Museum of Science, Boston; WGBH Forum Network; Weaving Science into Sculpture
Good evening everybody and welcome to the Museum of Science. Artist Natalie my back is expanding the notions of scientific representation in the process. She is changing perceptions of what art can be. Natalie collects her own data using low tech equipment sometimes that she builds. She also looks at data that is available on the Internet on the subjects of ecology climate change and meteorology through basket weaving. She expresses this data visually in visually stunning three dimensional sculptures. Natalie's recent work involves gathering weather data from specific ecosystems and comparing it to historical and global meteorological trends with the goal of gaining insight into what weather means in the context of human induced climate change. She is represented by Nielsen gallery in Boston. And by the Reeves contemporary gallery in New York her work will be displayed in a solo show at Amherst College beginning March 30th. So we encourage everyone to do that. Beautiful drive out west and go take advantage of seeing all those beautiful sculptures in one place. Her piece temporal warmth tango between Erlend and see is on exhibit here at the museum and we welcome you to see it after the program if you haven't had a chance to do that. Natalie joins us tonight to share with us her process her art and her vision. Please join me in welcoming Natalie ME BACK.
Thank you very much for coming tonight. I want to start off by thanking first of all someone rose and Monica James Parker particularly the Science Museum for. Hosting me for this talk as well as for my sculpture downstairs and also I want to thank whoever was responsible for for the displayed on Stars which is really wonderful. I just want to thank everyone who was involved in this production so far. I'm going to talk to you about my work today. I'm going to share with you some of my past work how it came to of this merging of science and basketweaving and that I'm also going to show you my current work which has actually ventured into music now. So it's an evolving process but all of it has really been the intention of understanding whether in a more profound way. If I had to sort of bring it down to a nutshell what I've been doing for the last almost 10 years is translating science it into basket weaving. And I'm just I'm translating science say there and then using the basket as a three dimensional grid on which to translate data onto and for the past three years I've been focusing particularly on weather.
And in this project called translating and recording climate change I it's a process. And it's a it's a project that actually consists of two parts one of them is building very low tech data collecting devices such as you see right over here and extracting particularly in weather information about different ecosystems and then using that information and translating it into a sculpture into a woven sculpture most of them using basketweaving. Now the purpose.
Is to understand art to get a more. Profound understanding of the complexity of climate change by looking at whether in my own backyard. That's one reason that I'm doing this project but the other reason and the other current that goes through all of my work is I'm trying to explore the kind of expectations that we bring with us when we try to address a question either with the arts or through science. What kind of visual expectations we bring with us when we ask these questions and how these visual expectations and that kind of visual vocabulary that we bring with us influences the way we understand something. So when you ask a question in science and you immediately go to the graphs How does that frame the way you understand these phenomena such as climate change and how does it alter it if I present you a sculpture that uses the same information not altered by a different medium. Does that change the way you understand climate change or weather. So this is the kind of these are the sort of underlying philosophical questions that I'm that I'm trying to address through my work. And before I share with you. My work I wanted to start by showing you three different images that sort of build the again the sort of philosophical foundation on which this work is based on. And I think it also tells you a little bit about my process and my intentions. The first image that I'm going to show you is one.
Hopes I'm still learning this thing.
Here we go. It's actually an experience that I had in 2004. I was at a conference for astronomy teachers at the MacDonnell Observatory in West Texas. And at the observatory It was a conference of science teachers and at night we had a chance to go looks with a 10 10 inch telescope. And as the night progressed you know we looked at the usual suspect Jupiter Venus the seven sisters. But as the night progressed and there were less and less less less folks than just the diehards left over. They turned the telescope to the helix Nebula which I'd never seen before. And when it was my turn to look through the telescope. This is what I saw.
Absolutely nothing. And I was very frustrated and the guy came up to it and some of the scientists realized that I was having difficulty and he suggested don't look into the darkness. Pretend that you're looking past it and look through it. And I did that and in about a few seconds later this is what I saw in the corner of my eye. And then as soon as I focused back on the helix nebula it was gone.
But the reason I bring this up is because I think peripheral vision is so important in understanding weather that sometimes when you don't look at something directly you actually end up seeing more of it and nothing could be sure. I think then with weather observation. The other image I want to share with you is an image that came across in graduate school. These are active Denis's drawings and thought Agnes Stenness is a contemporary artist who did a lot of work in the 1980s and she does a lot of merging with science. Science and math.
And these are drawings that she did in which she equated the development of a thought to the way crystals grow. And I thought this was such a great concept. What if a thought could actually be three dimensional. What if a sculpture is actually a representation of a three dimensional thought in time. The third image I want to share with you is one that I always have pinned up in my studio wall with Kepler's model of the universe in which he in which he was trying to explain the distance between the different orbits in the solar system. By referring to the orbits as being a geometric shapes. And the reason I have this in my studio is because it's a constant reminder that sometimes you have to think outside the box in order to really see the real image. And that's sometimes going outside of the box means that you have to go into a direction that may not be quite right or may not be correct according to the current scientific theories but that it's only through visionary thinking like that that we're ever going to get ahead. So he's a constant reminder of that to me. And I had this sort of group of artists that I'd love to just have a beer with and just to have a conversation with because I'm so curious about their thought process. And Kepler is one of them I love to just have. Had a sit down with him and hear more about how he was able to think about these about his thoughts about and how he actually constructed these very visionary models I think. So this whole merging of science and basketweaving came about in 2000 when I took a class at Harvard Extension. School in the astronomy department and I had some two fabulous teachers Professor Palmer and Professor Chaisson were still teaching there.
It was it coincided at the same time was taking a class at Kimmage adult ADD and in basket weaving so I had this really strange situation where I would bring all this all this basketweaving stuff with me to the lecture hall and I would hear this one these wonderful lectures about space and there were two frustrations that I confronted.
