Arts, Science & Culture Profile: Molecular Movement

What does it feel like to be a molecule? Through collaborative experiments, improvisational movement and crowd-sourced dynamics, Molecular Movement, which received a 2015–16 Arts, Science & Culture Graduate Collaboration Grant, brings together artist Andrew Bearnot (MFA candidate, Visual Art, UChicago) and chemists Ken Ellis-Guardiola (PhD candidate, Chemistry, UChicago) and Jeff Montgomery (PhD student, Chemistry, UChicago) to explore the notion of molecular dynamics on both a macro and micro scale.

In order to give us a look into their dynamic collaborative exchanges, we asked Andrew, Jeff and Ken to play a game, akin to “telephone." Sending an image, text or other prompt to each grantee, the replies were shuttled back and forth from one to the next, building a series of "chain reactions."

The responses are collected below along with answers to some interview questions, giving us a window into their working process. Catch up with Molecular Movement on Instagram and Facebook as the project develops in the coming months.

AS&C: What launched Molecular Movement?

Brownian motion.gif

Ken: A cat's tongue grooming her fur can be thought of as a particle being driven through a sea of smaller particles (individual hairs). Some macroscopic manifestations of Brownian-type motion

(this is Newspaper the cat, by the way).

Ken: Molecular Movement is a confluence of ideas that originated in multiple minds. Jeff and I had been kicking around this idea of building molecular models with magnets and sticky things to crudely mimic microscopic forces. Historically, chemists developed their intuition for molecular systems by building models from materials. We thought maybe we could take it a step further and add elements to parameterize their motion. People have been doing this for years with computational models, but there is something so fundamental about the tactility of the experience that is lost when the model is digitized and projected onto a screen. Physicality and scale, that's I think the core of what we found exciting about the idea.
Ken: Luckily, we met Andrew, and he had been mulling this idea of using ensembles of human bodies as vessels for exploring and simulating physical rules. He helped us break away from the fixation on constructing a model, instead bringing the focus on the universal idea that molecules, put simply, are just groups of moving things governed by rules.
Jeff: Yes – Ken and I talk a lot about molecular weirdness that happens when proteins move around – rare or spontaneous events that likely have important implications for life, technology, or biomedical applications.

Jeff: ...but generally its about consequences of Brownian Motion/random walks:
in molecular motion, markets or many facets of life, near-infinite outcomes can result from simple rules, often without obvious trends. Here we see several random walk results. Like flipping a coin, 1:1 is expected (i.e. 0 overall). However, when we check at an arbitrary point, that's often not the case.

Ken: Murmurations of birds are pretty awesome examples of molecular movement. All of the birds seem to do a thing collectively, but besides some distance rules (the birds should be adjacent to other birds) and direction rules (all directions except backward), it doesn't seem like any one of them is deciding the shape they're going to make...

(David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images)


(Allan Kaprow, Yard, 1961)


From Large Scale Pedestrian Tracking, Aniket Bera and Dinesh Manocha; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ken: I decided to pull all of the paths and classify them by length (top to bottom). They ended up looking like microscopic images of chromosomes...

Andrew: The undulating, calligraphic marks of a Brice Marden painting suggest overlapping and interwoven paths of motion. One imagines Marden's hand, eye, and brush moving across the surface of the painting: following, crossing, twisting, branching, finding the edge and turning back inward...

ASCI_Andrew_chain reactions_3.png

Brice Marden, Study for the Muses (Hydra Version) 1991-95/1997 oil on linen, 83 x 135 inches Private Collection © 2006 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

Jeff: Proteins are dynamic assemblies in which context-dependent information encodes spatial and temporal variation. Here we see the back-and-forth transition of a protein molecule from disorder to order. An ensemble, or large number of the same molecule, is populated by different portions inhabiting various snapshots along this transition.

Protein dynamics


A harmonious choir;

A head-to-toe outfit;

Protein chains in varying states of folding.

The ensemble is a collection of parts, considered as a whole:

A population of elements that may be indifferent, coordinate, or conflict with one another.

When considering the ensemble, it may be useful to think in terms of symmetry, randomness, stability, sociality, empathy, and subjectivity.

Faculty advisor Catherine Sullivan articulates that her "medium is ensemble."

Andrew: For me, the initial seeds of Molecular Movement were sown in my undergraduate quantum chemistry class at Brown University, taught by Professor Richard Stratt, where we derived the Schrödinger equation for the rigid rotor. Alongside the mathematical derivation and drawings of orbital geometry, Professor Stratt used his arms to model the motion between molecules. I was fascinated by the way in which a simple body gesture could capture a complex, quantum mechanical principle, and be read intuitively without complex formalism.
My background in materials science and traditional craft processes predisposes me to think about the material world in both abstract and concrete ways. In my studio I’ve been working with performativity and ritual in relation to the sculptural problem of calibration. I met Ken and Jeff at an Arts, Science & Culture Initiative event at the beginning of the year, and was impressed by their deep knowledge, creativity, openness, and man-buns!

