Week 3 Response: BioArt, “Silent Barrage”

For this week’s blog I decided to talk about a project not covered in lecture that was referenced in Wilson’s art links: Silent Barrage. Silent Barrage is an ambitious project that places a semi living system inside a gallery.

This project is composed by cultured neuronal cell bidirectionally interfacing with a robotic “body”. This is achieved by growing a tissue culture of neurocortical rat cells in a petri dish equipped with an array of microelectrodes capable of “reading” electrophysiological signals, produced by the neural circuits, in distinct parts of the dish.The multi electrode array is also capable of inputting electrical signals into the dish in a simultaneous “read” and “write” manner.  The tissue culture is maintained in a lab in the Georgia Institute of Technology. From this location, it remotely interfaces with its “body” through a dedicated web server. The system’s body is formed by a complex of robotic towers, cameras, computer controllers, and software. The “body” installation in the gallery consists ofsb01

32 robotic towers carefully placed in the room to exactly mimic the location of the electrodes in the petri dish, an assortment of cameras and motion sensors that detect movement of people through the installation, and a computer system and coupled software used to relay and process information received from the web server, control the robot movements, and provide feedback to the petri dish based on the audience’s response to the exhibit. The robot moves based on signals to “paint” a visual representation of data transmission in the petri dish. These “paintings” are done in the vertical canvas that structures the robotic towers.The exhibit thus not only serves the function of amplifying and depicting the electrophysiological signals of the neural circuit but it also provides an interactive interface in which the audience is observing the products of its dynamic intervention in the system.

This is a short video of the installation in the gallery.

This, in my opinion, is an outstanding way of involving your audience with your art installation. However, this is not what caught my attention about this project. My interest in this system sprouted because of the implications that arise from its close proximity to a living entity. The system emulates a thinking organism in its elemental form. It has basic neural circuits with afferent and efferent circuits; it emulates senses like visual perception and proprioception, it has a motor output, and it even has information processing and relay systems. This exhibit fuels discourse regarding what could be considered a semi living organism in which not only the “biological” components of the organism exhibit human like attributes like learning  (short term and long term synaptic plasticity in the case of the neuronal circuits) , but also the mechanical parts of it (in this case the robotic towers develop a nonvolatile memory that provides them empirical information of their past movements). It also prompts the audience to evaluate the thought behind every movement generated by the machine because the information behind these are not merely electrical signals produced by a petri dish of neurons but also the software processing of these signals and the interpretation of the final information by the robot controllers. On top of that, this installation talks about the mind/machine duality by incorporating the essence of our minds (the biological machinery behind a mind: the neuron) on a literal machine.

Finally, I would like to surface the fact that this project not only exposes the audience to interesting neuroscience, feedback control, and senses, but it also actively participates in research of neurons growing in culture. When neurons sit unstimulated in culture they produce a barrage of electrical signals that could best be described as seizure like. When the audience interacts with the installation it is directly stimulating the neurocortical cells and consequently silencing these seizures of electrical signals (hence the name of the project).

Rodolfo A Salido Benítez


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