The rhythm of biology

An art exhibit in New York City explores the science behind our reaction to sounds and sensations.

By | June 3, 2011

If ever there were an interactive art/science show, BioRhythm: Music and the Body is it. The exhibition, which debuted in Dublin's Science Gallery last year, has traveled to the Big Apple as part of the 2011 World Science Festival, which runs through June 5th. Visitors to the Eyebeam art gallery in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood will be treated to a cacophony of sound and sensation in the building's yawning main space. And they'll quickly discover that they're as much a part of the show as the artwork.

Yesterday, I managed to sample a few of the interactive exhibits: I played a Theremin, the scienciest of all instruments; observed the physiology of a whimsical model of the human inner ear; listened to the output of an ear-mimicking, binaural microphone embedded in a sculpture of the human head; and made my own music by moving sensors around on the "Reactable," creating a symphony of sound and light. And as I neared the end of my visit, I took a rest in a speaker-studded, lemon-yellow "Sonic Bed," the creation of UK-based artist Kaffe Matthews, and sat in a "Sonic Chair" that oscillated with sound waves that could be calibrated into scintillating harmony.

A trip through BioRhythm from thescientistllc on Vimeo.

But as the 15 unique exhibits pulsated, beeped, clicked, whirred and pounded, it was a cluster of desktops in the corner that most attracted my inner scientist. The computers were running a program that took the user through a musical test of sorts. With headphones on and my left hand hooked up to a heart rate monitor and sensors that detected the sweatiness of my palms, I listened to three song selections -- a lovely Nina Simone jazz tune, a song by thrash metal paragon, Slayer, and Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares to You" (the show did originate in Ireland, after all!). I answered questions about how the songs made me feel after each selection, and the sensors attached to my hand measured my physiological responses to the music.

As I sat taking notes and completing the tests, a man hovered in my periphery, obviously wanting to interject. It was Ben Knapp, the Queens University Belfast professor behind the experiment. "I wanted to stop you because it looked like you were thinking too much," Knapp later told me, noting that the aim was to experience the music, not cognate on it.

Knapp and his grad student Niall Coghlan explained that this exhibit was no mere game. The data they were collecting from museum goers would be used in a research project they'd been conducting for about a year. The two researchers, along with collaborators at the Sonic Arts Research Center, are trying to quantify the emotional effect of music on listeners via a combination physiological measurements and self-reports, and have already collected information from about 4,000 participants. While the fact that music affects emotion seems obvious, Coghlan said, "we're still quite a long way from understanding the mechanism by which that happens."

Perhaps visitors to BioRhythm will help get science one step closer to that goal. As for me, Knapp must have been right in scolding me for taking notes during my test. I didn't appear to register very much emotion to any of the three songs I heard. That's OK, though. I've never been much of a Sinead O'Connor fan.

BioRhythm: Music and the Body shows at Eyebeam through August 6th.

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