STEM in Art
Key Idea 3: Waves – Light, Colour and Sound

Artists and scientists have long explored the properties of light, colour and sound. For most of us, each is so much part of our sensory world we often don’t think about them until perhaps they are taken away or intervened with – maybe by an artwork.

Through observation, inquiry and inference artists, scientists and philosophers have struggled to understand how light, colour and sound are created but also how humans perceive and make meaning from various combinations of the three.

How does colour exist? 

What do human’s perceive or see as light?

When does our brain process sound and interpret it as music?

In physics, sound is explained as vibrations. When an object vibrates, it causes the air around to vibrate and so causes sound waves. These waves of energy travel through the air, liquids or solids, before being received by people in our ears, interpreted by the brain where we add meaning and descriptions such as loud or soft, high or low.

Colour and light are inseparable in physics. Colour is caused by light reflecting from objects in specific ways; depending on how the light reflects, it creates a spectrum of light which interacts with cells in our eyes, called photoreceptors. Colour science includes the physics of visible electromagnetic radiation – another way to say light that can be seen by humans. Quantum mechanics also tells us that light acts both as a particle and as a wave. 

While physics works to explain the physical properties of light and sound, the contemporary artists in this section use sound art and installation* to experiment with audiences’ perception and experience. Haroon Mirza creates installations that test the relationship between sound and light waves and electric current, while questioning the difference between noise, sound and music. Fran Barrett’s and Archie Barry’s respective sound environment and audio work draw attention to the physical act of listening.  

*An art installation is a large scale artwork that surrounds and immerses the viewer. It can often be walked through, and may be completed or changed by the environment where it is installed.

  1. Introduction
    1. Haroon Mirza, Step siren, 2019
    2. Frances Barrett, Brain Fuata and Hayley Forward, Worm divination (segmented realities) 2020
    3. Archie Barry, Multiply, 2020
  2. Support Material
  3. For Teachers

Key Artworks

Haroon Mirza, Copy of Pavilion for optimisation 2019 (detail); Stage 2019, installation view, Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Commissioned by ACCA. Courtesy the artist. Photograph: Andrew Curtis

Haroon Mirza
Step siren

crash cymbal, amp, high-fidelity speakers, LED tape, amplifier, stepper motor, fabric cable, compact fluorescent lamp, transistor radio, mixed electronics

Haroon Mirza is a London-based artist who has an expansive art practice and extensive exhibition history. Mirza’s artistic practice is informed and inspired by his formative experiences as a DJ. Several of his works use light and sound to create immersive environments that are reminiscent of darkened, sound-soaked dance floors. He describes himself as a composer, using electricity to disrupt instruments or even transform household electronics and objects to become instruments. 

Mirza frequently collaborates with other practitioners including dancers, musicians and composers. In 2019 Mirza created a new installation, The construction of an act for ACCA as part of his first solo exhibition in Australia. The exhibition (of the same name) responds to the gallery’s unique architecture through a combination of sound, light and sculptural assemblage. The installation operates like a score, drawing upon the musical analogy of the artist as composer and the gallery as an instrument. Mirza’s intention is to engage viewers’ physical, visual and aural perceptions and to blur the boundaries between individual artworks within an immersive space.

The bodily forms of Rahal’s AI characters are generated through a trans-dimensional exchange between the physical and digital realms. The artist’s process involves creating three-dimensional sculptures from discarded and broken items that he scavenges from dumpsters and the roadside, which he then transforms and unifies using expandable foam, paint and artificial furs. These objects are artworks in their own right, but Rahal also uses three-dimensional scanners to capture the forms of the sculptures which he then adapts and animates as AI creatures within his digital compositions. Rahal has said of the free movement and unpredictable interactions of his AI beings that he is interested in the ‘poetry’ that they might generate.

Step siren 2019 revisits earlier works made by Mirza between 2010–13 (such as Siren 2012 – pictured) and reflects the artist’s interest in mixed media sculptural assemblage and an ongoing exploration into the potential of sound as a signal, call or invocation. In this work the artist is combining light and sound in the one artwork.

