Right Turn: Rock star in a Petri dish

Author: Alanna Evans, 07/15/16

You could say Guy Ben-Ary is a rock-n-roll Renaissance man.

In his 9-to-5 life, he’s manager of CellCentral, Australia’s first integrated histology and biological imaging lab. And in the hours that remain, he’s an artist drawing inspiration from his day job.

Most recently, his scientific and creative pursuits were put to the test when he was awarded the Creative Australia Fellowship and tasked with creating a “truly 21st century self-portrait” that could take “self portraiture into the 25th century.”

So, essentially creating what a selfie might look like in 2416.

In devising this futuristic self-portrait, Ben-Ary decided to weave biological and robotic arts with tissue engineering and stem cell research (using his own stem cells) to create the world’s first neural synthesizer.

As you’d imagine, building a neural synthesizer from scratch sounds as difficult as it likely was for Ben-Ary. First he cultivated skin cells from a biopsy taken from his arm. With induced pluripotent stem cell technology, he reprogrammed the skin cells into stem cells. He then transformed these cells into neural stem cells. From there, he created his neural synthesizer – aptly named “cellF” – a device with a “brain” and “body” that work together to create music.

The “brain” exists in a Petri dish containing neural networks from Ben-Ary’s derived cells. The “body” is an arrangement of analogue modular synthesizers (low-cost, old-school keyboards) that can broadcast the neuron’s responses to electrical stimulation into sound. Together this brain and body can play with human musicians to create unique musical riffs.

Ben-Ary explains it a bit better on his website: “With cellF, the musician and musical instrument become one entity to create a cybernetic musician, a rock star in a Petri dish.”

Creating this cybernetic musician took four years of dedicated research, collaboration and a few “happy accidents,” Ben-Ary writes. The premier of cellF happened on October 4, 2015 at Masonic Hall in Perth, West Australia.

If you missed the premier, now’s your chance to listen to the first live performance between cellF and Darren Moore, an experimental drummer and sound artist from Tokyo. As you listen to the sounds, it’s fascinating to realize the scientific reaction that’s taking place.

Moore’s music is “fed” into the neurons as electrical stimulations, and the neurons respond by controlling the synthesizer to create “an improvised post-human sound piece,” writes Ben-Ary.

Listening to cellF makes you question the relationship between musician and instrument – and the role stem cells can play in personalizing something as broad as sound.

But it’s the playful idea behind cellF that really strikes a cord.

“CellF was inspired by an ultimately narcissistic desire to re-embody myself,” writes Ben-Ary. “When thinking about what kind of body I would give myself… I decided to portray one of my adolescent dreams – to be a rock star.”

Let’s hope he makes the Billboard Hot 100 Chart soon.

Our regular feature, Right Turn, appears every Friday and we invite you to submit your own blog to info(at)ccrm.ca. We encourage you to be creative and use the right (!) side of your brain. We dare you to make us laugh! Right Turn features cartoons, photos, videos and other content to amuse, educate and encourage discussion.

As always, we welcome your feedback in the comment section.

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Alanna Evans

Alanna Evans

Alanna Evans is a multimedia journalist and communications professional, with experience producing health and features stories for the leading women’s magazines in England and Canada.
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