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HOLOSCENES: Flooding Art with Empathy

Generally speaking, I’m a firm believer in the old adage that knowledge is power. But I’ve often found that where climate change is concerned, the more knowledge we have—the more we embrace it as a reality + the deeper we appreciate its complexity—the more we despair, or even deny. For me, that feeling leads to a strange disconnect between accepting climate change and actually changing our behavior to reduce or contain its consequences. Although we can’t undo the large-scale damage that’s been done, we can certainly do our part to ease the blow by consciously changing our behaviors.

But as creatures of habit, what can compel us to change? Between flashy news headlines and research reports, we’re undoubtedly inundated with incentives to do so, but that’s often not enough. It’s this question, or quandary, that drew me to art + activism project HOLOSCENES: an epic public art and performance installation conceived in response to the rising rate of devastating floods due to globally warmed air + water. The brainchild of artist + Early Morning Opera director Lars Jan, the project centers on a guiding philosophy that:

Art can make people feel climate change in their gut, rather than just understand it.

Artists are masters of affecting emotion, which makes art a perfect catalyst for provoking thought, sparking conversation, and effecting change in a way that the science can’t do on its own. We can intellectualize climate change all we want—look at graphs and figures that project a sorry state of future affairs. But to really internalize that information, we have to find our relationship to it. It must in some way captivate us, hypnotize us, shock us, nauseate us—hit us personally + viscerally—so that we begin to ask: What does climate change mean for me?

HOLOSCENES rendering by Peter Zuspan // Bureau V.

HOLOSCENES cuts right to the heart of that very question with a visually compelling + beautifully designed piece: a hydraulically-animated aquarium that floods + drains as a performer carries out a single crowd-sourced everyday behavior. From getting dressed to cooking a meal to reading a book, these are familiar experiences stitched into the fabric of our day-to-day. Playing on our empathetic capacity, the performance allows us to witness our personal patterns come up against a sped-up simulation of our changing environment. In so doing, the performance artfully reconciles the timescale of daily life with that of the long-term—a far away time that seems irrelevant to our here-and-now ways of thinking.

By fusing performance, design, climate research, engineering, and decision science, Lars Jan + his team of collaborators have embarked on a truly cross-disciplinary effort to create that gut feeling to give us pause. That moment of consideration can help to open a constructive conversation about our role in climate change and cause us to at least consider how we may change to lessen our ecological impact. In its final form, HOLOSCENES will feature three aquariums installed in a public space for 24 hours, 7 days. The first of the three is currently being fabricated and will make its premiere at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche Festival in October 2014. Following its debut, the tank will make its way over to the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, poignantly positioned on a plaza slated to be under water in the next 20 years.

Every iteration of its installation will necessarily hold different meaning for the community experiencing it, because while climate change is a global issues, its local effects are specific and highly personal. With that in mind, the HOLOSCENES team is working to make the project available + accessible to the broadest audience possible. Ultimately, the piece can ultimately be experienced across multiple platforms—namely, through performance, video, photography, and educational materials—to maximize its reach + potential to change.

After discovering HOLOSCENES on Kickstarter, I immediately reached out to Lars Jan to learn more about his epic endeavor. Above, you can find the video to the Kickstarter campaign to learn more + support this public art piece. And below, enjoy ArtLab’s Q+A with Lars as he shares the inspiration for the project and his evolving insights into empathy, beauty, and climate change.

What was the initial inspiration for this project?

I was definitely tracking a trend of floods in my head for a long time. And I’m like a lot of people in this way: I’m passively aware of something that is going on, and then it takes somebody saying it out loud a couple different times in a couple different ways for me to actually see or recognize it and hold onto it. That process for me probably started with Katrina and culminated in 2010 during the flooding in northwestern Pakistan where I had spent some time hiking. I’m half Pashtun and had spent a bunch of time in Central Asia.

I saw one picture in particular by Daniel Berehulak, who’s a great photojournalist, and it was this incredibly gorgeous photograph that looked like a Raphael painting—Transfiguration, specifically. It was this picture of incredible devastation, but it was also simultaneously just such a beautiful picture. I found that tension was really complicated. I just thought, what’s going on here? This is horrific. But also, this is so unbelievably beautiful. How are those two things existing at the same time? Does this beauty relate to the power of the image—the power it’s having over me empathetically?

