Collisions of Art and Science

Elizabeth Demaray, Corpor Esurit, photo by Dave Gehosky and courtesy of the artist


Sometimes, the combination of art and science creates great art. Other times…well, not so much. We don’t usually think of art creating great science. The reason for that might be that the role of aesthetics (yeah, art) in presenting scientific data is well-masked. In order for scientific data to be believable, the aesthetic decisions about how to present the data are usually obscured. Some artists embark on projects that look a lot like a science experiment, such as a piece recently featured in the New York Times. Brooklyn artist Elizabeth Demaray constructed an ant habitat and presented the ants with a fast food diet. As the article states, she picked a type of ant very unlikely to be able to adapt to a fast food diet. I puzzled over the article… lodged in the “Science” section of the paper. Here is a link to the article, which includes a photograph of the work installed in the gallery. It seemed like bad science to me – and unfair to the ants. (Many of the ants died, unable to adapt to anything but the sesame seeds on the buns and the questionable interiors of chicken nuggets). Is it possible for this experiment to produce useful data? And does it work as a piece of art? Neither question is addressed in the NY Times article. In terms of science, the artist picked the wrong type of ant. But if she wanted to make the point that fast food is bad for humans, as demonstrated by visual evidence that not even ants can live off of it, then one could consider the work successful. I’ll go out on a limb though and say that my opinion is that it is mediocre art in terms of the content and bad science, as well as ethically questionable. Other species of ants could have survived quite well within Demaray’s Corpor Esurit, but the meaning of the piece would have been a bit muddled. The presentation of the work in the gallery looks very visually interesting, at least in these photographs generously provided by the gallery. Take my judgement here with a grain of salt… I’d have to go see the work in person to really have an informed opinion. Maybe some of you in New York can go look at it and report back… (see comments).

Elizabeth Demaray, Corpor Esurit, photo by Dave Gehosky and courtesy of the artist


Demaray’s piece produces data that we are supposed to see with our own eyes. However, another method is to make work based on already existing data that has then been visually interpreted by the artist, unveiling relationships between art and science. According to my limited research, the term for this is “data visualization.” Aaron Koblin, for example, has created artworks based on visual representations of data, such as calls and internet data between New York City and the rest of the world. The emphasis is usually visual, although there are examples of works that translate data into audio forms. Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey collaborated on an audio piece called Bicycle Built for 2000. It’s worth visiting the site and clicking on “more info” for a fuller explanation of that piece. The song “Daisy Bell” was the first piece of digitally synthesized vocal music (1962). You might also remember it as the song that HAL sings in the final moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey. They had over 2000 people record themselves singing a small snippet of the song and then assembled each snippet into overlapping audio data. If you visit the artists’ website, you will note that there is a visual component to the piece, not just the audio file all on its own. I looked online for something about a project done by tree canopy scientist Nalini Nadkarni, but couldn’t find anything about it. I saw her give a talk about her work and she presented a project that she worked on with a musician, in which they transformed tree canopy data into audio representations instead of the more usual graphs, pie charts, etc.


All of this leads me to one of the new works by the artists’ collective Postcommodity, on exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art (MOCNA) in Santa Fe. Postcommodity is a four-person team of artists: Raven Chacon (Navajo), Kade L. Twist (Cherokee), Steven Yazzie (Laguna/Navajo) and Nathan Young (Delaware/Kiowa/Pawnee). Their selection of works in the exhibition (curated by Ryan Rice) is titled “It wasn’t the Dream of the Golden Cities,” a reference to the 400 year anniversary of Santa Fe, and the rumored existence, according to Spanish, of seven cities of gold that lead Spanish conquistadors to the region repeatedly. Friar Marcos de Niza reported glimpsing one of the cities from afar. But when Coronado arrived, there was no gold – only adobe pueblos. After 140 years of violence and abuse by the Spanish and the church, the pueblos revolted against Spanish control and had years of autonomy between 1680-1696. All this is background knowledge that is necessary to understand Postcommodity’s work in this exhibition. The particular piece that I’m writing about in relationship to science, data, and sonification is the multimedia installation piece titled If History Moves at the Speed of its Weapons, then the Shape of the Arrowhead is Changing. This installation is in a room 29′ x 16′ and has 8 monitors mounted on narrow pillars roughly chest-high around the room, plus a hidden subwoofer. Everything in the room is painted with gold paint. Walking down the hall toward the room, you hear a cacophony of sound. Entering the room, you feel it as well. Different tones emit from speakers in different parts of the room. You turn around in the space, trying to separate out these digital tones, to catch where precisely they are coming from. My dad was with me on one of my trips into the room. He absolutely hated the piece and couldn’t leave fast enough. The auditory experience is pretty unpleasant…even more so for someone with tinnitus, like my dad. He wanted to check it out more, but couldn’t take it. But that’s pretty much the point. The piece is intended to represent an ambush – a situation any reasonable person would want to get away from. If it were just an unpleasant sound installation, I would say the piece was a gimmick and would put it in the category of yet another work art that seeks to punish the audience (not that we don’t sometimes need a good punishing). However, the science, theory, and collaboration behind the piece is what is intriguing and is what brings the piece beyond a simple surround-sound extravaganza.

