need to elaborate on Nikola Tesla’s extraordinary contributions to humanity that basically changed the way we live on Earth. Much has been written about him, yet many aspects of him remain shrouded in mystery, especially his eccentric statements about receiving information from extraterrestrial sources. His work on the ionosphere is also surrounded and largely informed by conspiracy theories. We were quite inspired to do our first interactive version of the Blue Morph on this site, as we felt its history was a perfect context for the essence of the piece. As we both practice Kundalini yoga, Gimzewski and I discussed the idea of creating an environment where people experience interactivity by keeping still and/or moving from their centre. Gimzewski suggested we use meteorological balloons, and I looked for ways to enclose and design the hanging. While showing him the long tube I had manufactured in the Los Angeles fashion district, he jokingly rolled up the end into what looked like a turban and placed it on his head. The jest became inspiration as we decided that this was exactly what needed to happen and integrated the idea of a “mad hatter” into the project. Alice in Wonderland so naturally fits into the complexity and absurdity of our projections and realities. The Integratron turned out to be the ideal location for the development of this project, as the audience brought their interpretations and guided us to how we could continue to interact. What we did not anticipate was the ritualistic nature that emerged, with people seeing the installation as a place to release, albeit publically, their inner urge towards transformation and metamorphosis. The audience becomes the performer when in the centre and the witness when observing others in the centre, while the artist and scientist are on the sidelines – giving up the limelight. It is neither art nor science, neither theatre nor reality, but a scene that is open to interpretation and allows for an individualized ritual to take place. Nonsensical to a large degree, what emerged is possibly closest to dada in the arts.

Sounds of thinking
Just as much as new technology is repurposed by the public for something quite different than what it was originally intended for, the Blue Morph was developed by the interaction and feedback from the audience. It also pointed to us the direction to take in our next work, which emerged out of this experience, and took a deeper look at the interface of our neuronal vibrations with our environment. We are interested in exploring the rhythm of electrical oscillations in the brain that give rise to consciousness, and how failures in this rhythm can lead to a variety of brain disorders. That the vibrations influence and create our reality can best be surmised by a statement made during an interview with neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás of the New York University School of Medicine: “Neurons have an intrinsic rhythm, a bit like a hum. They generate this electrical dance at a given frequency because they have similar rhythms — they hum in unison. But as in the case of choirs and dancing, you can have two groups doing different things at the same time. Now imagine that each group doing something represents an aspect of an external event, like a color”.7 Perhaps we are experiencing a collective, entangled and unpredictable electrical dance with extreme ups and downs that point to a major shift in consciousness, and that is unpredictable while in the midst of the metamorphosis. The chrysalis has no idea what it is becoming, and once a butterfly, how much it influences another part of the world with the flap of its wings.

Victoria Vesna is a media artist and professor at the UCLA Department of Design | Media Arts and Director of the Art|Sci center at the School of the Arts and California Nanosystems Institute (CNSI).

Dr. James Gimizewski is a professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute.

1. Welcome to the Integratron,
2. Cell Ghosts was a site originally conceived specifically for the Crash and Flow exhibition held at the former Seodaemun prison in Seoul, Korea, 2004. Sounds recorded for the piece can be heard on the project website:
3. The dark side of the cell,
4. Zandonella C. (2003), Dying cells dragged screaming under the microscope, Nature 423, pp. 106-107.
5. Pelling A., Sehati S., Gralla E., Valentine J., Gimzewski J.K., Local Nanomechanical Motion of the Cell Wall of Saccharomyces cerevisia.
6. Bradbury R., A Sound of Thunder, first published in Collier’s magazine in 1952.
7. NOVA: The Electric Brain, Victoria Vesna is a media artist and professor at the UCLA Department of Design | Media Arts and Director of the Art|Sci center at the School of the Arts and California Nanosystems Institute (CNSI).

Victoria Vesna & James Gimzewski, Blue Morph, 2011