Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mushroom and Butterfly

This was my final project for a sculpture class this year. Would you believe the course was called Nature, Transformation and Change? Leave it to OCAD to infuse a course about nature with computer processes and trends in technology. Even though I don't "feel like myself" having done this project-- some of these ideas felt like a bit of a stretch for me-- I did enjoy the process, and have been meaning to work with sound for a while. I realize reading about this project won't be everyone's cup of tea, but read on if you feel so inclined.

Mushroom and Butterfly

Mushroom and Butterfly is an artistic experiment centred around two audio recordings and their corresponding audio waveforms. The name of the project comes from the two forms popped corn can take, the butterfly and the mushroom. This project is an extension of my last project, which used popcorn kernels as raw material for a public art intervention that explored genetically modified organisms and the corporate mediation of our collective experiences of food.

This project was also inspired by recent research I conducted for completely different projects. After researching the work of contemporary artist and experimenter Natalie Jeremijenko, I became interested in her projects that explore unlikely forms of data visualization such as tree growth and digital printer viruses. In writing a completely different paper on a Canadian abstract painter from the 1930s named Bertram Brooker, I became interested in a condition he experienced called synesthesia-- a neurological condition where one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to an involuntary secondary sense or cognitive pathway. In other words, synesthesia involves an inexplicable intersection of two or more senses. For example, some people who experience synesthesia might associate certain numbers with certain colours, or identify certain letters as either masculine or feminine. Bearing this in mind, I was interested in how senses can be combined to conduct investigations guided by intuition. For this project in particular, I used both sound and data visualization in an attempt to examine the inherent differences between genetically modified corn kernels and organic corn kernels.

Natalie Jeremijenko-- one source of inspiration for this project-- is a contemporary artist who has worked extensively with nature, and has explored both analog and digital forms of data visualization. In her project Onetrees (1998-2003), Jeremijenko planted one thousand clone trees across the San Francisco Bay Area. While these trees are genetically identical, their growth and development over time serves as an indicator of the social and environmental differences of each site they were placed in. This project, as such, could be thought of an unconventional method of data visualization. The projects A-Trees and Stump are computer art works related to the greater Onetrees project. A-Trees are virtual trees that allow people to monitor the growth of a virtual tree on the desktop of their personal computer. The A-Trees software includes a real-time carbon dioxide sensor, causing the virtual tree to either thrive or suffer according to the amount of CO2 in the immediate vicinity of the computer. Similarily, Stump acts as a re-imagining of more conventional forms of data visualization, giving form to what the Onetrees website refers to as “tree debt." According to the website:

(Stump is a) printer queue virus that counts the number of pages consumed by the printer. When the equivalent of a tree in pulp has been consumed the program automatically prints out a slice of tree. Accumulating these pieces of paper ‘grows’ a stump of the forest that you and your printer have consumed, and a tangible representation of tree debt."

For my own project Mushroom and Butterfly, I was interested in exploring the inherent differences between GM and organic popcorn kernels, and whether or not the two types of kernels would “behave” differently when popped. I have very little experience using technological or computer-based processes in my work, and decided to use audio recording both because I have a working knowledge of some recording software, but also because audio recording seemed like a somewhat nonsensical and very unlikely lens with which to envision the properties of genetically modified and organic foods. My process entailed my positioning my laptop next to my stovetop. I recorded the popping sounds of both the GM and organic popcorn using the Mac recording program GarageBand, starting and stopping the recording from the first popped kernel to the point when the kernels finally finished popping. The results of the recording were two audio recordings, and the accompanying audio waveforms. While the recordings could be considered pieces of readymade sound art in themselves, the audio waveforms act as a form of visual data that clearly illustrates the differences between the behavior of both bags of popcorn. For example, the organic corn waveform reveals that it finished popping faster overall, and the quality of it’s popping reads on the waveform as louder and longer clusters of multiple pops, with an irregular rhythmic quality. On the other hand, the genetically modified popcorn’s waveform is quieter, with a less vigorous yet highly surprisingly regular rhythmic quality. While such a hypothesis could never be considered truly scientific on account of subtle differences in cooking temperature, freshness and ingredients, the audio waveforms from the two recordings seem to indicate that GM popcorn behaves more regularly than organic popcorn.

While the viability of my findings through this experiment many not convince anyone that I’ve discovered anything profound about the differences between genetically modified and organic corn as evidenced through popping sounds, I do think there is value to experiments such as this one. In particular, I think there is potential for audio waveforms to serve as a method of reading and measuring information outside of the sphere of music. While this may be far from uncharted territory, I would be interested in exploring these ideas in greater depth in future projects.


“Onetrees: An Information Environment.” Xdesign/Natalie Jeremijenko Website. New York University. 30 March 2011

Sardar, Zahid. “Society’s Signposts: Natalie Jeremijenko’s Trees Aren’t Simply Decorative-- They Can Be Read Like a Social Register.” San Francisco Gate/ October 23rd, 2004. 30 March 2011

“Synesthesia.” Wikipedia. 13 April 2011

Tribe, Mark and Jana, Reena. “A-trees: Natalie Jeremijenko.” New Media Art. Edited by Uta Grosenick. Cologne, Germany: Taschen 2009. 48-9 (print)

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