Earthquake Art

I’m a geologist by training, and my present employment has a decidedly environmental slant. I use this as an excuse for my ongoing interest in land/environmental art.   While not explicitly classified as sci-art because it isn’t necessarily always directly commenting on Science, it nonetheless uses the Earth as an artistic medium, with artists employing (or taking advantage of) geological processes in the creation of their work.  I see sci-art as a bit of a continuum. I can’t think of any examples, but I certainly imagine that art made using biological processes that doesn’t specifically comment on biology would still be considered Sci-Art. So why not geology?

Earthquakes = Art? Tania Kovats

This post is about earthquakes. And not just art about earthquakes (there are some gorgeous Japanese prints along these lines), but contemporary art using Earthquakes. The catalyst for this post was a long time in the making—Tania Kovats, in her gorgeous “The Drawing Book” shows one of her own drawings—made using earthquakes.   She sees seismograms as drawings made by the earth with an instrument constructed by the human hand.   Keeping this fascinating conceptual idea in mind (and frankly wishing that I’d come up with it myself), I started to wonder whether there were other artists who have made contemporary art about Earthquakes. I came upon a fascinating article published in the journal Leonardo by Ella Mudie called “The spectacle of Seismicity: Making Art from Earthquakes.” The projects highlighted in this article include:

Trigger, The Loma Prieta Pony by Natalie Jeremijenko

At first, it may seem like a simple children’s rocking pony. However, she has configured the motor of a child’s mechanical pony to cause it’s bucking to follow the ground motion of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.   On one level an educational tool, but also something that plays to our kind of perverse relationship between risk and excitement.   When I lived in California, I longed to feel an earthquake.   Not just because I was studying geology at the time, but also for the excitement of it, and the excitement of things falling around me. I could die! (but probably wouldn’t).

Mori by Ken Goldberg

Mori, Image Courtesy of Ken Goldberg

Ken Goldberg bills his project Mori as an internet-based earthwork. Minute motions along the Hayward Fault in California are transmitted from a UC Berkley seismograph via the internet and converted to acoustic signals.   A viewer enters the gallery through a curtain and looks downward at the angular patterns of the seismogram, a visual reference to the view in the scientific data.   Mudie points the similarity of this experience to the concerns of land artists, such as Robert Smithson, who were interested in the relationships between interior and exterior spaces.  The concept of site/non-site.  The San Francisco Ballet also performed a related piece in which the dancers interpreted these sounds, as they played in real-time.  You can listen to the recording of the sound used in the performance here.

Parkfield Interventional Earthquake Fieldwork (PIEQF) by DV Rogers

PQIEF, Image courtesy of USGS and PQIEF

Parkfield, CA is a strange town, which bills itself as the earthquake capital of the world.  “Be here when it happens,” advertises the water tower.  I visited while an undergrad at UCSB.  Its fame is not without reason—it straddles the San Andreas fault and has (fairly) regular M6.0 earthquakes, which led the USGS to set up a field station there.   Taking place over 91 days, the PIEQF was a temporary intervention into the landscape in which the artist installed a re-engineered earthquake shake table in a trench, which would shake every time an earthquake occurred in California.   The installation was intended to visually comment on the dynamic landscape of California and our relationship with the landscape and earthquakes.  Geophones installed in the ground around the table could also activate the table.  It brought to bringing to light small vibrations (distant earthquakes or rumbling cars) which might not otherwise be noticed. DV Rogers eloquently noted, “PIEQF is a conceptual intervention within geological time. Collaborating with USGS scientists has enabled a linkage between earth science and art, enabling a vehicle to broaden and expand the reach of earthquake awareness, education and preparedness for the people of California using a contemporary cultural model.”

I haven’t seen any of these pieces in person. However, I find it interesting that, with the exception of Tania Kovats’s appropriation of a seismogram, they involve a participatory element. Perhaps because so much of what an earthquake is about is the physical sensation—yes, there is the aftermath of the fallen down buildings, buckled roads, etc, but event of the earthquake is exciting.  As Natalie Jerimijenko shows, there’s a slight perversity to it all.  A spectacle.  It’s why we love disaster movies– to experience it, but to return home safe and sound at the end of it all.  I am also extremely excited by the degree to which scientists were integral to the Mori project and the PIEQF. Not just merely accessories or inspiration, but active participants in the artistic process. Given that we’re talking about earthquakes here, it’s appropriate.

Posted in earthquake, Environmental art, participatory, USGS | 2 Comments

What makes good sci art? #1

What sci-art?  Is it art that comments on science?  Is it art that uses the tools of science?  Is it science that is done with the intention of being art?  Is it a beautiful image produced by a scientist as an artifact of the research process in a moment of insight?  When does sci-art simply become clever design? Does it matter?  And when is sci-art good, rather than simply being clever, intellectual, etc?  As fascinated as I am, sometimes I find myself somewhat unmoved by certain pieces of sci-art , or actually wondering about their merit.  Other pieces blow me away in their simplicity or complexity (congratulations Eduardo Kac, your brilliant bunny continues to flummox me to bits).

