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The Art Between Your Ears

Julia Polaroid_1Julia Buntaine is a New York-based visual artist. An MFA student at School of the Visual Arts, Julia has been artfully crafting brainy renderings of our headspace since she discovered her love of neuroscience in college. Taking her passion for science-based art one step further, she founded SciArt in America, an online magazine dedicated to all things at the intersection between art + science. Just before meeting up to discuss our upcoming SciArt Speed Date // Collaborate event, Julia was kind enough to share some of her personal art works, as well as the spirit journey that led her to the science + art juncture.

How did you find your way into making science-based art?

I entered college having done art for a long time, and I knew I wanted to pursue it, but I also didn’t want to limit myself to just that. So I just started taking classes kind of randomly. I took an intro to neuroscience course, and for some reason it just clicked in a way that nothing else academic really had previously. At first I was in complete awe – I loved knowing that when dopamine is swirling around my brain it is because and making me happy. And then the more I studied, the more I came to deeply desire exploration of those Big questions—about what shapes perception, what it is to be conscious, what is the feeling of seeing red? So I spent half my time in college still doing art, and the other half getting deeper into cellular and molecular biology and the neuroscience of consciousness.

But in our final year everyone has to do a thesis project. I realized I couldn’t just keep double majoring, but I didn’t want to give up art or science. In one of my insomnia-induced freak-outs about my future, I realized I could just do art about science—pursue science on my own, while pursuing art more professionally. So I used the forms in neuroscience—making neurons and G-protein coupled receptors and ion channels—integrating them into more visual, metaphorical pieces. And when I started doing science-based art, I began realizing that science was important to convey artistically. It gave me real purpose as an artist.

Neural Correlate Of Concrete. 2009, insulation board, concrete. The very first of Julia's neuroscience-based art pieces.

Neural Correlate Of Concrete. 2009, insulation board, concrete. The very first of Julia’s neuroscience-based art pieces.

And how did that trajectory lead you to founding SciArt in America?

Over the last three years since college, I had been searching for a sciart community. But if you Google “science art” or “sciart” you won’t find a lot of it. I knew there was a lot of sciart in the UK and in Berlin, so when I moved to New York to start graduate school last year, I knew it had to be here too. I was really lucky to go to the School of Visual Arts where Suzanne Anker, who has been a bioartist for the last 40 years and a pioneer of sorts, teaches. She was really the first person I met here who did science art as seriously as I did.

As a science artist, I work with things that cannot be found in an art store. I might want to use a microscope, but how do I get one of those if I can’t afford to buy it? So I was sitting in class one day thinking about how frustrated I was that I couldn’t find other people to at least problem solve with and talk to about these things. And I realized the solution was probably to create the thing that I was looking for in all my Google searches—a place where artists can be featured, and where artists can learn about each other and get in touch with each other.

Could you talk more about some of the neuroscience-based art you’ve made over the years, and how it has evolved?

During my final year of college I was working only in concrete. I was very material-driven back then, meaning I was very interested in getting dirty with plaster, and the really studio heavy, labor-intensive process was very much a part of my practice.

Chemical Play. 2010, 8'x16'. insulation board, concrete, astroturf, golf balls, bricks, putter.

Chemical Play. 2010, 8’x16′. insulation board, concrete, astroturf, golf balls, bricks, putter.

Chemical Play [2010]. I had a thesis show at the end of my senior year and this was one of the pieces in it. These are the G protein-coupled receptors made out of white concrete. I wanted to talk about how we play with pharmaceuticals, or how we play with neurotransmitters generally. So I had all of these different colored golf balls representing not only neurotransmitters that move around that we putt in this direction or that direction, but also just how we play with the brain. So I had a golf putter, and during the opening these little kids just jumped in because they didn’t know that rule that you’re not supposed to touch art. It was great because then other people started getting in there, and even adults were taking turns putting. It was a great piece since something happened that I really didn’t expect to!

Recently my work has gotten really concept-driven. Generally, there are two ways to do artwork. One is to start with the material and see how the piece forms and what it turns into, and the other is to start with the concept and find the appropriate material. I made the switch from the former to the latter after realizing that with the complexity of ideas I was begging to have, an arbitrary choice in material would end up competing with the concept I was going for—this is because materials are concept laden things, and that point can’t be overlooked while making. For other artists with more open ideas, this isn’t a problem at all, but that’s just not my case. I also find it really fun, to dream of a project in a medium I’ve never worked in, and the learning process that goes along with making it. It’s brought me to learn many things I never thought I would a few years ago.

Brodmann's Subways. 2013, 5"x5"x5". papier mache, complete NYC subway map

Brodmann’s Subways. 2013, 5″x5″x5″. papier mache, complete NYC subway map

Brodmann’s Subways [2013]. One bigger concept I come back to continually is the conceptual connection between brains and cities. If you look at a subway map, you can think of the way subways serve the city to connect different parts of it—helping one part literally, physically communicate with another by carrying information or people. Then you can think of the brain as having all these communication tracks that connect different areas in certain ways. I that idea like a lot—brains and cities and maps. I also think a lot about the way the brain is represented, is organized visually, in the way that cities are visually organized into maps. Korbinian Brodmann was the German anatomist this piece is named for—he created a map of the brain’s cortex based on cell type. I decided to apply this idea to the subway map, divide the map into squares and arrange by “type”, and cluster them on a brain from by likeness the way Brodmann did.