One of them was that in astronomy everything is so huge the numbers that you're dealing with are humongous light years 15 billion stars you know five billion years. I mean these are such abstract numbers and it's really hard to ever get a real grasp of what that means. So art became a way of addressing these questions and making kind of bring them down to a human level and making them a little bit more real. So one of the questions that I addressed were piece of art is how big is the sun. How is it. I mean how big really is it and how big is it in comparison to the earth. So I saw the lesson plan online. I think science teachers are really fabulous translators because they have to translate everything into a lesson plan. In middle school science teachers are fabulous thinkers and that's actually where I got a lot of my ideas from. So I found this lesson plan of a teacher who is trying to give a relative size between the Earth and the sun. And so this is how I came up with this piece. I'm going to be a little quiet doing this piece I'm going to flip through some slides.
So this is a drawing that I did in order to understand how many births would fit into the sun.
And I came up with this equation or with this result that if the if the sun was three point four or five meters in diameter there the Earth would be about the size of my thumb print and how many Earths would fit into this into the sun about a million.
And I was wondering well how long does it take to make a million thumbprints and it takes about 72 hours. Of constant this. But again it was I mean now I know what a million is. I didn't know that before hand. The other problem that I had with astronomy was that everything in astronomy is flat. What you're confronted with are images like this. And yet the irony is that you're talking about the deepest space and the deepest of time. So how is it that we can get a more tactile understanding of what that actually means.
And so this is when I turn to basketweaving when it came to turning in a final paper I decided to actually turn in a sculpture instead. So I took a very popular diagram in the astronomy textbook the Hertz hairspring Reffo diagram and the diagram that in a very simple way use a surface temperature and we're. And with those two variables you can track any start and the evolutionary state that it's in the universe. Fantastic. I love this diagram. And so I wanted to figure out if I can use this diagram and turn it into a sculpture. So as you can see over here all I'm really doing is taking this diagram and translating it into a three dimensional structure. And then this is what I came up with. So this was my first basket sculpture. And the weird wreath is that the larger the diet the diameter the higher the luminosity and the temperature goes higher from left to right. And this is when the star the star starts dying and the temperature goes back inside of it.
And this was sort of the big aha moment that maybe I could actually use to address questions that I had in science and in this astronomy class.
Everybody else was already looking at galaxies and quasars and way out into the universe.
And I was still sort of stuck in chapter one because one of the things that I was very surprised about is that I didn't know and by then I was about 30 years old. I didn't know that the reason that we have seasons is because the earth is tilted and it was one of those moments where I thought my goodness. Thirty years a graduate degree and I didn't know this. It was one of those realizations of like realizing that you never learned the letter in the alphabet and you're 25 years old. So it was one of those beautiful moments of reshuffling my perspective and I thought this is what I want to focus on. I want to look at the relationship between the sun and the earth and the moon a little bit closer.
And I started to go back to the basket and think OK what if the basket is not just a method of creating a model a scientific model of translating it it's translating a graph. What if I can actually use it as a type of grid on which to translate data with.
So I started to look at daylight night hours of different places on the planet and what you see here are. This is normal books. This is Nome Alaska right here. And what I'm doing is I'm using the basket as a grid a three dimensional grid on which I'm one of these rounds is 24 hours. So a basket always has. There are the spokes that are going vertically and then the Weavers that are going horizontally. And because of the weaving pattern you have to have 48 spokes for 24 hours.
And so what you see here with Nome Alaska is you have January 1st down here where it's nearly always dark and then this is the summertime where it's there's lots of sunshine here but it's still using the 24 hour cycle so every week here represents an hour and we go back to December 30 first we'll have almost total darkness. Now what I discovered is that when I'm using read which is the material in basketweaving that has a lot of tension to it you can't completely control it which means that when I read with read it is both the numbers and myself who are shaping the sculpture. And so as these bumps that you see that's not me doing this this is the tension that is created by the changing numbers over time over here.
The next piece over is Boston Massachusetts and actually brought the piece here with me today. But Massachusetts using the same principle. It starts down here on January 1st goes all the way to December thirty first. But here I'm using a base of of. 96 hours so each of these is one day and the warp sets start happening and the the the the fact that it's sitting out here.
That's because the relationship between the numbers is changing and I brought it here today and you're more than welcome to come afterwards and look at it yourself. But you can actually see why it's doing it because essentially what I'm doing is I'm reading two baskets in one and it's that tension with the changing numbers that creates these warps and shapes. I could never be this creative. It's the numbers that are doing it.
Then I started to think OK well if.
Going from looking at daylight and night light hours I started to think a little bit more.
Well what kind of effects does the moon and the sun have on different ecosystems on the earth. And so I started to look at tidal rhythms and this is a piece that I did on Boston tides and it's essentially using the same idea that I just mentioned. It is this the body of the sculpture from here to here is one 1 years worth of data and all I'm translating is when the moon rises and sets and when the sun rises and sets it's based on a 24 hour cycle. So you have 48 spokes going this way. And each week for one hour. It starts here. This is January 1st going all the way down. The beauty of doing these things is that once I'm completely what once I have woven does this piece add in a sense have a temporal landscape on which I can plot more data on top of it. Now you might ask why is it happening why is it doing these weird bumps here. The resists doing these bumps is because the only time I put pressure on this basket is when I'm weaving the moon Otherwise I'm letting the tension of the reed dictate the shape. So that means here where you see the sculpture are king. That means it's nighttime. This is this is 24. This is midnight. So of course there's never any sun so it would naturally curve curve outward. And when it's going inward like here that means there is no moon present there's only the sun shining and then these blue sticks that you see on top of there these are tidal readings for every day for one for one year. The Mortons the black dots are the moon phases and then the inner portion here tracks these solar Asom as of one year as it changes over time. So one thing that I find so fascinating about working in this medium is that the sculptor's function in two different ways they function as sculpture's but they also function as devices that you could actually use to read data of. And also that by translating them into these kind of structures sometimes and that's the golden moment things get revealed that are not present on on the on the sheet of paper with all of those numbers. In other words if you if you reconfigure numbers in a new way sometimes things patterns get revealed that weren't presently there before. So this is another one that I did also looking at title rhythms but this is based on the Arctic. Very different title rhythms up there. The space in the 96 excuse me 48 hour cycle.
So what you have here is.
