singing cells
dsc II at

dsc III at

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by Anne Niemetz and Andrew Pelling

The dark side of the cell is an audio-visual event treating one of the most interesting recent discoveries in nano-biotechnology: cellular sounds.
For a long time musicians have been inspired by microscopic life-forms and the fascinating structures of the smallest building blocks of the universe, but not until now have we been able to listen to the sound of living cells. Much mystery is brought forth by the discovery of cellular sound, and few answers can be given.

Professor James Gimzewski and Andrew Pelling at the UCLA Department of Chemistry first made the discovery that yeast cells oscillate at the nanoscale in 2002. Amplifying this oscillation results in a sound that lies within the human audible range. “Sonocytology”, the suggested term for this cutting edge field of study, represents a new realm of challenge and potential for scientists, artists, and in particular for musicians. The tool with which the cell sounds are extracted – the atomic force microscope (AFM) – can be regarded as a new type of musical instrument. Unlike microscopes that use optical imaging, the AFM “touches” a cell with its small tip, comparable to a record needle “feeling” the bumps in a groove on a record. With this interface, the AFM “feels” oscillations taking place at the membrane of a cell. These electrical signals can then be amplified and distributed by speakers. Manipulating the cell with chemicals will result in a change of oscillation. Isopropanol (rubbing alcohol) for example, will change a “singing cell” into a “screaming cell”. And a chemical such as sodium azide will kill the cell, causing the emitted frequency to die away, leaving only noise.

The dark side of the cell is the first composition ever to utilize cell sonics. The staging of the “musical cells” takes place in a darkened, acoustically immersive space, enhanced with a number of sculptural objects, onto which microscopic imagery of the sonic cells and their cellular sonograms are projected. The construction of the sculptural elements is inspired by the inner architecture of cells.

This project is the collaborative effort of the media artist Anne Niemetz, and the nano-scientist Andrew Pelling, who teamed up to combine their research and interests in nano-biotechnology, sound and installation design. Niemetz and Pelling first met to work together on the sound design and setup for NANO, an interdisciplinary exhibition about nanotechnology at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which was also the space in which The dark side of the cell concert was premiered. After its premiere, The dark side of the cell was set up as sound installation at the UCLA department of Design|Media Arts.



Concept + Realisation
Anne Niemetz and Andrew Pelling

Prof. Victoria Vesna
Prof. Christian Moeller

Technical support
Dawn Kasper
Maroun Harb
Charles Harvey
Alan Wood
Shane Hope
Jiacong Yan
UCLA Design|Media Arts department

Kelly Carney, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Prof. James Gimzewski, UCLA Chemistry department
Sadaf Sehati, Edith B. Gralla, and Prof. Joan S. Valentine, UCLA Department of Biochemistry
Dr. David W. Dawson and Dr. Michael A. Teitell, UCLA David School of Medicine

Thanks to
Prof. Machiko Kusahara, Prof. Uwe Laysiepen, Jed Smith, Olivia Walsh, toby x, Tiffany Hill, Oona Garthwaite, Mylinh Trieu Nguyen, Steven Clarke-Martin, Tim Hanna, Henri Lucas, Kareem A. Alhazred