HeliOscillator 1 is a beautiful, enigmatic and mesmerising audio/visual installation, originally conceived for the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind in 2012, and also exhibited in Newcastle at the British Science Festival in 2013. It was created by myself and Noel Murphy (aka Visual Display Unit), in collaboration with professor Róbertus von Fáy-Siebenbürgen.
The Festival of the Mind was created to bring artists from the city and departments from the University together, to collaborate on projects that would highlight the skills of both. As artists interested in the cross-over point between science and art, the festival was an obvious fit for us.
We looked at what was being researched at the university and were immediately inspired by the work of Professor Róbertus von Fáy-Siebenbürgen, whose fascinating research on the Sun chimed with their own wide-eyed, “isn’t-the-universe-awesome”, view on life. Róbertus was excited at the prospect of collaborating too; a lengthy discussion with him about his work resulting in the concept of the HeliOscillator.
The professor, with the help of PhD student Nabil Freij and Dr Richard Morton, supplied data taken from seven separate sunspots, captured through the Dutch Open Telescope (an optical solar telescope located in the Canary Islands). Using a combination of openFrameworks, Processing and Max MSP software, a chain of systems was created to reinterpret the data as an audio/visual experience.
The first stage in the chain converts the data using the OpenFrameworks C++ toolkit. This software reads the supplied sunspot data files and interprets these into colour and deformations of geometry. The sun observations are taken at non real-time intervals, so they jump from value to value; the HeliOscillator programme smoothes this data, interpolating values to allow for a more gentle animation, which is projection-mapped onto a hand-crafted wall-mounted modular construction made of seven hexagons.
The shifting patterns of light and colour trigger changes in sound based upon the brightness of the data visualisation hitting the screen in specific locations. This is done by embedding 42 light dependant resistors throughout the surface, the values of each sensor (a measurement of resistance based on how much light is hitting a sensor) are constantly monitored by an Arduino microprocessor attached to the computer.
The values are in turn read by a second piece of custom software (created in the Processing programming language) and turned into midi OSC data. The final link in the chain is a Max MSP script for triggering and modulating the pitch of 42 sine wave oscillators.
In less technical terms: patterns of light – symmetrical and phasing – shift across the screen, graduations in intensity giving life to an abstract soundscape; fluctuations in solar magnetic activity translated into a tangible, immersive experience; each module a looping snapshot of a sunspot, poetic and incomprehensible in its short, magnificent life.
The result of this cross-pollination is an intriguing installation, beautifully realised in hand-crafted wood and projected data visuals, with the abstract sound of 42 sine waves gliding in pitch. Referencing 1970s sci-fi, HeliOscillator 1 engages audiences with its mesmerising, artifact-like otherworldly presence, creating an enigmatic, alluring and contemplative space that gives the audience an abstract window on an object that’s inhospitable, alien and unintelligible to our meek organic senses.
As well as co-creating and project managing the installation, I designed all the marketing materials.