What We See. 2013, size variable (103 pieces) // images acquired from visual perception Neuroscience and psychology studies

What We See. 2013, size variable (103 pieces) // images acquired from visual perception Neuroscience and psychology studies

What We See [2013]. I framed stimuli from visual neuroscience studies—103 of them to be precise—and put them on a wall. I was thinking about neuroscience studies and what they show the subjects in order to measure a reaction from them in the brain. I’ve done this myself. I’ve run studies and read a ton of papers, so I’ve known these images for a long time, and they are kind of weird looking—a series squiggly lines in a row, or blurred faces, or a weird alien face that has some strange expression on it. So I wanted to use them as the art objects, not only because I think they’re very interesting pictures, but also because it brings up this larger issue: neuroscientists use these images to test our visual system in the lab, to understand what happens in the real world. Since you can’t test in the real world, these images must act as real world approximations in a sense. But when I look at them, I think are these really real world approximations? Or are these just really weird looking pictures. So I have a certain level of criticality when it comes to neuroscience. I do love it, but I don’t love it without also thinking of these sorts of problems too. All these neuroscience studies are out now that tell us how our visual systems work based on these images. So yes this is what we see in the lab, but is this how we see in the real world?

How have you gone about presenting art that is very much rooted in scientific concepts, some of which may be completely foreign to your viewer?

the spaces between

The Spaces Between. 2013, 3″x6′. clay. “In charting the connections between every neuron, neuroscientists accidentally charted the space between the neurons.”

When I exhibit my work it’s repeatedly been a question for me whether I should offer an explanation in a press release to my viewer, or as a paragraph on the wall next to the piece. So for instance in the piece The Spaces Between, if you looked at those sculptures without knowing what they were, you would just think they were these weird looking objects on a shelf. I want people to know more than that. I want them to know that this is the negative space made positive inside your brain between the neurons. Because that’s what interesting to me. So I just give out just the scientific information, not what you should necessarily be getting from the piece or how it should impact you. And I don’t want my reader to have to read something in order to enjoy it. Aesthetics are a huge concern of mine, not just the concept. I like making things that are beautiful, so the hope is that you look at it and you have an experience of pleasure. And then, if that happens, you would be interested to read further. And reading further, in my experience, enhances the work and doesn’t detract from it.

For the last year I have been interviewing local artists and am constantly amazed // invigorated by how my conversations with them have added an entirely new dimension to my own scientific thoughts and curiosities. Stay tuned for more Conversations with Artists!!

Carmen Papalia: Long Time No See

Carmen-polaroidVancouver-born artist Carmen Papalia designs experiences around the theme of access as it relates to public + institutional spaces. Through his gradual vision loss, he has come to experience his surroundings non-visually–learning to devote his attention to a realm that lies just out of sight. Carmen invites his participants to explore + engage with this world through the practice of closing our eyes to discover what happens when we grant ourselves access to our non-visual senses. Carmen was kind enough to carve out some time as he was preparing for his first solo exhibition–Long Time No Seeat CUE Art Foundation to share his thoughts on art, access, and the world we open our eyes from.

You talk about your work as an “open-sourcing” of your own disability experience. How did you come into this particular form of artistic expression?

There’s this problematic cultural idea that disability is a reduction of experience. But I think of it differently; I flip that idea in my work so that it’s a liberatory experience. When I was undergoing the first phase of my vision loss, I started focusing away from visual things. I began finding that the energy I was putting into trying to interpret and understand things through the visual sense was happening in other ways through my other senses. I was tapping into this world that had been there all along.

Because of its history culturally and socially, disability as a term carries a lot of problems, so it’s difficult for people to connect to the word—I find that it alienates them. In terms of open sourcing my disability experience, I find that bringing people in is a far more productive strategy in gaining solidarity around my ideas about access. I’ve found a way of bringing people into my way of doing things, so they can really get the idea of: instead of being visual learners right now, we’re going to learn through our non-visual senses. And that’s what I do with a lot of my projects—have people consider things that they might often be numb to because of that reliance on the visual sense.

Your exhibition at CUE showcases a number of images + videos documenting different incarnations of the Blind Field Shuttle walking tours that you’ve been leading over the last few years. Could you talk more about these tours?

I like to think of the walking tours as people’s first few steps into a non-visual world—into this other dimension that operates on a different idea of time and space. The difference between the walking tour and a simulation of blindness is that with a simulation you’re kind of relieved at the end. The intention is that you will understand a group of people—people who are visually impaired—more deeply and you’ll be empathetic towards them. So when you open your eyes, you’re relieved that you have that privilege to open your eyes from that simulated blindness.

Carmen leading the Blind Field Shuttle at Haveford College as part of the What Can a Body Do? exhibit. [Photo by Thom Carroll]

Carmen leading the Blind Field Shuttle at Haveford College as part of the What Can a Body Do? exhibit. [Copyright of Thom
Carroll Photography 2012. All rights reserved.]

But with the walking tour a lot of people choose to keep their eyes closed because you realize that you’re opening your eyes from this world that was very interesting + that could pique your curiosity + that is full of things to explore. So it’s a sort of opening-up of experience. People realize that there’s all this stuff that you can tap into just with the simplest of things—closing your eyes—by trusting in that practice and empowering yourself in that practice.

I didn’t want to coerce my participants and say that you have to keep your eyes shut for this period of time. So when I’m working with a group of people, we’re creating this relationship together where there’s this exchange of trust: they’re trusting me to take them to this destination safely and I’m trusting that they’ll participate based on the terms of the project. And I think we’re navigating that through the whole experience. So it was a conscious decision because that exchange of trust is more true to a relationship built between two people rather than saying: “Now I’m going to blindfold you and you’re going to be okay with it!”

Earlier this summer you led eyes-closed gallery tours at the Whitney. Considering how much we rely on the visual sense in gallery spaces, did you get a sense for how participants’ experiences of the art + the museum changed with eyes closed?

