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28 Mar-06 Apr 2014; Howard Boland - 05 Jan 2015

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion, which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed."

Albert Einstein

Living Mirror, 2013. Photo: Photo by Sas Schilten
Living Mirror (2013), Age of Wonder, NatLab Eindhoven. Photo by Sas Schilten.

The festival, Age of Wonder: the beauty and terror of progress, organised by Baltan Laboratories celebrated 100 years of successful interdisciplinary innovation and research at the birth place of Philips research centre known as NatLab (founded 1914). Although the research centre has since moved, the buildings where NatLab was once located has been transformed into a centre for culture and interdisciplinary activities. The spirit of NatLab was unique in the way it brought in various disciplines and provided a platform for free thinking that spawned a wealth of technology products. Anyone not familiar with Philips’ powerful influence on the city of Eindhoven should know it included its own town (Philipsdorp) with its own gates, shops, schools and housing.

Situated in the midst of this, the festival’s programme was packed with films, keynotes, performances, installations and workshops to contemplate big ideas, artistic experiments and mythic stories in our time of changes and uncertainties.

Living Mirror, 2013. Photo: Photo by Sas Schilten
Living Mirror - Prototype Coil (2013), Age of Wonder, Natlab Eindhoven. Photo by Sas Schilten.

C-LAB was invited to exhibit the installation Living Mirror, a bold artistic experiment and artwork that relies on the use of hypersensitive magnetic bacteria to produce patterns and images in liquid media. The main piece in the work is complex and challenging to execute, as it relies on hardware, software and wetware operating in tandem. Moreover, the bacteria are environmentally sensitive and fastidious making them difficult to grow and subject to contamination. The effect is, however, quite stunning, that is the ability to affect light scattering in real-time and visualise this with the naked eye. The work was produced through a series of research steps and the installation seeks to capture this by including prototypes and the phenomenon itself leading up to the Living Mirror.

Living Mirror, 2013. Photo: Photo by Sas Schilten
Living Mirror - Phenomena (2013), Age of Wonder, Natlab Eindhoven. Photo by Sas Schilten

C-LAB presented the phenomenon with some of the scientific material used to test the culture in laboratory contexts - by placing a culture on a magnetic stirrer and shining a light through it. Using a powerful light source, the phenomenon rotates billions of bacteria to produce a shimmer visible in the surrounding space. This is even more visually stunning in natural sunlight since sun rays adds subtle differences to the scattering phenomena. 

Living Mirror, 2013. Photo: Photo by Sas Schilten
Living Mirror - Prototype 3x3 (2013), Age of Wonder, Natlab Eindhoven. Photo by Sas Schilten

The two prototypes shown were from earlier and later stages of the research. The initial prototype was a 3x3 electromagnetic grid that was used to produce elevation in magnetic fluid:

This was before we (Laura & Howard) became aware of the light scattering phenomenon - and we were at the time working with the idea of pulling bacteria mass and accumulate this into spots as pixels. We created a 3x3 grid to experiment with various magnetic fluids and activate the electromagnets to create patterns (i.e. geometric patterns, heart patterns). Later, when the light scattering phenomenon was discovered we made the decision of pursuing this phenomenon as it was much more rapid and fitted better with the biophysical and living approach of the project. For this prototype we were using hollow coils to rapidly change the magnetic field.

The prototypes were connected in parallel to send identical signals to both devices allowing audiences to experiment with how the living culture and magnetic fluid reacted using a touchscreen device.

Living Mirror, 2013. Photo: Photo by Sas Schilten
Living Mirror  (2013), Age of Wonder, Natlab Eindhoven. Photo by Sas Schilten

The large display, Living Mirror, was the final and main display of the installation. This used a Kinect Sensor to capture images of audience in the room and then convert the image into a pixelated version. The process of capturing and transforming the image was shown on three wall mounted screens next to each other.

