Microorganisms Perform in Milan
The performers are tiny worms called C Elegans, the tunes are operatic and the set design entails a microscope, a screen and a USB port.
Matthijs Munnik hasn’t yet graduated from the Art Science faculty at KABK (Royal Academy of Art, The Hague), but is already the inaugural recipient of the Designers and Artists 4 Genomics award. He has used his 25,000 euro prize money to realize his Microscopic Opera.
It works like this: worms move around under an USB microscope. Custom software tracks the worms and translates their movements into sounds. The worms are unknowing performers.
“Through music I hope the worms can tell dramatic stories as if they are performing in an opera."
Munnik has programmed the basic rules that translate the movements into sound. "The control lies with the worms though," he says. "How they move continuously changes the outcome so every moment is unique."
C Elegans is an ideal organism for scientific research their full genetic code is known and their DNA is easy to manipulate. “But I also use them because they move beautifully and are aesthetically pleasing,” Munnik says.
Still a work in progress, the public in Milan are both enthralled yet confused. “How can they produce sound?” asks one onlooker.
For the KABK exhibition in Milan, Munnik has erected three units – each one contains differently mutated worms and produces slightly different sounds. "In June I will present the final result of my research using five units," he says. "Eventually I want to create a bigger variety of sounds and compositions."
Munnik’s research is focused on designing new ways to build bridges between people and the micro world. “It is particularly for non scientific people,” he says, “so they can better understand. I think a lot of people expect the worms to be really gross, and are surprised by how beautifully they actually move.”
Beyond that, worms squirming over a sensory pad are going about their lives oblivious to the scientific minds hovering above. Often an organism's entire existence is dedicated to experimentation and manipulation.
"We can manipulate and mutate life forms without them even being aware of our existence," Munnik says. “But what if the same were true for humans. What if high above beyond our sight or knowledge instruments and minds are manipulating us.”
“Microscopic Opera” has been realized thanks to the Center for Society and Genomics, the Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology, the Netherlands Genomics Initiative, NCB Naturalis and the WAAG Society.
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