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High Voltage: Artwork from Electricity and Chemistry

Phillip Stearns‘ High Voltage1Philip Stearns is an American artist who creates unique artworks using electricity and chemistry. He names his latest project as High Voltage.

Stearns creates images by zapping Fujifilm instant color film with electricity. But it is not the sparks from the electrical shock that generates the pattern, instead, the light from the sparks contribute to some of the bluish colors in the background of the shots, and the electrical “tree” patterns, technically called Lichtenberg figures found by German Physicist Georg Chrisoph Lichtenberg in 1777, are produced when the electricity vaporizes the silver halides embedded in the film.

Generally, Lichtenberg figures on two-dimensional plane is created by approaching or contact between needle-like subjects that can generate high voltage electricity and insulators. As electricity delivers along the surface of insulators, tree- or fern-shape structures emerge in situ. However, the emerging mechanism of the structures is not clear yet, and it might be possible to explain it with a mathematical model—Diffusion-Limited Aggregation (DLA).

Stearns also adds blooms of chemical color to the compositions by pouring liquids such as vinegar, bleach, hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol onto the film and arcing electricity through them. In this way, Stearns created colorful structures on films. For instance, electrified bleach reacts with dyes to generate some nice yellow and magenta hues.

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Stearns’ artworks from project High Voltage. *Image source: wired.com

Stearns’ process of creating artworks from electricity and chemistry. *Video source: wired.com


Stearns notes that his inspiration came from Hiroshi Sugimoto’s images Lightning Fields, where electricity strikes were captured on black and white photo papers, resulting in lightning-like patterns. However, it was a cache of instant color film found during a dumpster dive that offered the chance to this artistic experiment.

Lightning Fields

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Lightning Fields. *Image source: fraenkelgallery.com


Critics usually gush about a “heart-stopping” piece of art, however, in Stearns’ case, it was nearly a literal statement. When he began to experiment with neon transformer for the first time, he had his hands brushed arced with electricity. He describes: “It was the volts that jolt, and the 15000 volts certainly did, but it was not terribly painful, just sudden. If the current had been larger, my heart could be stopped.” Since then, he has been far more fastidious about not touching the transformer when near grounded metal objects and had his workspace upgraded to a non-conductive one.

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Stearns’ artworks from project High Voltage. *Image source: wired.com


Stearns’ creative concept is to discover beauty from errors. His earlier artworks include turning a blurred monitor screen into a home décor item. He believes that what makes a glitch “glitch” has more to do with cultural and social constructs than with corrupted files, error or malfunction. “Errors are simply the world working according to its own rules, rather than those of some externally imposed system, regardless of how well designed.”

Fragmented Memory

Stearns’ Fragmented Memory. *Image source: phillipstearns.wordpress.com