Flood victims scramble for food rations during relief operations on September 13, 2010 in Sindh province, Pakistan. Photo: Daniel Berehulak // Getty Images

A vision for the performance came really fast. After I saw that photograph, I was daydreaming and just saw a giant aquarium with a person in it with water going up and down. They were reading a book and the pages were dissolving as they were trying to read. So part of how the project started was, like, what the hell is that image I daydreamed? It’s really only much later that I deciphered that image, and the project became about long-term thinking and empathy.

And now you’re really working at the intersection between climate science, public performance, and behavioral science. Those three complement each other so perfectly to me in terms of having the potential to create a really impactful artistic piece. How does it all fit together for you?

I don’t really see where the project stops necessarily; the more I work on it, the more it seems to expand into new territory. So there’s clearly the science and data side—streams of information that help better understand the phenomenon of climate change. And there are a bunch of different directions you can approach that from because it’s so complicated and you have to understand a whole lot of ecological and atmospheric systems. And the other side of the project has been about us as empathetic creatures and how we evolved to think about the long term. That’s where things like behavioral and decision science comes in. There are all these capacities we have as humans when it comes to empathy and decision-making, and I’m interested in how static or kinetic those capacities are.

Then of course there’s the reason I got started on this project in the first place. It seems like there’s this endless stream of devastating floods, and I don’t remember it ever having been this way before, so what’s going on? I’m seeing all these images of human bodies intersected by bodies of water that are moving incredibly fast or not moving at all—and I’m strongly affected by these images on an artistic level and just as a person. I’m seeing people’s whole worlds bisected by water at 8 feet or 2 feet or up to the roof. I started tuning into how just an image of people walking through ankle-deep water versus waist-deep water versus neck-deep water made me feel empathetically.

The idea of performing everyday rituals in the aquariums is so unbelievably powerful on this empathetic level—seeing the every day we take for granted coming up against the longer-term realities of climate change. Where did that idea come from?

The initial impetus really was about dealing with ritual—or what I’m now calling everyday behaviors. This is some task that you do every day, like making coffee, which is not work per se. It’s something that you can zone out while you do it because you automatically know how to do this thing choreographically. There’s something about these small cycles that we perform throughout our entire lives, which are basically transformed into the fabric of our life. When you accumulate them, these little patterns really are most of our lives. And yes, you may make coffee differently over the course of your life, and you may stop making coffee and start making tea. But there’s always some vestige of this repetition because you do it every day.

By performing these everyday behaviors in HOLOSCENES, we’re drawing attention to the attention that we place on the every day, and the lack of attention that we place on this longer term, epic timescale. This is about our consciousness. Ultimately, I don’t really think HOLOSCENES is about taking shorter showers; it’s about where we as a species—as a culture and as individuals—place our attention, and whether we are capable of shifting our attention in our own best interests. And that relates to more than just climate change. Yes, climate change is a big part of this project, and the story of water is a big part of this project. But where we’re headed in terms of long-term thinking and empathy, is actually much broader terrain.

Phone Sextet, 2013 // Photo: Lars Jan

That’s been a sort of Zen kōan that has come up for me throughout this process. We’ve interceded in a biospheric evolution—the natural cycles between ice age and warming age. Global warming was going to happen eventually, but it was hopefully going to take 20,000 years, as opposed to 200. We’ve caused this big complex ecosystem to evolve and change much faster than it was ever supposed to.

So I’ve wondered if the converse of that is true: Can our changing environment in turn make our social systems change faster than they’ve ever changed in the course of human history? Can we change where we place our attention, in order to see the larger ramifications of our everyday behaviors? They seem like completely mirrored systems to me. But the question then becomes how big is the delay? It’s true that people change really slowly, but maybe climate change will unlock some hyper-accelerated evolutionary potential in us as individuals and as a collective culture.

The title for the piece—HOLOSCENES—comes from the Holocene epoch. Why hone in on a geological time period in particular for the title of the piece?

Around the same time I began thinking about this project, I was also learning more about the idea of the Anthropocene. I had seen the word a couple of times before and finally wanted to understand it. That’s when I realized for the first time that we are living in the Holocene epoch, and we’ve been in the Holocene since the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago. I’d heard of the Jurassic and the Pleistocene—those cool dinosaur-related epochs—but nobody ever told me we were in the Holocene now. How did I not know that? I thought at first that maybe I’d missed it, and that everyone else knew but me. But that wasn’t the case. Very few people I talked to had heard of the Holocene before, or if they had heard it, few knew what it was. So I began wondering why so many intelligent people had never heard this word before.