One one round here is actually two days. Nothing on my sculptures is for aesthetic purposes. Everything has a function. Everything is related to a number. So even these little blobs of string here. These are actually measure the distance between the Earth and the sun using their footsteps as a as as the measurements for the diameter of the earth. So in other words how many footsteps would it have to take if my footstep was the diameter of the earth to reach the sun. So here I'm translating sunrise moon rise and set and I'm also looking at Terra rhythm's moon phases. So the Azmath and the distance between the Earth and.
The sun. And this is a piece that.
I did shortly after. And this is the Antarctic explorer and I started to get really interested in the Antarctic because of its interesting daylight night light variations and really interesting tidal rhythms and I started to think well if I were up in the Antarctic. And I was there for that transition of complete darkness which which is always in the summertime and I was there when that first sliver of sun appears on the horizon which is mid-June all the way to in a 24 hour cycle sun which is in mid.
October what kind of information would I want to have with me. What kind of knowledge would I want to know. So I decided to to weave a basket that is almost like it death functions as a backpack in which you have all the information on me. And so again it starts down here with this body. The body here is translating more data which is the White Stuff the the green stuff is Twilight readings and the yellow which appears up here is when them when the sun rises and sets. And so you notice that down here it's a lot thinner. Well that's because there is no sun. And as the sun starts entering the picture more and more I have more and more data to weave and the basket gets bigger and bigger.
And then on top of that I plot more phases the solar as a birth how many sun hours I have. I also look at Ophir in this sort of fun on here. I have cloud cloud cover patterns over time. So this sort of loading it all up. And the irony of course is when I put this thing on it's the most uncomfortable thing in the world because you're stuck like this and it's so painful.
The pain of knowledge.
And then I also started to think well what if a sculpture could actually be not just a device to read data of but it would if it could actually be used in this environment.
So I built several severe instruments and this is one of them in which I'm using the same data that you just saw earlier or translate it in that basket. But the backpack basket and creating a survey or device.
And so again here are all I'm looking at is when the sun rises and sets and the moon cycle so this here down here is mid-June. We have barely any sun. And as we get more and more sunlight that the sculpture gets bigger and bigger appear. There's these blue. Patterns that you see here is when the moon is visible and where it rises along the horizon. I'm also using the sculpture in its cardinal direction so depending on where that Moon is this is where it rises. This is east and this is West. What's really really interesting about the Antarctic. Why can't wait to go there at some point. Is that the moon is visible for two weeks at a time always. And then there's two weeks where it's completely below the horizon which is what you see here.
There is no more than those phases.
So this brings me to the second portion of. The current work which was when I started to look at weather and I got a residency at the front of work center in 2006 and the final work center is this wonderful art center at the very tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown. And those of you we're familiar with with Cape Cod and Provincetown. This is the if this is the Cape Province on it's right at the very tip so it's a very exposed area. And one of the things that I felt like at that point was my sculptress was that I really didn't have an understanding of what these numbers were coming from I was relying on the Internet to get the numbers and to translate them into sculptress and I had a sense that if I started collecting my own data. Those sculptures would change because I would it would change the way I understand the data.
So I knew that I wanted to do something that would enable me to actually extract data from an environment.
And I thought being on Cape Cod for what ended up being two years would be a perfect time to start. It coincided also with these two scientists from Tufts University from the right center. Scott pathé on and Zack Smith contacted me about wanting to work with them on a project called the cube project. And Scott and Zach knew about my work and they knew that I was going to be down there so they thought I would be the perfect guinea pig to try this up. And so their idea was that they came up with this idea of the cube and the whole purpose of this cube is to extract information about an environment and use that information to compare to the rest of the environment. So imagine this room full of little invisible Lego pieces. And what this cube does is you're looking at one little Lego piece and extracting as much information from that from that little Lego piece and then using that information to figure out what's going on with it within the rest of the room. That was sort of the idea and the purpose was to get a better understanding of the complexity of climate change. And then my role was to figure out a way of translating that into sculpture and helping them with their K through 12 program that they wanted to develop with this. So my role was to try this out and see if what I can come up with.
Now the case is a really fascinating place to address the question of climate change because the key has a very.
Anybody who lives on the Cape for a long time. When you talk to the locals there they have a very sobering attitude towards climate change. And one of the reasons is that it's a it's a place that has always changed erosional patterns are always reshaping the beaches. And also with human intervention doing its share in really creating some pretty drastic changes. And I put these two maps up there just to get a sense of how fast change happens there.
This is a map of 1893 and you see this big body of water that that in. That's right in there. And then all of this water here well 50 years later they build a dam here and here and it fills up this whole area here and all of this area here this becomes marshland.
And then also just the beaches are completely reshaped. Even within these 50 years. But what was going on and what is going on in the Cape is not just these perhaps natural changes that happen when human intervention happens by building a dam but that there are there's real evidence of things changing pretty drastically. So even when I was there there were seals or a washing up with diseases that were associated with warmer climates warmer warmer waters that they didn't have any immunity towards. Excuse me there's also changes in the vegetation there's changes in the fish population there is drastic beach erosion. So there was definitely a sense that this is not just some abstract notion that some wacko scientists are putting up. It's really happening and you can see these changes. So it was really sobering to kind of a drill even begin to address the question of climate change in this kind of environment.
But I had some hard lessons to learn. The first year I basically took this cube idea and try to adapted as much as I could to this environment. So I built this queue I shrunk it to half the size that they wanted it to be. And I built it so that it could actually be used as a device itself. So this grid that you see here is to measure wave height.
There's a little window flag and then I just basically went to the local hardware store and went through every single aisle and picked up things that could measure things.
So the thermometer from my kitchen the rain gauge from the Garden Isle the the wind gauge from another garden section I mean it's just whatever can measure and sort of haggardly in a way construct my own weather station that way and I would bring this box to the beach to Heron Cove beach for 18 months. I went to this beach every day rain or shine and it gets cold and I would put this box into the water and measure water temperature wave height wave direction. Air temperature as well as land temperature.
