Pepper ghost, a future data interpretation of past species

Stephanie Morissette, Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design

Collaborators: Erfun Ackley, MFA and PAT, SMTD

I will create an installation of 7 small pepper ghost displays where each presents visual and sound interpretation of data and algorithms of evolution and extinction of future species. The duration of this research will be 8 weeks, from beginning of November to the end of December 2023. The project will be presented in my thesis show in March 2024.

The pepper ghosts are small glass domes with a small video screen and a 45 degree angle transparent sheet inside the dome that projects the video into space and emulates an hologram. I am a 2nd year MFA student at the Stamps School of Art & Design and with my research I am looking at the evolution of living species (flora and fauna) that will be genetically modified for different purposes (economic, efficiency, military gain etc.), for example bird/drones.

From those new species, I am imagining further in the future how paleontologists would interpret the remnants of those altered species. Using a form of speculative paleontology, I can consider the realm of possibilities left to far off future generations and how they will be interpreted. For my thesis and this project, I am projecting myself in a future where scientists would have to interpret data and artifacts left by the previous era when those species were alive.

I am looking to create a collection of different data interpretations with surround sound. I will work on videos and sounds showing data interpreted and translated into abstract visuals and sounds. I will use open source biological data of a phylogenetic tree to create sound and imagery that will tell a story through the pepper ghost device.

For the visual, I am inspired by the work of the physicist and network scientist Albert-László Barabási and his visual data research laboratory Barabasi Lab. I am also looking at the following interactive tree of life diagram presenting gene evolution since the beginning of life. By clicking, you can find different common ancestors.

For “Pepper ghost, a future data interpretation of past species,” I will use a media studio at the Duderstadt and an edit room or MTL at the PAT department. I presently have access to the Edit room at the PAT department as I am taking an introduction course in electronic music.

I do not have the necessary experience to create the sound by myself, but I have learned terms that can help communication with my programming and research assistant that I will also call here collaborator. This project represents an opportunity and a first iteration in learning to collaborate with an expert in a different field than mine, as well as developing ideas for future projects involving visualization of data.

My objective is to learn how to translate data, sound and image from one medium to another with algorithms. I am looking forward to using this technique for future projects involving data from a forest and translating it again in visual language.

The project would be made with the expertise of Erfun Ackley, a master’s student in the Performing Arts & Technology program that I have met through my PAT class. He is a composer, guitar player, and technologist. His interest lies at the intersection of music, creativity, cognition, and mathematics. Additionally, he is fascinated by the translation of various visual textures into audio and vice versa.

Erfun’s goal for his master’s study is to create audio applications and design algorithms that seamlessly integrate with non-linear media, such as game engines. This integration would enable the generation of audio, music, or effects that adapt to the context of new media. He uses Python, SuperCollider, or Max/MSP programming languages. He uses Ableton Live as his Digital Audio Workstation, but might change the programming languages or the software he uses depending on the project.

With his programming skills and input, I would like to use data, create algorithms from it to generate sounds and abstract images. Erfun will be essential to compose a soundtrack and image from data. As a visual artist, my language of communication is through images, for Erfun, his language of communication is music.

I am interested in our complementary expertise to create a distinctive image and sound display using the pepper ghost, that will borrow from both our language and bring them further into a story of the future. How artifacts of the future would leave us clues to interpret their world? The modes of communications might be different from what we know today and can we artists imagine how they would look and sound? The imagery and sounds could be abstract to us, as hieroglyphs were when first discovered.

The pepper ghost is an old device, but the hologram effects of moving images in suspension have a magical aura and could be interpreted as a message from another era (if we think of hologram use in sci-fi movies like in Star Wars). The glass dome refers to an old natural museum display case. The work draws from an aesthetic and device of the past to bring us in a possible future language.

For this project, we will both have to learn to communicate first with ourselves to understand the language of each other. From that, we can experiment together and find solutions to create this work. I am looking forward to brainstorming, experimenting and testing with another expert so we can develop a complementary creative relationship. The objective of this project is to learn working together and learn from each expertise.

Although I am initiating this project, I expect us both to enhance our practice through our complementarity. The result will be an ensemble of moving images seen through glass domes accompanied by sounds. The project will be presented in January 2024 to my MFA graduate cohort and I hope to include it in my MFA thesis show at the Stamps Gallery in March 2024.