We’re now dramatically affecting a geological epoch—that’s ultimately what climate change comes down to. We went from working on a human timescale, which is the timescale we’ve evolved to operate on, to having an impact on a large-scale geological time-line that is so many orders of magnitude more complex than the human scale. But we’re not thinking or making decisions on that scale. So that’s why the project is called HOLOSCENES. It’s a play on that word, and the anonymity of the epoch we are all living in right now.

HOLOSCENES poster // designed by Thirst

SeismoDome: Shaking Up Seismology Through Sight + Sound

What better way to dive into seismology than to suddenly find yourself in the Earth’s core gazing up at its shaking crust? To see seismic waves bouncing back and forth through the center of the Earth and spreading along its surface? To hear and feel the rich and rapidfire rattling as shocks travel around the world?

In 2005, What better way to dive into seismology than to suddenly find yourself in the Earth’s core gazing up at its shaking crust? To see seismic waves bouncing back and forth through the center of the Earth and spreading along its surface? To hear and feel the rich and rapidfire rattling as shocks travel around the world?

In 2005, geophysicist Dr. Ben Holtzman + sound designer Jason Candler teamed up to create the Seismic Sound Lab, providing an immersive multisensory experience of the Earth’s quaking. The project most recently culminated in SeismoDome—an epic sight + sound journey through five earthquakes, as experienced from way out in space to deep inside the Earth—which premiered at the famed Hayden Planetarium. The initial seed for this undertaking was planted in part by the devastating Sumatra–Andaman earthquake, the third largest earthquake ever recorded, directly hitting 14 countries and triggering earthquakes as far away as Alaska. Holtzman, who studies rock mechanics at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, recalls:

It was the first time in my life that the research I was involved with had any implications for humans. I started to get much more interested in communicating seismology, and the scale of Earth science, to the public.

The Earth’s outer layer is fractured into an array of tectonic plates that are in steady slow motion as a result of the constant convection of the mantle—the molten rocky layer that lies beneath the surface. Mantle convection [a process similar to boiling] creates a current that forces some plates to push together as others pull apart at boundaries dubbed faults. As two or more of these plates interlock and push against each other, energy builds and concentrates along the fault line. Eventually, the fault reaches its breaking point, at which point the plates suddenly move or lurch under the stress, releasing all that pent up energy in the form of seismic waves that radiate out from the source.

left: The Earth’s surface is broken up into tectonic plates, which are constantly shifting due to mantle convection beneath the crust. right: Mantle convection is the result of mantle rocks melting and cooling due to the drastic temperature difference between the Earth’s piping hot core [~ 4,030 °C] and its far cooler crust [200 °C].

Every day, the Earth is rattled by several hundred nearly imperceptible earthquakes, ranking magnitude 2 or lower on the Richter scale. While we can’t always feel the tremors beneath our feet, scientists have long tracked these disturbances using instruments known as seismometers, which measure ground motion over time. Arrays of seismometers have been strategically placed around the globe, recording a steady stream of measurements that give us insights into how seismic waves behave. This vibrational information is the raw material for Candler and Holtzman’s quaky compositions.

While science tends to privilege sight over our other senses—relying on graphical representations and illustrated models to visualize data and convince an audience of a given result—we experience the world with more than just our eyes. Consequently, data visualization comes with certain limitations. According to Holtzman: “Our eyes have excellent resolution in gradients of light and color, and much worse resolution in time. Conversely, while our ears don’t have great resolution in pitch, they have really good resolution in time.” This sensory tradeoff lies at the heart of SeismoDome’s special power. By marrying sight and sound, Holtzman and Candler have crafted an utterly rich and multi-layered experience of the data at hand. Holtzman notes:

We would give these spiels, trying to find the right words to say that these are waves traveling around the Earth, and that sense of motion you’re getting is the result of these waves moving from one seismometer to another. But when we finally got the sound synched with the visuals, we suddenly found that we didn’t have to explain anything. The sights and sounds just said it all for us.

