Painting Energies Podcast

Painting Energies is a podcast about light, colour, plants, microbes, and electrical energy. Eleven conversations with invited guests explore their relations, and our relations to them, through dialogue across science, technology, art, and philosophy.
Logo of the Paintint Energies Podcast showing overlapping abstract shapes that resemble paint patches on a painter's color palette.

The topics of the conversations emerge from a transdisciplinary artscience research process that took place at Aalto University since 2017 and led to the creation of a unique solar panel painting. In the artwork, plant-based colorants hand-painted on glass convert light to electricity while interpreting the colours and patterns of an iconic painting by J.M.W. Turner. In the process of making and thinking, we came across many observations and questions that we wish to share with you through moments of focus and joyful reflection.

We recommend first watching the 15 min documentary film or reading the article below. The film and the article tell the story of creating the artwork and the artscience journey that led to it. The episode #0 further introduces the podcast and the hosts.

The podcast is hosted by Janne Halme (physicist) and Bartaku (artist researcher).

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Planting an aronia plant next to a big rock in Otaniemi, a shovel standing stuck on the ground next to the plant
re-Planting Baroa b. From Aizpute Aronia m. Plantation as #1 of the becoming OtaBaroa DSTRBTD Plantation, Espoo (FI) Date: 26 April 2016 at 17:58 Location: 60 deg 11' 0.55" N, 24 deg 50' 4.62" E Photo by: Bartaku Device: Iphone 5s 

#9 Planting empathy - with Janet Laurence

In this episode, we talked to the Australian installation artist Janet Laurence. Janne met her when he was a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Janet's practice focuses on creating immersive experiences that bring people into an intimate relationship with nature. She is known for her work with plants, which not only highlights their beauty but also their fragility and the need for care and empathy to protect the environment. Her work is diverse, spanning from large-scale installations in forests and ecosystems, to sculptures, and even video and sound pieces. Entangled Garden for Plant Memory, Yu-Hsiu Museum, Taiwan (2020), After Nature, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia (2019), and Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef, Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France (2015) are recent examples of her work and exhibitions that relate to our conversation.

Janet tells about her way of working with scientists and researchers, and about her art installations consisting of samples from the vast animal and plant collections of natural history museums. We discuss the controversial feelings they evoke at the border between life and death, preserved but lost. Janne wonders if living nature itself is, to sapiens, like a natural history museum: a collection of increasingly rare species preserved at the brink of extinction. 

Janet and Bartaku share their views on the role of art: could it be conceived as a powerful tool for behavioral change? This leads us to compare the different approaches by scientists and artists in presenting work and questioning: one obsessed in finding answers and solutions, the other avoiding them at all cost; the art of enquiry.

We end the conversation with Janet telling about her upcoming work with researchers of the Antarctic, spells for weather, and the plants in her new garden. 

More about Janet: https://www.janetlaurence.com/. Selected works relating to our conversation: Natural history, Deep Breathing, Plants, gardens, and landscapes. Exhibitions. Interview by Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia (2020).

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James Evans reading scientific paper in a chemistry lab in purple glowing light
James Evans re-enacting Pyoverdine purification protocol paper reading. Biofilia, Aalto University, 21 May 2019. Photo: Bartaku

#8 Cross-disciplinary biotopes - with James Evans

What are the ingredients for a successful cross-disciplinary collaboration? We think one of them is an evolving biotope where playful experimentations and collisions across research fields are actively encouraged and supported. And you also need persons that act as catalysts and linking agents. Like James Evans, our guest in this episode.  

James is a microbiologist and lab manager at Aalto University – first at Biofilia, Lab for Biological Arts and now at Biogarage.  Before, he worked at Biokeskus, University of Helsinki, and at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.  

We discuss the role of dynamic cross-disciplinary lab environments in a knowledge institute. How are they combining art, design, science, and engineering in research and education? How is James actively guiding the intertwining of these differing worlds? How do transversal collaborations start and evolve? 

In the conversation, James outlines the requirements for a creative collaborative (work)flow and environment involving experts and students. Transdisciplinary research is done also elsewhere, but James says that “here in Aalto, the jumps [across the discipline borders] are much longer, and people are much more open to doing this kind of thing here. I think that’s very important for this type of work. I can’t imagine any other circumstance where you can get real artistic production done in a functional academic lab.” 