AS&C: Can you tell us a bit about your activities to date?

Andrew: We have been developing a basic grammar of movements from which to constitute more complex configurations. Our workshops consist of a series of “simulations” (dance sequences) where we agree on a set of movement parameters (score) and then each “particle” (participant) moves spontaneously in response, for a set duration.

Ken: We've been steadily building up a repertoire of footage of different experiments: lots of yoga balls, "field spectroscopy" of movement groups on campus, colliding human particles...
Jeff: We have staged or participated in about a half dozen movement-centric events so far. These have ranged from explicit production of human-sized simulations of particles to finding and recreating the fundamentals of matter and energy within existing modes of dance and movement.
Andrew: We run each simulation many times, slightly adjusting the variables (including boundary conditions, initial state, etc). We video document these simulations, and have been reformulating them in an art film format. We are also building our ensemble of particles in the hopes of mounting a giant molecular flash mob!




(Marcel Duchamp, Mile of String, 1942)

Jeff:The stabilizing effects of interacting amino acid residues in a protein of this particular archeon help it live happily at a balmy 100°C.

(Figure 9 from: Yip, et al. 1995. The structure of Pyrococcus furiosus glutamate dehydrogenase reveals a key role for ion-pair networks in maintaining enzyme stability at extreme temperatures. Structure. 3: 1147-1158.)

Andrew: In molecular dynamics (MD), physical structure and interactions of the atomic world are modeled by computer simulation. As an analytic methodology MD is extremely powerful, but limited by the computational power required to run the simulation and by cumulative errors in numerical integration. Thoughtful selection of algorithms and parameters to define the model, and comparison with empirical results, is essential in making such models useful.

We propose that the body is a calculator - and embodied cognition an essential epistemic source. Our experiments with scoring the movement of human bodies functions in parallel with molecular dynamics, proposing new sources of awareness and insight.

AS&C: Have there been any unexpected development as the project has taken on a life of its own?

Jeff: I for one have been thinking differently about how molecules in my experiments must be moving around.

We have also had some fruitful discussions about the relatedness of the lab and studio environments. Just the other day, while showing Andrew some instruments, he was delighted by the way they moved, something I had never paid attention to.
Andrew: Many. Uncertainty is perhaps the defining feature of quantum mechanics, and we embrace spontaneity, play, and provisionality in this work. We consider our participants to be simultaneously performer, audience, and collaborator. The project has a variety of goals and roughly constituted as: artistic research, scientific research, education and outreach. We are constantly negotiating these different perspectives.
Ken: And this project is much more logistically challenging than I think we anticipated. Wrangling up our human particles, getting the movement accessories in one place, establishing spaces for our simulations, reserving and moving film equipment--all of these take a ton of planning. Thanks to the social media experience of our Jeff, though, we've been able to sustain a stream of goofy gifs and inspiring pictures that we hope will motivate our followers to get inside our experiment space and move (with rules!).
AS&C: What's next for Molecular Movement and how can we get involved?
Ken: Lately, we've been doing a lot of planning and deliberation, scoping out materials for our next costumes and preparing for some of our more ambitious simulations. We've got some really cool ideas that I think are going to play out beautifully on film.

Ken: Become a particle and spread the word! We have a presence online, so we're easy to follow: Instagram and Facebook! Our experiments are great ways to meet scientists and artists and to interact with them in ways you probably haven't before. Who knows, maybe you'll make like atoms and bond!
(Jeff: And I'm currently going around lab capturing instrument dynamics for our Instagram. It's honestly pretty hypnotic.)

Andrew Bearnot (MFA candidate, Visual Art, UChicago) received an Sc.B. in Materials Engineering from Brown University and BFA in Glass from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). He was awarded fellowships from both Fulbright and the American-Scandinavian Foundation to research Scandinavian glassmaking traditions in Sweden and Denmark.

Ken Ellis-Guardiola (PhD student, Chemistry, UChicago) is working on producing artificial metalloenzymes while at the University of Chicago. He received a B.S. Chemistry from Carleton College and has been awarded a University of Chicago Seymour Goodwin Fellowship (2015) and the SciFinder Future Leader in Chemistry (2015).

Jeff Montgomery (PhD student, Chemistry, UChicago) works on novel peptide synthesis and design as well as proteomics at the University of Chicago, and received a B.S. in Biochemistry and B.A.s in Chemistry and Biology from the University of Chicago.

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