Art of a Scientist @ Golden Belt April – June 2019

The Art of a Scientist is an annual exhibit curated by Duke University graduate students who are interested in promoting dialogue between art and science. STEM graduate students submit images from their scientific research to the AoS Committee. I answered a call for artists to work with the project, and was paired with a graduate medical student who submitted a video.

The video is of the vascular system of a mouse hind leg. It begins with a view of the murine vascular tree branching out in red. We see the side of the leg rotating, then it tilts and rotates around, and disappears. An angled plane (that resembles a microscope slide) moves from bottom left of screen to top right of screen, to reveal the leg with the soft tissue enclosing the vascular system. The image rotates, then the layers melt away as the leg disappears. Then the image reverses and the layers swirl back together. The image stops before the layers finish, rotates a half turn and is complete.

The video is a collaboration between Hasan Abbas, an MD/PhD student, and the Shared Materials Instrumentation Facilities at Duke University. The mouse leg visualization can be used to model healthy and diseased cardiovascular systems. When I asked Hasan what he heard while creating the video, he said, “scholarship”, “elegance” and “discovery”. I love this as a jumping off point for a soundscape – “elegant discovery”.

And then there is the mouse! My first thought while curating samples for this project was to “give voice to the mouse”. Modern medical research is built on the backs of mice, so it seems right to honor and acknowledge their participation. I found hours of recordings of mice squeaks and scratches. Another element I wanted to capture was the branching of the vascular structure at the beginning of the video. So the creak and cracking of a large body of ice was layered into the sound bed. These sounds were synthesized into a liquidy flowing underbed (suggestive of bloodflow) over which orchestral voices swell in wonder. This piece is called O Men and Mice.

Hasan Abbas and I had several email correspondences. I sent him my first soundscape and he gave wonderfully useful feedback. In all of his correspondence, Hasan spoke with keen interest about the technology used to create the video. The method is called diceCT and the technology is a micro-CT scanner. Hasan referred to the technology as “a thousand tiny X-ray” images stitched together to create the detailed 3D image of the mouse hind leg. This made me wonder how 1000 Tiny X-rays might sound. So a second soundscape was born.

For this piece, while the primary idea is the sound of 1000 tiny x-rays, I also wanted to convey a sense of excitement and pride in an amazing technological accomplishment. diceCT is a new way of seeing living matter that could reveal hidden organic structures or systems. Drum rolls, claps and cymbal crashes are iconic sounds of triumph, so these were used as the sound source. In the video, when the tilted slide-like plane moves from bottom left to top right, the full leg emerges, and there is a feeling of a “great reveal”. This feeling is emphasized by a drum roll and cymbal splash into a moment of silence in the soundscape. For the sound of thousands of X-ray images being taken, granular synthesis was applied to the drum sounds as they built up in dense layers. Interestingly, granular processing does a similar thing to audio as the diceCT method does to matter. Hasan provided me with a video that was slower in pace for this piece. The layers of the whole leg system as they swirl away and return are so beautiful and perfectly fitted together, I wanted it to take more time.

The Art of a Scientist will open Saturday April 6 at the Golden Belt Grand Gallery (800 Taylor St. Durham) and will run through June 23, 2019.