Our lungs are fractals that expand and contract with every breath we take and every word we say. As our world becomes more industrialized and we create more air pollution, what are we really breathing in?
Smoky Silence is an interactive display created with Processing, a program that creates graphics using code. It features abstracted lungs composed of Ford Model T cars, with smoke-like particles diffusing in from the trachea. It analyzes sound input for the gain levels, which then determine the branching angle. The piece resolves when the sound input reaches maximum gain, prompting the participants to breathe once the smoke is cleared. Smoky Silence uses data to determine the functioning of a biological system composed of industrial parts, with the goal of environmental activism.
The overarching aesthetic concept is simplicity. Instead of using a more realistic image, I drew a highly simplified representation of the Ford Model T. Without any unnecessary details or volume for the viewer to latch onto, the viewer is more likely to consider the system as a whole, without focusing on any singular element. The smoky circles billowing down were an aesthetic afterthought, but it actually solidifies the main concept by communicating to the viewer that the lungs are not independent and sterile, but filling with smoke. The visuals are achromatic largely for aesthetic simplicity, but by avoiding the use of color, which can evoke specific feelings, it invites participants to impose their own interpretations upon it.
Movement by Sound Input
Digital mediums are an optimal choice for responsive art pieces. The loudness of participants is quantified as numerical data, which then determines the movement of the system. Lungs expand during inhalation, and contract during exhalation. When people speak, they are usually exhaling to create noise, and louder noise needs more exhalation. The movement of the Ford lungs mimics exhalation. Sound input from participants is analyzed for its gain levels, a measurement of volume. The higher the gain, the smaller the branching angles of the fractal, thus the more the Ford lungs contract. The Ford lungs most resemble biological lungs at normal speaking level, because the low gain levels cause subtler contractions. When participants are encouraged to be loud, the lungs contract more and the smoke is denied entry. I also tried to correlate the opacity of the smoke to the gain so that the smoke would fade if the gain was higher, but my method caused the computer to go to sleep when the gain reached maximum.
The Ford Model T: The Beginning of the End
The Ford Model T was specifically chosen to serve as the bronchi and bronchioles for its iconic value. While the Model T was not the first car to be produced on an assembly line, Fordism revolutionized the assembly line to make the Model T the first widely available automobile. Cars were originally a privilege of the wealthy, but by streamlining production, Ford made cars accessible to the middle class. His developments in mass production promoted mass consumerism, and thus the Model T serves as an icon for the beginning of the end. I considered using a variety of several vehicles, and even a historical progression of vehicles from the base to the tips. But I chose to remain with the singular Model T for aesthetic simplicity, preservation of the fractal purity, and for its monumental historical significance. The moment Americans charged into mass consumerism was the moment air pollution drastically increased. The Model T is not only the product of a system but a system in itself, taking input to produce output. By inserting this industrial system within a biological system, the viewer feels an invasion of their intimacy. The belief that our bodies belong to us alone is disturbed by this commercial and industrial presence, sprawling throughout our lungs and bringing its waste in with it—the smoke.
The system almost gives the illusion of artificial life not only because of its resemblance to biological forms but because of its responsiveness. At normal speaking levels, the lungs seem to shiver and tremble at the sound of a voice. When I presented to the class, they seemed to quickly understand that the system was responding to my voice, because the amount of movement was directly affected by how loud I was. When the class gathered around the laptop to decide what to chant, someone even said, “It likes it when we laugh.” The intimacy of the interaction suggests that the system is alive and understands.
Firstly, conceptualization began when I remembered Ron Eglash’s TED talk on African fractals. According to Eglash, when fractals were first discovered, many mathematicians dismissed them as useless. But “they were breathing those words with fractal lungs”—the irony of the situation was striking. My longstanding concern for environmental welfare pushed me to expand the idea by asking whether our fractal lungs are still breathing air or just smoke.
The piece also brings to mind new media artist Amy Alexander’s Scream, a software application which “disturbs your Windows interface” “when it detects a scream”. They are similar in that these programs encourage loud noises to produce highly responsive visual effects. However, Scream is intended as cathartic therapy, while Smoky Silence is intended as environmental activism.
Smoky Silence as Environmental Activism
The name of the piece hints at its goal of environmental activism, primarily addressing the issue of air pollution. If participants remain silent, the lungs spread at their widest to allow massive amounts of smoke in. Only when they collectively cry out do the lungs contract and deny the smoke entry. The branching of the lungs resembles a tree, further connecting to the environment; trees also breathe the air we polluted. Smoky Silence serves as a tool to encourage active awareness. Many people are aware of the sad state of the environment, but lack the desire for action, pushing the issue to the back of their mind. Smoky Silence demonstrates that while a single person can greatly affect a system, it takes a crowd of determined participants to change it entirely—and the same idea applies to the environment.
I have considered lowering the maximum gain threshold, but I think keeping it as is reinforces the message that the environment is in great danger and that a monumental amount of effort and cooperation is needed to reverse the damage we have done.
If I exhibited my work outside of the academic context, I would like to eliminate the audience by encouraging everyone to participate. Ideally, it would be displayed on a massive screen above a busy street or in a crowded public space, serving as the opening event for an environmental rally in a heavily polluted city. The size of the screen promotes visibility and significance of the issue. Those who feel awkward, out of place, or unsure would be welcomed into the unified crowd, but those who are already emotionally invested in the environment would feel the power of the effect increase at least twofold with their determination.
The piece could also be inverted to spread awareness about noise pollution, which is the most unfamiliar and neglected form of pollution. It would be displayed in a busy city intersection or around a freeway, acting as a meter for noise pollution. The visual would be turned upside down so that it resembles a tree rather than lungs. The use of sound input would also be inverted so that greater volume causes the tree to contract, instead of expanding in all its natural glory. However, because the goal in this case is to encourage people to expand the tree, perhaps a different image should be used in place of the Model T, which was specifically designed for the original piece not to be attractive or impressive. With a more intricate and attractive display, people may be more likely to quiet down so that they can admire the display in its entirety.
In its ideal context, Smoky Silence would serve as an effective rallying tool for environmental activism. It teaches participants not only the power of a single voice, but of a unified crowd. By promoting unity and participation, people would become more aware of the dire situation of the environment.
Rally the voices, and battle the smoke.