GFP Bunny (Alba) by Eduardo Kac

I hardly expect that one blog post is actually going to get down to the bottom of this.  And it’s something that I’m happy to devote endless hours of discussion to, and probably eventually several blog posts.  A lot of it will come down to personal preference, and the whole “what is art” argument (which I’m not interested in touching either).  But I think that there is a level of complexity to good sci-art that is often missed by pretty pictures of sciencey things.  To kick off this discussion, I thought I would (begin to) look at photography, a medium which is used and abused by those interested in “sci-art.”

I remember a few years back going to an amazing MOMA San Francisco exhibition “Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible.”  It was jaw dropping. From my memory, it primarily comprised  photographs from the 19th century.  The first photographs through microscopes; the first photographs through telescopes.  The discovery of photography coincided with a flourishing in science, and there were a few brave souls who took advantage of this.   Artistic intent  barely figured any sort of role in the production of many of these photographs.  It was a combination of experimentation with media, an aesthetic sense, seeing something in nothing….  very much the way contemporary artists think about their work, come to think of it.

Étienne-Léopold Trouvelot, Direct electric spark obtained with a Ruhmkorff coil or Wimshurst machine, also known as "Trouvelot Figure"; 19th-century photograph; © Musée des arts et métiers, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, Paris

Compare this with NASA’s “Earth as Art” series of Landsat images.  Many of these satellite images are beautiful.  I have found remote sensing data of all sorts an inspiration for my own work. Yet despite their spectacularity, I find that they pale in comparison with some often rough, peepholes through a microscope.  They don’t lack for meaning—they pose many profound questions about the detatchment of the viewer from the object, are we seeing what we think we are seeing, what mysteries lie within the reality before our eyes that we can comprehend not?  There’s a postmodern sense of estrangement that I doubt NASA is aware of.

Coast of Guinea Bissau, Image courtesy of USGS National Center for EROS and NASA Landsat Project Science Office

And maybe that’s it.  A sense of naiveté.  That sense of discovery.  A sense of something that hadn’t been done before.  But is that the case for the shots taken with the Deep Field Camera?  Seeing further into the universe than ever before?  Seeing far into the past; far beyond when the Earth even existed as a planet; to the time when galaxies were closer; presenting a very strange view of reality that was…is..was… is………. whatever….

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Photo credit: NASA/ESA/S. Beckwith(STScI) and The HUDF Team.

Yet with all it’s superprofundity on the early eve of your day, I just can’t qualify it as art.  In the Duchampian “if the artist declares it as art….” sense I don’t think NASA is declaring these images to be art.  They are as art. They contain the beauty and mystery underlying many great works of art, but lack the gestalt.  The messiness; the fumbling around for Truth; that visualising reality in a way that had never been done before (I mean, let’s face it; even the Deep Field Hubble folks had taken photos of spiral/disc/what-be-you galaxy-a-plenty).  And there’s a lack of intentionality– there’s a declaring it to be art after the fact; coming back to Duchamp, it’s as if they are inadvertent readymades.

I am not claiming to make a grand this-is/is not-art statement here.  I realise the line is ambiguous.  But I find it incredible that some of those perfectimperfect MOMA images affected me in a way that few contemporary scientific images (in their traditional forms) actually do.  But it doesn’t mean that science can’t be beautiful either,  isn’t often something that makes you stare in wonder, and contemplate your place in it all.

Some thoughts to ponder until next time….

Posted in Astronomy, Bio Art, Photography, Satellite imagery, What is sci art | 2 Comments

A blog about science in art and art in science

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Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

Science and art—two fields that seem to be poles apart.  In today’s culture, you are shoved into one box or another, without much room for escape.  What would our old pal Leonardo da Vinci think of that?  The man who suggested a primitive theory of plate tectonics and invented flying machines was also one of the greatest artists the western world.  Science and art used to go hand-in-hand, and were regarded as essential elements of being an “educated” person.  I’ll admit that I’m making a bit of a generalisation here, but do go with it—in school, students who are talented in art, are not encouraged scientifically—and those who excel science are rarely encouraged in visual art (I say visual because an exception seems to be made for music). To do professionally today is nearly unheard of (though I can’t say I’d mind making a stab at trying).

George Gessert, Natural Selection (1994-present)

But… there are signs that society might be coming around… a bit at least.  Topics relevant to science are increasingly feeding contemporary art.  Bio-artists are using techniques of biology in making their art, questioning issues around genetic engineering and the environment.  It is now not unusual for science departments at universities or not-for-profit organizations to have an artist in residence.  Sometimes this is seen as good PR, a good “engagement” strategy; other times there is a genuine recognition of the contributions that science can make to contemporary art and what the fields can learn from each other.  Believe it or not, there is even a scholarly journal dedicated to art and science. There are increasing calls for artists to engage with the issue of climate change and provide the impetus for action that scientists seem incapable of doing.

Josiah McElheny, Island Universe (2008). Courtesy White Cube.

Josiah McElheny, Island Universe (2008). Courtesy White Cube.

So, why blog?  Mostly as a way of keeping myself up to date on the happenings in the small, but vibrant field of sci art, and a way to occasionally share any relevant work I might make, and highlight the work of various artists engaging with science in various ways.  I am interested in what constitutes “good” sci-art (as far as you’re willing to take that word when it concerns the subjectivity involved in the interpretation of art) and whether making a beautiful image within the context of science = art.  So, here begins the discussion….

Posted in art, introduction | 1 Comment