Staff members like James are well positioned to connect previously separate practices and disciplines. They receive project and experimentation requests from students from science, art, design, and architecture, separately or in groups, and facilitate workshops or contribute to those hosted by experts. This way, they often have to make a new brew from existing procedures from different disciplines, often with the unorthodox use of tools and materials. Open creative labs and their lab managers are key nodes of evolving creativity. 

Our conversation goes through roughly four chapters:   

  • 0:00- Art-science Biolab at Aalto University
  • 24:10- Example of research: Purifying microbial colour in the context of artistic use of solar energy  
  • 33:35- The enigmatic pH: its role in viruses and in the applying of biocolour; Defining life/non-life/synthetic life. 
  • 44:35- What are the qualities of a good cross-disciplinary biotope?

Mentioned in the episode:

Crispr gene editing workshop by Bioartsociety and Aalto ARTS:  

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Looking at the JMW Turner's `Snow Storm´ (reprint) illuminated by the energy from Blck Vlvt soalr panel painting based upon it. Photo by Anne Kinnunen.
Looking at the JMW Turner's `Snow Storm´ (reprint) illuminated by the energy from the Blck Vlvt solar panel painting based upon it. Photo by Anne Kinnunen.

#7 Seeing at the limit of extreme darkness - with Petri Ala-Laurila

In its first public exhibition, we connected `Blck Vlvt´ with a blue wire to an LED in a dark room. There, it faintly lit up a small part of a canvas print of JMW Turner's `Snow Storm …´– the painting that `Blck Vlvt´ interprets. Viewing it in that dim light, visitors reported visual sensations that interested us in learning more about how human vision works in the dark. This question belongs to the research field of Petri Ala-Laurila, who joined us for a lively conversation about the fascinating topic.

Petri is an Associate Professor in Biophysics at the Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering at Aalto University and the University of Helsinki (Ala-Laurila Lab). In this episode, we seek to understand what happens physiologically in the eye-brain system and cognition-wise in the human mind when that human is experiencing an artwork. How does sapiens' vision work in the limit of extreme darkness – a phenomenon familiar to all by experience but mysterious to science? Is it possible to see a single photon? What is the dimmest shadow we can see? How is the eye doing visual computations, being part of the brain? How do hormones, emotions, and other senses affect what we see?

Petri leads us to the path of the neural signals from the retina to the brain and cognition and a riverbank in Lapland where he goes fly-fishing for salmon every year. We hear about his visions for making good and bold science, practicing open scientific collaboration, working across disciplines, and the immersive moments of measuring neural signals of the live retina alone in a dark lab.

The first part of the conversation deals with the neurophysiology of vision, and from 54:25 on, we move to the overarching topics and personal reflections.

More about Petri: Ala-Laurila Lab, at University of Helsinki, at Aalto University. Video about Ala-Laurila lab following his Academy of Finland Award for Scientific Courage.

Papers mentioned in the episode:

  • Schwartz, G., Harris, R., Shrom, D., & Berry, M. J. (2007). Detection and prediction of periodic patterns by the retina. Nature neuroscience, 10(5), 552-554. (pdf)

  • Baylor, D. A., Lamb, T. D., & Yau, K. W. (1979). Responses of retinal rods to single photons. The Journal of physiology, 288(1), 613-634. (pdf)

  • Hecht, S., Shlaer, S., & Pirenne, M. H. (1942). Energy, quanta, and vision. The Journal of general physiology, 25(6), 819-840. (pdf)

  • Aho, A. C., Donner, K., Hydén, C., Larsen, L. O., & Reuter, T. (1988). Low retinal noise in animals with low body temperature allows high visual sensitivity. Nature, 334(6180), 348-350. (pdf)

Linnunradan laidalla (the song by Eppu Normaali Janne mentioned). Photos of the first solar cells made by Janne (speaking about the immersion in the craft of science).

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Cameras standing on sticks in grassy field - an art installation
“BaBe Take - Awaiting the Flowers”. 12 smema and lomo cameras on custom monopods. (Aronia m.) Baroa belaobara power plantation, Aizpute (Latvia) – May 15, 2015 Photo: Bartaku

#6 Old stubborn tensions: the work(ings) and the about(ings) - with Alexandra Wettlaufer

In this episode, our guest is Professor of French and Comparative Literature Alexandra K. Wettlaufer (University of Texas and Austin, College of Liberal Arts). She specializes in 19th-century literature, visual arts, culture, and gender studies and has written various books on these topics*. It is in particular her paper `The Sublime Rivalry of Word and Image: Turner and Ruskin Revisited´ that ignited our conversation. Alexandra explains how Turner was trying to reproduce the experience of seeing and feeling, rather than reproducing the topography or an image. He was very much about what was not there. That we have to add to it our own imagination to bring it closer to the way we experience the world. Through his paintings, like Snowstorm…, Turner and many contemporaries wanted to translate a feeling into a certain context. Not to show what was there, but to evoke a feeling in the viewer. A shift away from the Cartesian ideas of knowledge, to Locke and the idea of experience. In the first half of the 20th Century that was an important shift in the aesthetic and scientific language and ethos.  