And what I found this while I was putting this box down and measuring all this information within the box I was busy just looking around and recording what was going on all around me. What's going on with the birds how are they behaving what's going on with the cloud patterns. What is the color of the of the ocean water. Who is out. What kind of fishing boat is out. Because sometimes depending on the water conditions certain fishing boats are out or not. And so I started to sew my journal with a lot of core peripheral observations that these numbers that I was recording were not reflecting. And I had another box that I had anchored down on the beach and this this box was actually filled with little hobo devices and Hobo devices. Our little data collectors that you can program they look like this. They're really tiny but they probe they can measure light sensitivity and temperature and having these little guys on top of the box and below the box. I could actually measure tidal rhythms because that box was sometimes under water and this is actually emit tidal range sometimes when it's high tide is completely under water. But the lessons that are learned is that for seven months I probably spent a good portion of that picking up PVC piping because the ocean is so strong it would just blow these things to smithereens. And I realized you know you can't just plop your instruments into an environment extract information and expect to understand what I was missing was that what really was the glue that really was the key to understanding weather was that those things that I did while I was recording which was reading my journal noting everything around me those peripheral things that were going on around me. That was the key. And because when you look at whether you're not just looking at whether in the hundreds of systems that move wake up make up whether what you're also looking at an environment that is reacting to weather and that in itself is a system and an amalgam of hundreds of systems reacting and affecting one another. So whatever never happens in isolation is always within the context of an environment so when you want to understand whether you also have to understand the environment and from what I've learned. That can only happen with time and patience. And just listening to what's out there and not solely relying on the instruments I was using. So I got rid of the box and just used my journals and those actually have been the key. Actually Brussell on my journals with me. You were more than welcome to flip through them but literally every day I would just write down what I observe anything even if it's as peripheral as it may appear. And once I have my journals. And I have the numbers that I've recorded from my instruments sorry which is up here. I've become a type of detective so I have these numbers and I have my my observations and I'm trying to find patterns I'm trying to find inconsistency nuances things that sort of stick out in my mind and then I use these detective findings and I go to the Internet and I look at local weather stations and I look at historical data and look at data that is you asked for it that is collected by specific NGOs for example bird sightings of birders are a great resource for for data. And I just collect and collect and collect and I end up with a big pile of papers in these papers.
Then in addition to these numbers that I've collected up here I choose two or three variables only to want to look deeper into and I use these two or three variables to start reading them into sculpture. So when I start making the sculpture I actually only start with two of the things that I want to translate. And just like there is painting by numbers this is sculpture by a number. So this is these are the spokes of 48 spokes that I was mentioning earlier a 24 hour base. When the moon rises at this particular time. And it's that's over here I stop weaving. So it's really it's almost brainless. I just follow the numbers and it is usually with a very simple relationship of two or three variables that I eventually get a shape like this on which I can then plot more things on top of it. So some of the pieces that came out of the Herring Cove experience on Cape Cod is this one called barometric pressure. It's looking at I'm looking at a 30 day period and I'm looking at barometric pressure cloud cover and bird sightings.
And so and so the inner part here is all about much pressure reading of the bird sightings and this blue stuff out here is wind.
This is a wind nominator. Here I was using all the information that all the stuff that's affected by the wind. So I'm looking at all sorts of things.
You have so much Chichi because so many of these things.
I'm looking at Bambridge pressure bird sightings Tai's moon phases.
When strength direction solar as a myth. And and these guys appear are actually a distance between a parking meter and the edge of the water.
And but the thing is this is actually a functioning and nominee. So this stuff up here actually turned so you could take this somewhat ridiculous looking device and push it onto the beach and started measuring measuring the wind.
This is a this is a failure in some ways because as us as you saw at the beginning I had this little captain of every piece starts with a question.
Well this one started with a question too and it started with the question of Is there a relationship between when whales are sighted when tides happen and when twilight happens Wolf this piece with this question in mind. So again it's it's translating the morning twilight readings and these guys here are.
Whale fighting said I got out of a we law college has to have this I don't know if they still have it but they have this wonderful site where they keep track of right real fighting. And I put it all together and thinking that some sort of weird answer would appear and nothing did. So in a sense it was a it was a piece that started with a question that led nowhere. But I ended up having a nice piece. But sometimes sometimes the questions you ask don't always lead to concrete answers but that's OK.
This is the piece that's here in the museum temple warmth tangle between air land and sea.
And here I'm looking only at the relationship between air temperature land temperature and sea temperature and how those change over time. And the reason it starts warping is because they change over time. So this weird looping to that's happening here. That's that's that's the sculpture. And sometimes you know even though I'm transmitting data and I'm also at the end of the day a sculpture that has to work with gravity. A sculptor who has has to work with gravity so one of the problems that I had with this piece that it wouldn't stand up and it was in the corner of my studio for about two months just I couldn't I didn't know what to do with it. So it was just sort of sitting there. At one point I had to make it stand out because I had a show coming up.
And so I took the thing and I read this this Dowle through just to make it stand. And that's how it was resolved. It was just I have it just make it official. So sometimes.
These You know I just I'm just sort of pointing this out that sometimes even though in a sense I'm a translator. I'm also at the end of the day a mechanic trying to make something work.
This is a piece on bird migration the reason I'm.
Bringing this one is because I wanted to share with you how I deal with the audience because as you can see a lot of this work is really complex. And one of the problems that I always have is how do I let an audience member get into this complexity.
And this is a piece that has two months worth of data.
October November and looking at the migration patterns and changes on Cape Cod that were happening. And one of the ways that I sometimes do with audience were how I can sort of lead them into is I create little legends and in these legends I'm literally distilling it down to the very basic as to what is actually being translated on.
On the sculpture. So you can go to this little legend and see oh ok. So. That's the temperature. And this is the sun and this is the moon. And I forgot what these are and this is something else. Oh this is this is air water and land temperature.
And so you can it's like a little code and then it almost all of these pieces there's also a bit of writing that lets you into the piece and in this case this is actually the observation that I took on that day. And then this observation is then translated into a visual object. And then this visual object. Is then stuck into the temporal landscape that I was mentioning earlier. And so this is sort of how you can enter the piece slowly. Okay here's a piece I'm bringing this one in because sometimes you start with a question and then you realize that the question is actually a totally different question than you thought I wanted to look at. Data that also came from that college side where. It tracks right real sightings in the Gulf of Maine. And at the end of August beginning of September a lot of right whales hang out at the Bay of Fundy.
