Electric Firefly


I first met the fabulous China Blue at the 2013 Darwin Festival (http://w3.salemstate.edu/~pkelly/darwin/). My colleague, Dr. Susan Case, organizes the festival and alerted me to the fact that this ground-breaking artist would be in attendance. She’d noted that China Blue’s work sits nicely at that intersection of art and science, where my own interests lie, and thought we might have something to discuss. It turned out that we did. A visit to her Firefly Grove installation at the John Brown House in Providence, Rhode Island, inspired our discussion below.

FF%20Tree%20China%20Blue-36SHLD: Hi China Blue! That was a great visit we had – great food, amazing dinner conversation, and then a visit to your public art exhibit, Firefly Grove. You’ve written that this piece addresses public concern about the loss of fireflies, but there are so many threatened and endangered species. As a conservation biologist with an interest in the process of setting conservation priorities I wonder – why have fireflies in particular been a focus of your efforts?

 CB: Fireflies have captivated me when I first discovered them on a visit to Italy, many years ago. I did not know they existed until then because their range sadly does not include California, where I come from. About five years ago I was experimenting with electronics, you would not think of electronics and fireflies together but one of the first exercises is to turn on and off an LED. As a sculptor I thought that was very dull and the idea of an LED turning on and off inspired the thought of making an electronic firefly. That lead to a series expanded from one to the field that you saw.

There are many interesting things about fireflies. In addition to providing us with nostalgic memories of childhood experiences collecting them, they are also bioindicators of a loss of habitat and diversity. Additionally they produce chemicals that create their nighttime illumination. One these chemicals is Luciferin. This is a chemical that is now used as a research tool to track cancer cells in the body and illuminate neuronal pathways in the brain.

 LD: I grew up with fireflies in my backyard, and I miss them. So, I’m glad they’re a focus of your work! And why were you experimenting with electronics?

 CB: My experimentation with electronics evolved out of my development of sound art works. When that began about 20 years ago, I wanted the work to be small, self-contained and without the usage of a computer or large speaker and amplifier systems which were the mode at the time. So, I taught myself how to burn sound files onto EPROM chips to loop the files. I then created small speaker systems for the work I built so I could camouflage the hardware. Finally, I attached movement sensors that would turn the audio on when people walking by. Operating in this way enabled me to create work that could then be played self-sustained in galleries over a sustained periods of time.

As time went by I realized that learning how to build circuits would be helpful to me in developing new work so that is how I ended up experimenting with electronics. 

 LD:  So, did your work with electronics change the way you thought about the biology? Or did the biology affect the way you understood or approached your art?

 CB: It was a bit of both. I did not have a strong education in science because my degrees are in art, so considering science as a topic for my work has been a slow but organic process. Through my work making the Firefly 2.0 etc., I developed an interest in biomimicry and how it can effect and influence technological changes in our world. It’s influences are wide ranging from impacting the creation of robotic gate to velcro tape (inspired by burrs) to self healing materials. And by studying fireflies and bioluminescence I was inspired to approach my work from a vantage point that I never thought of before and one that I find has both meaning while illuminating the human condition and our impact on nature.

FF_Grove_Web LD: China Blue, this sounds like cutting edge work from lots of interesting angles. I could imagine that it might appeal to undergrads looking for an internship or work-study. Do you ever take on assistants, and if so, what type of work do/would you have them do?

CB: Yes, I often work with interns and assistants. The work I assign is based on a their strengths. One assistant I am currently working with is designing new software for various projects I am working on. His strengths are in knowing a variety of computer languages (MAX/MSP, Ableton Live, Open GL and Java script) and a familiarity with Arduinos and physical computing. Another assistant I had was helpful with running the magazine for my non-profit, The Engine Institute (http://theengineinstitute.org) which requires an interest in art journalism and knowledge of WordPress, MS Word, photoshop and some d-base work. I have also worked with sculptors using new technologies and people familiar with 3d printing.

Photinus%20Biomimeticus%2072Readers, I hope you enjoyed this little interview, and that it may inspire you to combine art and science in your work. In the process I learned that her work includes not only Animal Behavior, Conservation Biology, electronics, sound engineering, and robots, sculpture and sound art, but also dance! Check out these videos to see and hear her work with Lance Massey and the Providence Ballet Theater (http://www.providenceballet.org/providenceballettheatre.htm  ): http://theengineinstitute.org/events. And maybe you can send China Blue some great candidates for an internship!

Art Science Movers and Shakers at an Arts University

Portrait of Felix Nadar (1820-1910), Photographer, Playwright, and Aeronautical Scientist.

Portrait of Felix Nadar (1820-1910), Photographer, Playwright, and Aeronautical Scientist.