These tours are one-on-one experiences where a guide will be guiding a participant and describing everything—from art objects to architectural details in spaces to what other museum visitors look like. So the guide might walk up to a stranger and describe what they looked like to the participant, acknowledging the museum as a social space, as well as a place where art objects are. People also don’t often acknowledge that those buildings are architectural spaces in and of themselves. So it’s partly about recognizing all the other stuff that’s going on in the museum, but also about recognizing that there are so many entry points to a particular artwork—other ways of connecting the viewer or participant to an artwork. And this exercise is often able to make that connection in a way that’s more memorable and profound than if the participant were just looking at the art.

2012 See for Yourself museum tour at the Vancouver Art Gallery. [Photo by Sylvia McFadden]

Access programs in museums are often finding strategies to connect people to art. So if we think of access programming for people who are visually impaired, educators are looking for innovative ways to make this art relevant to a group of people that is not visual. I think that’s exactly what’s happening in these tours as well—providing a story or detail or something the participant can latch onto so they can start imagining something that represents the work itself.

When people hear, “We’re standing in front of a painting…” they begin making these personal connections and feeling that they can take ownership over the art experience. I often think that we’re passive observers of the museum most of the time—unless there’s an opportunity to participate in some way in the art piece—so this exercise really allows you to be a partial author of the piece. And [based on the people who I’ve talked to] people enjoy that. I think this happens in general—we get out of art what we bring to it. And it’s funny, in some cases they’re able to connect more with the work by not seeing it in. Painting relies on being looked at. It’s often not asking you to do anything but look at it. Throughout art history, we’ve been able to look at a lot of stuff, and I think that through this focus on the visual, we’ve actually learned how to see using the interpretive skills that we’ve gotten from art and looking at art. But I like to think about a possible world where what if the museum experience was built on tactility? What would our culture look like now? Because I think the museum provides this great space for cultural learning–and it’s also a container for history. So the choices made in a museum can change what happens outside of a museum. But the people outside of the museum have to be invited in first in a way that’s not weird–in a way that is real and sincere.

Following our conversation, I had the great pleasure of actually experiencing Carmen’s work, participating in a one-on-one site mapping exercise in which Carmen led me with eyes closed through Chelsea Market as I recorded my impressions of the space. We’ve all heard that when a person loses a sense, their other senses become heightened to compensate. The brain actually has an incredible ability to reorganize itself in response to vision loss. In fact, when a blind person uses their senses of touch and audition, sections of the brain’s visual processing center turn on, indicating that their brain has—at least to some extent—been rewired to utilize tactile and auditory information in place of visual stimuli. With this in mind + without much thought, I foolishly took it for granted that the world a visually impaired person experiences roughly approximates the experience of any person with all 5+ senses. Consequently, my rather naïve working “hypothesis” for the experience was that my alternate senses would adjust [at least to some extent] to compensate for my closed eyes–orienting at the very least to major landmarks, the general floor plan, and the steady flow of crowds through the market.

Since I had never before been in Chelsea Market [quite embarrassing considering that I am after all a New Yorker], this blind tour was actually my first experience with the space. But even once I got over the initial nervousness // self-consciousness of closing my eyes in this very public + very crowded space, I found myself occupying a quasi-alternate reality that was completely foreign to any ordinary encounter with a new place. While I most definitely found my other senses heightened, instead of serving as a source of comfort + orientation, this heightening was utterly overwhelming. I was inundated by a multitude of auditory + tactile sensations that my brain simply could not parse through because I had never learned to pay such deep attention to these sorts of sensory cues.

Based on the number of raw sensory inputs I was receiving + perceiving, my mood fluctuated somewhere between sheer panic and sweet relief. So as I was learning to interpret these cues, space + time began operating completely differently for me in that 10-minute span. Surrounded by loud + uninterpretable chatter // bumping up against strange people + objects, I felt claustrophobic, with time passing in fits and starts. But suddenly, a cool breeze or burst of air-conditioned air would blow over me to snap me out of my panic, leaving me feeling expansive–my stride opening up // my head turning this way and that, as I explored my surroundings with newly focused curiosity. I could listen and feel with a rising sense of confidence… until it grew into overconfidence and I was clumsily bumping into those same people + objects once more.

"We’re making a visual document of a non-visual experience. I think of these documents and they are sometimes confusing, because they’re an example of a group of people who are getting a 10-minute experience of mapping in this way—an example of people who haven’t developed this sense."

“We’re making a visual document of a non-visual experience. I think of these documents and they are sometimes confusing because they’re an example of a group of people who are getting a 10-minute experience of mapping in this way—an example of people who haven’t developed this sense.”

Carmen led a number of participants through the market, so once we all had completed our eyes-closed tours, we headed back to the Cue gallery to draw out our collective impressions of the space, mapping them into a collaborative spatial narrative–a sort of experiment in how our experiences lined up [or didn’t at all] when we could no longer rely on a visual crutch. Through this mapping, I was rather stunned to see how amusingly off-the-mark my impressions of the space had been–like my entirely misguided belief that what was actually a hose-like installation hanging from the ceiling was instead a pond-like fountain! Ever since, I’ve become totally obsessed with this wholly different world I occupied for a mere 10 minutes–how exploring a different form of awareness could conjure up this experience that was completely unique to me. I returned to participate in Carmen’s Blind Field Shuttle tour of the High Line a few days later, curious to experience how closing my eyes could transform + reinvigorate a familiar space for me–to discover what new sort of parallel world would open up this time as I honed in on a new set of stimuli I’d previously been blind to.

