Carbon — An exhibition at Science Gallery Bengaluru

Sindhu M

The exhibition Carbon, by Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB) blurs the lines between science and art, while challenges perspectives about Carbon. The exhibition is on display at SGB from January to June 2024. Sindhu M, a PhD researcher at Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, shares her experience of visiting this newly opened exhibition.

Carbon SGB title image
Carbon-black photograph of Bengaluru skies printed with ink collected from Bengaluru air. Photo Credits: Science Gallery Bengaluru

Use coal, save trees”; A new life to six lakh coal miners”- read the advertisement of Coal India from the year 1976, displayed at Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB). This decades-old message is at odds with modern understanding of sustainability and begs the question — how might future generations judge today’s energy claims and policies? Ahalya Acharya, Communications Manager of SGB, says,

This exhibition aims to make people think about Carbon. While Carbon is dismissed as a villain in today’s discourse, we aim to provide an all-round view of the element.

The Science Gallery is a network of seven science galleries scattered across continents, where science and arts collide to spark curiosity and engage the public with science. The latest Carbon themed exhibition of SGB features 36 exhibits that combine the arts, science and humanities, along with fun games, activities and workshops. Accompanying the exhibits are mediators who interact with visitors, facilitate dialogue and share insights about the exhibition. The mediators receive training directly from the scientists and artists behind the exhibits’ conception and creation. The exhibits engage visitors through all five senses — from the dramatic sight of a Monobloc chair being engulfed by fungi to the distinct smell of whale vomit, the rough texture of charcoal contrasting with the smooth silk cocoons (nanocarbon cocoon exhibit), and the sounds of mineworkers’ songs and whale calls.

An advertisement of coal India from the 1970’s advocating the use of coal. Photo credits: Sindhu M
An advertisement of Coal India from the 1970’s advocating the use of coal. Photo credits: Sindhu M (showcased at SGB)

Human and whale songs

The whistles, clicks and rumbles of whale sounds from the depths of the ocean in the exhibit Whale Falls Carbon Sink’, give a sense of belonging to the great whales that live thousands of metres below the sea. The digital collage in the exhibit also chronicles whaling in the late 1800’s that decimated many species of whales. Besides being large long-living animals that can store carbon in their bodies, whales also usher in nutrients to nutrient-poor breeding grounds from nutrient-rich feeding grounds. Even in their death, they enrich marine sediments as their carcasses sink to the depths of the seafloor. 

In contrast to sounds from the ocean, a different song rises from the depth of coal mines — the mineworkers singing their desires and sorrows hundreds of metres below the surface. The exhibit The mineworkers’ song’ was kept inside a cage in Exhibit hall‑3, symbolising canaries and other animals that were released into mines to estimate carbon monoxide levels. If the animals and birds made it out alive, the mine was deemed safe for humans to enter. Surrounded by pictures from an abandoned coal power plant, the century-old Jharia coal mine fire, images of coal miners, and the tools of their trade, the exhibit transports visitors to the sooty, dark and black world of mining. The exhibit also included a basket of charcoal — which was coarse to touch and left black smudges on visitors’ hands bringing them closer to the experience of coal miners. 

Carbon skies and nanocarbon silk

The coarse feel of charcoal was a stark contrast to the silky feel of cocoons in the exhibit The nanocarbon cocoon by NoPo nanotechnologies’. The exhibit was a live experiment of silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves coated with a solution of nanocarbon; this system produceS silk that was stronger than normal silk. A week later, the silkworms had vanished and all that remained were the cocoons. 

Besides touch and sound, the exhibits also appeal to the sense of sight. Carbon particles are all around us, but too tiny for us to see and take notice. To make carbon particles around us visible, research-based artist Anais Tondeur walked around cities in different parts of the world wearing a mask that filters carbon black particles. The carbon particles collected were used to make ink, which was then turned into photographs of the sky, in the exhibit Carbon Black’.

Ana Laura Cantera, a biomaterials developer and creator, took a different approach in her exhibit Territorial inhalations’. She attached a fungal filter and fan to a backpack and walked around different cities. The fan sucks in the air and the filter changes colour with accumulating particulate matter. 

The exhibit ‘Jeevanu’ on display at Science Gallery Bengaluru. Photo Credits: Science Gallery Bengaluru
The exhibit Jeevanu’ on display at Science Gallery Bengaluru. Photo Credits: Science Gallery Bengaluru

Visitor experiences

The Jeevanu exhibit is a running live experiment by the group of Shashi Thutupalli, professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru. This exhibit of SGB’s exhibition CARBON was placed for display from August to October 2023 at Indiranagar Metro Station in Bengaluru city. The experiment is an attempt to recreate Krishna Bahadur and S. Ranganayaki’s 1950s attempt to create life from non-living matter. In its early years, the earth was an ocean of chemicals and salts exposed to extreme temperatures, severe lightning and day-light cycles, that supported many chemical reactions. To mimic this, Bahadur and Ranganayaki exposed abiotic soups containing ammonia, phosphates and other minerals to sunlight and observed the formation of small spherical structures, that they named Jeevanu’. Jeevanu may hold crucial clues to unlock the mystery behind the origin of life on earth. 

Does all life contain carbon? ”, asked the mediator at the Jeevanu’ exhibit. But we haven’t seen life that could be out in space!”, pointed out a 10-year-old. 

’Clouds-above, Clouds Below’ was my favourite exhibit at SGB because it made me aware how events considered inconsequential such as oversubscribing to different websites also contribute to carbon emissions”, says Sankar Mahesh, a visitor at the SGB exhibition and a PhD student at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. While vehicles and industrial activities are widely recognised as major contributors to carbon-driven global warming, other less obvious culprits include the energy-intensive operations of supercomputers and data servers. Interestingly, the exhibit explores the impact of cloud services on cloud formation in the atmosphere. As cloud servers produce more heat, clouds get shifted higher up in the atmosphere. As clouds get shifted higher up, signal transmission becomes more energy-expensive, causing cloud servers to produce more heat. This in turn causes clouds to shift up further, and the vicious cycle continues. 

Carbon and way ahead

SGB also offers innovative solutions to fight the energy crisis of humanity — working with nature instead of against it. The exhibit Aerocene backpack’ features a backpack containing an inflatable balloon that can rise up when the air inside the balloon becomes hotter than the air outside. With just an open space of land and the backpack assembled, one can cover a short runway and take flight. The Aerocene app calculates routes to reach different places based on the prevailing wind conditions. 

Another approach to combat our energy crisis widely promoted by governments is to use lithium-powered vehicles. Lithium extraction itself is unsustainable long-term, often displacing local communities for mining operations. Communities affected by lithium mining have been using the Aerocene backpacks to raise awareness of the unsustainability of using lithium as an alternative energy source. 

SGB also has other fun activities such as the Supernova game, the Carbon-city zero’ board game by Sam Illingworth and stick models to build the different forms of carbon. 

There are exciting talks and workshops lined up as part of the exhibition and Science Gallery Bengaluru is open to the public till June 2024, free of cost. 

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