In a room full of flickering lights and the staticky sounds of interference, "Photonic Wind" stands out as staggeringly beautiful. It sits off by itself, an orb about a foot in diameter that glows deep purple-blue with a thin ribbon of sparkles extending through the middle.
You could take "Photonic Wind" at face value, but then you'd miss all the brainy, fascinating science behind it and its host, Transmission/Frequency: Tesla and His Legacy, opening Thursday at Colorado College's I.D.E.A. Space. One part science museum, one part history lesson and one part art show, Transmission is very much a learning experience.
In "Photonic Wind," created by Dmitry Gelfand and Evelina Domnitch, that orb is actually a vacuum chamber; the blue light, a colored laser beam that slowly moves about in its mount below the chamber; the sparkles, diamond dust. Put most simply, their work is the result of an actual physical event, photophoresis: Thanks to the magnetic and electric properties of light, the diamond dust sprinkled on the floor of the globe lifts when a laser passes beneath it.
Much of Transmission is devoted to Nikola Tesla's turn-of-the-20th-century stay in Colorado Springs (including a real Tesla coil, in action on an accompanying screen). Even if his studies didn't encompass all the occurrences and theories referenced in the show — discovery of photophoresis, for instance, is usually credited to Austria's Felix Ehrenhaft in the 1920s — the famous engineer did lay groundwork for later discovery in several of them.
Transmission verbiage makes a point to explain what's going on with all seven pieces, some of which are highly interactive — they change as you touch them, or as your body enters their fields. But without a background in the nitty-gritty of physics, it's easy to leave scratching your head.
Luckily, there's the beauty part, which takes no great understanding to appreciate. Take David Fodel's installation, "Incoherence," based on Schumann resonances.
Schumanns — again, most simply — start with a bolt of lightning that discharges waves into the closed space between the Earth's surface and its surrounding ionosphere. The waves bounce about and peter out, registering at extremely low frequencies in the Earth's electromagnetic field spectrum.
"This is the sound of the pulse of the Earth," Fodel says. "We're bathed in these frequencies."
Fodel has converted the resonances into audible and visual forms, projecting soft images of endless peaks and valleys on a gallery wall and in a womb-like side room that groans with the sounds of energy coursing though the Earth.
Ultimately, the effect is very thoughtful. Tesla had his share of flawed ideas, but in notions of grander cosmic arrangements, he seems to have found order, and a place, in the chaos. Take this passage he wrote 99 years ago for the New York American: "Every living being is an engine geared to the wheelwork of the universe. ... [T]he sphere of external influence extends to infinite distance."