scale (2010-11)

interactive installation with live electric fish

Marlena Novak, Jay Alan Yim, Malcolm MacIver

scale is an interspecies art project: an audience-interactive installation that involves nocturnal electric fish from the Amazon River Basin. Twelve different species of these fish comprise a choir whose sonified electrical fields provide the source tones for an immersive audiovisual environment. The fish are housed in individual tanks configured in a custom-built sculptural arc of aluminum frames placed around a central podium. Each fish can be heard — unprocessed or with digital effects added, with immediate control over volume via a touchscreen panel — through a 12-channel surround sound system, and with LED arrays under each tank for visual feedback. All software is custom-designed. Audience members interact as deejays with the system.

The project leaders comprise visual/conceptual artist Marlena Novak, composer/sound designer Jay Alan Yim, and neural engineer Malcolm MacIver. MacIver's research focuses on sensory processing and locomotion in electric fish and translating this research into bio-inspired technologies for sensing and underwater propulsion through advanced fish robots. Novak and Yim, collaborating as 'localStyle', make intermedia works that explore perceptual themes, addressing both physical and psychological thresholds in the context of behavior, society/politics, and aesthetics.

The premiere of 'scale' took place at the 2010 STRP Festival (Eindhoven, NL); 'scale' was subsequently presented in the 2011 TransLife Media Art Triennial at the National Art Museum of China (Beijing). The project was supported by grants from the following: National Science Foundation, Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts, Northwestern University's Research Grant Council, the Murphy Society, Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Bienen School of Music, Department of Art Theory and Practice.