The Motion of Affects

The Motion of Affects

The life of a microparticle is simple.

Made of silicone dioxide, half covered in a mixture of chromium and palladium, it resembles its namesake, the Roman god Janus. At 1-2 micrometers it is too small to be seen by the naked eye.

Suspended in water, it is still in motion; it moves languidly as the water molecules give it heat. Under the influence of electricity, meant to coax it into mimicking the behavior of cells, it is charged with another semblance of life. In legion, they move randomly, but with the undulating, ever contracting and expanding patterns of a flock of starlings, almost too swift and numerous to count.

But they are counted. The scientist is patient, she tracks them individually using fluorescent light to color their paths, creating algorithms that measure the axis of its journey. Here is the height of its path, here, the nadir. Its journey wends its way erratically, etching lines of varying shape, depth, and connotation into the plate—angry, jagged lines, smoother curves, and tight, eddying waves.

These objects, alive and not alive, are brought to life by our own imagination and desire to personify, or perhaps by a broadening understanding of the definition and possibilities of life. To be inanimate may just be to slumber in the embryonic chamber of the mind, to wait for some stimulus, some impetus to awaken you.

The Motion of Affects is the work of artist Ana Hofmann and microrobotics researcher Dr. Laura Álvarez-Francés and combines science, art, and science fiction. Brought together by gepäckausgabe Glarus’ interdisciplinary open call, which aimed to highlight the creative process across disparate fields, the resulting show is a kind of translation. It attempts to decipher the data from these experiments into the more expressive and subjective language of art. 

As the scientist marshalls her particles, so does the artist negotiate with her own machines, using laser cutters to carve precise reproductions of the microparticles’ paths. At her request, under her guiding hand, the machines soldier on, working the same materials found in the experiments—plastic and metal. When words fail, the artist must translate, and here, visualization is knowledge.

The space, once an office for the Glarus baggage claim, is rough but homely. There are four walls, all painted white, one of which is lined with windows. Under the window in petri dishes stand experiments transferred onto slides of silicone, ridged and almost radiant with colors like dark mother-of-pearl. Sunlight slants through the glass, irradiating the plates of colored plexiglass engraved with the peregrinations of our microparticles. They are placed in intervals around the room at different angles, some suspended from spiraling wires, and glow as if lit from within, colors echoing the fluorescent dye from the experiments. The particles themselves are yet invisible to us, leaving only these linear tracks for us to follow.

This is the realm of art and science alike, to find that which is invisible or unknown, and to illuminate it. Not by guesswork, but by process—to research and utilize systems to attempt to answer questions, or to find further questions. In this pursuit of the unknown and inquiry into the exchange between man and machine, Álvarez-Francés and Hofmann are in accord; the exhibition can be seen as a joint exploration of an indeterminate field.

At only a decade, the field of microrobotics is one of the youngest in AI and, if successful, could have far reaching effect. Currently intended for the field of medicine, it might be revolutionary; healing could be worked swiftly, with artificial cells targeting specific parts of the body. Yet the initiated science fiction lover, or even the cynic can easily imagine the exploitation or even weaponization of this technology. But to the scientist comes an even more maddening thought—what if it never works at all?