In addition to working as a research scientist, I am also a digital artist and cultural theorist. On the digital side of things, I am interested in projects which fuse both artistic and scientific discourse. On the cultural theory side of things, I am fascinated by the mechanisms that modern power uses to create subjects (the kings of old might be gone, but we’re subjects nonetheless) – i.e., how do institutional, political, and religious structures combine to shape ideology, morality, individual choice, and collective identity? Occasionally I publish papers on these topics; sometimes I undertake field research to test my hypotheses!
My primary artistic focus at present is called danceroom Spectroscopy (dS) (www.danceroom-spec.com), an award-winning project that merges rigorous chemical physics with cutting-edge digital art… It grew out of some code written as part of a small EPSRC public engagement grant I obtained in Nov 2010. Since then, it has gathered breathtaking momentum, receiving further funding from EPSRC, Arts Council England, NVIDIA, the Arnolfini, and the Watershed. To date, over 60,000 people have experienced dS, and it has been featured at major cultural institutions and events including the Kinetica Art Fair, the Barbican Arts Centre, the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and TEDx Bristol. dS is lots of things: an educational tool, a science exhibit, an art installation, an experiment in interactive high-performance computing algorithms, and the glue that knits together Hidden Fields, which is the world’s first dance performance driven by algorithms from quantum molecular dynamics.
Molecules, made from building blocks called atoms, are amongst the most useful microscopic units for understanding the properties and behaviors of the macroscopic world. Despite the fact that the natural world is characterized by perpetual change and fluctuation, neither the word molecule nor the word atom are famous for conjuring up images of dynamism and change. Rather, both of these words are usually associated with static images that are effectively architectural blueprints showing how atoms are arranged in molecular structures. In actual fact, the microscopic molecular world is dynamic: perpetually vibrating, jiggling, and wiggling. The manner in which atoms and molecules move and vibrate depends on the energetic and force field interactions that they have with their environment.
Using an array of 3d cameras, dS interprets peoples’ movements as perturbations within a virtual energy field, and embeds them within a rigorous, real-time molecular dynamics simulation, where they can ‘steer’ the simulation. The simulation results are then used to facilitate both graphic and sonic interactivity. Graphically, on a large projection screen, users see their energy fields along with the real-time waves, ripples and vibrations created as their motion perturbs the atomic dynamics simulations. Simultaneously, the dS software carries out real-time spectroscopic analysis of the atomic dynamics. This allows the system to detect transient structures and vibrations amidst the apparent chaos of the atomic dynamics, which is subsequently transformed into sound that is fed back to users. This feedback cycle (users graphically steer the atomic dynamics, and the atomic dynamics affect sound) gives users a textured visual and sonic experience, letting them experience the effect that their real-time field perturbations have within a dynamic atomic system.
dS invites you to move, observe, play, and even dance. Whereas modern technology increasingly offers us tailored individual experiences, this work fuses art and science to generate results which are most interesting and beautiful when amplified by collective and coherent action.
If you’re interested in some technical details….
dS starts with a mixed classical-quantum molecular dynamics simulation (the kinda stuff I’m an expert on from my research). Normally in these simulations, the atomic particles represent a closed system: they feel nothing but electrostatic forces from the other particles. But in dS, we let the simulated atoms interact with the real world via connection to 3d imaging cameras. This results in a system which is open & interactive instead of closed. The 3d cameras track people’s motion and use it to warp the external forcefield that the particles feel. In real-time, we use some funky graphics effects to treat people’s ‘fields’ (measured with the 3d cameras) as forcefield perturbations within the atomic dynamics. The atomic motion, which appears chaotic to the naked eye, uses some mathematical trickery to resolve any ‘characteristic frequencies’ latent within the atomic motion. This gives us a vibrational spectrum, which we pipe out to an electronica artist, who can sonify it in real-time. The net result is that people can actually see and hear their forcefield imprint as they interact with and perturb simulated atomic physics.