For a glimpse of the world behind closed eyes, be sure to catch Carmen’s exhibit at Cue Art Foundation from September 7 to October 12. And to experience Carmen’s participatory art projects for yourself, be sure to check out his upcoming projects, including an exercise in focused listening in conjunction with the exhibition MoMA Studio: Sound in Space on November 15!

For the last few months I have been interviewing local artists and am constantly amazed // invigorated by how my conversations with them have added an entirely new dimension to my own scientific thoughts and curiosities. Stay tuned for more Conversations with Artists!!

Dwelling with Duende

lora-faye-1When I first saw singer // multi-instrumentalist Lora Faye perform, I was blown away by her beautifully raw vocals + nostalgic sound. But, as a biologist, what surprised + intrigued me was her stage banter. Throughout her set, Lora Faye teased out her latest fascination with the freakish yellowness of body fat. Engrossed by the gross realities of our innards + their interwoven presence amidst such raw sonic beauty, I was thrilled to chat with the Brooklyn native as she shared her thoughts on intuition, the creative process, and finding space for guts + gore in art.

When we first met you were describing how you had been working a lot with this idea–duende. Can you talk more about duende and how you came to it?

I started listening to a lot of female flamenco singers and researching what was going on there. I first saw a video of a group of women singing and clapping. And it was just so incredibly powerful and disturbing and frightening and beautiful at the same time—which is ultimately my connection with music and the reason why I make it. Watching this video was just a very heightened experience of that and I just thought, “What is this called?”

So duende is a phrase that Lorca invented, but it’s supposed to be associated with this old mythological gobliny creature that’s all about guts and gore and darkness and the sort of blackness of the human condition—and how that’s ultimately what unites us all. Not rainbows and sunshine. I think duende is like exorcising a demon. That’s why they say it’s a mythical goblin creature. Seeing someone really embody that as a performer is the experience of seeing them literally expel something. That’s the only way I can describe it.

You just recorded + released a 5-track EP [“Waltzes“]. How has duende influenced you and you’re approach to making music?

Lora Faye

“My mom says that when I was a kid I would hum all the time and that it was really weird—just playing around in the dirt and humming. People would say ‘What’s wrong with your child?'”

I started feeling like it was really dangerous territory for me to think about duende because by nature having that power as an artist is something that isn’t rational and it isn’t something that you can put down on paper as, “Oh I have this skill.” But the duende comes and goes. And I have this fear now that it’s gone forever because I’ve been thinking about it so much. I’ve been feeling like—and this is pertaining to the body—I can’t reconcile my mental state with my bodily state. Either in my head I’m totally relaxed and totally meditative, but I can’t get my body to reflect that. Or vice-versa.

Speaking of skill, I remember you saying that you aren’t actually a technically trained musician, but rather that you’re totally self-taught. How does that affect the way you create // compose your music?

When I’ve figured out what I’m playing on the guitar—and just played it over and over and over again until I’m not even thinking about it or realize I’m doing it—that’s when I write the melody and start singing. I can be totally in my head and listening and hearing what sounds good. Like okay, I’m just going to play these notes and then I’m going to sing a bunch of syllables over the notes until there’s a melody. And then I’m going to figure out what those syllables sound like in terms of words. And then I’m going to write the lyrics… Sometimes you end up saying some really weird things too and feeling, “Oh I don’t want anyone to psychoanalyze that!”

It’s like this process of creating a pad and then feeling out vocally what melody sounds right over it for my voice and my body and then letting that melody insinuate it’s own syllables which then become the lyrics. That was my process when I was very young and I started to realize that it was weird. So then I tried to write how other people write—start with lyrics and then add the melody. But I’ve really been trying to get back into just letting the melody dictate the meaning and letting the melody be dictated by me and whatever physically // biologically resonates.

Lora Faye with Band

“I have certain relationships with people that I collaborate with and there are those sort of orgasm moments where it’s just like we’re having exactly the same experience right now.”

So I write by myself and then I bring it to my band. I’ll say–it’s this and I play the chord. And they consult with each other and they’re like, “It’s a this chord.” And I’m like, “Yes! It’s a that chord!” And I’ll play another and they’ll be all upset and then they’ll be like oh you’re playing in 5. It definitely takes a little longer, but ultimately I think it’s good because they end up letting go a bit and learning the song before they learn the technical theory behind the song: this song is in 5 and it has this weird chord it’s in this weird key. First you have to have the emotional experience of hearing it, and then figure it out. Whereas I think a lot of musicians who play in bands look at a chart first and then play the song without ever having that initial listening experience.

The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ ∇Δ Federico García Lorca

The gruesome image Lora Faye painted of purging some goblin-like beast from deep within to give rise to this awesome duende power deeply resonated with me. The idea of this heightened state of emotion residing within the bowels of the body–outside the limits of the intelligence of the mind–was so disturbingly poetic to me that I couldn’t help but dwell on it. Following my gut, I began investigating whether the visceral power of the viscera may have biological roots.

The duende of Spanish mythology.

Lining our intestinal tract lies a mass of approximately 100,000 neurons that has come to be called the second brain based on its size [larger than a cat’s!] + complexity. Technically known as the enteric nervous system [ENS], the second brain can actually control gut behavior independently, performing all of its digestive duties even after connection with the brain is severed. But more interesting than its autonomy is the fact that the brain in the head was likely derived from a primitive version of the brain in the gut, as versions of the ENS are found throughout the animal kingdom–from the most simple worm all the way up to us. What’s more, the ENS makes all of the same neurotransmitters–or message-relaying chemicals–as the brain. In fact, the gut produces the same amount of dopamine as the brain plus 95% of the body’s serotonin!