So, what the artists wanted to do was to find a way to evoke or invoke in the reader or viewer an experience that is at once individual and universal. Baudelaire said about one of Delacroix‘ paintings that you can stand so far away that you can’t see what the painting is representing. But you still understand it because the colours are giving you the feeling. Alexandra thinks that is exactly what Turner is doing in his paintings that are not highly representative. This tension between the artwork and the use of language in and around it is still very contemporary, an ever-spinning thread in many art_science, art communication, and curatorial practices.  

Alexandra stresses the importance of how art represents and disrupts hegemonic forces and powers. She likes disrupters like Turner, who wanted to make us see in different ways. As did women artists, as did Baudelaire. It is Innovation, it is the movement against what is expected. It looks like a mess. We learn to see, that is the other thing, seeing is learned, and it is a discipline. Janne adds that it is similar in science: there is accepted science, and then you have those who are crazy enough to think and do entirely differently, against the rules. 

* References in the conversation  

Wettlaufer, Alexandra K. "The sublime rivalry of word and image: Turner and Ruskin revisited." Victorian Literature and Culture 28.1 (2000): 149-169.

Derrida, Jacques, and Avital Ronell. "The law of genre." Critical inquiry 7.1 (1980): 55-81.

Campagna, Federico. Technic and magic: The reconstruction of reality. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. 

More about Alexandra: https://experts.utexas.edu/alexandra_wettlaufer  

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bacterial bone china
Bacterial pigment from Baroa b. root encapsulated in glass petri dish, sealed with bone china disk. Photo by Baroataku Art_Research

#5 Electrical cable bacteria - with Robin Bonné

In this episode, we meet physicist Robin Bonné. In his Ph.D. research, Robin tried to combine the fundamentals of physics with living creatures. They are called micro-organisms, but they don’t look very micro – once Robin saw them with his naked eye. They are filamentous bacteria, with a lot of interdependent cells all in one chain, up to seven centimeters long, growing from the Earth's surface down into the soil where they find their main food, hydrogen sulfide.

They are called cable bacteria since they became of interest to scientists in 2012. Since their discovery on the coasts of Denmark, these bacteria are found in many sediments around the world, ranging from seawater biotopes to lakes and maybe even the pond in your local park.

The cable bacteria have an ability that is quite unknown in nature: they have cells that do only half of the metabolic processes. Some cells do one half, others the other half and the halves are connected by conduction of electrons. It was presumed that the cable-like bacterium can conduct electrons from one cell to another, from the oxygen-poor bottom part where electrons are taken from the food, up to the top cells where electrons are needed, passed on to oxygen.

In 2017, Robin and collaborators found that cable bacteria indeed conduct electricity. This electron transport takes place in the centimeter range, which is three orders of magnitude longer than was known before (in Geobacter nanowires). Robin did research into how this electron transport occurs. The cable bacteria have tiny conductive wires just underneath their surface. What they are made of – proteins perhaps – is unknown, and this question is the holy grail in that research field now.

How are cable bacteria like plants, connecting the world above ground to the world below ground and signaling between them? And do they also have a relation to sunlight like plants do? Could they be used as electrical conductors in our painted solar cells? Trying to understand cable bacteria requires many disciplines: physics, chemistry, biology; engineering. Our conversation with Robin embraces these fields and tiptoes also into the philosophy of science and the use of bacteria in wastewater treatment and bioelectronics.

Robin's research profile, and activity on LinkedIn.

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Fluorescence photograph of hand-painted dye solar cell
Fluorescence photograph of a hand-painted Blck Vlvt solar cell. Photo by Tytti Kärki (2020).

#4 Between art and science - with Laure-Emmanuelle Perret-Aebi

In this episode you hear scientist Laure-Emmanuelle Perret-Aebi in conversation with Janne and Bartaku. Trained as a theoretical chemist she turned to applied science working for EPFL and CSEM (Switzerland) in the field of photovoltaics. As such, she contributed to the Solar Impulse project (Bertrand Picard) and to improving the aesthetics of solar panels for building integration ”so that people would start to love it too”.

