June 22, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Camilla Arvidsson
20th November 2021

Located on the Thames and across from St Paul’s Cathedral, Tate Modern has always been one of my favourite locations in London. Aside from the beautiful modern and contemporary art on display, what I love most about this museum is its architecture. Previously a power station, Tate Modern has the commodity most sought after in London: free space. This is made most obvious by the Turbine Hall: a 3,400 square meter of floorspace frequently used to display specially commissioned installation artworks. The most recent is Anicka Yi’s In love with the word, which you can see until the 16th January 2022.  

Entering from the Turbine Hall’s west entrance, at first one may not notice the balloon-like objects floating about halfway up the hall. However, as you slowly descend along the hall’s ramp, one begins to see, hear, and smell Anicka Yi’s In love with the world. A Korean American artist, Anicka Yi is known for her art installations that combine fragrance, cuisine, and science – which is exactly what her latest and most ambitious project contained.   

In love with the world prompts us to think about new ways machines can co-exist and inhabit the world with us. Yi explores the theme by creating two different balloon-like floating-shaped machines named ‘aerobes’ that hover and slowly move up and down, back, and forth across a unique path generated by autonomous versions of uncrewed aerial vehicles. Alongside these ‘aerobes’, this exhibition also includes an element of the scent known as ‘scentscapes’ that throughout its run transition from week to week. The various scents dispensed in the immense hall (which were even felt from the hall’s upper footbridge!) associate with a specific time in the history of Tate’s bankside location: marine scents related to the Precambrian period, coal and ozone that were collected in the Machine Age of the 20th century, vegetation from the Cretaceous period, and spices used to counteract the Black Death in the 14th century.   

As you come closer to the floating ‘aerobes’, of which one kind have five tentacles that open and close, a slight mechanical hum and sporadic beeping noise can be heard. Occasionally, standing still looking up at them resulted in one of these ‘aerobes’ approaching from above. Responding to the heat signatures of people, coupled with electronic sensors placed around the hall, the aerobes never got too close- always maintaining a few meters distance both between us and themselves. But that didn’t completely eliminate a slight uneasy feeling that is often felt when any larger than oneself object approaches. That said, the longer I found myself standing underneath the aerobes, watching their paths never colliding, the more I started to feel increasingly relaxed. So much so that at one point I sat down just to watch, and I was not the only one.   

“I want one in my house” I heard a young woman say at one point to a group of her friends as they stood admiring Yi’s work. But given the feat of aeronautics and physics involved in enabling these ‘aerobes’ to float around freely, unfortunately, it seems unlikely such a feat would be impossible.   

At first, watching these aerobes independently fly around the Turbine Hall while smelling the scent of some distance past seemed strange, but as time went by, I quickly became accustomed to their presence. They minded their own business as I minded mine, making me question if, in a not-so-far future, humans can, if not have to, learn to live with machines as artificial intelligence (AI) continues to rapidly develop.   

Through her work, Yi asks us to reflect on difficult concepts that unite humans with technology. Could AI learn through the sense? Could they develop their own experiences of the world? And, ultimately, could machines become independent from humans? Such questions make us re-imagine machine life and at present, there are no definitive answers. But this does not stop Yi from continuing to explore the merging of technology and biology in her art. And when asked about her structures, Yi simply replies, “I sculpt the air”.   

The beauty of art, and specifically the art displayed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, is that it is sure to always be spectacular. So, I urge you all to revel in the privilege that admittance is free and go fall in love with Tate Modern before the exhibition ends.  

Camilla Arvidsson is Radio Producer for I,Science Radio and is currently completing her Masters in Science Communication here at Imperial College London. She enjoys exploring London in her spare time, including visiting just some of the museums the city has to offer