Chimera States: Synchronicity exhibition at EPFL, Switzerland

Robin Meier Wiratunga, André Gwerder, Guy Amichay
Curated by Anna Wirz-Justice, Marilyne Andersen, Sarah Kenderdine and Giulia Bini
Produced by EPFL Pavilions and Audemars Piguet Art Commission
Editing: Mariko Montpetit. Camera: Nikolai Zheludovich. Sound: Robin Meier Wiratunga
Scientific support: Anchana Thancharoen and Guy Amichay

Inspired by a Steven Strogatz’s SYNC, I conducted an experiment in 2015 to synchronise live fireflies with LEDs in a mangrove forest in Thailand. This resulted in a film and an exhibition at Art Basel that same year. In turn, a team of mathematicians in Chicago, motivated by this science-inspired artwork, invited me to join them on their research trip to Thailand in 2022, to revisit the same firefly colonies and study, once again, their mysterious synchronising behaviour.

Interestingly, the mathematical models used so far to model and simulate the fireflies hypnotic displays didn’t quite capture the complexities observed in our footage. So Guy Amichay, Danny Abrams and their collaborators analysed our footage and are now in the process of capturing new spatial data of synchronising fireflies. This will allow them to create new mathematical models, that fit more closely to the behaviour seen in the field. One of these newly described synching behaviours is called a Chimera State.

New recordings and many discussions about biology, mathematics, art and aesthetics led to a new series of works: photographic prints, a 16mm film, ultrasound recordings and this new multichannel video: Chimera States, shown at the EPFL Pavilions in Lausanne, Switzerland during the Lighten Up! Exhibition in 2023.

Deconstructing narratives of control and nature-culture divisions, this experiment tries to establish a different kind of communication. Like a brain scan of the mangrove mind, LEDs, computers, and fireflies harmonise as a collective mind to become a new kind of hybrid being.

In a mangrove forest in Thailand live fireflies (Pteroptyx malaccae) align their synchronous flashes with computer-controlled LEDs. By establishing a light-based form of communication with the insects, the artists influence the rhythmic flashing of large colonies of fireflies. A silent orchestra harmonises without the need for a conductor. With no central control, computers and insects interact in this rhythmic composition of light.

Light is one of the main drivers for circadian rhythms and chronobiology. Nocturnal fireflies use their bioluminescent signal to communicate and create collective displays to attract mates. The underlying mechanisms that give rise to the synchronous patterns found in nature are still largely unknown. Understanding such self-organising processes can be applied to many domains: from cardiac arrhythmia treatment to efficient coordination of computer networks.

trailer for the original, 2015 film