Some of the greatest discoveries are happy accidents. Such was the case in 1939 when Russian inventor Semyon Davidovich Kirlian realized that he could visualize electrical fields around objects–normally invisible to the naked eye–by hitching a high-voltage energy source to photographic plate. Kirlian’s work resonated with alternative medicine practitioners, who used his techniques to create photographs of individuals’ “auras.” A new genre of mystical photography was born, and it remains popular today.
The Brooklyn-based architecture firm The Principals recently debuted Aural Planes, an interactive sound and light sculpture that riffs on Kirlian’s work, at Sight Unseen Offsite, an NYCxDesign-related exhibition featuring work from emerging and experimental practitioners. The piece was designed to complement a new series of wallpapers from Calico, which feature gauzy, painterly motifs inspired by aura photography.
Aural Planes is composed of hundreds of slim, aluminum welding rods that conduct electricity that dangle from a sensor grid. When a person touches the rods–which are slightly thinner than wire hangers–the electric charges that are naturally present in the body travel up the metal. Depending on how strong the charge, the sensors then activate lights and sound.
“There are so many amazing processes happening in our bodies we are either unaware of or take for granted, which are potential avenues of connection with our surroundings,” Drew Seskunas, a co-founder of The Principals, tells Co.Design via email. “For instance most people don’t know that there is a slight electric current emanating from our bodies which can be read with fairly simple technology…creating a piece that could manifest our inherent electric charge through light and sound would be an interesting way of exposing people to the architecture of their bodies in a more intimate way.”
Kirlian photography’s hues mimic what’s found in the sky, like gradients of orange and yellow in the morning, blue and green during the day, and reds at night. The designers placed dichroic film over LED lights to achieve a color spectrum that’s similar to what’s typically shown in aura photography, and the association with the sky led them to select bird calls for the sound recordings that accompany the piece.
The installation, like the Principals’ other work, aims to connect people to their surroundings. “The architecture of the body is the most sophisticated building any of us will ever inhabit, but our built environment has practically no link to it,” Seskunas says. “We want to create work that forges deeper connections between our bodies and our environment and therefore more meaningful moments in life in general.”
Biometric recognition–or systems that use the body as an interface–has rapidly become an area of focus in emerging technology. Many of us already use fingerprint scanners to unlock our iPhone screens, for example, and voice-recognition capabilities are integrated into the Amazon Echo home assistant. But some wilder experiments include research on how people could drive their cars using brainwaves through the use of a biometric suit. Meanwhile, thorny privacy concerns about how biometric data is used by corporations abound. Thankfully, The Principals’ mesmerizing biometric installation is more benign. See it in the slide show above.