The team employs a multi-channel circle of speakers to craft a well-rounded sonic experience, feeding data from seismic stations around the world into each speaker. The result is a spatially accurate ring of sound that allows your ears to trace the waves as they propagate along and through the Earth. To complement the sounds, they use that same set of data to create visual models of seismic activity. Click the video below for just one look at the result.

SeismoDome rendering of seismic data from California recorded over six years, conveying the magnitude of these ubiquitous events sonically through tone + duration and visually through size + color gradation.

Depending on where in the world you live, earthquakes take on drastically different significance. Here in New York, our planet’s rumblings hardly cross my consciousness, whereas just across the country, entire cities were built with earthquake resiliency heavily in mind. Nevertheless, the above video gives you an immediate appreciation—a real gut feeling—that earthquakes shake us all. In addition to the surface waves that travel along the Earth’s surface, seismic waves can traverse the Earth’s core, bouncing back and forth through its interior in the form of body waves that can reach the opposite side of the world in as fast as a half hour! Below, you can see and hear the rolling of the waves as they echo through the globe as a result of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

The video above visually simulates body + surface wave propagation resulting from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, while using scaled seismographic data to create those real, rumbling sounds.

In addition to the Tohoku and Sumatran earthquakes, SeismoDome systematically steps you through three other earthquakes that have occurred over the last decade: the 2010 Haitian earthquake, the 2013 Kamchatka earthquake, and the 2006 Parkfield earthquake. To develop a multidimensional appreciation for each catastrophe, the SeismoDome team has translated data from a variety of vantage points. Far out in space, you can watch the waves ricochet through the Earth’s core, the sounds less pronounced, like a far-off thundering. But deep in the belly of the planet, the sounds engulf you, rattling your seat as your eyes and ears trace the trajectory of the seismic disturbances. And then, far on the opposite side of the planet, you stare in amazement as you see and hear the blips and beeps that correspond to far off, ground-breaking devastation. “We wanted to put you a little more in touch with the planet, so you realize it’s got a mind of its own. It’ll quake wherever and whenever the hell it wants to,” Candler remarks, to which Holtzman adds: “It’s a real reminder of the scale of us compared to something like an earthquake. I like doing it in the planetarium for that reason—it shakes you out of your usual sense of time and space.”

As I was sitting in that planetarium, literally being shaken by all the data, I couldn’t help but wonder at the fact that despite the dramatic scale of this geological phenomenon—despite the enormous body of ever-updating + widely-accessible data—seismology still faces a great many open questions, chief among them being: How can we come to predict when and where an earthquake will occur? Holtzman explains:

I like the weather analogy. Weather is a very complex interaction of many different systems, but we can measure everything–wind speed, temperature, pressure–which we put into predictive models. But we still can’t predict the weather, like when exactly it will rain. With earthquakes, however, the measurements aren’t very direct and they’re not at the right time and length scale. But even still, that analogy is a little ill-posed because with earthquakes, the scale you’re interested in is not something like whether it’s going to rain. Instead, you want to predict where the individual rain drops are going to hit, which is impossible.

It’s challenges like this—the big, looming questions—that send out ripples filled with smaller questions, which make up all those lines of inquiry that ultimately coalesce into seismology: questions about our Earth’s internal composition, about the dynamics of wave propagation, about our own role in altering these larger-than-us geological systems. All the complexity and nuance of the problem is reflected in SeismoDome’s sounds—in the crazy ebb and flow of those data-triggered pops and bleeps and booms.

Illuminating these gaps in our understanding is, to me, what cultivates a certain sense of excitement and awe, rallying curious minds behind a given problem as they develop an appreciation for the magnitude of the mysteries science endeavors to solve. Personally, it’s these sorts of open questions that drove me to biology, and have since sent me down several science-y rabbit holes, including the seismological cave I emerged from just now to write this. Perhaps this is cheesy, but it’s almost like the emotional equivalent to the sentiment behind John F. Kennedy’s famous “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” … except with science.

So with that in mind, I was extremely excited to hear what the Seismic Sound Lab has in store. In the spirit of learning through tinkering, the team is currently developing a series of portable prototypes to allow you to create your own interactive SeismoDome microenvironment! Holtzman shares:

The format that most interests me is Exploratorium-type exhibits where you play with the data. Doing these shows is great and fun and exciting, but I think people learn much more when they sit there and play with the data, changing it to figure out why something sounds different. They don’t realize what they’re learning as they’re doing it, but it’s those experiments that stick with them.

