This protoplasmic vat of fluorescent goo might look like a witch’s cauldron. But Solaris, a project by Russian artist Julia Borovaya, isn’t horror: it’s pure sci-fi. Named after the famous 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris reads the thoughts of whoever is staring into it, then transforms them into Rorschach-style currents swirling through ferromagnetic film.
Designed last year at the Moscow Art & Science Lab, Solaris bears more than a cursory resemblance to its namesake. In Lem’s classic novel, later adapted into a famous 1972 film by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, Earthen scientists discover a sentient gas giant called Solaris, the waves of which are capable of externalizing a person’s thoughts as simulcra of people or places they have known.
Similarly, Borovaya’s Solaris is capable of reading brainwaves. When it’s not being used, the waves of Solaris are still; when observers strap on an Emotiv EEG headset, the surface comes to life, swirling with dark eddies and currents of passions. It works by translating the brainwaves being read by the headset into the motion of an invisible motor, which in turn controls submerged magnets to manipulate the surface film of ferromagnetic fluid glistening on top.
Created with help from chemist/roboticist Edward Rakhmanov, Borovaya says that the name was pointedly chosen, since Solaris helped inspire the project. They set out to create a device which could externalize the thoughts of observers, just like Lem’s sentient planet. “The object only comes to life with human mental contact,” Borovaya tells me. “The movement of the black liquid in the green liquid is unique to each person . . . over time, the object helps to discipline a chaotic flow of thoughts, and becomes a part of the person viewing it.”
It seems that some observers have really taken that to heart. In an accompanying video about the project, several people who tried it for themselves disquietingly argue that Solaris–like the novel’s planet–is alive. That’s demonstrably untrue, but something tells me that Lem himself would have approved. It’s exactly the sort of question about what being alive really means that he was trying to address in his book.