And I was wondering why the heck they do that.
And in fact the day after this August or September 30th September 1st or August 3 for one of those. On that day there were actually 80 whales.
Where that 45 one is. So I was wondering why they what kind of ecological conditions existed that would that would make all of these whales go up to the Bay of Fundy. And so I started to look at buoys and the Gulf of Maine observation system as well as Noah has this wonderful series of buoys all over the Gulf of Maine that extract information. And the reason I'm bringing this up in terms of the question changing over time is that the question of why the right will go to the Bay of Fundy changed into what is the topography of the Gulf of Maine because these different buoys we're also not just they were all located all over there were not only just extracting information of the water in the air but it was also connected to the topography where the the terrain on from from above which they were floating.
So what you see here are these blue dots of three boys that I ended up choosing to look at to see if I can find out why these whales hang out there. So this one is the main shelf buoy. This looks a colorful concentrations in water temperature. This boy here is in the Jordan basin in the Jordan basin is a very deep part of the Gulf of Maine. And one of the reasons I wanted to look at a deep part of the Gulf of Maine is because I wanted to understand currents and why currents might affect why Right-Wingers might be hanging out there. And then the fourth one of course could Bay which was up in the Bay of Fundy. So I took the information from these boys and translated them into sculptures. So this is the main shelf looking at the relationship of chlorophyll air temperature water temperature.
This one over here is the cops Bay this is looking at tidal variations of one month data. And this is the Jordan basin looking at current data.
So water temperature water current water speed air temperature air air direction over time.
And the legend that I was mentioning earlier all these bases so that you as a viewer can actually decipher these pieces.
This is a piece that I did at the very end of my stay on Cape Cod. It's called Soler beginnings of everything that changes.
And I wanted to pay homage to the fact that really it all starts with the sun and without the sun we wouldn't have weather and without weather we wouldn't have this amazing amazing diversity in life here on Earth. So what this is is this with a whole bunch of data that I collected over time there that is directly related to the sun.
So this leads me to to the second part of this project and to also my current work when the wonderful time on Cape Cod was over I knew that I was heading to the city next. And if there's anything that the cave taught me is that you can't you can't go into an environment plop the instruments down expect to understand weather. And I knew that when I was going into an urban environment I would have to change either the way I collect data or I would have to change the way I translate data or the way I actually make sculptures in my first try in this urban world was Omaha Nebraska. I had a residency at the Bema Center for Contemporary Arts for two months in Omaha is actually a great city to start with because it's so opposite from the Cape. It's enormously car centered and it sprawls and it's a city. And I was right in the middle of it. And the difficulty with measuring whether in a city is because you have something called the Urban Heat phenomenon which is basically these big heat bubbles that hover over cities and they trap the heat. And the reason they hover overseas is because of the infrastructure because of the lack of vegetation it creates this phenomena that literally heats up the city and which is why for example when when you take the tea it's hot in the city you go out to a suburb and feels a lot cooler. That's that that's that phenomena.
And the other problem with measuring whether in a city is because of the buildings and because of the vegetation because of the way it's structured.
There's all this turbulence that keeps changing the wind direction that keeps altering the humidity keeps altering the temperature reading so that you can go down one block measure one thing you go down another block. You measure something totally different. So what's lacking is a constant. What's lacking is some sort of reference point. So when I was in Omaha the first thing I did as I walked through the city I had this. Tracker with me which if any of you are interested in whether I can only recommend it because it's so great it's this little guy here that can measure anything under the sun related to weather and stored over time so you can have actually two months worth of data on here and then put it down and download it to your computer. But it essentially took this tracker with me and strapped it on my body and walked the city to understand this variation in in data and weather. And so I would make these maps as I was walking. I would track down my route and then I would measure I would write down my measurements and write down observations that I was making. But again this constant was missing.
So what I then ended up doing is this is kind of a weird picture right here. The beam of center so you can see a very urban environment actually build a weather station on top of the Biema center.
So had the weather station and I had these map drawings but what was really happening was that I kept getting this really fragmented understanding of whether it was almost like listening to a piece of music but your headphones are kind of broken. So you only hear parts of a song and sometimes only one ear and then two ears and ears. Ooh. It's it's really kind of. Discombobulated experience. And this is when I thought about music and I thought about how the music when you especially in the symphony when you go into a symphony every instrument there Tyce part of the score and it is all the instruments together that make up the entire score. And I thought well what if I could address this fragmented way of understanding whether in somewhat a similar way. So I build. An orchestra in which the sculptures and the wall piece together. Are this is all the information that I gathered during those two months that I was in in Omaha. And what's different about this one is that it's a it's a piece that takes a long time to decipher because I do want you to be a detective. I want in a sense to put you in a place that I am in CAUSLEY trying to find connections. So the work does take some time to decipher. And every one of these sculptures has the clue or has the has the legend of some of the other parts so you have to sort of walk around this piece and really read it and walk through it to understand all the stuff I'm translating this is the conductor as I call him he translate it. It actually translates data that is more broadly so it's moving data and some data. And then also these fans that you see on the side here these are all tornado warnings that were issued on June 8. It was great tornado season there. You want to see Wild weather in Nebraska is the place. And then these sculptures on the side of the sculpture bullfights represent to me sort of the Soprano of the alto also transmitting data that related to these different periods of time.
And then this back page actually I treat it like the state of Nebraska Nebraska is conveniently squarish and so was my wall. And so this is sort of the state of Nebraska and all these dots here are tornadoes that were that touched down in the last 50 years significant tornadoes. These are the tornadoes. This isn't the Omaha region. These are the tornadoes that touched down while I was there. This is the overall weather pattern. Weather always comes from the south.
Bad weather does. And from the West with a moon and sun cycle of that period when I was there and these guys here in consistency's so wonderful to look at.
And these are just close up these two wheels are actually kinetic elements that translate all the inconsistencies between barometric pressure and wind.