To learn more about the Seismic Sound Lab and stay in the loop, be sure to check out seismicsoundlab.org, and for a neat guide to how SeismoDome was created, visit the Sounds of Seismology!

The Living Museum: Mental Illness Meets Art

In here, nous sommes tous les indésireables—we are all undesirables—but that is not our problem but yours, the spectator from outside. ∇Δ Bolek Greczynski

Once a cafeteria, Building 75 at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center now houses one of the most extraordinary collections of art I have ever seen. Known as The Living Museum, the 40,000-square-foot space is covered from floor to [very lofty] ceiling with the work of over 500 past + present artists-in-residence—all of them patients with mental illness.

Prior to my visit, my only experience with mental illness was through stories I’d heard from friends or via my rampant consumption of popular media. In all honesty, I arrived at Creedmoor’s expansive and remote campus, located in the far reaches of Queens, with more than a hint of discomfort. But on entering that space, surrounded on all sides by unique works of art, all my hesitation fell away. Instead, I became eager to chat with the museum’s artists about their work. Their psychiatric state was immediately irrelevant to me, except in the sense that, for many of them, their symptoms were a prime source of creative inspiration. Indeed, that very shift in perspective—that reidentification from mentally ill to chronically creative—lies at the heart of an arts asylum like The Living Museum.

Building 75 was converted into an arts studio for Creedmoor’s patients in 1983 by psychologist Dr. Janos Marton and artist Bolek Greczynski. By providing patients with the space and resources to create art, Greczynski and Marton encouraged those suffering from mental illness to view their afflictions not as a limitation, but rather as a creative advantage. 

The pair was inspired by the work of Austrian psychiatrist Leo Navratil, who founded what became the Gugging House of Artists—a residential house in which artistically talented patients with mental illness came to live and make art together. Navratil’s work seamlessly wove into the rise of Outsider Art, or Art Brut, which grappled with the nature of individual self-expression and the conventions of mainstream art. The Gugging artists thus found fame—and more importantly, acceptance—in this world of Art Brut as interest in and appreciation of the relationship between mental illness and artistic creativity grew.

Following the Gugging model, Marton and Greczynski sought to create an arts asylum of their own at Creedmoor. Rather than viewing the creation of art as a form of therapy in the traditional sense, the pair believed that the patients at Creedmoor could come to reinvent themselves as creatives… who just so happen to be mentally ill. In fact, Marton asserts that his colleague’s greatest strength was that Greczynski never saw the museum’s artists-in-residence as mentally ill, remaining singularly concerned with the quality of their artistic output.

Before his passing in 1994, Greczynski often suggested: “Use your vulnerabilities as a weapon,” which remains the museum’s guiding mantra almost twenty years later. Now under the directorship of Dr. Marton, the museum’s sole employee, The Living Museum remains dedicated to fostering the creative spirit of its 100-or-so current artists-in-residence. On visiting the museum, which is open to the public by appointment, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dr. Marton. Below, you can read more about his experiences with The Living Museum and his insights into the interrelatedness of mental health and creativity.

What is the guiding philosophy behind The Living Museum?

We’re not doing anything else but turning people into artists. The therapeutic goal is that you change your identity from a mental patient to a mentally ill artist. Our philosophy here is more a practical, pragmatic one—that it gives you the identity. And if you think of yourself as a mentally ill artist—as a painter, as a video artist, as a poet—that’s a much more comfortable identity than that of a mental patient. And that’s a huge leap in terms of healing.

The foundation for that philosophy is that there are two symptoms of mental illness that most people are not aware of, and these two principles are the foundation for The Living Museum. First, extreme creativity and mental illness overlap; it’s almost a symptom of mental illness. And the second part, which is absolutely unknown to most people—especially to those who work with mentally ill people—is that mentally ill people are nice. So these two aspects are the foundation for an art asylum. Processed with VSCOcam with se3 preset There’s this old question of whether all artists are crazy or touched in some way. What is your take on the relationship between mental illness and creativity, especially given your own experiences with The Living Museum?

I would think that what I was saying about extreme creativity and mental illness works the other way around. I think that all artists have neurodiversity happening in their brains, and if they don’t, I would bet they cheat with drugs and alcohol. Navratil believed his dozen or so artists would be great artists even if they did not have mental illness. I don’t think that’s the case. With the mentally ill, there are a number of pedestrian factors that contribute to this creative artistic output.

