In Jenna Sutela’s work, which ranges from computational poetry and experimental music to installations and performances, the guest artist at the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) recruits microbes and neural networks. as co-creators.
“I want to explore this notion of extended fatherhood by bringing in life forms beyond the human,” says Sutela. Inspired by science fiction, she uses both of nature’s oldest technologies – the slime model Polycephalic physarum which has been compared to a computer – and the most recent developed in research labs. Bacteria and artificial intelligence are among his many collaborators in creating works of art that challenge the deeply rooted idea that humans exist outside of the teeming, vibrant world that contains us.
In April, Sutela participated in a panel on open systems, moderated by Caroline Jones, professor of theory and criticism of history, as part of this year’s CAST symposium. “Jenna Sutela operates in the fluid spaces of artistic knowledge, connecting very separate subjects of ‘distributed intelligence’ of slime mold to ‘alien intelligence’ pouring into a Victorian trance medium,” Jones notes, ” When I proposed her for an artist residency visit, I knew she would thrive in the avant-garde research labs of MIT.
As a guest artist, Sutela was inspired by the sonifications of Jerry McAfee (1940), engineering professor Markus Buehler, which are created by translating the vibrations of protein chains into audible sound. It is an area that she follows closely: different scientific practices (still niche) of observing life by listening instead of just looking.
As part of this research, Buehler recently sonicated the molecular structure of the coronavirus. “Not only can phenomena within the structure of materials – such as the movement or folding of molecules – be heard and open up a new way of understanding nature, but it also expands our palette of musical composition,” says Buehler. “When used reversibly, they provide a systematic approach to designing new materials, such as new protein molecules that emerge from this process, complementing what evolution produces.”
“A lot of my job involves using microscopes and telescopes to communicate things that are beyond our ability to directly experience,” says Sutela. She gave a voice, or a buzz, to Bacillus subtilis bacteria that thrive both in our intestines and in space. With the pandemic ushering in a deep new global anxiety, Sutela wondered if the wave of chemicals that elicit emotions such as love or bonding – so called “emotional molecules” in the project – might also be translated in a noticeable form.
See like a machine
Meanwhile, Buehler had spent the last decade listening to proteins and using them as “instruments” and a source of auditory compositions. He had only recently turned to understanding these molecular patterns through another human sense: sight. By connecting an actuator to a Petri dish filled with water, he was able to see how molecular vibrations manifested as visible water waves. “But when I looked at all these different patterns of different proteins and mutations and couldn’t really tell them apart clearly, I thought, ‘Maybe a machine learning algorithm might be able to do that. and help with cross-domain translation, ”he recalled.
The computer, with its artificial neural network, has become a creative collaborator. “The computer has now understood the mechanisms of these vibrations and their relationship to different proteins or molecules. Then I can take an image and ask the algorithm, “What do you see in this image? »», Explains Buehler. The computer then “draws” on the image, superimposing the patterns it detects on the image for an almost psychedelic effect. In a photo taken on a recent trip to the seaside (like so many others in quarantine, Buehler had found himself spending more time outdoors), he discovered that the computer could detect the invisible molecular patterns of ocean and craggy rocks.
This echoes Sutela’s earlier work based on machine learning which sought to “come into contact with the non-human condition of computers that function as our interlocutors or our infrastructure, or computers even coming into contact with the world more than” human around them. . ”
Could the computer detect a molecule of emotion? Anyway, could he see love? Buehler and postdoctoral fellow Kai Guo from his lab at MIT conducted molecular dynamics modeling of the chemical structure of oxytocin, the hormone and neurotransmitter involved in childbirth and breastfeeding. He then translated this structure into vibrations and taught the computer to recognize them. “Human inspiration came from Jenna,” he says.
She first emailed him a video of a trembling jellyfish, its translucent body indistinguishable from the surrounding sea. Then she started sending videos of wet-on-wet watercolor paints she had done as a form of locking meditation. This technique embraces unpredictability by letting the flow of water determine the shapes on the wet paper. The sense of calm she felt was then reflected by the algorithm, which traced the shapes of neurotransmitters and other emotional molecules onto the moving images.
Kai Guo created the molecular dynamics simulations shown in the video. “So you now have the transcendence between the scales: the molecular scale, the quantum scale, the audible scale to the visual scale, then the human scale,” Buehler explains.
The video, titled “Wet-on-Wet”, will debut in an online exhibition, Survivance, curated by the Guggenheim Museum and the e-flux publishing platform. Sutela believes that the idea of water, connecting humans to each other and to the wider environment, dislodges assumptions about individualism. “There’s this idea of oceanic feeling, a feeling of oneness with the world, or that kind of limitlessness that’s triggered by the hormone oxytocin,” Sutela says. “When I talk about the ocean, I would like to focus not only on a feeling, but also on our responsibilities as a part of both the ecosystem and the society. ”
Find a universal language
The way in which the SARS-Cov-2 virus has radically transformed the organization of our lives is sufficient proof of the arrangement of non-human matter and how the animate and the inanimate are deeply intertwined. “Wet-on-Wet” is, in a sense, an empathetic opening to this more than human world, an attempt to find a common language in the form of waves, despite the limits of our human senses.
The universe, we know, is always in motion, and each of us is vibrant matter. Sutela and Buehler’s work reminds us of our unity based on this simple physical fact. As Caroline Jones notes, Sutela “helps us see the world as one of infinite kinship.”
Being able to visualize molecular vibrations can lead us to a better appreciation of our interconnection between species, adds Buehler. The models of molecules that make up a human body, after all, are similar to the models that could make up a rock, a jellyfish, or a slimy piece of mold. “We live on a symbiotic planet,” says Sutela, “we are inseparable. “