And so you activate them by turning them in.
So this also brought up the other issue because it sort of opened up the door to music and I thought wow you know there might be a lot more there than just the instruments. Maybe I can actually look into this a little bit more deeply and because one of the things that numbers can do is they can give you a quantity they can give you a behavior because when you're looking at numbers you can you can also always look at behaviors meaning you look at the number before you look at the numerable afterwards but what numbers and instruments cannot do is give you the sense of why is it that a 20 mile an hour wind from the South feels different than a 20 mile up mile an hour wind from the north.
If you for example on the Cape and you've experienced 20 mile an hour wind from the north it literally tears your face off because the sand just goes right into your face and it's painful. You can't even open up your eyes. It went from the south. There's so much more humidity in there is usually warmer. When I was on on Cape Cod there was a coffee shop that was set up. So every time I would open my door and smell coffee I knew it was a southern wind. So there was all these other sense hints that we get when we read weather that numbers cannot always convey. So I wanted to think about OK. Is there a way that I can try to figure out to dig into deeply more deeply into the nuance of whether reading and observation. So I started to look at musical notation and these are all musical notations. This is a more traditional musical notation by Steve Reisch And these are all from a book called notations by John Cage which if any of you are interested in looking at graphical notation I really recommend this book is fantastic and one because when I don't know anything about music I don't play music I don't know how to read music so it a regular notation sheet was really intimidating to me but the graphical notation which were also music seemed a lot less frightening in a way and the reason I was interested in musical notation is because the composer can shape notes Ken. Ken can tweak notes to sound a certain way too in a sense bring out that nuanced emotional reading in any kind of music and I wanted to figure out if I can do that too with music. And so I ended up translating my data that I collected in the fall during a Berwick Research Institute residency into a score. And I actually have a score with me today and you're more than welcome to flip through it. And so I I translated it into a score. And the way I treated the score is not like a musician because I don't know anything about music.
So what I did is I took the sheet of paper and I divide it up into 24 hours here six o'clock Here's noon and here's 18. And then there's the there's the treble staff and then there's the bass staff. And you notice there's a yellow there's an orange a red and a green dot the orange and red are humidity and temperature and the green dot on the base that is barometric pressure and these are all the readings that I got out of my tracker. So I take the averages of these and apply them on these on the staff and then in the middle here you see the signs the the the dots so the have the half doggy's and four little dots. This is all cloud cover readings over time.
Then these boxes here is because I have this thing with me all the time. Sometimes I'm inside. And so the inside is of course a different environment. So whenever I'm inside a building this is the kind of I make it into a box.
These diagonals here are wind direction. So at a particular point they just pick any to say here at 8:00 at night. Here at this reading here that I took at one o'clock on October 29.
The wind came from the southwest. So this is as I'm also using the piece of paper in terms of cardinal directions. And I tried playing this myself and it sounds horrible and I partly in it actually I should i should clarify this. Well it really surprised me was that the notes actually sounded really good. I expected the total cacophony to come out of this but it wasn't. But what didn't sound good is that I didn't have I didn't know how to use the instrument to use got when I wanted to get out of it. So I it. Has been giving the score to musicians and I give the score to musicians from all experiences and backgrounds from those who have never had any training. To those who are professionally trained and have gotten master degrees in performance and the purpose was if I give this score to a musician and give him only this one direction which is you can mess you can do whatever you want with the score but you cannot change the pitch of these three notes because that's the weather. And I want the integrity of the weather to remain just like I don't mess with mess with it. Sculptor's I wanted that to retain but how you interpreted whether you played as a chord whether you played as a sequence is all up to you. Because the purpose is to be able to hear new patterns to be able to hear new interpretations of whether I've been doing this now for three years. And if I'm only doing it always through my eyes I'm never going to get out of my tunnelvision. So I'm hoping that these interpretations will help me find new ways of transmitting data. So what I ended up doing is not only giving the score to musicians but also building my own sculptures that are three dimensional scores. So this is a sculpture that is transcending exactly that score that you see here and this is the sculpture.
So this is actually a musical score that translates the weather of one particular week in the fall.
And it was a particular week because it was a sad week. I had a death in the family and it was one of those weeks when when something like that happens everything kind of gets really rearranged your whole idea of time changes. And when this was happening I thought my goodness the last thing I'm going to be thinking about is weather. But I was surprised that in fact when this was happening that I actually remembered the weather very much and it made me think about how our emotions affect the way we we read weather but also how weather affects our emotions.
So which is why I ended up focusing on this particular week. But it's essentially a score and it starts it starts here and it turns around it goes around and it's usually on a lazy susan but unfortunately forgot the lazy susan and Amhurst.
So it turns. So it's that's the score and if you look closely you can actually see the connection to the to the to the score before. And my hope is to I haven't yet managed to find musicians willing to play the sculpture but I'm hoping to find musicians at some point to actually play the sculpture and not just the score. But what I am going to finish off with is playing new two renditions of musicians that have translated the score just so they can get a sense of how very different people have interpreted the information.
And the first the first one that you're going to hear is a duo of Jonathan and Estelle Brown who is an electric guitar and trombone and this is an audio piece. So I'm actually going to bring up iTunes.
And it's a little loud so it's. Just to warn you. It's like this.
Is. So what you're going to hear is.
The score that I just showed you on the PowerPoint which is the exact score that you see translated in the sculpture.
OK. So now I'm going to play to you. And later obolus version of that same score and Elaine Ambala is a pianist from the new conservatory who teaches and performs all over and she and I actually continue collaborating on this and we actually had a performance at Amherst College yesterday. So here you hear this the same score but her interpretation.
OK when you see her reaching into the piano that is when she is doing the wind direction.
So she strikes the dampers of the piano depending on the wind direction so she's sort of it's like John Cage was I think in some ways. But she's great to work with and she and I are continuing doing this. So this brings me to the end of my talk and I'm happy to answer any questions that you have.
So there are two microphones Rome roaming around. Please wait for the microphone and speak into it because we're recording on video and that gives us a clear speak. Hold it close.