To further connect with society, she founded Compáz, a collective of scientific and artistic skills, and an incubator of ideas that assist social progress and question big ideas about society. Compáz has made creative PV projects like photo-integrated solar panels, that have been exhibited worldwide.

We talk about installing solar energy technology in an urban context vs in a landscape (desert); the difference between industrial and architectural PV where the aesthetics are more important than efficiency, the tensions that this brings about, and the new vocabulary, skills, and education required, to increase the chances on successful dialogue in a multidisciplinary context.

Laure shares her views about the role of technology in the context of the big challenges of these times: the problems are quite well defined, but solutions are not. ”Technology is only part of the solution. New models for the economy, the way of living together, … but also art, music, and photography are part of the solution.”

We identify the need to determine problems together with younger generations, and the importance of re-acknowledging that humankind is part of nature – the way how the SARS‑CoV‑2 virus situation is being handled illustrates the issue, separating it from the climate crisis, whereas both are linked. If and how the underlying worldviews are communicated to the audiences.  And the challenges in artscience projects.

Laure encourages the listers to find their own way in career path(ing), and for daring (also risking) to venture away from the artificial separations between the common professional disciplines – intricately interwoven in existence/reality as they are in the end.  "You don't need to fit into a group. You can be between, that's fine. Just make your own place."

About Laure and her LMNT Consultancy. About Compáz.

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Aronia m. leaves in the spring
Aronia m. leaves in spring light. Photo by Janne Halme (2018).

#3 Sunlit leaves - with Matthew Robson

In this episode, we spend a sunny afternoon in Viikki Arboretum with Dr. Matthew Robson. Matthew is teaching and studying plant ecophysiology at the Viikki Plant Science Centre. His research group studies how plants respond to changes in the spectral composition of radiation, in particular in the forest understorey.

Our wonderful walk through the sunlit, bird-filled forest takes us from one biotope to another, and our conversation from the molecular to the global scale.

Matthew tells us about the fascinating ways plants respond to the constantly varying light conditions under the forest canopy using their molecular “light antennas”. How do plants pick up the illumination signals from the environment and use them as cues for physiological responses – do they have a clock and a notebook in their leaves? What other functions do various pigments in the leaves of the plants have? And why the leaves at the top of the canopy are thicker than the ones on the lower parts?

Moving to the global scale, we discuss how cloud formation as part of climate change might impact photosynthesis in forest canopies. How do plants respond to the fast changes in the environment in the short term and over the generations? Why some plants are chosen by humans and bred to be protected from climate change?

Matthew also tells us about possible ways to improve photosynthesis of crop plants as part of carbon capture efforts – and responds to the solar physicist who mistakenly calls leaves inefficient. What do solar cells and leaves have in common, and why are they still far from being leaf-like? Is it worth trying to reproduce nature?

Adding the human perspective, we discuss among many things how scientists in Matthew's field speak about colours, which turns out to be an ongoing spectral debate. With the shadows of the trees growing longer, we end the walk learning how dead leaves are colorfully alive.

Learn more about Matthew's research in his blog.

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Aronia m. dye-painted titanium dioxide photoelectode glass for the Blck Vlvt solar panel, cell B6, undergoing the excess dye removal step.
Cleaning Aronia m. dye-painted TiO2 nanoparticle canvas B6 ready for solar cell assembly for the Blck Vlvt solar panel. Photo by Janne Halme (2020).

#2 Colour - with Sini Vihma

In this episode, we meet visual artist Sini Vihma. Sini teaches theory and practice in colour and perception in the Transdisciplinary Art Studies (TAITE), in the Department of Art in Aalto University, with a focus on contemporary art, particularly painting. She is a board member of the Finnish Colour Association.

Our conversation with Sini meanders through many aspects of human color perception from the technical and scientific to the biological, physiological, and psychological as well as philosophical. What is colour brightness, lightness, contrast, gamut, saturation, and hue? How do the properties of the light, the object and its surroundings, and the viewer affect the colour perception? How does Sini teach these topics?

We ponder do humans remember colors well. And how can('t) an artist ensure that her colors look the same in a gallery as they did in her studio. Janne learns about the concept of local color and how people differ in their sensitivity to see it; Sini is amazed about the Blck Vlvt solar cell painting technique.