Whoa. Why did it take me so long to come across ArtSTEM?? ArtSTEM (http://www.artstem.org) is a project led by science faculty member, Dr. Janna Levin (http://www.uncsa.edu/academicprograms/faculty27.htm), and a history faculty member, Michael Wakeford (http://faculty.uncsa.edu/generalstudies/wakefordm/), at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (http://www.uncsa.edu). It’s alway a pleasure to find a STEAM-related project that is led by both a scientist and someone from the humanities. Without both of those perspectives in the leadership, sometimes the approach is too one-sided and the project’s efforts fail to effectively communicate clearly across disciplines.

ArtSTEM faculty projects involve arts high school and university students in a great variety of projects including plays about the process  of science, food science and food presentation, the intersection of anatomy & physiology with dance, the intersection of judo with physics, short films on science that use animation and puppetry, the art and technology of sound, the sonification of solar data, and the aesthetics of regulation in architecture.

ArtSTEM is even offering what looks like a very interesting course this coming semester. I encourage you to read the course description!  http://www.artstem.org/2013/04/22/artstem-course-planned-for-spring-2014/

Professional Artists as Collaborators

I went back and forth on whether to write this post at this point in time. You can see that I have two recent posts on collaboration, but then I left the subject to write about grading. I hesitated to write on this topic because I haven’t actually collaborated with a professional artist outside of academia yet. However, I have stuck my toe in the water and it feels nice, so this post is mainly forward-looking.

Wolf Trap National Park sign (Gregory F. Maxwell)  Did you know that the United States has a national park for the Performing Arts?

Wolf Trap National Park sign (Gregory F. Maxwell) Did you know that the United States has a national park for the Performing Arts?

So far, I’ve considered this type of collaboration for a professional development program supporting K12 teachers. As part of some very preliminary planning, I decided to take an informal poll of several of my artist friends and acquaintances to see if they might have an interest in helping to lead teacher-training workshops. I asked two dancers, a writer, a writer/actor/director, a cinematographer, a singer/guitarist/song-writer, and graphic designer their thoughts. To my great shock and surprise, every one of them expressed an interest!

So, the main challenge here is probably not recruiting interested artists. Rather, the challenge is likely to be in paying them properly. For each of these people, time is money and any commitment outside of their art must, understandably, make economic sense.

In K12 schools, there are many Artist in Residence programs. The Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts (http://www.wolftrap.org/Education/Institute_Professional_Development.aspx) supports residencies for artists in early-childhood classrooms with a focus on STEM education in particular. As I mentioned in an earlier post (https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/sunny-days/) there are some reasons to see these early childhood models as relevant to higher education. I can see an artist leading a workshop or a series of workshops for faculty professional development at my university sometime in the near future.

Well, that’s all I have to say on that subject for now. Maybe you have something to contribute?

P.S. I should mention that many professional artists could use assistants. You may want to send some of your STEM students their way.

Does the Science Move You?

Movement/Dance is being used to teach STEM processes, especially those that take place at less accessible physical and temporal scales. Dance/movement can be used in undergraduate classrooms to teach, among other topics,

  • the action of ATP synthase
  • the movement of blood through the human body
  • the workings of an electron transport chain
  • the role of wave action in marine habitats
  • transport within the vascular systems of plants
  • the evolution of locomotion in vertebrate lineages
Tosy DiscoRobo is a dancing robot. The Best of Toyfair 2012 (Popular Science).

Tosy DiscoRobo, the Dancing Robot

When movement is used in STEM teaching, students encounter a novel way to learn the physical, chemical, and energetic components of systems. Students given full responsibility for developing a dance must ask questions about the science and have a rigorous understanding of their topic.  Dance allows students to explore ‘what if’ scenarios, to test hypotheses that would be difficult or impossible to test otherwise. Movement/dance allows students to express themselves creatively and as individuals, building connections to their core identities. Through this work, they are required to analyze and use the science, and are able to do so even when typical research facilities are lacking. If turned into a performance, dance/movement allows students to share what they have learned in a novel and engaging way. The importance of joy in learning can’t be understated!

Want to get involved right now? This Thursday, become part of a human DNA strand at MIT!  http://mit-human-dna-esli.eventbrite.com/?goback=.gmp_27230.gde_27230_member_229261384

Dance is also used at the graduate and professional levels (more on that later) of science. The Dance Your Ph.D. Contest, sponsored by Science Magazine and AAAS, exhorts scientists to express themselves through dance, saying, “You’re a scientist. With your superpowers comes the responsibility to communicate the thrill of science to the public. Yes, sometimes in dance form. So dance like you mean it.”

Check out Dance Your Ph.D.:  http://gonzolabs.org/dance/videos/

It’s good enough for scores of Ph.D. scientists. Is it good enough for your students?

If you aren’t convinced yet, then watch this amazing Ted Talk by John Bohannon of Harvard University, the founder of Dance Your Ph.D.:


Now off to practice my jazz hands…