Though an ancient relative of the second brain provided the evolutionary seed to the seat of our consciousness, as of yet, there is no evidence that the ENS possesses any cognitive capabilities. “Religion, poetry, philosophy, politics – that’s all the business of the brain in the head,” says ENS expert Michael Gershon. Nevertheless, with over 90% of gut-brain messages coming from the bottom up, the ENS is in constant communication with the brain, particularly with the limbic system responsible for controlling our emotions + behavior. Our innards have undeniably evolved an intuitive grasp on the digestible world around us, operating under the radar of our conscious cognition to covertly sense potential threats + modulate our mood in response to food. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise given the elation we feel after a delicious meal or the anguish that comes with gastrointestinal distress. But our emotional connection to the gut may go even deeper with scientists finding links between ailments of the gut and the mind, including anxiety + depression.

From gut feelings to those butterflies fluttering in our stomachs, so much of our emotional selves are derived from the bowels of our being, so there’s no real telling the powers of artistic expression that may result from tapping into the second brain–from leaving the conscious realm of the head to explore the raw intuition that resides within the primitive gut.

For the last few months I have been interviewing local artists and am constantly amazed // invigorated by how my conversations with them have added an entirely new dimension to my own scientific thoughts and curiosities. Stay tuned for more Conversations with Artists!!

The Sound of Silence

Katie PipalKatie Pipal is a new york-based musician, studying recording engineering at NYU Steinhardt. I met her last summer when she masterfully designed the nightmarish soundscape for the original play Antigone Unearthed at the 2012 NYC Fringe Festival. Since then, I’ve heard Katie’s music featured in a number of pieces that have been labeled “experimental” works of art. Being a scientist interested in the art/science connection, I’ve become really intrigued by the idea of experimenting with art. So, naturally, I was super excited to get a lesson in creating and listening to experimental music from Katie herself!

For you, what does it mean for music to be experimental and what exactly does experimentation mean for music?

Whenever I think of experimental music, I think of John Cage and all the things he ascribed to convey and say over the course of his life. The epitome of that is 4’33”—a performed piece where the musician essentially sits silently on stage for 4 minutes and 33 seconds—which he made to force the audience to tune into their surroundings. He was also really into chance and composing based on chance encounters. So 4’33” is the ultimate chance situation because it’s different every single time because the audience is different every single time. John Cage was all about tuning into your surroundings and creating atmospheres—sound for the sake of sound. Because there are things that are part of what we hear and experience on a daily basis, but never notice unless we give them this plot of land on a piece of sheet music and called it music. Experimental music is very much for the purpose of illustrating different ways of looking at music and thinking about music—like this is a really interesting soundscape and so much of it is in our daily lives.

The idea of silence as a soundscape seems so crazy because we don’t even know what silence sounds like!

an anechoic chamber: the quietest place on earth.

Unless you’re in these chambers called anechoic chambers that are used to test the noise floor for mechanical machinery. The walls are acoustically treated to have absolutely zero sound reflections, which are what we use to orient ourselves in space. So I know that I’m here right now because my voice is coming out and reflecting off this wall and bouncing back off that wall and then coming back to my ear. So in an anechoic chamber you can’t orient yourself at all. Unless someone speaks, there is no sound at all. Or if you do speak it just comes out of your mouth and dies—which is terrifying! So John Cage went into one of these chambers because he was obsessed with silence and the different kinds of silence and what silence means—silence in this coffee shop [where we’re sitting] is the sound of the street outside and what’s happening out in the backyard. But when he went into this anechoic chamber, he could hear two distinct pitches. So he told the technician who ran the facility: “It’s not quiet in here. I can hear two different frequencies.” And the technician said: “One of those is your circulatory system and one of those is your nervous system—and that’s it.” So the only thing you can hear is your inner function as a living organism.

So would you say that John Cage has really influenced the way you make music, or the way you think about music?

I definitely have a tonal center to my work, and it’s always built upon a certain fundamental key and harmony and rhythm, whereas John Cage is very much about polyrhythm and complete anti-structure. But I do try and compose for the sounds themselves. In the last song I did, I tried to take this one sound and evolve it to make it feel like it has a life of its own—and then to just completely demolish it and show these parts of the sound where it’s the most horrendous thing I’ve ever heard. I can’t even listen to that piece because there are sounds in it that I just hate, but they were just there and I felt like I had to work with them. Being a recording engineer is primarily about the feeling of a given song, but also about the distinct sounds that make up that sound. So when I was first considering becoming a recording engineer, it was so much about this sound in this song and how it’s blowing my mind right now and how do I make that sound? How do I create this lush crazy atmosphere that I hear in all of my favorite albums? I wanted to learn how to take sounds apart and piece them back together so that they can stand on their own and be totally strong and excellent and part of this vast network.

As you’re composing for sounds and letting them take on a sort of life of their own, what is it that you’re aiming to get across through your creative process?


katie at work in the studio.

It’s about trying to experience things in a new, fresh, and open way. Antigone Unearthed was the beginning [of composing music] for me. I loved making sounds for that piece and bringing everything together to make an atmospheric sense of space and feeling—this is a world that you create and inhabit. As opposed to, this is a love song, and this is a sad love song. Or fuck my boss, I hate my job. I never make pieces because I want to say something about a specific memory or about my childhood or family or loved ones. I make music because I feel there is just this thing inside of me that nobody ever talks about and that I never talk about—and I just need to vomit it out right now! I was talking to a friend of mine a while ago and she said, “I believe in human darkness.” And it just sort of hit me: “Oh my god this is what I’ve been trying to do this whole time!” That is, just trying to express this human darkness—and not darkness in a cruel and terrifying way. But darkness as in this very universal loneliness and pain that we all feel, and we all sympathize and empathize about it, but nobody really says anything about it because it’s so universal.