Is it possible for you to go back to the kempler. Sure. I once taught physics and this is the box that Kepler found himself for a number of years. Preconceived notion was that the orbits of the planets were perfect circle because a circle was a perfect figure. And what this says is Kepler's attempt to actually take the fight platonic solids and use them to describe the orbits of the visible planets. He was unable to do that. He tried all kinds of things with this this being his personal box and he actually made the breakthrough they realized that he had to get rid of the circle. And he invented his three and discovered three laws. First one of which is that the orbits the planets are Lipsitz when he left this which comes from Plato then he was able to make a scientific breakthrough. So contrary to what most people think this is Kepler Chibuye past historical events when he threw off the chains because of necessity he made the great breakthroughs.
Yeah and of course he also went into musical notations as well.
LOTT Right right. Yeah. Right. Right.
He's an incredible thinker.
Why as a professor of science and mathematics. I would go back to the one sculpture piece that you said you considered a failure. Now I should tell you to reconsider that that's not it at all a failure because when as scientists we collect data and we try to answer the questions that we've posed. We in fact many times come out with negative results that don't answer the questions that we ask but it's not a failure because we have found that's not the way that question is to be answered. And it sends us in a different direction. So in fact where you think that that piece. Maybe doesn't serve a purpose it serves a very big purpose and that it told you that there weren't connections between those individual variables and that in fact you need to look in a different direction for those rights.
And just to sort of tack onto that I think what's so fascinating. How much you how important it is to ask a good question because you don't want to ask questions that you already said that that is too narrow that you shut off all the other possibilities although those those side tracks that could actually lead you to the the real answer and it's for me it was a really interesting example of how sometimes even the questions that. Seem like they're out of left field are some of the most interesting ones and even if it doesn't lead to anything concrete or answerable it doesn't matter. It was the fact that you even asked the question. Sometimes it's just that that's the hardest thing and the bravest thing is to actually ask the question to begin with.
And it's also what this place is actually came to by having a conversation with somebody about whales and tides.
And it was sort of this conversation that brought me to this to this piece and to actually ask the question.
Thanks hi I'm really struck by the very different ways of thinking and understanding that are involved in the sculptures in the music and the relationship between those two. I very much see the sculptures as taking information making it comprehensible in a 3D way. There's still an emotional reaction to it. But part of what it's doing is taking stuff that is almost so abstract when it's two dimensional that we can't quite really make sense of it like the thumbprints that give us a kind of a way for our body to enter into that relationship and understand it. Whereas music in a way is is almost more abstract. It's very emotional. We don't it's much less kind of a process of comprehension and more on this whole process of you know kind of flowing into you and almost like a process of intuition. So then you will be really interesting to see how these two piece these sort of two directions work.
Yeah. Even though of course there's a there's a very strong mathematical link to music as well which is which is all there but when we don't comprehend it math comprehend it mathematically necessarily. And I think what's interesting to me and again I mean this is such a new direction with music I'm not sure how I completely feel about it but I'm wondering is if bringing in music and musical notation and having it translated into music and my pushing the envelope of letting in too much poetry and and veering away from the data and I'm sort of and this divide and I don't know how I feel about that yet but I think sometimes you got to sort of step over to see your limits.
I'm struck by the different representations you use and I was thinking different languages because the vocabulary for certain concepts are uniquely good at expressing certain ideas and certain kinds of information presentation well concepts to express that don't exist in other representations. So my question is are there concepts that you feel you're beginning to get a hold of because of your unique ways of representing ways that aren't accessible through other ways of representing and that you translate them into into our language in a sense are there new concepts discoveries you feel you're making.
Yeah I think I'm getting actually a little closer to understanding the complexity of climate change which is probably the hardest thing about climate change to understand and that is by allowing these pieces to become more complex and allowing that complex complexity to exist even if that oftentimes becomes overwhelming even to me.
So I do think that they have actually helped me get a better grasp of what the complexity of climate change is and taking it a little bit away from the abstraction that we're always confronted with when we're talking about climate change because we're always given graphs or at work to sort of distill really x explanations on most of what climate changes. But when you just look at whether and how complex that is how can you actually visually understand that. And I feel like with these by allowing the pieces to become more complex I'm starting to understand that better. But it's also I think a type of visual listening.
And I often talk about being in the studio and listening to the sculpture and listening to the material and listening to the environment. There is this really strange semi blindness that I think a lot of artists are in when you're working with the material and working with the medium and working with the concept.
But it's being able to trust that half blindness to lead you to these new visualizations that I think is happening and it's also interesting that music should be coming in at this point because certainly music is is another way of visualizing in a sense a nuance that I don't think is yet in the sculpture. But having found the sort of new beacon to strive towards I can hopefully eventually come to that type of nuance that the notes can bring out that I don't think I still have in the sculpture at this point.
But it's really I feel like listening is so key to so many aspects of understanding weather and sculpture and thinking.
Have you posted your musical score on the website for any musician to see.
I haven't yet and it's still fairly new. We just had an a second recording yesterday but I hope to eventually put it on on the website. But I do it invites if any of you are musicians and I want to give it a shot. I'm happy to share the score.
I was kind of struck on you said listening. I was wondering if you could get into some of the different sounds you heard in Nebraska to parrot what you heard in the on the Cape and how that influenced your sculpting.
I think when I mean listening I don't necessarily mean audio listening I mean more. It's almost like the kind of listening you do when you walk through a dark alley where it's almost your entire body is listening to something that you don't quite know is there it it's there. It's I guess it's instinctual listening. And so that's that's how I'm referring it. I should clarify that.
And one of the things that definitely felt different about Omar was that.
