Matthijs Munnik with Richard de Boer

Microscopic Opera

In collaboration with The Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology

"What if humans are not aware that something else is manipulating them?"

Microscopic Opera is an audiovisual installation created by Matthijs Munnik and the Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology. In this project labworms C. Elegans produce images and sounds.

“We are able to manipulate life forms without them even knowing that we exist. What if the same is also true for us? What if humans are not aware that something else is manipulating them?”

Posted on 15/06/2011

Theatrical aspects of microorganisms

Artist Matthijs Munnik collaborated with Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology in realizing his audiovisual installation where lab worms C.elegans are used to produce sounds and images instead of being researched as model organisms in the lab. The role of Science completely gave way because it has been used for producing a pure artistic experience. We could say that this time Science humbly serves Art, just like C.elegans usually serve Science. Their collaboration is some kind of hommage to this worm, the glorification of oneness of Art, Science and Nature. In order to find out more about this installation, we are going to put a few questions to artist Matthijs Munnik and scientist Richard de Boer who he collaborated with.

Matthijs Munnik

Hello Matthijs, could you please tell me more about your installation… How exactly does it function and how big are these microscopic worms? How did you come up with the idea?

In this installation I wanted to use micro-organisms as performers in order to research if I could apply theatrical aspects to these organisms. Richard de Boer, the researcher I collaborated with, then introduced me to the micro-organism he was researching – C. elegans, a microscopic worm. I knew right away that they were going to be perfect performers, because of their aesthetics and an interesting history. In the installation I use microscopes for watching movements of these worms, which in turn, through software, control the sounds. In the end, the worms unknowingly perform in an abstract opera, just by moving around. They are less than a millimeter in size, you can sometimes see larger ones with the naked eye, but not the smaller ones.

But, what kind of sounds do they trigger?

Different movements trigger different sounds, in different layers. With software I analyze what is happening on the screen and thus adjust the sound. Different situations trigger different sounds, from abstract opera singing to a dynamic soundtrack of background sounds.

How many worms do you have?

There are 5 Petri dishes in the installation and each has 100 to 1000 worms, depending on the food and elapsed time.

A worm is an animal we associate with a lot of symbolic connotations. They are used as a metaphor of death, evil, corruption and labor. What is your perception of the worm and why did you decide to use it in your work?

I didn’t use worms in a symbolic way, it is purely because they are really relevant in genomics, they are model organism for a lot of research on genes and DNA or RNA, and it is the first multi-cellular creature whose genome has been entirely decoded. Also, their aesthetic side is quite important – they move really beautifully.

Why did you want to work with an invisible living thing, is it a sort of dedication to these creatures…?

I think it’s fascinating to make the microscopic world visible to our world. Everything is completely new and different on a small scale. Did you also have an urge to do something for science or just for art?

I think that for scientists a different kind of (artistic) perspective is interesting because they only see this world through black and white microscopes. But it doesn’t have explicit research value, I’m not writing a paper on it or anything like it.

I cannot avoid noticing the note of humor and irony in this installation. It is kind of absurd in Beckett’s sense. It simultaneously glorifies humanity and sneers at it. One of your previous performances, Sisyphus, also engages with this subject. Is there a connection between the two?

Yes, that’s right. Even though worms don’t actually sing, that notion makes this artwork funny and ironic at the same time. In Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus people do the same, stupid actions, but in them they can also find some happiness and comfort. Maybe absurdity and happiness at the same time… When you look at the worms, their lives seem worthless, and then you realize that we are just like them.

Looking at your previous work it seemed to me that this is the first time that you used nature, something alive (among yourself!) to produce the impalpable: image (projection) and sound. How do you see this connection between palpable and impalpable, nature and art?

It is interesting to incorporate other creatures besides humans into artistic creation. By using animals for artistic purposes you give away some control.

In fact we could say that you did the same thing as scientists do – you used the laboratory animal for testing, but for artistic testing!

I treated the worms in exactly the same way as scientists do, but I used the data which I got from them for the different purpose – instead of using it to see growth or movement patterns, I used it to make them control an opera.

Are you interested in bio-art, did you like working in the lab and what exactly did you do there?

Yes, I am interested in bio-art. However, I don’t really see this piece as bio-art. Some time I’d love to do some work in that area. I really like working in the lab, but for this piece I didn’t really experiment with biological processes. We only selected the mutations of worms and did some tests with chemicals and some different growth media.

Do you now have a different opinion about worms?

Yes, actually I’m now pretty fond of the C. elegans.

How do you see the relation between art and science? In your view, what kind of impact can it have on future? Can it change something?

I think it’s a very interesting development, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this field will develop. There is a lot of beauty in science; in chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, it’s just waiting for artists to take it and use it to create new art, which is not only relevant to the art world but also to the scientific context.

Richard de Boer

Hello Richard, could you please tell me how is exactly this worm used in scientific research? How do you treat it and why is it so suitable for research?

I use the worms to study the side effects of drugs that have been developed in treating HIV- infected people. These drugs cause all kinds of side effects with these patients, which in a lot of cases forces the patient to stop taking a specific kind of drug. Fortunately, there are nowadays a lot of different drugs available, so changing to a different drug is most of the times an option, but still it would be good to know why these side effects occur. This is what I study. I’m not sure what you mean by treat, if you mean: how the worms are grown in the lab, it is by letting them crawl on an agar plate, on which we’ve spread a bacterial culture. This is the natural food source of this organism, and they are perfectly happy this way. If you mean by treat how we expose them to the drugs we study, the answer is quite simple: we just add the drug to the food source, so the worms crawl around in it. This way, when they feed, they also ingest the drug. We use these organisms because for this type of research we need a eukaryotic (cells with a nucleus) model so the cellular processes are similar to our own. Most of the time, baker’s yeast is used as a eukaryotic model organism, but this is only a single cell organism. Because C. elegans is a small and simple organism and consists of only a few hundred cells, we can study tissue specific effects, whereas in cell-lines for example, you can only study one cell type at the time. Therefore, they are suitable for research. They are also very easy to maintain in the lab, and already a lot is known about this organism, which makes it easier to interpret the data.

What is your perception of this worm? Did Matthijs’ installation open for you a new perspective of this animal?

I see this worm as a very useful and elegant creature, which has a tremendous impact on scientific research. Even without Matthijs’ installation they are fun to watch, but for me, Matthijs has added music to this perspective, which for me is a new way of looking at the animal. Because it is a nematode (worm) it is not an animal you normally associate with sounds.

How do you see the relation between art and science? In your opinion what kind of impact can it have on future? Can it change something?

I think that one should be careful when science and art are mixed, especially where animals are involved. The scientific research is strictly bound by rules and regulations regarding the well-being of the animals used in experiments. However, it can open up the eyes of the public to the value of scientific research and show that not all research involving animals is bad, which sadly is the general view by a lot of people.

As Matthijs told me, you proposed C. elegans to him, so in fact we could say that you had some kind of the impact on the artwork. How do you feel about it? And why did you propose exactly this worm?

Together with a technician here in the lab, Jos Arents, Matthijs came to me because he was looking for a micro-organism that would react to its environment. Jos knew I worked with C. elegans. I do not feel I had a direct impact on the art itself, as the idea of using micro organisms as composers of music was already there. I merely suggested a particular animal. I proposed this worm, because I knew it moves around and is sensitive to vibrations. They are also very easy to maintain, and harmless. So there can never be any danger. I also knew there are mutants of this worm that move differently which Matthijs was looking for.

Interviewer: Neva Lukic