I’ve always thought of musicians as makers + mixers of melodies and harmonies, using bits of sound as raw material to stitch together a whole song. The individual sounds behave as some means to an end, but by no means the end itself. So naturally, I was intrigued by Katie’s special attention to and consideration of how certain sounds sound. By how she composes for—not with—the sounds themselves, exploring them to deepen them. In so doing, her work builds these rich // evocative // novel sonic atmospheres. But the sound that resonated most with me throughout our conversation—and has been creeping into my thought-space over and over ever since—is actually the absence of sound: the ever-elusive silence.

I actually interviewed Katie over four months ago, but the idea of silence has disquieted me so much that it has actually taken me all this time to gather my thoughts enough to even begin to respond! Musician David Byrne once said, “Science’s job is to map our ignorance.” Yet here I found Katie’s contemplation of silence to be deeply revealing of my own ignorance when it comes to the science of silence. Accordingly, I’ve decided to share a sample of where my ignorance has led me that all sprouted from one simple question: where can I “hear” silence?

In this technology-ridden // noise-polluted world we live in, silence has become an ideal–synonymous with this idea of an escape from the hectic, ultra-modern world so many of us inhabit. But more than that, silence is a physical + statistical impossibility. Sound begins when a source vibrates, setting surrounding molecules in motion. As these molecules bump up against each other, regions of high pressure compressions and low pressure rarefactions form a pressure wave as the sound is propagated from one location to another. As a result, silence can only exist in the absence of matter–in a vacuum–so that the sonic source can never set molecules in motion. So then I started thinking about where we might encounter a vacuum, and naturally my first thought went to the enormous + ever-expanding void that is space.

After a quick Google search for *sound in space* I was rather shocked to find that space isn’t so silent after all. True. Space is as close to a perfect vacuum as nature can get [after all nothing in nature is perfectly perfect]. But, just like here on Earth, far-off planets, stars, and black holes play out their own signature songs, which we can actually hear sung aloud if given the proper equipment. In fact, there is a whole field of astronomy–dubbed radio astronomydedicated to translating the super long-range // low-energy radio waves emitted by celestial bodies into sound using ordinary radio receivers. Radio astronomers can interpret the humming + hissing // pulsing + pounding of these celestial songs to glean information about the inner workings of outer space. For instance, we can ensonify outer worldly phenomena from the rumbling of storms on Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io to the hissing of high energy solar flares on the surface of our sun.

Fine. So the sounds of the universe can travel to our earthly ears [granted via interpretation + manipulation] as low-energy radio waves moving through the near perfect void that is space. But what if we were in the middle of that void just floating about… could we hear those sounds? In her TED talk, astrophysicist Janna Levin paints a sonic picture of the sound the universe makes–namely, the percussive beating of space-time as patches of our universe collapse into black holes. Dark against a dark sky, black holes remain invisible to us. Nevertheless, we can hear them by the havoc they wreak on the fabric of space-time:

If you were standing near enough, your ear would resonate with the squeezing and stretching of space. You would literally hear the sound. Now of course, your head would be squeezed and stretched unhelpfully, so you might have trouble understanding what’s going on!

Even in an atmosphere [nearly] devoid of the very stuff that makes sounds sound, the universe has still managed something like it’s own definitively non-silent celestial soundscape–a deep void rich with sonic stirrings + textures. Accordingly, I’ve decided to leave you with some aural snapshots of some of the most resounding sounds in the universe.

X Class Solar Flare. Click to listen. Photo courtesy of NASA/SDO/AIA.

Artist’s rendering of a black hole. Click to listen. [Credit: NASA/ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)]

Artist’s rendering of a black hole. Click to listen. [Credit: NASA/ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)]

For the last few months I have been interviewing local artists and am constantly amazed // invigorated by how my conversations with them have added an entirely new dimension to my own scientific thoughts and curiosities. Stay tuned for more Conversations with Artists!!

Foray into the Fourier

Brechner-PolaroidJosh Brechner is a Brooklyn-based producer // musician and the sole musical force behind the electronic act Visager. I met him last November when he performed for Brooklyn-based arts company Our Ladies, debuting some songs from his recently released 12-track album Heap, which dropped in February. Amidst all the pre-album-release chaos, Josh was kind enough to sit down and chat with me about his creative process, electronic music, and his take on experimental art.

Where do you start as a jumping off point for making a song?

It depends. I’ll talk about one specific song where I wanted to emulate the sound of a duo I really like called Javelin to get a better feel for how they make music and the kinds of music-making tricks that they use. For them it’s all about a lot of layered percussion, and not traditional percussion, but more vintage drum samples and claps that are panned in the stereo field so you get a sound that is, to me, the visual equivalent of stacking a bunch of layers of dried seaweed — layered but there’s still space in between. So once I had the backbone of the main instruments and the bass line I was able to develop it into a full song, bringing in elements from my own life.

So the jumping off point for that song was that I wanted to make music that sounded like this other kind of music so that I could understand it. Other times I’ll just have random samples sitting around that I’ve taken off vinyl or collected on my own or made, and I’ll play around with them on my keyboard until I have something that I like and then go from there.

What is it about a song that would make you want to sit down and actually try to emulate it?


performing at our ladies back in november // photo by gina pollack

Most of the music listening I do is for research. I always want to hear new ideas that will help me make better music. And then taking the time to actually sit down and force myself to hear components of a new song and then try to make them on my own is a much more tangible learning experience than just listening. Javelin is a band that I see myself drawing a lot from, and while I am heavily inspired by them, the music that I make is very different. So I tried to replicate it to see where our points of similarity lie and where they don’t.

