2023 Best in Installation – Gray Snyder

We hold while held


Installation comprised of video projections, proximity sensor, petri dish, and interactive performance

We hold while held is an interactive video installation that aims to reveal the porous borders between ourselves and the many lives we live in relationship with. Through presenting two petri dishes at different scales I ask participants to reconsider their sense of estrangement from the natural world through presenting the omnipresent tardigrade (water bear) at both their true scale and human scale. I hope for participants to leave the installation with a new awareness of our many perpetual but often unnoticed relationships.

We hold while held is an interactive installation driven by the autonomy of the participant and their willingness to assume the role of performer. The interactive nature of the piece comes about through the inclusion of an Arduino proximity sensor, a petri dish containing water, projection, and reactive visuals made in the program Touch Designer. When the work is unactivated, the video within the projected petri dish remains ambiguous and amorphous. Upon opting to engage with the physical petri dish the proximity sensor is triggered, enacting a change in the video projection. The video then transforms into clear footage of tardigrades undergoing hydration and dehydration, as the participant holds the water, held by the petri dish within the light of the projected petri dish. 

Tardigrades, otherwise known as water bears, are microscopic multicellular organisms known for their resiliency and thereby ubiquity. Tardigrades are primarily aquatic animals but possess the abilities to survive long term exposures to extreme conditions due their ability to access a survival mechanism known as the tun state. The tun state involves the tardigrades’ bodies undergoing structural changes in response to threatening environmental fluctuations. When water is removed from their cells tardigrades replace this deficiency with sugar, causing their bodies to constrict and shrink. Tardigrades have been known to survive in this state for years, and still upon rehydration almost instantly become active again. The projected footage was captured in a UofM lab by my roommate, Abha. This footage was shot through a microscopic lens and shows tardigrades entering tun state as the microscope’s light slowly evaporates the drop of water they reside in. These experiments were done to prepare a sample of tardigrades to be imaged using a scanning electron microscope in a high vacuum situation. 

We hold while held aims to reveal the porous borders between ourselves and the many lives we live in relationship to. The dual nature of the two petri dishes allows viewers to encounter the tardigrades after having placed themselves under observation and allowing themselves to be enveloped by the projected petri dish. By using tardigrades as a symbol as well as a material, I intended to convey that with every action we never operate alone—regardless of the emphasis of individualism in our society. By attending to tardigrades and other non-human creatures we may learn from their ability to react to and withstand extreme conditions while also being reminded of our own fragility in the midst of mass ecological change. I ask that participants consider their perpetual relationships to these tardigrades in hopes of decentering human systems and becoming more aware of our often unconscious participation in our larger shared system.