Sini tells how she became a painter and a teacher and how her relationship with colour developed over the years; Bartaku talks about his present-in-the-moment when painting the cells, and his corresponding approach to artscience practice overall - his intention to create biotopes where beautiful coincides can happen.

More about Sini and her works in her online gallery and Aalto profile.

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A researcher taking electrical measurements from the dye-sensitizd solar cell artwork
Testing electrical performance of Aronia m. dye painted glass solar cells. Photo by Janne Halme (2020).

#1 Dye-sensitized solar cells - with Anders Hagfeldt

In this episode, our guest is Professor Anders Hagfeldt. Anders is considered one of the world’s leading researchers in dye-sensitized solar cells. By developing new synthetic dyes and electrolyte reduction-oxidation pairs and studying their function at the molecular scale, his research teams have significantly improved the efficiency of dye solar cells and the understanding of how they work. He is currently Vice-Chancellor of Uppsala University and Professor of Physical Chemistry.

In 2005 Janne worked as a visiting doctoral student in Anders's research group at KTH in Stockholm, where he learned the craft of making and measuring dye solar cells better. In the episode, we hear what made Anders interested in photoelectrochemistry and become a Ph.D. student, and how he learned to build dye solar cells at EPFL in Switzerland under Michael Grätzel and Brian O’Regan in 1990 - at the time of their breakthrough discovery of the modern dye-sensitized solar cell.

We discuss why natural dyes are less durable than synthetic dyes and how the solar cell protects them from degradation by light. We share stories about how inspiring and rewarding it is to make solar cells with your own hands and discuss how scientific breakthroughs are most often made, what accidental discoveries he and his team have made, and where the dye-sensitized solar cell technology stands today. Among many other things, we ponder why combining scientific and artistic careers is difficult, how the creativity of young researchers can best be supported, and how research and improvisation music are alike.

More about the guest: Prof. Anders Hagfelt / Uppsala University

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Screenshot of a smartphone app measuring the color coordinates of the Sun in the sky (RGB: 255 255 255, CMYK 0 0 0 0, "White", "Bright White").
The Colour of the Sun is not Round.  Photo by Bartaku (ColorAssist app; Baroa b. plantation, Latvia, 2016 ).

#0 Introducing - with Janne Halme and Bartaku

In this episode, the hosts Janne Halme and Bartaku introduce themselves and the podcast. They tell about the co-creation process that led to the podcast, and exchange thoughts, wishes, and expectations about the forthcoming episodes.

Bartaku tells how he got the inspiration for working with the plant Aronia melanocarpa, why he calls it Baroa Belaobara and the berryapple, and how its connection to the iconic painting by JMW Turner emerged. We hear about the poetic aspects that pulled Bartaku to work with the plant and how the Aamo artsience group formed.

Janne tells how he started working on dye-sensitized solar cells, what motivated him to study them as a physicist, and how he learned the craft of making and measuring the cells. In the conversation, Janne asks Bartaku how he felt about working with the more technological version of the solar cell, and Bartaku asks Janne how his colleagues have perceived his collaboration with an artist.

The hosts anticipate some of the topics for the forthcoming episodes, including the notion of `bio´ solar cell, the use of plant-based colorants in the solar cell, the function of the human visual system, and the perception of colours. In a broader perspective, they wish to converse with their guests on the poetic, aesthetic and bioethical aspects of technology, and the institutional and administrative conditions required for successful art-science collaboration.

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Janne Halme

University Lecturer
Department of Applied Physics


This podcast was made possible with support from Aalto University: Aalto Online Learning, the Diversity and Inclusivity Fund of the School of Science, and Materials Platform.

The podcast was created and produced by Janne Halme and Bartaku. Special thanks to Tomi Kauppinen and Henni Kervinen. Graphic design: Mari Kaakkola. Sound engineering: Oskari Martimo.

Related exhibition

The podcast was released at the art exhibition Towardless: Plant-based Electrical and Art Energy on September 10, 2021. The exhibition showed the Blck Vlvt solar panel painting, photo prints of solar cells from Halme's and Bartaku's research archives, and a temporary installation made of solar e-waste. See and learn about artworks in the virtual exhibition:

Blck Vlvt soalr panel painting detail

Towardless: Plant-based Electrical and Art Energy (virtual exhibition)

Solar cells and research material that originate from art_craft, art_science, and scientific investigations, and the questioning of light, energy, bodies, and matter - including the first hand-painted solar panel.

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