In Mirza’s 2019 iteration, a rotating compact fluorescent lamp, passing through a hole drilled into a cymbal, interferes with a transistor radio to create a humming sound. The assemblage of objects makes audible the electricity from The National Electricity Market – the electric power transmission network servicing eastern and southern Australian states and territories. This new version of the work includes a digital motor called a stepper motor whose distinct sound is amplified through a speaker.


Activity – Design and Technologies

Sound is produced from a radio in an unconventional way, using light. Everyday objects of a light, a musical instrument (cymbal), a radio and even electricity are transformed and challenged beyond their intended, functional designs.

Students to draw a design proposal using the artist’s concepts, planning construction processes to create a kinetic sculpture or instrument. Materials are limited to found (existing) materials and recycled instruments and considerations for the design proposal include measurements, materials, joining techniques, mechanical systems, hardware and safety considerations.

Haroon Mirza STEM Curriculum link

Frances Barrett, Hayley Forward, Brian Fuata, worm divination (segmented realities) 2020, immersive sound environment, 32:30 mins, installation view, Frances Barrett: Meatus, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2022. Commissioned by ACCA with the support of The Katthy Cavaliere Foundation. Courtesy the artists. Photograph: Andrew Curtis

Frances Barrett, Brian Fuata and Hayley Forward
worm divination (segmented realities)

immersive sound environment
32:30 mins
Audio Engineer: Felix Abrahams
Speaker System: Yamaha DZR10 and DZR12 speakers, with DXS18 subs
Programming: Barco’s IOSONO 3D Spatial Audio Rendering System

Frances Barrett is an artist who lives and works on Kaurna land, Adelaide. Her recent projects pivot around the modalities of listening and touch, taking the form of immersive sound installation, live performances and performances with Museum collections. She works as an artist and curator, across performative and live modes, collaborative models and socially engaged processes. Her practice is informed by queer and feminist methodologies and the histories of performance art practice. Frances Barrett was one of three recipients of The Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship, a commissioning prize for women artists working at the nexus of performance and installation. As part of this prize, her 2022 exhibition Meatus was shown at Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne.

Frances Barrett presented worm divination (segmented realities) as part of her exhibition Frances Barrett: Meatus, a major collaborative exhibition. The title of the exhibition, “meatus” refers to an opening or passage leading to the interior of the body, such as the ear or mouth. It is the juncture between the internal and external, where the body opens itself to the world. The artwork worm divination (segmented realities) is a sound composition based on a series of modulated vocal performances sequenced in segments, drawing on the various art practices of each artist. Practices include performance art, poetry and improvisation, dramaturgy and sound design. The compositional structure replicates the segmented body of a worm, beginning in the mouth moving through to the anus.

At different points throughout the making of the work, each artist took turns to inhabit the role of the worm. As such, the worm can be seen to represent the artists’ conceptual approaches to their mode of collaboration. In a process akin to composting, the artist-worm’s role was to ingest the raw material of text, sound, movement and score, and process it through performance, improvisation and listening – foregrounding the body as a site of knowledge, intimacy and experimentation. The worm then transformed this raw material into compost: collapsing any distinctions between the body and artistic process. 


Activity – Design and Technologies: Design and Production

A series of speakers project sound into a gallery space to produce a sensory exhibition of sound, light and colour. Students experiment with listening and sound production, designing and conducting an experiment to test the quality of sound when performed or heard in differing physical conditions. Tests may involve additions to speakers such as cardboard cones, or larger scale experimentations to intervene with the acoustics in a room.

Frances Barrett: Meatus –  Education Kit (see ‘For Teachers’) for ‘
Drawing Soundscapes’ workshop for Primary, and ‘Mapping Sound’ workshop for Secondary students

Frances Barrett STEM Curriculum links

Archie Barry, Multiply 2020 (production still).