One of them is just time. Patients have too much time on their hands, so institutions are always forced to fill their time and keep them occupied. And time is something that you really need for art. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell brought up the 10,000 hours of happy activity to become a genius. I believe in that. You become very good at what you do constantly. So people who come here and create day-in and day-out become incredibly good at their craft. In a way, what we do here is a solution for the mental health field because once you are caught by the bug and the idea that you are an artist, the only thing you want to do is create create create. It’s so satisfying and so essential to your life.

Another factor is that great art—versus decorative or political art—is the art that remains relevant hundreds of years from now. And great art is created in that ahistoric, mythical space where you hear voices and you literally meet Jesus. It’s not created in the here-and-now. Here, mental illness is a great advantage because you truly have that experience of the space where the angels fly. I would put down my money even in this mythical domain, that art is in that privileged sphere where you are hearing the voices and you are handicapped ultimately.

Another aspect that makes creativity important is the issue of trauma, of PTSD. When you are hurt, when you are under attack, when you are an outsider—that motivates people. People with mental illness certainly qualify; they experience a lot of hardship and discrimination and rejection and that requires from them a song. There’s this line in a Jimmy Cliff song: “’Cause the wicked carried us away in captivity required from us a song.” So that type of suppression is a good fuel for art.

The word “asylum” in the context of mental health has become a really touchy word, so it’s really interesting and refreshing that you’ve reclaimed it here as a safe and utopian space. Could you elaborate more on the idea of an art asylum and its place in the mental health field?

Mental health policies are generally integrationist, and the asylum is always considered historically bad because it was based on segregationist ideas. But the old asylums had some good positive qualities. So we try to revitalize that and take the good aspects of the old asylums. The idea here is to provide protection and the recognition that mentally ill people are different. Mental illness isn’t like breaking your leg where you go into rehab and you recover and you run a marathon again. Mental illness is chronic and mentally ill people are traumatized people. Loved ones—not just society—reject the mentally ill and that is a big trauma. So it is great to have utopian spaces where your mental illness is not the issue because everybody has it. You can concentrate on other things instead—like your work.

And there’s also the idea of protection, which does not mean you can’t be out in the world if you can handle it. But once you’re not able to handle it, it’s always good to come back to a safe space that belongs to you. I am convinced that this should be the future for the situation of people with mental illness. The big asylums are downsizing in terms of numbers and most importantly in terms of buildings and real estate. So in my mind, instead of selling off these buildings or giving them away, they should reserve this real estate for Living Museum-style art asylums because it works so well. It’s a very inexpensive of protecting people and providing them with meaning.

How would you distinguish art therapy from what happens here?

I think this is something that is misunderstood a great deal in the art therapy community. In my mind, the biggest difference between what art therapy does and what we do here is a legal difference. The most important aspect of any therapy is confidentiality—that we have a contract that whatever happens here between us remains confidential. So artwork that is produced in the context of therapy shouldn’t really be exhibited. It should remain a part of the process. But at The Living Museum that does not exist. Here, you publish things, you go out in the open, you use your own name. I encourage people to do that. So it’s not a therapeutic contractual agreement.

This is more work rehab and less of a psych therapy program. Just because making art is good for you does not mean it’s therapeutic. So there’s a confusion of terms and a problem with the paradigms. You might be enjoying our conversation right now, but this is not therapy. It might make you feel good and it might make you feel good about what you’re doing, but that’s not dealing with your inner demons.

A common criticism of medication that I hear often is that it has this numbing effect that seems counter-productive for creativity. But the artists at The Living Museum are encouraged to keep up with their medication, so it must not be so black and white. Could you share your thoughts on the relationship between medication and creativity?

While the criticism might have some foundation, my experience over these 30 years is that if you have severe chronic mental illness, medication is the bottom line. You have to take it. So we embrace medication here because it works. My experience has been that each person is really different and each person has to be taken at his or her own case. For some patients, medication takes away their particular form of art. But for many patients, it doesn’t tamper with their creativity. It depends very much on what kind of work you are doing.

One patient, for example, channels Beethoven’s spirit, but when he’s stable, the spirit of Beethoven is not communing with him. Or, there’s a woman and God or Jesus appears to her physically and she is inspired to write a spiritual song. The music that she writes is authentic religious music. But when she’s stable, Jesus doesn’t appear to her, and so she doesn’t have that motivation. Though she can still perform her songs—and perform much better—when she is stable.

