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Fish magic

A laptop computer, a custom-developed Java server, some XML, and a pond full of fish. The makings of a cringe-worthy joke from a geeky comedian? Think again.

Something fishy.
Julie Freeman

What do you get when you combine a custom-developed Java server, a laptop computer, some Flash software and a little XML with 16 fish?

Well, if you're Julie Freeman--and you throw in a few hydrophones, a handful of bioacoustic tags and a smattering of other esoteric high-tech doodads--you get art.

For a piece called "The Lake," the UK-based Freeman, whose work has been featured at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, inserted the LED-size tags into the chosen carp, tench and rudd and released the soon-to-be-artistic fish into the eponymous pond.

The tags and hydrophones, gear normally used to research fish behavior at places such as dams and shipping locks, let Freeman track the fishes' position and translate their movements--with the help of Java, XML and Flash--into sounds, shapes and colors.

The result? A continuously changing musical piece composed by the swimming fish, and a similarly created, ever-evolving work of abstract visual art, both accessible at a lakeside venue (Freeman says an online version is in the works).

According to the artist's website for the project, "each fish within a species has a bank of (sampled) sounds that are triggered in response to an activity. If the fish swims or rotates--or both--those sounds are played. If it becomes the fastest or slowest swimmer, it plays its fast or slow sound. If the fish becomes popular--i.e., if it is calculated to be the fish surrounded by the most neighbors--or unpopular, it plays one of those sounds."

And the fish are guaranteed some measure of immortality as a reward for cooperating with the muse: "The seventh sound each fish has the ability to play," the site says, "is the death sound."

On the visual side, each fish is represented in a Flash movie by a specially colored marker, which is surrounded by two "auras" that change with the fish's behavior. For example, the most-popular fish gets an inflated outer ego (or aura), and "the least popular one's ego shrinks." Trails and rotation marks also show each fish's movement history over a period of about five minutes, and large colored shapes link fish of the same species.

If screen grabs of this ichthyologcal animation are any indication, it all adds up to something not unlike a shape-shifting version of Kandinsky's graphically striking work.

"People think of technology as this alien thing we have to cope with," Freeman has said. "In fact, it can reveal hidden natural beauties."

Kandinsky compatriot Paul Klee would no doubt approve.

"The Lake," funded by Britain's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, is on view at the Tingrith Fishery in England's Bedfordshire County from July till October. Online version coming soon.

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