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What happens when you submerge yourself in science?

Science Gallery Bengaluru’s first exhibition, themed on water, is a curated selection of installations and projects at the intersection of art and science

Visitors to Science Gallery Bengaluru’s ‘Submerge’ exhibition take a look at the ‘FrankenShrimp’
Visitors to Science Gallery Bengaluru’s ‘Submerge’ exhibition take a look at the ‘FrankenShrimp’ (Photo courtesy: Science Gallery)

Can rocks make music? What is the sound of polluted water? What would a post-climate apocalypse life form look like? What happens to organisms in a dehydrated state—are they living slowly, or dying slowly, or are they suspended in an undefinable state between life and death?

These are some of the questions that the exhibits at an ongoing show curated and organised by the Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB), in association with the US’ Smithsonian Institution, seek to answer. The theme is water in all its forms and complexity. The exhibition, titled Submerge, features 10 experiments that range from the artistic to the auditory to pure science, selected from over 130 submissions across the world. The Smithsonian’s travelling exhibition H20 Today, currently showing in India, adds another layer to the event.

Yes, rocks do make music (of a sort)—as the exhibit Diagenesis by Ivan Macera, an Italian percussionist and sound researcher, shows. A simple setup comprising a set of dehydrated stones, a water tank and a submersible microphone help us hear the unique sounds, with distinct rhythms, patterns and soundscapes, created by each rock as it absorbs water. The sound anatomy of different stones can become a means of exploring their internal structure, says the artist. As for polluted water, it too has its own soundscape, as demonstrated by The Sounds Tapper by Belgian sound artist Steven Tevels. In this installation, one can hear the micro-sounds of Bengaluru’s polluted lakes as the needles of a microscope come in contact with a vibrating water membrane—much as a gramophone’s needle would fit into the grooves of a vinyl record—and play the oscillating pulses generated by bacteriological and chemical reactions in the polluted water, with saline water used as a control to demonstrate the differences in sound quality.

If you are wondering what a post-apocalyptic life form may look like, and whether humans will survive a climate Armageddon, both questions may lead you to the ArchaeaBot by Anna Dumitriu and Alex May, British artists who have created this underwater robotic installation that explores what “life" might mean in a post-singularity, post-climate change future. The project is based on the latest research about archaea, ancient microorganisms, believed to be the oldest life forms on Earth, which originally evolved near hot deep-sea vents. Some species are acid tolerant, feed on methane, and can live without oxygen, and will be ideally suited to a planet wrecked by climate crisis. The ArchaeaBot looks like a human brain—and with good reason: The artists propose that humans will perhaps survive only by uploading their consciousness into these organisms.

Meanwhile, the exhibit FrankenShrimp by Shashi Thutupalli of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) demonstrates dehydrated shrimp eggs coming back to life when they are rehydrated under specific conditions, with their movements and vitality visible under a microscope. Water truly is life-giving, and science is still trying to unlock the various mysterious processes by which this transformation happens.

The ‘Munsell Richter’ installation creates a landscape using microbial activity in mud collected from 10 locations in Bengaluru
The ‘Munsell Richter’ installation creates a landscape using microbial activity in mud collected from 10 locations in Bengaluru (Photo courtesy: Science Gallery)

This is the first exhibition by the gallery, which is part of the Dublin-based Science Gallery International network, and is in the process of setting up a permanent home in Bengaluru. “The idea is to bring the gallery’s work to the city and engage citizens through not just the exhibits but lectures, workshops, and film screenings that complement the show," says Jahnavi Phalkey, director of the Science Gallery. While many of the exhibits are by international scientists and artists, several are rooted in local issues and realities. Take, for instance, Munsell Richter by Jenifer Wightman, a research scientist from the US’ Cornell University. Wightman collected soil samples from 10 locations in and around Bengaluru and poured them into thin, flat glass receptacles to create a “living" installation consisting of the mud samples and all their microorganisms and minerals. As microbial activity creates pigments in the mud, colourful formations and patterns emerge (similar to the legendary Gerhard Richter colour chart), and the “landscapes" can be seen changing over time.

“This is not a static exhibition. It is a living, dynamic one where, by the end of the 45-day show, you will see installations and projects change and progresses. The aim is to help you understand the process of science, and not just its outcome," says Phalkey.

Water is of overwhelming interest in Bengaluru, with periodic dire predictions of the city running out of water in 5, 10 or 15 years, and many active citizen-led movements to conserve its lakes and water bodies. It would be the ideal theme for the SGB’s first show, felt Phalkey. “Our goal is to make the visitor really think about water and look at it beyond its identity as a resource. We want to invoke curiosity and a sense of wonder about water, so that we become its custodians, and can accept and create solutions for the city and the planet," says Phalkey.

Submerge is on till 30 January, 11am-9pm, at the Bangalore International Centre, Domlur. Entry is free.

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