Again, mental illness is not a dichotomous thing where you have it or you don’t. It is a continuum. In my opinion, the best definition of mental illness is the inability to tolerate stress. That’s much better than any of these scientific definitions in the DSM. When you are psychotic there is very little you can do; you’re happy to be surviving. So my experience has been that when people are off their medication and they are unstable, they can create very interesting work. But it just might not be worth it.


Major hat tip to Heather McKellar, program coordinator at the NYU Neuroscience Institute, who organized a screening of The Living Museum—a documentary following six of the museum’s artists directed by Academy Award Winning documentarian Jessica Yu—for 2014’s Brain Awareness Week. Enjoy a trailer for the film below.

Photographs taken by Maryam Zaringhalam.

danceroom Spectroscopy: Waltzing through the Invisible World

At its most basic, science is a quest to understand the invisible forces that underlie everything from our emotions to our planet’s inevitable orbit around the sun. These forces are fundamentally dictated by the dynamics of an invisible world—of atoms and molecules vibrating, of tiny bonds breaking and forming. But given that human perception is restricted to the observable world, all we can know are the consequences of these forces at work—that an apple loosed from a tree will fall downwards or that a single fertilized egg will reliably divide and morph into a little human being over nine months.

Scientists go through years of training in order to imagine the world that stretches beyond the realm of our five senses, developing techniques, formulas, and models to give us insights into this world. But scientific ways of knowing, while deeply embedded in empiricism, are still to a large extent a translation of these invisible forces into the observable world of experimentation and data collection. The best we can do is to develop an intuition for these unseeable forces and rigorously test that intuition against our scientific method.

But what if you could actually inhabit the invisible world? What would it be like to witness and engage with the collection of atoms that form the molecules that form the complex structures that make your macro self and surroundings?

DS DOME-4

danceroom Spectroscopy dome installed in Brunel’s Passenger Shed. Photo by Paul Blakemore

danceroom Spectroscopy [dS] is an interactive simulation of what it could be like to wander the nano-quantum world. Recruiting the power of a supercomputer and the rigor of quantum mechanics, dS uses data collected from 3D motion capture to solve the equations of motion for up to 40,000 atoms, transforming humans into dynamic energy fields. The result is captivating: an immersive sonic + visual environment sculpted by users’ individual movements and their interaction with surrounding fields of energy.

The language of science is laden with the language of aesthetics—the beauty of a question, the elegance of a theory, the symmetry of a structure. But this particular brand of beauty typically takes years of scientific training to appreciate, which is what makes danceroom Spectroscopy so incredibly powerful and exciting. By experimenting + engaging with their energy fields, participants can gain an intuitive sense for complex molecular physics principles as they witness themselves immediately influencing them. In so doing, dS effectively brings to life the equations and theories that populate the pages of our often dull + dry 2D textbooks.

Conceived by chemical physicist David Glowacki, danceroom Spectroscopy launched in Spring 2011 with a large-scale exhibition at Bristol’s Arnolfini Centre for Contemporary Arts. Since then, dS has been implemented in educating the general public, furthering advanced research projects, and has even woven its way into dance with Hidden Fields—a multi-award winning performance using the beauty of dance to illuminate the invisible dynamic world.

Above, take a peek into Hidden Fields 2013 performance, which was most recently performed at ZKM Centre for Arts and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. And below, enjoy ArtLab’s Q+A with Dr. Glowacki as he shares his insights into artistry + the invisible and what science can gain from art.

Over the last few years, danceroom Spectroscopy has found applications in everything from education to research to dance performance. But where did the original seed of the idea to create dS come from?

The real reason I started dS is that I just never knew what to tell people about my research. And also, a lot of the problems I work on are just so abstract. So while in principle if we could crack these problems, we could solve anything, I just have no idea whether or not it’s actually feasible to imagine that we’ll crack them in my lifetime. But still, I had always been overwhelmed by the beauty of what I was doing. So I thought if I could just show it to people, and if they thought it was beautiful too, that would at least be some validation for all the stuff that I’m working on. Even if I can’t solve all the problems I claim I’ll be able to solve in my research, the validation would lie in the fact that people would think, “Oh, that’s really beautiful and cool.”

