For our final project, Jenny Ho (Fine Arts, ‘16) and I submitted “Khitophony,” a cicada-inspired exploration, performance, and art installation of sound through chitin, the second most abundant polymer on Earth.
From insect wings to crustacean shells, chitin has protected organisms on Earth long before humans came into existence. By removing an acetyl group, scientists created chitosan, an industrial form of chitin that is reproducible in labs to create everyday medicinal drugs, agricultural fertilizers, and most recently, biodegradable consumer plastics.
Fascinated by the periodical cicadas — insects with distinct mating calls typical of the American northeast that leave millions of their molten shells every thirteen to seventeen years — Jenny and I wondered about the relationship between chitin as acoustic exoskeleton material and the cicada’s muscular tymbal, and we challenged ourselves to develop instrument and/or installation designs towards that inquiry.
Working in the Department of Biology’s BSL2 teaching Lab, Jenny and I created several chitosan films by following lab procedures. These films would be used as tambourine covers. From an initial glance, chitosan films look like any other thin piece of transparent and partially-rigid plastic. But when water interacts with chitosan, the film gradually breaks down and shrivels into gel. The likeness in look but difference in decomposition between chitosan film and typical plastic became an integral element in our instrument design. It inspired us to incorporate water into our installation, thereby adding a performative element to our installation that would demonstrate this unique property of chitosan.
To make this visible action audible, Jenny and I attached contact microphones to our mini tambourines, which we covered with either chitosan film or plastic parafilm. We placed these tambourines over a garden bed and beneath an overhanging structure from which we poured water through a custom-designed filter. This filter allowed droplets to fall specifically over the tambourine surfaces. The contact mics picked up on these strategic sounds, amplifying the ‘music’ made by our khitophone.
We recieved much-appreciated assistance with the assembly of our garden from Geraldine Lavin, the Biology Department's Greenhouse Technician, and with the ampflied sound components of our installation from Joseph Giampietro, a PennDesign graduate student.