Cymatics example - a pattern created when sound passes through a plate layered with sound.

There is an interesting field called cymatics that works on visualizing sound by vibrating sand or water. Here is a link to a video of Evan Grant explaining cymatics. It’s a way of making sound visible. I searched for a term for the opposite transformation… the transformation of the physical into sound, but couldn’t find one. What Postcommodity is doing is basically reverse-cymatics. Kade Twist says that the correct term would be sonification. Postcommodity takes data on the hypothetical trajectory, velocity, and impact energy of four pueblo weapons at the time of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and turns that data into sound. The wall text (and gallery guide) describe the piece this way:

“The sound and multimedia installation If History Moves at the Speed of its Weapons, The the Shape of Arrow is Changing (2010) is a sonic ambush utilizing four Pueblo Revolt era weapons (bow and arrow, atlatl and dart, sling and rock, and war club). We have performed a ballistic analysis for each weapon that includes all potential impact points within the gallery, providing a comprehensive mathematical analysis of multiple ambush scenarios. From this data algorithms were derived to inform sound compositions specific to each weapon. The result is a dynamic and interactive installation entirely informed by the inherent physical, cultural, and intermediary properties of each weapon. The sound filling the room becomes the medium for the weapons themselves to physically engage and envelop audiences.”

The sound is directional… with sound emanating from the position where the weapon would land… if it didn’t hit YOU first.

Postcommodity, If History Moves and the Speed of its Weapons, Then the Shape of the Arrow is Changing, Photo by Will Wilson, Courtesy of MoCNA

In a public talk at MoCNA, Postcommodity described the origin of the idea as coming out of reading the book War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991) by Manuel de Landa, heavily influenced by Foucault, plus Deleuze and the idea of the machinic phyllum. This piece introduces the idea in a physically challenging way. Kade Twist wrote to me that If History Moves… “is also influenced by the writing of Paul Virilio (Speed and Politics). He came up with the idea that history and the rationalization of temporal relationships within a particular society/civilization moves at the speed of its weapons — we culturally rationalize velocity through our weapons systems — in this context we are looking at the velocity, or dromological difference of the two clashing civilizations and analyzing the indigenous cultural identity and worldview embedded in the weapons systems.” So how did Postcommodity convert those weapons systems into sound? Twist says “We used the computer code written in Max/MSP that was written byCristóbal Martínez. Each weapon was assigned a specific tone: sine tone (war club), triangle tone (bow and arrow), saw tone (rock and sling) and square tone (atlatl and spear). These are the fundamental sound waves from which all sound is comprised.” Rather than have a completely arbitrary or purely aesthetic criteria for selecting the audible tones, Postcommodity’s team selected sounds whose forms, revealed by cymatics, had some symbolic relationship with the forms of spear, arrow, rock, and club.

UPDATE: Listen to the audio embedded in this updated post: LISTENING TO THE AMBUSH

This piece is a cerebral romance between art, technology, history, colonialism, and counter-colonialism. The big romance is between art and science, with the four artists from Postcommodity collaborating with composer/media artist Cristóbal Martínez and scientist Andrew McCord, who performed the mathematical analysis and physics modeling of the weapons. And where the romance turns gritty and real is in the audience’s own physical relationship to the piece. Positioning a mathematical model of an ambush using pueblo weapons in a gallery puts the audience in the position of vulnerability and culpability. The piece would seem to push the audience into imagining themselves as the Spanish attacked in the Pueblo Revolt. Yet it is in a gallery, in a setting that reminds museum-goers of that violent past and the injustices to which the Pueblo peoples were subjected. Who exactly are we rooting for in this ambush? Surrounded by false gold, in the midst of Indian Art Market, tangible white guilt, romanticism, and earnest desires to make a better future, If History Moves… gives the audience the chance to identify with the power of the “conquered” and the weaknesses of the conquerors. And the conquerors are all of us living today.

Nathan Young had some important words that I’d like to close with:

We didn’t have a dream of these golden cities. That’s not why we are here. It’s not necessarily the Spanish’s fault, or gold’s fault. It could have been anybody. It’s the market.[1]

For more on Postcommodity, please see this previous post: Photo Essay: Day 4 of My Blood is in the Water.

Here are links to other articles about this piece:

[1] The Museum of Contemporary Native Art made an audio recording of Postcommodity’s public talk. They plan to make the audio tracks available via their website sometime this fall. I will include the link here when it is released.