[ISEA2014] Paper: Cynthia-Beth Rubin – Sensing Science: The Microscopic Environment as Subject


The primary public space of our world is the universal space of environmental waters, home to the unseen microscopic life that provides the most elemental life on the food chain. Urban space, all space, depends on the hidden qualities of the water, the activities of the micro‑organisms that are the pulse of the ocean.

Bringing awareness of this hidden life to the urban setting, where layers of culture intertwine with the visible environment but rarely with the invisible, is one of the imperatives of our time. The challenge is how do we engage the public in a narrative that includes a true artistic dialogue?

As an artist who spent decades focusing on the imagined memories and sensations of past times and cultures, I took a similar approach to biologic imagery. One enters a space and imagines: what are the aesthetics, what are the sensations of the space? If we could truly enter the microscopic world of the waters, if we floated with the plankton, what would we see, not in the literal sense of a photograph, but in the more visceral sense: what color associations, what textures, what movement, would prompt humans to feel the space of the plankton?

Augmented Reality can prompt this dialogue of mixed realities. Imagery derived from a forest and pond, beckons the viewer to closer examination with a mobile device, which, like a magnifying glass, reveals the movements of microscopic life swimming in the murky waters.

The enticement to reflect on the shared space of our world took a different form in the ultimate public space of one of the world’s busiest cities, where a video of related imagery was played on a large video screen above New York City’s famous Cotton Club. Thus this presentation will include a reflection on the importance of scale.

  • Cynthia-Beth Rubin, Rhode Island School of Design, US, is a new media artist working in still imagery, video and interactivity. Trained as a painter, she began working in digital imagery in 1984, before the days of easy scanning and digital photography. While still enmeshed in the thinking of abstract expressionism, her search for new influences led her first to Islamic Art and eventually to Hebrew and then Christian manuscripts and the historic sense of place. Recently, this sense of place has led to an exploration of the hidden microscopic life in our waters and she became an honorary artist in residence in the Menden‑Deuer lab of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.

Full text (PDF) p. 443-444