It was so fragmented. I didn't know if I was listening to the city was listening to the weather I was listening to to my own prejudice against such an urban sprawl city because that's the other thing that comes up is your own prejudices against it. And and also my experiences in Omaha were that I would walk through the city there are no pedestrians there were almost no pedestrians in Omaha. Everybody was driving and I didn't have a car so I'd be walking. And it's so awkward because there's no sidewalks so you're walking on this two lane highway with your equipment. And so of course it didn't take long and the cops came in. What are you doing. What's this equipment. So I just brought this whole project into another realm and all of these prejudices all these experiences affect the way I hear it affect the way I in a sense listen to to the environment. So Cape Cod was a lot. Tamer. It was either here or there I guess. Yeah yeah. But I do I'm kind of so passing I don't understand. I mean I wonder if any of you are yourself feel that too. But that's sort of I'm amazed how blind we are sometimes in the studio and how it is so a matter of. Even though it's a visual medium it's so non-visual at the same time. I find that so fascinating about about and perhaps thinking is like that too the way that we always sort of think in blindness but sometimes it's not that hard blindness that we actually get to the question that really is intriguing. And the other thing I wanted to sort of throw out is a lot of people ask me So you know when you get out when you do these these pieces and it starts off with a question do you always get an answer. And my response is always is actually sometimes it's the pieces where I don't get an answer that I'm much more intrigued by when it's almost it's it's not about finding an answer it's about delving deeper into what the question is suggesting. That's where I feel like I want to be actually.
Could you take an example of one of your sculptures such as this one and could you kind of talk out loud falling along in your thought process.
As for example you place or you create the red let's say the red. What would you call them. Protuberances you know if you were to if you could just go with us with this phrase here no one.
Well maybe. But I was thinking of the one on the screen. OK. You know if you if for example you were to stop start at the top and we see the two red spikes is what they are or what they are and how you decide you know I mean really almost.
Well I guess it's kind of simplistically one two three what the distance of them from each other is the Lake of them. Your thought processes if you just were to walk us through a little short of it.
So this is actually a good piece because it's a fairly simple one. So again I guess the way I would start off is the structure itself which is 24 hours what I mentioned before and then this white stuff here is more data. The green is Twilight data. And then because this is two months worth of data what I have is time a platform of time basically and then. So what that means is that this is one day's worth of information as if the second is where the information these spikes here. Are actually twice and tile readings of a particular day so that the height of that spike refers to the tidal readings so if it's three feet or five feet and then it tides always happen at depending on where where you're reading the tide. But usually at 30 or 40 minute intervals. That's why it keeps changing the time where I'm plotting it. This for example is three o'clock on that day. The tide on the next day is at 3:30 on that day. That's sort of how that placement of these sticks comes about. And then in these blobs here are how many whales were sighted. And here we have six whales. And on what day and at what time. So these are again plaudit here excuse me.
The color choices sometimes I tried to color them so that you make the associations with you know Wale's water temperature hot. I know sometimes I know XYZ museum. It's sometimes temperature is blue but depending on here I chose red. And so sometimes there's a logical connection as to why I choose a certain color sometimes it's just what I whatever I have in the studio and I just want to finish it. I also borrow it not so much in this piece but I bought a lot of mineralogical symbols and I embed them into into the pieces so you can you can read what they are.
And then I basically try to sort of be really efficient whatever surface the sculpture has. I try to use. And so when you have a sculpture like this. When you when then them is a basket you have all these things sticking out. So you get to do something with these things. These are the spokes. So you know so here's this book coming out and I have to resolve that so one of the ways that I've started resolving is by weaving back into the piece which is what you see here. And that gives me another surface. So then I use this surface to plop down the moon phases of that particular two months. And there's another on the other side who actually you don't see it but there's the the the solar cycle is plotted on there.
So I try to use every part of the sculpture to plot where to use it for some sort of data representation. Does that help.
I was wondering if when when you are doing that I suppose you're setting certain rules like the tides and the time of day and so on. But then do you find that you can modify or invent or stretch your rules in order to adapt new. Like you said then that something else becomes just getting complicated but I think part of what's interesting looking at these is that since there's this dynamic of discipline and rules and yet of wonderful freedom.
Yeah I don't know if.
This is not science. I break too many rules for it to be science but on the other hand I have a lot of rules. And but the one thing that I don't do and this is where I feel like the integrity of the work lies is that I don't change the value for an aesthetic purpose. So I find myself translating something visually and it looks horrible. What I will do is take it away and find a new visual way of translating it. I will not tweak the numbers so that it looks pretty on the sculpture. So those that's the rule that I don't break. But yes I do I will go through different renditions of translation to find the visual thing that works. Every sculpture goes through a teenage phase where I'm not talking to the sculpture it's not talking to me. And I have to oftentimes goes in with three or four phases of the sculpture putting something on. Tearing it apart and going back and forth until I finally hear that hum where it actually works.
But it's not always an easy process.
Did you use any glue for the sculpture it's.
I do. I use a lot of glue. I use craft glue craft glue and wood glue and Gorilla Glue.
Yes there were a few points where you mentioned there's a human skill thing that's juxtaposed with what's really a very macro scale language that you're generally talking about for example you talk about your footsteps and you have it you have little yellow motifs going on it was based on your footsteps. And another point that was parking meters distant from the water. That's what I think this is an interesting contrast between that skill and the general language that you're working in and that almost looks to me like when you have those little insertions of that bad language. So I mean we can relate to. But to me it's almost like a joker card that you're playing once in a while. That's how it is. That's how it strikes me. Interesting flag that pops up once in awhile. I wonder if you see it that way too. Is that something that is kind of in the wings that you choose to bring in once in awhile or. It's if that's if there's a more logical reason than this.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
- Museum of Science, Boston
- WGBH Forum Network
- Weaving Science into Sculpture
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- Artist Nathalie Miebach explains how she literally weaves scientific data related to meteorology, climate change, and astronomy into brightly colored, three-dimensional sculptures. She describes how (and why) she creates these singular pieces that expand the boundaries of how scientific information can be represented and what art can mean, and demostrates what basket weaving, climate change, and sculpture have in common.
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Speaker: Miebach, Nathalie
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- Chicago: “Museum of Science, Boston; WGBH Forum Network; Weaving Science into Sculpture,” 2009-03-11, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 21, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-1v5bc3t03w.
- MLA: “Museum of Science, Boston; WGBH Forum Network; Weaving Science into Sculpture.” 2009-03-11. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 21, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-1v5bc3t03w>.
- APA: Museum of Science, Boston; WGBH Forum Network; Weaving Science into Sculpture. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-1v5bc3t03w