This story is over 5 years old.


Charles Lindsay, SETI's Artist-in-Residence, Illuminates Nature's Uncanny Places

Lindsay's latest work, powered by waves of LED set to the sound of a quantum computer, is somewhere between what science calls "the emergent" and the unknown.
Images: Charles Lindsay

Late one night last week, at a small corner gallery on the western edge of New York's Canal Street, luminous and amorphous forms crept across a complex of LED surfaces. Spread across the triangular space, the LED screens functioned like an invisible, looping video conveyor belt, its images swirling in and out of existence, depending upon how close you stood to the screens. Its lights brightened and dimmed like waves, while ambient sounds emanated from a synthesizer placed in the middle of the room, balancing the moment somewhere between the natural and the hallucinatory.

Or to Charles Lindsay, artist-in-residence at the SETI Institute, it sat somewhere between what science classifies as "the emergent" and the unknown.


With his new piece, CARBON IV, made up of some sixteen minutes of looping imagery, it's difficult to say what exactly the source material is amid the sparkling, warped pulses of light and dark. On the walls of the gallery, which doubles as an industry showroom called the LED LAB, the image appears simultaneously elemental and interstellar. Is that a tree ring or the giant spot of Jupiter? In some sense, it's like a techno-Rorschach test. Staring into it, it brought to mind the robot speaking on Air's 10,000 Hz Legend album: "How does it make you feel?"

A man stands before one of Charles Lindsay's CARBON visuals. Image: Charles Lindsay

I put the question to Lindsay.

"The CARBON works continue to surprise me, appearing both microscopic and astronomically vast—images of complex things which I’ve never seen appear as though they were captured from an alternate time and place," the artist told me.

"Here is the archeological memory of an invented world: the fossilized remnants of my process. I'm harnessing the language of scientific photography to suggest things that are not yet known. This is ambiguous territory in the best possible sense."

Lindsay suggests that his CARBON works "offer proof for everything or nothing, simultaneously, in hyper-resolution." It's a great conceit, and one that should be experienced in an immersive installation, not mediated through the internet. Lindsay willingly, even gleefully, suspends his disbelief, and asks his audience to do the same in asking, "What is it?"


"Here is the archeological memory of an invented world: the fossilized remnants of my process."

"Through the process I’m investigating pattern recognition, the evolution of symbols, the nature or reality," he said, and noted that his aesthetics and editorial choices are influenced by real world observations of things like bioluminescent sea creatures, geologic formations and nanotechnology.

"I’m excited by those moments when we’re not sure what we’re looking at, whether it’s in a microscope, a rainforest, or at an art gallery. It’s what we don’t know that I find most intriguing."

The backside of LED LAB's LED screens during Carbon IV installation. Image: Charles Lindsay

Lindsay is careful to maintain the mystery, but push a little, and he'll riff on the technical processes at the heart of CARBON IV.

"It seems like photography got flipped," he said. "The CARBON IV work begins with an emulsion on a negative, and ends up as moving plasma, an image returned to light. An extruded reality."

He makes his negatives by applying a unique carbon-based emulsion to a transparent base, a process he began developing in 2000. "The active fluid is manipulated in many ways—it may be frozen, electrified or exposed to infrared light," he said. "I encourage accidents, so the attrition rate is high."

The emulsion's actual carbon component is distinctly different from and finer than traditional silver-based photographic chemistry. Lindsay scans the analog negatives in fantastically high resolution. This, he insisted, is a critical point in the process.


"This resulting digital 'information' has been presented in many ways as the work has evolved, from transparency based light panels, pigment prints, one of a kind books, dye sublimation prints up to 60-feet in length, to video in planetarium formats," he added. "I'm now working with these LED 'walls.'"

Two Carbon IV screens at LED LAB exhibition. Image: Charles Lindsay

Lindsay said that four high resolution CARBON imageswere mapped to virtual cylinders in a CAD program. The cylinders were then stretched and set to slowly turn, becoming, as Lindsay put it, "virtual objects several buildings larger than the exhibition space." He credited LED LAB Creative Director John Frattalone for pulling the installation off.

"The content appeared when and where the cylinders intersected the LED walls in the space," he said. "The stretching of the cylinders added an element of distortion that was to us very strange and satisfying—a classic example of the happy accident, encountering something not predicted. In electronic music (another of his passions), we love the many flavors of distortion. That aesthetic has very definitely permeated my visual sensibilities."

While the visuals of CARBON IV dominate the senses, the sonic space is just as important to Lindsay. He's been into audio field recording since his early twenties, starting with ethnographic work and branching out from there. The field recording impulse has taken him to Costa Rica to record rainforest life in "surround sound," and to the NASA Ames facility in California to record the hum of the D-Wave quantum computer.

Charles Lindsay's modular synthesizer rig at Carbon IV. Image: Charles Lindsay​

"If I can bring the viewer through that door, from an outer reality into something else, then the possibilities get really interesting."

"[But], it was the advent of digital sound manipulation that catapulted me into the velvet black hole that sound design offers," he said. "Seeking a way to extend the immersive potential that CARBON offers is what led me in."

At the LED LAB show, Lindsay presented a number of audio sources, including samples from the D-Wave.

"I love modular synthesis, the unpredictable surprises, the textures and wackiness," he said of his heavily-cabled Eurorack modular synthesizer. "My rig is populated by a lot of SNAZZY FX's modules. I'm part of the company, which is essentially Dan Snazelle, a wonderful genius, inventor and musician. We share an approach that says 'let's build these things and see what happens.'"

As with the CARBON visuals, he's working with sound as the ultimate delivery mechanism for ideas. "What semi-random alignment of sounds transports us, and what spatial attributes break the reality we walked into the room with?" he mused.

"For CARBON IV, I was running a quad set-up with the speakers pointed out at cardinal directions. Focused sound is something I'm working with, too, where the speakers target the viewers based on individual eye position and point of focus. But that's another evolving story."

Charles Lindsay recording the D-Wave quantum computer at NASA Ames. Image: Charles Lindsay

"I'm attempting to make the work visceral, looking for ways to skew our perception of scale, to envelop viewers in the sensations and ideas that these works potentially offer," Lindsay said. "If I can bring the viewer through that door, from an outer reality into something else, then the possibilities get really interesting." The environment, he noted, facilitates "amazing conversations" between viewers, allowing them to think about "the possibilities inherent in art."

What Lindsay achieves with Carbon IV is something like a fusion of inner and outer space. One a psychedelic or meditational experience, the other, universal and boundless. It's as perfect a blend of art, science, and technology as you're likely to see—or be enveloped by.