Electric Organ Discharge

conception / realisation:
Frederik De Wilde in collaboration with LAb[au]

year of conception: March 2006
during a work residency of Frederik De Wilde at
Mediaruimte, the platform for digital art of LAb[au]

EOD02 is an installation by Frederik De Wilde created in collaboration with LAb[au]. The project works with low-voltage electric fish that perceive their environment and communicate with each other by emitting electric discharges in the surrounding water and by measuring the resulting electric field. Due to their different electro-sensibility they are classified in two categories: wave-type fish emitting continuous signals and pulse-type fish emitting short and discontinuous discharges.

Since the fish sense simultaneously the variation of direct current phase and tension they are able to identify their species and their mating partners. This differentiation is achieved by the type and the modulation of their discharge. For example, during courtship or fights the males chop up their signals into short electric organ discharges ("EOD's") called 'chirps'. These chirps are the stimulus for the females to spawn. One of the most typical phenomena of these fish is the JAR, 'jamming avoidance response', which describes the behaviour by which a fish shifts the frequency of his EOD in order to avoid disturbance of the signals of other fish or blinding the other. These complex processes establish their electro perception as both an organ to perceive their environment and as a means of communication and social order by the simple use of electricity.

The installation explores the electro sensing of these fish by the means of four taintless mirror aquariums, each presenting a specific school of fish. In each aquarium antennas which are directly connected to four speakers translate the fish's electric discharges into sound. What we hear is the fish's signals; their communications. In addition, under each aquarium a light bulb is placed which pulses according to the intensity of the emitted signals. In this manner the electrical pulses of the fish, their 'vision' of the otherwise 'blind' fish, becomes tangible in the form of light and sound.

Technological progress has given man similar abilities to perceive and communicate by means of electricity and electro-magnetism. Seen from this point of view the fish are the natural predecessor of modern man enhanced with new senses due to technology. Further the translation of the fish's electric discharge in the form of light and sound references the telegraph and the Morse code; themselves traces of the emerging information society based on the coding and decoding of information into immaterial signals. Another example for the beginning of the digital age is the Germans' electromagnetic Enigma machines to encipher and decipher messages for submarine communication. British cryptologists, among whom was Alan Turing, were developing the computer to decipher these codes. At the same moment the Germans were researching electric fish for new ways of submarine communication, which sheds again a particular light on these very special fishes.

Even if we can't yet decode the fish's 'enigma' it reveals the existence of a 'higher' level of an electric sense which determines the vision of space: 'perceptive sense', and the existence of a language and social interaction: 'cognitive sense'. The installation immerses the visitor into electro-sensing, a sound-light installation where the mirroring effect of the aquarium glasses not only reflects one's image within this environment but sets man next to nature by means of advanced technologies.

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