scale (Installation)

Malcolm Angus MacIver (Artist), Marlena Novak (Artist), Jay Allan Yim (Artist)

Research output: Non-textual formExhibition


scale is an interspecies collaborative audio installation that celebrates a type of fish from the Amazon River Basin. These fish continually discharge a weak electric field of constant frequency that is audible when amplified through a speaker. Similar to sonar used by bats and dolphins, the fish use this field to detect their surroundings and prey while hunting at night; they have contributed greatly to our understanding of the nervous system.

Their electromagnetic discharges fall within a range of 30-1200 Hz that approximate the lowest B-natural on a piano to the D-sharp six octaves higher, depending on the species. We assemble a "choir" of individuals, comprising a minimum of 12 fish (from 12 species). Fish are housed individually in comfortable tanks outfitted with electric field sensors. The tanks are configured into a sculptural installation, arranged in a shallow arc. Colored LED displays mounted under each tank respond in real time to the audio output from each fish, providing user-activated visual feedback. To facilitate and encourage audience interaction, we build upon commonly recognized musical metaphors as access points for participants to experience the sonification of the electrical signals made by these fish. A modified Nintendo Wii wireless controller serves as a conductor's baton. Participants can cue an individual fish to start it "singing" and a second cue to the same fish will signal it to stop. A programmable touchscreen is configured to provide control over their relative volumes.

Visitors hear the fish "sing" together, producing rich and unusual harmonies unlike any human choir. Participants leave the installation with the unique experience of having conducted a live performance with an ensemble of remarkable fish.
Original languageEnglish (US)
StatePublished - 2010


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