The film “Cellular,” which depicts the early development of a spider embryo, accompanied by the sound of cells as they grow and die. This film was shown inside the “Sound Wall” installation, fabricated for the Apex exhibition in the Wintercross Gallery at the Portland Art Museum. The sound of cells emanates from small speakers embedded in the 24’ wall of handmade paper that curves around the gallery to envelope the viewer. At first one hears the sound of a healthy cell dividing; it is somewhat melodic and dependable with its high pitched, constantly harmonious drone. But after a few minutes the sound changes and loses rhythm; it is now irritatingly scratchy like a rusty hinge. This is the sound of an unhealthy cell, cancerous, dying.
The sounds heard in this work are five tracks of cells, both healthy and ill, dividing and dying. I accessed these recording through bio-physicist Andrew Pelling at UCLA who uses an atomic force microscope to hear cells smaller than the diameter of a human hair. To render such minute units audible, the nano-scale vibrations of cells are amplified and the acoustic oscillations brought into the range of human hearing.
Pelling found that cells with cancer or other diseases give off low and strained-sounding frequencies while healthy cells produce a pleasant sound. In 2007 Pelling demonstrated that the physical structure of metastatic cancer cells is softer than that of healthy cells, which explains their distinctive vibrations.
Once inside the sound wall, one is confronted with the projection of the film “Cellular” in a 10’ square. “Cellular” is a film of embryonic development. More than 200 hours of still images were made with Atonics Microfire digital cameras mounted on Olympus stereomicroscopes, and consolidated into a film with Astor IIDC imaging software. My colleague Steve Black, professor of developmental Biology and Zoology at Reed College, allowed me to access his lab to make several short films of maturing spider embryos. In the final film I overlapped 10 segments of development that terminate just prior to full gestation, thereby creating an infinite loop of potential.
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