In order to overcome dichotomies that usually impoverish the debates and the proposals on the Media Art field, this research is based on an object of analysis related to its very materiality: the sensing phenomena. It studies sensitive materials and devices, specifically the photosensitive ones. Organic and machinic sensors are on spot, whose ambiguous nature of being a concept and a device at the same time is a key element to feed a transdisciplinary discussion. Sensors enable us to bridge the physical and conceptual worlds. While creating a genealogy of the sensing phenomena related to the Art field, the research analyses the sensing phenomena in relation to two main operations: the translation of materialities, and the role it plays in the automatization and regulation of systems. The methodology has a historical and analytical approach, through Media Archaeology, Cultural Techniques and Second-order Cybernetics. It reviews and inquires the traditional and established paradigms of Media Theory, structuring a thought which integrates thinking and doing aspects of Media Art production, towards a “material philosophy” or a “philosophical engineering”. For that, a practical project is developed as part of the investigation’s method, an aesthetic experiment called “Self-portrait of an absence”.

Media Art, materiality of communication, sensing phenomena



The main purpose of the research is to develop a critical approach to contemporary Media Art production, in which artists constantly offer us conceptual and/or technically very hermetic proposals, reflecting also an historical and cultural constructed gap between theory and practice in creative processes. An expression of this distance is a statement by Edmond Couchot, a renowned author and critic of the field. In the book Media Art Histories, he states:

With digital images, a radically different automatization mode appears. Let’s not forget that digital images have two fundamental characteristics that distinguish them from the images mentioned earlier[from photography to television]: they are the result of an automatic calculation made by a computer. There is no longer any relation or direct contact with reality. Thus the image-making processes are no longer physical (material or energy related), but ‘virtual’ “(Couchot, 2006, pp. 182-3).

When Couchot says that “the image-making processes are no longer physical (material or energy related)” he ignores all the existent materialities that his limited human senses cannot perceive.  It is maybe a result of the separation between the world of thinkers and the world of the makers. Facing this situation, emerges the question of what would be an interesting and effective entrance to inquire such kind of misinformation that only reinforces the gap between conceptualization and hands-on, and therefore allow me to produce a significant material for media art community, contributing for makers and thinkers to visit each others world’s. Materials and devices related to the sensing phenomena showed up to be a promising vector for the investigation.

Sensing phenomena: Some definitions

Before articulating sensitive elements and the Media Art field, it is important to have some definitions as starting point. Let us consider that the sensing world is divided into natural and man-made sensors, as classified by Jacob Fraden:

On the one hand “The natural sensors, like those found in living organisms, usually respond with signals, having an electro-chemical character; that is, their physical nature is based on ion transport, like in the nerve fibers” (Fraden 01).

On the other hand, “in man-made devices, information is also transmitted and processed in electrical form – however, through the transport of electrons. Sensors that are used in artificial systems must speak the same language of as the devices with which they are interfaced” (Fraden 01-02).

Moreover “The purpose of a sensor is to respond to some kind of an input physical property (stimulus) and convert it into an electrical signal which is compatible with electronic circuits. We may say that a sensor is a translator of a generally nonelectrical value into an electrical value” (Fraden 02).

This technical definition using the idea of translation is in consonance with the idea that sensors are elements that enable the translation of materialities, topic to be further discussed. The argument is that they play an essential role in Media Art and in its simultaneous effects of presence and meaning production, towards Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s concept of materiality of communication.

Since there is the huge variety of sensitive materials and sensors existing, in the scope of this research, it was opted to focus on the photosensitive ones.

Photosensitive elements and media

Starting by the natural sensors, we can mention the sight sense of plants, phenomena that has already been used in some artworks. Plants cannot properly ‘see’ like a human does, but it is essential to their lives the sensitivity they present to light. Besides their photosynthesis ability, sensors placed in the tip of plants stem, for instance, allow them to notice the direction of light, triggering the growing process towards light source (phototropism). Another sight sense is located in the plant leaves and manages the flowering process, which is influenced by the amount of red light or by the length of the night (photoperiodism). The phytochrome of the plant leaves measures the red light and takes over the role of a light activated switch. Depending on the kind of red light the flowering process is turned on or off.

Another interesting example of natural sensing phenomena is called Quorum Sensing. In most cases it consists of a system of stimulae and response correlated to population density. Quorum sensing is used by several species of bacteria to coordinate gene expression according to the density of their local population. Similarly, some social insects use quorum sensing to determine where to nest. It can be understood as a sensor in a social scale and can function as a decision-making process in any decentralized system.

Bacteria that use quorum sensing produce and secrete certain signaling molecules (called autoinducers or pheromones). They also have a receptor that can specifically detect the signaling molecule (inducer). When the inducer binds the receptor, it activates transcription of certain genes, including those for inducer synthesis.

Quorum sensing was first observed in a bioluminescent bacterium that lives symbiotically in the photophore (or light-producing organ) of a Hawaiian bobtail squid. When the bacteria’s cells are free-living, the autoinducer is at low concentration, and, thus, cells do not luminesce. However, when they are highly concentrated in the photophore, transcription of luciferase is induced, leading to bioluminescence. In addition to its function in biological systems, quorum sensing has several useful applications for computing and robotics.