I think there’s also something about capturing a sound. Not just in recording or making a song, but also in internalizing sounds that you hear, which is what I do a lot … When I hear a person say something in a funny way, sometimes I’ll repeat it back out loud, and they think I’m making fun of them but I’m really just repeating it to see how that sound is. People have weird glitches in the way they say things all the time and we all just gloss over it. So instinctually I sometimes just hang back a second to play with that weird sound.

To me, your music doesn’t really sound like what I associate electronic music with, which is to say it doesn’t sound synthesized or artificial. Can you talk about the sorts of sounds you’re influenced by?

Visager 2

josh at heap’s album release show in march

Dan Deacon made a very valid point that … the rise in electronic music is not just tied to people’s ability to make music through electronic means. Yeah that’s one half of the equation, but the kind of music that people are making is a product of the sounds that they’re immersed in. Because we’re in a world of electronic noises, and we filter a lot of them through conscious day-to-day awareness, these sounds become more and more accepted. Speaking personally, I generally don’t like electronic sounds that sound too synthetic. I like sounds that sound more rounded. I like music that is spread around a stereo field so it sounds like there are different sounds emanating from all around you. Because it just sounds very organic.

I think a lot of my musical inspiration comes from growing up in a forest, which sounds crazy and weird. I would go on hikes in the woods and the sounds would change depending on the season. I really like the sound of peeper frogs and cicadas in the summer. I’ve imitated both of those sounds on tracks, either as percussive elements or as samples taken from field recordings. Also, local bird calls, chickadees and finches. So that’s the biggest geographic locator in my music.

You organized an experimental Christmas album last year, and I’m wondering what exactly experimental music means and what, if anything at all, defines it’s “success”?

I don’t think I have a specific checklist for what makes one thing experimental. What I told everyone putting it together was that they could and should do whatever they wanted. As long as they used a song as a jumping off point I didn’t care where they ended up. So in that sense it was an experiment because there was no desired outcome. But I think experimental music is important. And I think it’s important because it’s a dedication to doing new things no matter what those new things are — either new things for you or new things for your field … To me, something is art if it inspires some sort of greater awareness. If you’re able to walk away from it with a positive or negative experience. And that experience itself is entirely contextual in terms of how and when you receive that piece of artwork. So I wouldn’t say that there’s anything that could be across the board, definitively not art. If something catches you in a moment where it moves you, I think that’s enough.

To be completely honest, when Josh told me that he listens to music for research I thought he was just appealing to my scientific sensibilities through an analogy. But then he showed me exactly what he meant, showing me the software he uses to analyze and compose music, while playing some of the tracks he’d been making or had been influenced by. As the music played, he took me through the sonic spectra, pointing out certain moments in the songs so I could actually watch what I was hearing, right down to the tiniest musical flourish! Feeling very much humbled by Josh’s ability to not only listen for the sounds he wanted to make, but to actually recognize them visually by their texture // color // shape, I grew eager to learn more about the nature of sound and how it translates to those mind-blowingly mesmerizing spectral images. So down the rabbit hole I went…

I'm Sorry

the sound spectra for “i’m sorry (the ballad of dvd and streaming)”

The most fundamental atom of sound is the sine wave—all complex sounds are a combination of a number of different sine waves at varying frequencies [pitch] and amplitudes [loudness]. These simpler sinusoids interact to form more complicated-looking waveforms, much like the ones I saw flying across Josh’s screen. In fact, through a process called Fourier analysis, we can actually break down the complex sounds we experience into their sinusoidal components to see what makes a sound… sound. This sort of analysis results in a spectrogram like the one Josh shared with me to the left. The horizontal axis represents time, while the bands running across represent the different frequencies that make up a particular sound. How much each pitch contributes to the overall sound is indicated by the color + thickness of the bands to create a sort of spectral heat map.

The beauty of electronic music is that it provides the power to deconstruct and then reconstruct those basic units of sound to make something subtly to utterly different—the freedom to synthesize sounds of all textures + bodies from the ground up. What specific frequencies are present in that sound at a given moment in time? How much does each pitch contribute over time to give the sound its particular sonic feel—its timbre? As a result, the musician has the ability to compose novel harmonies that emulate the structure and sound of those that are most familiar, or to splice together sinusoids to create something we’ve never before heard because it simply does not exist in nature. In fact, sinusoidal sounds in and of themselves are completely synthetic—they can only ring out in their purest form electronically. In fact, sinusoidal music is rather thin and strange-sounding [but not really in that super-cool // I-can’t-believe-I’m-hearing-this kind of way].

That sort of free rein to create and play with sound seems utterly daunting to me, as it requires an immense degree of thoughtfulness and specific intention to create something listenable, let alone effective + engaging. Josh’s dedication not only to a particular aesthetic, but his deep commitment to pull off those round + organic // electronic-but-not-electronic-sounding melodies is really what makes his creative process and the music that emerges from it all the more impressive to me.

To hear more sonic goodness from Josh and his Visager project, check out!

For the last few months I have been interviewing local artists and am constantly amazed // invigorated by how my conversations with them have added an entirely new dimension to my own scientific thoughts and curiosities. Stay tuned for more Conversations with Artists!!

Talking [Body]sense

Sophia PolaroidAs part of an ongoing personal exploration into art + the artistic process, and in preparation for the second ArtLab event, I sat down with actor // performance artist [and co-founder // creative director of arts company Our LadiesSophia Treanor to talk about her creative process. As a result, after my conversation with Sophia, I felt compelled to share some of her insights and experiences, as well as some of my own thoughts following our discussion.

