In Jenna Sutela’s work, which ranges from computational poetry to experimental music to installations and performances, the MIT Center for Arts, Science & Technology (CAST) Visiting Artist lists microbes and neural networks as co-creators.
“I wanted to explore this idea of expanded writing by presenting life forms outside of humans,” said Sutela. Inspired by science fiction, it uses the second oldest technology in nature — the slime model Physarum polycephalus which have been compared to computers — and the latest developed in research laboratories. Bacteria and artificial intelligence are among his many collaborators in creating works of art that challenge the ingrained notion that humans exist apart from the crowded, vibrating world that contains us.
In April, Sutela participated in the Open Systems panel, moderated by Caroline Jones, professor of historical theory and criticism, as part of this year’s CAST symposium. “Jenna Sutela operates in a flowing space of artistic knowledge, bridging very separate topics from slime mold’s ‘distributed intelligence’ to the ‘alien intelligence’ that flows into Victorian trance media,” notes Jones, “When I proposed her to visit the artist residency, I knew he would thrive in a tense MIT research lab.”
As a guest artist, Sutela was inspired by the sonification of the Jerry McAfee (1940) Professor of Engineering Markus Buehler, which was created by translating vibrations of protein chains into audible sound. This is a field he is passionately pursuing: a different (still niche) scientific practice of observing life by listening, not just seeing.
As part of this research, Buehler recently sonified the molecular structure of the coronavirus. “Not only are phenomena in the structure of materials — such as the movement or folding of molecules — heard and open up new ways to understand nature, but they also broaden our palette of musical compositions,” says Buehler. “When used in reverse, they yield a systematic approach to designing new materials, such as the new protein molecules that emerge from this process, complementing what evolution has produced.”
“A lot of my work consists of using microscopes and telescopes to communicate things that are beyond our ability to experience firsthand,” says Sutela. He has cast a sound, or a buzz, for Bacillus subtilis bacteria that thrive both in our gut and in space. With the pandemic engendering a new profound global anxiety, Sutela wondered whether the surge of chemicals that cause emotions like love or bonding – what the project calls “emotive molecules” – could also translate into visible forms.
Looking like a machine
Meanwhile, Buehler has spent the last decade listening to protein and using it as an “instrument” and source for auditory composition. He’s only recently turned to making these molecular patterns intelligible to another human sense: sight. By hooking the actuator to a petri dish filled with water, he was able to see how the vibrations of the molecules manifested as visible water waves. “But when I saw all these different patterns of different proteins and mutations and I couldn’t tell them clearly, I thought, ‘Maybe machine learning algorithms might be able to do that, and help in cross-domain translation,’ he recalls.
Computers, with their artificial neural networks, become creative collaborators. “Computers now understand the mechanisms of these vibrations and how they relate to different proteins, or molecules. Then I can actually take a picture, and ask the algorithm, ‘What do you see in this picture?’” Buehler said. The computer then “draws” on the image, superimposing the detected pattern over the image to an almost psychedelic effect. In photos taken from a recent trip to the beach (like many people in quarantine, Buehler finds himself spending more and more time outdoors), he finds computers can pick out invisible molecular patterns from oceans and rugged rocks.
This resonates with Sutela’s previous machine learning-based work that has attempted to “contact the non-human state of the computers that serve as our interlocutors or our infrastructure, or the computers even in touch with the more-than-human world around them. .”
Can computers detect emotion molecules? In short, can it see love? Buehler and postdoc Kai Guo from his lab at MIT performed molecular dynamics modeling of the chemical structure of oxytocin, a hormone and neurotransmitter involved in labor and breastfeeding. He then translated these structures into vibrations, and taught computers how to recognize them. “Human inspiration comes through Jenna,” he said.
She first emailed him about a video of a vibrating jellyfish, its translucent body indistinguishable from the surrounding sea. Then he started sending out videos of wet-on-wet watercolor paintings he’d made as a form of lock-in meditation. This technique involves the uncertainty of letting the water flow determine the shape of the wet paper. The calm feeling he experienced was then reflected by the algorithm as it traced the shape of neurotransmitters and other emotive molecules over a moving image.
Kai Guo created the molecular dynamics simulation shown in the video. “So now you have a transcendence between scales: molecular, quantum scale, to audible scales to visual scales, and then to humans,” Buehler said.
The video, titled “Wet-on-Wet,” will debut at the online exhibition, Survivance, hosted by the Guggenheim Museum and e-flux publishing platform. Sutela believes the idea of water, which connects people to each other and the wider environment, dispels assumptions about individualism. “There’s this idea of a feeling of the ocean, a sense of oneness with the world, or this kind of infinity that is triggered by the hormone oxytocin,” says Sutela. “When it comes to oceans, I want to focus not only on feelings, but also on working towards our responsibilities as part of the ecosystem and society.”
Finding a universal language
The way the SARS-Cov-2 virus radically changed the organization of our lives is ample evidence of nonhuman material agents, and the ways in which the living and the nonliving are deeply interrelated. “Wet-in-Wet”, in a sense, is an empathic opening to this more than human world, an attempt to find a common language in wave form, despite the limitations of our human senses.
The universe, we know, is always in motion, and each of us is a vibrating 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 offering infinite kinship.”
Being able to visualize molecular vibrations could lead us to a greater appreciation of our interconnectedness across species, Buehler added. The molecular patterns that make up the human body, however, are similar to patterns that might form a rock, a jellyfish, or a piece of slime mold. “We live on a symbiotic planet,” says Sutela, “we are an inseparable part.”