Art Now! feat. magic crystals + chemistry lessons

© Martine Frossard. Courtesy of http://erinsexton.com/

© Martine Frossard. Courtesy of http://erinsexton.com/

The light was low. One last student just entered and was now scrambling to find a seat at the back of NCB 117. Swinging her arm with a hand-held oscillator in hand, Erin Sexton paced around the full-house classroom, opening up both the physical space and our head space with her “surround sound” of piercing frequencies. Welcome to the season premiere of Art Now! Speakers’ Series! (For the full version of this mind-blowing lecture, check out this video from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.)

Growing up on the West Coast, Erin has always been fascinated with the invisible and the infinite. A self-proclaimed sci-fi nerd, she became interested in electroacoustic and experimental music after her grandfather introduced her to ham radio. Now based in Montreal, she “builds electronics, grows crystals, amplifies architecture and sonifies the æther” according to her bio. How supercool is that?!

From the quantum abyss of everyday objects to the ethereal cosmos of alpha brain waves, the endless complexity and chaos can be overwhelming. And yet, with every uncertainty come opportunities. Armed with contact microphones, microscope cameras and a frenzy of electric circuits, Erin stirs and probes the surfaces and media for signals. She wants to better understand the “other dimensions” by reinstilling a sense of wonder into the ordinary.

Throughout the talk, Erin helped intensify our sensory experience and guided us through the discord with videos and live performances of crystal growing and H2O splitting. In the midst of the chaos, however, I was strangely washed over by a sense of harmony as Erin serenely improvised with the bubbling electrodes and audiovisual feedbacks. Suddenly, like Neo seeing the code behind The Matrix (sorry, can’t help it…), Erin’s idea of using sound as a “vehicle for awe” crystallized (!) in my head. Through her “transduction of intangible frequencies”, I felt a deeper and more direct connection with my immediate surroundings and beyond.

Now to say that’s a tough act to follow it’s almost an understatement, but Professor Felix Lee from the Department of Chemistry certainly helped us work through and appreciate what we were actually seeing in Erin’s presentation. What’s up with the smoking dry ice? How do you “split water” on those bubbling electrodes during an electrolysis? Why is there a tint of blue in the solution? How could that be applied? Why should we even care? Personally, supersaturated solutions are way sexier than this Crystal Method I think.

Me breaking bad growing some crystals...

Me breaking bad growing some crystals…

Joking aside, having grown some crystals on my own, I can truly appreciate that’s more like an art than simply following a stepwise protocol. As Felix pointed out, to observe is an art of itself. To fully understand the complex world we live in, we need both our heart and mind. While the arts tug at our visceral experience, science pushes for more logical consideration. Through this exchange of ideas, what Erin and Felix have done was advancing knowledge creation by bridging the gap between art and science. In the continuum of hard facts and the mysterious, we can all benefit from reaching out to the unfamiliar.

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