As a starting point, can you talk about how your creative process begins? About how you begin getting into your creative body and mindset?

Attention and focus is the very broad methodology of beginning to compose a piece. That is, attention and focus to my own inner life—my intuition and my impulses—which for me personally are synonymous with the experience of living in my body … There’s this drastic difference between how I’m usually experiencing my day versus if I do some form of bringing all of that awareness into my body. I feel like my emotions, my intuition, my impulses of expression are embedded in my bones and muscles. So when I bring awareness to the experience of living inside my body, it feels like I’m waking up my entire spirit. It feels like my cells are actually changing and my brain is working differently … like my cells are literally waking up from being asleep and spider webs are clearing off my brain. Whether it’s pain or pleasure or ecstasy … it’s the holistic experience of being your body. That cellularly you are alive.

How does this inward sense of attention and focus in your practice change your relationship to your body and its impulses of movement?

Sophia TreanorOnce a teacher told me that every single impulse that you do not execute is stored … I experience that as being true in that the tensions in my body—my preoccupations—are where my work often starts … from areas that seem [to be holding] things that I’ve tried to quiet in my daily life or things I have shame about. There are definitely [parts of my body] that tighten up the fastest when I’m not in my creative practice. These are the places where I feel like it’s a problem that I’m not creating—I get physical pain from stagnation in those same areas. And then usually they’re the first places to warm up.

For me a big area of attention is my esophagus—the throat and the vocal chords producing sound and breathing. It feels like a blockage there and constriction … Often, a really big part of me trying to create work is going in and ironing into the crease. Instead of trying to go around the tenseness [in your body] or massage it, you go into the experience of it. You move into it in a way that almost makes it more extreme than it is. Or just to feel it as much as you can and work into the pain of it. Work into the meaning [of that tenseness] rather than backing off … so that you can transform it … It’s a mixture of art and therapy.

So how do you learn how to recognize that tenseness? Is it a sort of subconscious sense of understanding of what your body wants as you move?

sophia treanorI feel that creative impulses are existing all the time, which include physical impulses [of what I] could be doing right now if I wasn’t in a public setting and thinking about being appropriate. That is, submitting or tapping into what I just call a stream of impulses because they’re unending. They’re happening all the time, but the more I practice devoting my attention to them, the closer to the surface it is in my subconsciousness. So the easier it is to go into.

But then there’s also this beautiful duality between [on one hand] following these impulses … like what am I doing? Here I go I’m moving this way … And [on the other hand] really putting your focus on what you’re doing and asking your body what does it want? What feels good? I think moving on impulse and moving with focus can be combined into this really ecstatic thing.

Has there been a piece of work in the last year that has really affected your practice or your work more generally?

Sophia TreanorFor me, it was Einstein on the Beach. It is made of 20-minute segments and each segment is really repetitive in itself … It gives the audience the tiniest thing to watch for a very long time—tiny art. It made me look at sameness as a very dynamic thing … About how closely can you listen to one thing. How closely can we listen to the inner workings of our subconscious? Our body? Our intuition? And I think this is about attention … About sitting with something long enough to see subtlety and sitting with a repetition enough to take a different kind of journey.Because [a repeated action] will always change because nothing that is live or organic can happen the same way more than once … watching the same thing happen over and over and over and over again let’s you see the subtlety of the changes. That repetition as a singular event can tell you something about the entire group of repetitions. It gives you the ability—if you can keep your focus on it—to garner tons of information.

Being someone who almost exclusively occupies her head space, I have seldom given much thought to what it means to turn your awareness inside yourself, or what it takes to send your consciousness into your body. After our interview, Sophia was kind enough to show me how she brings her body and mind into her creative practice by moving into different parts of her body through a body scan. Afterwards, I went home and gave it a whirl, excited to get this body high she spoke of. Suffice it to say that even in the privacy of my own room, I felt extremely awkward and completely confused about what to do with myself. Why?

Part of the problem, I think, goes back to this idea that Sophia mentioned of “appropriateness”—about how we are conditioned to hold back many impulses of movement because they are deemed inappropriate for social life. This conditioning is rooted in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which weighs outcomes, forms judgments, and controls impulses + emotions. As we mature to adulthood, our pre-frontal cortex keeps track of the consequences of our actions to evaluate whether or not we should follow through with our impulses through a cost-benefit analysis. Because humans don’t exist in a social vacuum, our idea of what is okay to do and what is not are intimately tied to the reactions of others. So if mid-conversation you decided to roll around on the floor and someone looked at you funny, your pre-frontal cortex would make you reconsider the next time you felt so inclined.

Even alone in my room, my body just couldn’t shake what 24 years of appropriateness training had engrained into my mind. Instead, shedding these impulse-control mechanisms requires practice—an intentional reappropriation of certain impulses as being emotive // efective // meaningful rather than strange and inappropriate. This sort of contextual reconditioning requires a specific kind of attention + focus not only to what is happening at your pre-frontal cortex, but also to consciously drawing on other senses like the inner sense of the body’s position in space [proprioception], the sense of our body’s relationship to objects surrounding us [the body schema], and the body’s sense of motion [kinesthesia].

To tap into her body, Sophia rather amazingly has mastered her mind in a way that I had never before considered. What’s even more remarkable is how she translates this mastery into making art that moves on every conceivable level. Watching her transition to her creative practice was like watching a switch flip, almost as though her brain was rapidly re-wiring to take on this utterly expressive persona.

For the last few months I have been interviewing local artists and am constantly amazed // invigorated by how my conversations with them have added an entirely new dimension to my own scientific thoughts and curiosities. This post marks the first in a series of conversations with artists. Stay tuned for more!!

Photographs by Maryam Zaringhalam.