IAN KIRKWOOD: Music from two brains

Guy Ben-Ary (left).
Guy Ben-Ary (left).

ONE straight from the strangeness files.

 Guy Ben-Ary is a Perth conceptual artist with a difference.

He has two brains.

The first one, the one he was born with, is safely inside his skull, doing the things that the brains of conceptual artists do, like deciding to grow a second brain.

This second brain, of about 75,000 to 100,000 neuron brain cells, lives in a Petri dish and is fed each day in a tissue-culture lab at the University of Western Australia.

 It began ‘‘life’’ as a biopsy of skin cells taken from Ben-Ary’s arm and converted into stem cells at the University of Barcelona.

On it’s own, that’s amazing enough.

But to bring an already impressive scientific collaboration into the realm of the artistic, Ben-Ary and his collaborators have grown the neural network on top of a network of 64 electrodes.

 These electrodes act in two directions.

They pick up electrical signals generated by the neural network, and they can also introduce signals into the network, stimulating it, in turn, to produce new and different signals. Ben-Ary calls this ‘‘giving the brain a body’’.

He calls the sound-making machine cellF (as in ‘‘self’’), and on Sunday, October 4, cellF had its first live concert, jamming with a Tokyo-based drummer, Darren Moore, at Perth’s Masonic Hall.

Moore’s music was fed into the neural network as electrical stimulation, and the network responded with signals that were amplified, fed into an analogue synthesiser and played through a bank of 16 speakers.

 I heard about this on Monday on Radio National’s Books and Arts program.

The sounds themselves were the sort of choppy, percussive new age electronica that you would expect such a set-up to make.

But it was the claim – let’s make that the reality – that the neural network was responding to the sounds of Moore’s percussion, that really blew me away.

RN put me in contact with Ben-Ary and when we talked on Wednesday he spoke with parental affection about the four years it has taken him and his collaborators to turn a skin biopsy sample into something at the cutting edge of science and art.

As well as Ben-Ary and Moore, the others involved are artists Nathan Thompson and Andrew Fitch, scientists Stuart Hodgetts, Mike Edel and Douglas Bakkum and WA Uni’s Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts, known as SymbioticA.

 On his blog, nonlinearcircuits, Fitch described how the neurons were ‘‘given a hit of dopamine before the show; it really pepped them up’’.

Fitch, who designed the custom-made synthesisers used in the project, said that during the performance ‘‘it was very clear the neurons were responding to stimulation’’ in the form of Moore’s drum-beats.

Ben-Ary is also in no doubt that the neural network was responding to the music.

For him giving the cellF network a ‘‘sound producing body’’ was a consequence of his ‘‘naive childhood dream of becoming a rock’n’roll star’’.

Ben-Ary says he is interested in the speed of advances in stem cell technology, and the ethical implications that go with the creation of increasingly complicated ‘‘life’’.

He has spent 15years working on ‘‘robotic bodies’’ and ‘‘bioengineered brains’’, with work on cellF supported by three grants, including an Australia Council Creative Australia Fellowship.

Ben-Ary calls his neural network a brain, but he makes it clear he is talking in conceptual terms only, because a human brain is a three-dimensional organisation of more than 100billion neurons, making it at least 1million times bigger than his two-dimensional Petri-dish collection.

But as a starting point, it’s an extraordinary development.

Ben-Ary says it’s a strange feeling, looking at his external brain through a microscope, and a salutary warning to those who think we are anything more than animal biology.

From any angle, what Ben-Ary and Co have created is proof positive of why you can never put limits on the definition of art.

I just hope those cells aren’t screaming at Ben-Ary to shut the drummer up!

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