Living Mirror, 2013. Photo: Photo by Sas Schilten
Living Mirror  (2013), Age of Wonder, Natlab Eindhoven. Photo by Sas Schilten

The final screen showed how a pixel may be represented through a shimmer by taking its colour intensity and using this value to set the rotation speed of a magnetic coil. 

Living Mirror, 2013. Photo: Photo by Sas Schilten
Living Mirror  (2013), Age of Wonder, Natlab Eindhoven. Photo by Sas Schilten

A dark pixel rotates slower than a white pixel, giving rise to a speed difference of the shimmer produced by bacteria and in so a contrast.

Given the complexity of the work a great deal of preparation was done at FOM Institute AMOLF laboratory in Amsterdam prior to the exhibition. Equally, setting up the display was greatly helped by organisers and technical staff.

While the work involves applying innovative scientific processes to control magnetotactic bacteria, the effect is still relatively subtle. Those expecting a TV screen will be disappointed, however, those curious about life processes and their potential as a new type of materiality are more likely to be intrigued.

Living Mirror  (2013)

Appropriate for the festival, Living Mirror was shown in a room on its own. The room next door, hosted an art installation using wind as its key generator. Like a sensitive machine made up of hundreds of tiny flags mounted to the floor, it captures wind movements as audience gently step through the room producing a visible map.   

During the festival opening, a series of performances added an exciting drama for spectators. For instance, Volta, Dick Raaijmakers ('95), involved the reenactment of a performance of making a giant battery to power a normal light bulb. Over several hours, a group of actors soak clothes in sulphuric acid, and layer these with copper and zinc plates. The performance purposely invites audience to witness the laborious and heavy task of creating a room size battery. According to one of the actors, it expresses how scientific work often requires great effort that is immediately forgotten by its result. The installation accumulates in the lighting of the bulb leaving the audience suspended to whether or not the bulb actually lit (it did!).

In another performance, the chemobar, a standalone rotating bar had been set up to serve molecular cocktails using a variety of tubes, glass material, dry ice and bunsen burners. The performance created an atmosphere alluring to alchemy with clouds of dry ice smoke popping between test tube filled with colourful alcoholic mixtures and surrounded by gusts of flames.

Of talks, there was a chance to visit Nick Bostrom’s (director of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute) talk on superintelligence that attempted to map out risks associated with developing ideas without adequately reflecting on the potential problems they produce. In particular, superintelligence, he believes, would be a wise undertaking as it promises to make humans smarter, however the biological brain has its limitation in terms of speed and processing, and machines are therefore expected to perform better. Bostrom speculates in the possibility of emulating a human brain by slicing it up and remodeling it on a computer as a way of uploading it. The new form of intelligence he suggests would continue to remodel itself to achieve even higher intelligence ad infinitum. As a singularity argument - its notions can be seen as part of transhumanism - with its upside being enormous (e.g. problem solving) and its downside being (human) existential risks.

Age of Wonder Festival video compilation from Baltan Laboratories on Vimeo.

There was not enough time to visit the many other and interesting films, master classes and lectures during the festival. However, the Age of Wonder website can be visited for details of events and visual material of what took place .

Other References: Age of Wonder
Photographer Sas Schilten's photos of Age of Wonder
Age of Wonder: Superintelligence and existential risks by WMMNA's Regine Debatty
Tree Antenna: using trees for radio transmission by WMMNA's Regine Debatty
"Volta", the oversized voltaic pile by WMMNA's Regine Debatty
Age of Wonder successful! Thanks for stopping by: Balton Laboratories
Keynote: Rachel Armstrong: What's the nature 21st Human?
Keynote: Iain McGilchrist: The myth of Logic and the Logic of Myth
Keynote: André Khukluhn: De Vreemde Lus
C-LAB:blog: Laboratory Preparation of LIVING MIRROR for Age of Wonder
C-LAB:blog: Setting up LIVING MIRROR at Natlab
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