Archie Barry

audio files, digital graphics, online platform

Archie Barry is an interdisciplinary artist currently living and working in Naarm (Melbourne). Their artistic research comprises national and international exhibitions, performances, presentations and workshops, and writing for numerous publications. Their artistic output is informed by lived experience and takes form as an autobiographical, somatic (meaning related to the body) practice, spanning performance, video, musical composition and writing.


Themes of personhood, embodiment, gender and mortality are explored through sustained moments of intense connection with audiences, often utilising uncanny bodily gestures, doubled voices, deformed and reformed language, and the production of multiple digital personas. Archie Barry completed a Masters of Contemporary Art at Victorian College of the Arts (University of Melbourne) in 2017 and a Bachelor of Art Education with First Class Honours at the College of Fine Arts (University of New South Wales) in 2013.

Multiply is an audio artwork produced for the exhibition / digital project, ACCA Open 2020-2021. The work takes the form of five recordings combining spoken word, singing, electronic beats and sound effects. Archie Barry describes the work as a conversation between five different personas who are engaged in discussing ideas of self-determination and interdependence. For ACCA Open, Barry proposed to create an artwork that was audio-based rather than visual. This decision was in response to the increased presence of video-based in day-to-day interactions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Acting as a musical score to imagery that cannot be seen, the specific times and places that Multiply involves are challenging to identify. The intention of this strategy was to position the artwork in pronounced contrast to ocular-based (another word for visual) mediums, to present an alternative to the kinds of information that images offer sighted people. The interweaving stories are derived from embedded sensory impressions collected from places the artist has been and interactions they have had – fractured and rearranged into a five-track score. In this sense, Multiply shares some similarities with collage. Barry observes that very few human experiences are truly orderly or straight-forward, instead our experiences are often disorienting and confusing, and Multiply aims to communicate these effects.

As a sensory excursion, Multiply variously asks the questions: what is human self-determination? How can we reimagine our individual selves as multiple and complex beings? And, what are the political implications of thinking in these ways?


Activity – Design and Technologies

Sounds which Barry has gathered from places they have been and from interactions they have had, have been composed into a 5-track score to produce sense impressions. The work relies on digital technologies for both the production and online publication, allowing complex layers and multiple pathways for the audience to experience the work. Students to explore similar approaches through compiling a series of short recordings from their daily routine, and use digital audio editing software to form their own audio track.

Archie Barry STEM Curriculum link

Support Material

Haroon Mirza – ACCA’s interview with Haroon Mirza on his exhibition, The Construction of an Act


Archie Barry – online artwork Multiply for ACCA Open




For Teachers

Primary activities

Frances Barrett: Meatus, Education Kit – see ‘For Teachers’ for Drawing Soundscapes workshop for Primary


Victorian Curriculum / Visual Arts / Levels F-6

Haroon Mirza STEM link
Frances Barrett STEM link 
Archie Barry STEM link

Curriculum Interpretation

The activities in this STEM Art File are intended to build students’ and teachers’ awareness of the many ways STEM is present in Contemporary Art practices. By enhancing knowledge and creating connections between Art, Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths students deepen their understanding whilst expanding their creativity and critical thinking skills.

Secondary activities

Frances Barrett: Meatus, Education Kit – see ‘For Teachers’ and ‘Mapping Sound’ workshop for Secondary students

Victorian Curriculum / Visual Arts / Levels 7-10

Haroon Mirza STEM links 
Frances Barrett STEM links 
Archie Barry STEM links

Curriculum Interpretation

The activities in this STEM Art File are intended to build students’ and teachers’ awareness of the many ways STEM is present in Contemporary Art practices. By enhancing knowledge and creating connections between Art, Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths students deepen their understanding whilst expanding their creativity and critical thinking skills.

Terms of Use

This education resource has been produced by ACCA Education to provide information and classroom support material for educators. The reproduction and communication of this resource is permitted for educational purposes only.