An example closer to our physical reality is the human eye, usually understood and modeled in anatomy and physiology books as a metaphor of a camera. Playing the role of film or a CCD, the photosensitive cells of our eyes are located in the retina: they are rod and cone cells. Located on the outer edges of the retina, rods are responsible for the reception of small intensity light and for peripheral view. Cones are further classified into 3 kinds of cells, each type responding to visible light of different wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum. Long cones respond to light of long wavelengths, peaking at the color red; medium cones peak the color green; and short cones are most sensitive to wavelength of the color blue. According to Kittler, it is very much possible that, the development of color images in Media technology – the RGB system – became only possible after the understanding of such cells in our eyes. He states:
In a similar way, the construction of images on television corresponds to the structure of the retina itself, which is like a mosaic of rods and cones; rods enable the perception of movement, while cones enable the perception of color, and together they demonstrate what is called luminance and chrominance on color television”(Kittler 36).

First, technology and the body: the naked thesis, to place it immediately up front, would read as follows: we knew nothing about our senses until media provided models and metaphors” (Kittler 34).

These are only some examples that show how the understanding of the natural world and human ability for building machines are mutually influenced. As the sensing phenomena can not be isolated observed, it is part of the research processes to identify and analyze the operations related to it, specially regarding expression on the fields of media and art. For the occasion of the workshop, the operation that I would like to focus is the sensor’s role in the idea of translation of materialities.

Translation of materialities

The photophone is an example that illustrates sensors in their interface functionality: the translation of materialities.

Coincidentally, the photophone is an invention whose origin is based on the discovery of new chemical elements in nature, specifically the Selenium, a photosensitive element. The photophone was a telecommunications device which allowed for the transmission of speech on a beam of light. It was invented jointly by Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter in 1880, at Bell’s Laboratory. It worked through the exchange of two parts: transmitter and receiver. The receiver was a parabolic mirror with selenium cells at its focal point. One can say this device is a precursor of optic fiber technology.

When sensitive materials are associated to electronics and digital processes, the creative possibilities of human beings are refreshed. When Vilém Flusser discusses about the zero dimensionality of digital media this means that those media offer us the possibility of gathering all materialites in a lowest common denominator and, in second step, transform them in other possible materialities, playing around the flux between the abstract and the concrete worlds. In other words, this aspect of digital media drives us to translation issues, once they theoretically allow us to translate anything into anything.

The media art scene is also translating data and materialities the whole time. And it is quite often that we see artworks whose translations are meaningless or not powerful enough to trigger conversations on audience and contribute to the emergence of new knowledge. What kind of translation has been done? Why are we so obsessed about translating?

The Italian humanist Leonardo Bruni was probably one of the first modern thinkers to write a scientific treatise about the issue of ‘translation’ in the fifteenth century. Later on the twentieth century many other theoreticians discussed the topic, such as Croce and Rosenweig, Benjamin (“The task of the translator”) and Steiner (“After Babel”). The interest of those thinkers in the topic is a sign that the importance of translation reaches beyond the language domain, to encompass ontological and philosophical territories. Moreover, it is not by chance that the concept is also used in Molecular Biology and Genetics, calling translation the process in which cellular ribosomes create proteins. Such a broad spectrum of uses leads us to understand translation as playing out in the middle space between one reality and another.

A significant artwork concerning this definition is “Genesis”(1999) by the Brazilian based in USA artist Eduardo Kac. The key element of the work is a synthetic gene that was created by Kac translating a sentence from the biblical book Genesis into Morse Code, and converting Morse Code into DNA base pairs. The “Genesis gene” was inserted into a bacteria and the audience on the internet could turn on an ultra-violet light in the exhibition space, causing real biological mutations in the living organism, which was at the end retranslated into the Genesis book.

On the one hand this artwork is an example that demonstrates radically what translations can be and its implications, whereas on the other hand, it is very good at constructing the metaphors of the most current “problems” on translations also outside of the art word: ambiguity, noise, and subjectivity. As long as each ‘reality’ or ‘system’ has its own structure, it is absolutely impossible to find exact correspondences in both universes. That also explains the difficulties in translating poetry.

Overcoming the obsession of precise analogy, the French philosopher Paul Ricouer states that despite our excessive desire for translation, it is impossible to find parameters to identify what is a successful translation, able to reveal the same issues from different universes while retaining their specific logic and structures.

Self-portrait of an absence

Using the eye as the closest reference of photosensitive element, a practical part of the research is planned, a project being called until now by “Self-portrait of an absence”. The project consists of an eye-tracking device attached to the blind eye of the researcher, programmed to generate sound landscapes. It exercises a flusserian dialogue, sharing an absence and translating, beyond light into sound, an intimate characteristic into a universal experience. It is related to Wolfgang Sützl’s inquiries specially concerning the fact that “Where everything must be exchangeable, the concept of loss has no meaning”. Beyond the commercial use of biodata, the project grasps symbolic and aesthetic levels of relationships between body and technology.

Mixing the inputs of the conceptual framework and the practical experiment, the aim is to discover why do we translate and how this human inherent desire extent to materialities and contributes to overcome the pre-established dichotomies between nature and culture, especially reflected in the Media Art scene.



Couchot, Edmond. “The automatization of figurative techniques: towards the autonomous image”. In: Grau, Oliver. (Ed.) Media Art Histories. London, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2007.

Flusser. Vilém. Universo das imagens técnicas: elogio da superficialidade. São Paulo: Annablumme, 2008. 

Fraden, Jacob. Handbook of Modern Sensors: Physics, Designs and Applications. New York, Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 2004.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. Production of presence: What meaning cannot convey. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Kittler, Friedrich. Optical media: Berlin Lectures 1999. Translated by Anthony Enns. Cambridge, UK/Malden, USA: Polity Press, 2010. (first published in German as Optische Medien / Berliner Vorlesung 1999. Merve Verlag Berlin, 2002).

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