Algae Chorus – A sound installation collaborates with living algae

Algae Chorus is a sound installation that collaborates with living algae, in real time, transforming their movement and photosynthesis process into sounds. The algae utilize the audience’s collective carbon exhalations within the exhibition space, revealing the mutual dependencies between humans and photosynthetic organisms.

Algae are a diverse group of aquatic photosynthetic organisms that produce around 70% of the earth’s oxygen. They also assimilate most of the carbon dioxide on the earth. As we face the climate emergency, algae are critical organisms that we imagine ways to make their role in the carbon cycle more visible.

In this project, three species of algae live in disparate domestic containers in various growth stages, including single-cell cyanobacteria: Spirulina, microalgae: Nannochloropsis, and Chlorella Vulgaris. This installation explores the visual perception of the varied green shades of each algae colony, formed by degrees of density, and it embodies humanity’s affection for green aesthetics and the essence of color originating in nature.

The algae’s growth and movements are manifested by light sensors in their biological time. While audiences inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, the atmosphere in the exhibition is slowly affected and also gets detected by a carbon dioxide sensor. All these data are translated into sound synthesis and tune the chorus.

Through a rich visual and listening experience with algae, this project provides a space for contemplating oxygen and carbon dioxide circulation, and raises questions about our habit of anthropocentrism and the hierarchy of biological taxonomy. While not providing a solution, this project aims to open a discussion on our relationship with organisms living on the earth toward a sustainable future.

Twenty-four light sensors detect algae colony movement and human interaction, and three Adafruit I2C multiplexers are used for address control. Twenty-four LEDs are placed underneath each glass for sensor trigger indication. An NDIR CO2 detects the collective CO2 level in space. An IR distance sensor is used to detect audience presence and start performance. All sensors connect to a Raspberry Pi 4, where data are processed through python programming and passed to Processing to tune the sound synthesizer and generate sound.

This project is funded by New York University Tisch Initiative for Creative Research, and part of the exhibition “This Is Not A Drill” at NYU Bobst Library.

Project Page | Yan Shao