What Is It Like To Be a Fish?

In the rivers of the Amazon jungle swims a fish that could hardly be more alien. Living in extremely murky water, this creature would have little use for conventional eyes, and has evolved instead a way of sensing by emitting an electric field. In effect, it "sees" the world through this field, its entire body operating as a kind of electric eye. When mosquito larvae or other prey approach, they create a disturbance the fish somehow senses with its whole being. What would it be like to feel the world this way, to "see," as it were, in this radically other mode?

In a show opening this week at Art Center College of Design, artist Simon Penny attempts to get under the skin of this exotic fish. Penny's installation, Body Electric, is one of six pieces that have evolved out of an experimental collaboration between Art Center and Caltech. His fish might be taken as a metaphor for the entire project, with the question now being, What would it be like to see science through the field of art?

Formally entitled "NEURO," the exhibition is a joint project between Art Center's Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery and Caltech's Center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering (CNSE), a loose affiliation of a dozen research groups that explore the interface between biological and computational systems. These Caltech scientists are working to translate an understanding of biological systems into new classes of devices that imitate ways in which humans and animals make sense of the world around them. Says CNSE director Pietro Perona, "Our ultimate goal is to enable machines of the future to interact with, learn from, and adapt to their environment with the same kind of flexibility that we see in living creatures." Over the past year, Penny and five other California artists — Martin Kersels, Jennifer Steinkamp, Christian Moeller, Jessica Bronson and Ken Goldberg — have been working with CNSE scientists to develop installations inspired by their research.

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Williamson director Stephen Nowlin has been exploring the interface between science and art for over three decades, and "NEURO" is one of two such shows the gallery will present this year. It's to be followed by "Paradise Now," an exhibition imported from Exit Art in New York dealing with biotechnology. Science is a hot topic on the art circuit right now — over the past year ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, has staged the vast "Iconoclash" show, on the intersections between art, science and religion; in London, the British national Science Museum has presented "Metamorphing," which looked at themes of transformation in biological and cultural systems; and the Henry Gallery at the University of Washington in Seattle has been the site of "Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics," which will also travel to Berkeley.

But with "NEURO," Nowlin says, Art Center is attempting something quite different. Usually when art meets science, artists are simply set loose to interpret and play with whatever scientific ideas take their fancy. In "NEURO," the emphasis is on genuine collaboration, with scientists taking an active role in designing and implementing the pieces. Penny, for example, has been working closely with Caltech's Malcolm MacIver, a specialist in the field of computational neuroethology (ethology being the study of animal behavior). He's the expert on the electric fish. From the start, Penny says, MacIver's input has been critical. "We both have a strong interest in the idea that the environment is understood by active engagement," Penny says. The reason they chose to base their piece on this particular fish is that MacIver "sees this creature as a paradigmatic case of active engagement."

Visually speaking, there won't actually be any fish in Penny's installation. "We're not trying to be too literal about this," he says. "What we wanted was to create for the user something like this experience." Viewers see a computer model of themselves projected into a virtual space in which they engage in interactions with virtual "agents" that parallel the kind of relationship MacIver believes occurs between the fish and its prey. One does not become a fish so much as enter into the experiential mode of a fish.

A scientific team has also been central to the work designed by Ken Goldberg, which coincidentally also revolves around being a fish. Goldberg's piece is a wall-sized video projection intended to give us the experience of how, from its point of view, an actual fish moves. He's been collaborating with scientists from the bioengineering lab headed by Michael Dickinson, whose group is exploring the causes of flocking and swarming: Why is it that a school of fish will suddenly change direction? What makes a fish decide to go one way or another?

The fish at the heart of Goldberg's project, a medium-sized golden-colored carp, lives in a tank in the middle of the gallery where it is joined by three white companions. Through a complex arrangement of video sensors, a computer tracks the motion of all four creatures and triangulates each one's position, much as a GPS system does. From this data, the computer then generates an animation of the tank with each cartoon fish displayed in its mathematically correct, real-time position. Every frame is the result of mind-numbingly complex scientific calculations, and merely keeping track of each fish is a major technical challenge. Though it might be noted that the aesthetic experience is distinctly reminiscent of an early-generation computer game. In science, real time is what one pays for.


Behind "NEURO" stands not the National Endowment for the Arts but the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has — through the CNSE — put up half the show's budget. Indeed, the impetus for the exhibition came from the scientists, in particular Perona. For some years, he explains, the NSF has encouraged major grant recipients to devote a portion of their funding to public outreach; last year that suggestion became mandatory policy. As a recipient of major NSF funding, the CNSE found itself with a problem: how to connect to the public without driving themselves barmy with frustration or boredom. Traditionally, most NSF outreach money has been spent on developing educational materials for use in schools, but, says Perona, "You can't excite people about something unless you feel excited by it yourself. I knew that if this wasn't fun, then nobody here would get involved, and since a number of us were interested in art, we thought why not put our funding into an exhibition?"

The "NEURO" project is being carefully watched by others at Caltech. Every year the institution receives some $60 million from the NSF, and from now on some portion of every dollar will have to be spent on outreach. That's an enormous commitment few scientists are equipped to handle, and some outrightly resent. Jill Andrews, Caltech's outreach officer, has been overseeing the "NEURO" project from the institution's side and notes that other groups are now looking excitedly at the prospects: "I've never seen scientists get so enthusiastic about outreach. Everyone appears to be having such a good time."

The NSF will be monitoring this experiment as well. Eager to promote science in more imaginative ways, they are hoping that this might be a model for the future. For the arts community, science offers not just a new subject but something more elusive — a new source of funding. At a time when traditional arts funding is in a state of crisis, an artist's best friend may well be the National Science Foundation.

NEURO | At the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena, (626) 396-2446; and in the Atheneum foyer, Caltech, 551 S. Hill Ave., Pasadena, (626) 395-8200 | April 15 through June 29


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