The intersection of biology, sound and music by Mikael Hwang

Former scientist and electronic artist invents and pilots the world’s first playable record filled with living yeast cells

Neuroscientist-turned-artist Mikael Hwang (aka. Psients) has fused experimental and unconventional practices to create the world’s first living playable media.

Signal is the world’s first playable, living music media that contains and is mediated by a microorganism. Inspired by biology lab practices of culturing microorganisms in Petri dishes, Hwang created Signal to embrace his love for electronic music. He has been producing electronic music for five years and has had a semi-professional career in Seoul, since completing his first Asia tour in 2019.

Hwang’s goal is to liberate scientific knowledge and research techniques from institutions by distilling and democratizing them through his artworks. He came up with the idea to merge these two mediums together whilst coming up with his PhD topic at Symbiotica with Professor Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr at the University of Western Australia. 

Hwang says, “The reason behind this work is threefold:

1. Increase the kind and range of materials for artists to work with, providing an opportunity to engage with life and living systems.

2. To comment on our capitalization, exploitation, and bondage of lifeforms. Particularly, challenging notions of speciesism (one species being more superior/important than others)

3. To give yeast – one of the first domesticated organisms by humans – a voice and agency, especially given that our use of it is pervasive (foods, beverages, pharmaceuticals, beauty, etc).”

Hwang hopes that sharing his invention with the world can further scientific development in living instruments. He firmly believes that the future of sound is biological and that his invention can bring awareness that sound has a useful place in the sciences and other realms of human life.

“Clubs and dance floors are essential spaces for people to dance and enjoy music – that’s where my love of electronic music blossomed,” says Hwang. “I want to evolve from these places to exhibitions or galleries where music and sound can take on a different role; where people can listen, think, and reflect on their environments, rather than react to the immediacy of spaces, such as a club.”

Hwang has redesigned the traditional 12-inch record to three times its original thickness to house modified living organisms, like yeast, in a 6mm casing made out of polycarbonate. The surface of the record is lathed with music created by sampling the sounds extracted from the yeast organisms.

Bulgarian-based product development firm, SplinePro had a hand in designing and manufacturing this new type of record. The music was carved directly onto the record, which takes on an entirely different manufacturing process than traditional vinyl records.

“Usually, records are made by lathing a metal plate stamper that is used as a ‘negative’ mould. Heated vinyl pucks are then pressed against the metal plate stamper moulds,” says Vladimir Kartov, SplinePro’s Head of Design.Sometimes, before making the metal plate stamper, the same process can be done on plastic – historically acetate, nowadays polycarbonate or PETG. We took inspiration from this approach and lathed our customized polycarbonate disks using a similar method.”

Signal will be premiered as part of the upcoming Paradise Cultural Foundation exhibition in South Korea, Seoul between the 20th to the 29th of May 2022. Here he invites members of the public to immerse themselves in the entire extraordinary process of making music from living yeast.

“Signal consists of three components – the installation, the object, and the music,” says Hwang.

“The installation transports viewers into the world of yeast cells, inviting them to imagine what such a place might sound like and how biology might be used in music in the future. An obelisk in the center of the installation houses an object that resembles both a petri dish and a vinyl record. Off-white yeast colonies can be found inside the object, and above them – on the object’s top surface – are a series of lathed grooves that relay audio signals.

“What you are hearing is the result of dozens of ‘bio-digital instruments’ and represents the music component of the project. These compositions have sampled, processed, and manipulated the sounds of yeast cells contained within the object to create recognizable yet unfamiliar sounds from an entirely new sound source.”

Mikael Hwang is a neuroscientist-turned-artist from Seoul, South Korea. With a decade of scientific laboratory research and a passion for music and art, Hwang has been exploring the intersection of biology, sound and music by producing compositions that incorporate biological sources.  Hwang’s brand Psients was created with the purpose of liberating scientific knowledge and research techniques from institutions by distilling and democratizing them through his artworks.

In 2020, Hwang saw that the pandemic had a positive impact on air pollution and was motivated to create an audio-visual exhibition of 18 compositions made from the sound of air pollution in Korea. The exhibition turned air pollution data from Korea into an audio-visual maze by linking different pollution levels to different sounds. High pollution was represented as shrill minor keys while low pollution had a rounder, major tone profile. Now, his latest project is underway.

Psients, Mikael Hwang’s premium brand, is a music production label that produces compositions sampling living organisms. Psients embodies Hwang’s scientific knowledge and artistic passions, showcasing techno and ambient genres rooted in the sounds of biology. 

The goal is to perform music alongside a new class of instruments – living instruments – to meditate on agency, speciesism, and what it means to be alive. Hwang’s love of electronic music courses through the sounds and rhythms of everything Psients produces. This work is being shared with the world, accessible to all on Spotify and Soundcloud.

Press Contact: Grig Richters, Public Relations Representative, 

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