But the fact was, I didn’t have anything tangible or nice to show anybody about the last six years I’d spent doing research—just papers that no one was going to understand. I thought, well I better make something so that I would at least have pictures to show people that they might find compelling. And ultimately, the content that you can learn with something like what we’ve made—and so quickly—is amazing! I can condense a whole semester’s worth of material into one hour with dS and you’ll have an intuitive feel for so many different physical principles.

Just watching Hidden Fields, I’m amazed at how much faster—and actually better—I can grasp those physical principles than when I was learning about them in textbooks and lectures. There’s something really intuitive and immediate about translating these concepts into a more artistic language.

One of the most fun things about the process was sitting down with these artists and just figuring out a shared vocabulary we could use to talk about the project. Because this is a physics simulation, the code has all these equations that don’t mean anything to the dancers or the artists. At the same time, they have their own dance vocabulary for how they talk about motion. So we spent a lot of time talking about the interconnections between the vocabulary of physics and the vocabulary of dance. Lots and lots of talking. I’ve become so much better at communicating what I’m doing as a result of being forced to talk about it to all these people all the time.

When you’re imagining the invisible world of molecules or atoms, you don’t have a clue what they look like. No one knows what an atom looks like and no one knows what a molecule looks like. So your invention of what they look like is purely an artistic leap—and it has to be good artistry if it’s going to be effective for communication. To be able to construct visual representations for our eyes of something that is way beyond our human sensory domain, that’s an artistic and imaginative endeavor.

DS BATH-2

Hidden Fields. Photo by Paul Blakemore

People make a divide between science and art, but the future is going to show us very rapidly that there is no divide. This word—scientist—is a really new word in intellectual history that only came into existence around 100 years ago. If you even go back to the late 1800s, people that did what you and I call science called themselves natural philosophers. And the idea of a natural philosopher is that you’re a philosopher, so you’re interested in different forms of knowledge, but there’s this systematic method of gaining information about nature that you tend to adopt because it’s pretty good. Calling yourself a philosopher, a ‘lover of knowledge’, is way less limiting than what we now think of as a modern scientist. Immanuel Kant would call himself a natural philosopher. Newton. Faraday. So the word is part of the problem because it forces you to think about yourself in a way that’s tied to modern institutional structures.

How has this project affected your own research, in terms of the scientific questions you’re interested in asking and your approach to actually answering them?

My research has taken some new directions that I never expected. Now we’re working with dancers to use their motion to manipulate proteins, which has been really exciting and a real, serious research project. So we’re working with the idea that now we can use all these algorithms and technologies we’ve developed to get people to manipulate proteins in a way that’s a lot faster than a computer would be able to manipulate them just using iterative blind search algorithms. In fact, I just wrote a paper showing that human users can accelerate a protein dynamics simulation by a factor of almost 10,000!

Before this project I was more of a pure theorist in that I would worry about equations and methods. I was less concerned with the computer science side, even though I would simulate everything on a computer. This project has really forced me to get up to speed with the state-of-the-art in computer science, which has actually driven things massively forward in my science research. And that just came from worrying about how to make a really good art piece! It’s definitely got me thinking about how it might be possible to have a more holistic relationship between the different disciplines—producing work on the cutting edge of research science and also the cutting edge of arts practice.


Major hat tip to Columbia University’s CUrioisty3 series, where I first heard Dr. Glowacki speak about his incredible project. To learn more about danceroom Spectroscopy, be sure to peruse the official website. To stay up-to-date on the latest + greatest from this project, Like on Facebook // follow on Twitter!

Carbon Song Cycle

Carbon is the backbone of life on Earth. The fourth most abundant element in the Universe, carbon is the core component of the molecules that make us and a vital source of energy + fuel. But as rising atmospheric carbon levels have become inextricably linked to global climate change—undoubtedly one of the most serious problems facing our planet today—the ecologically conscientious among us have been forced to critically re-evaluate our relationship with carbon. 

In an effort to explore this increasingly complicated relationship, visual + media artist Christina McPhee and composer + media artist Pamela Z have teamed up to create Carbon Song Cycle: a multimedia chamber piece + multi-channel video installation interweaving scientific visualizations of climate data with documentary footage.

Carbon Song Cycle // first performed at at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, April 2013 [Image: Christina McPhee]

Through a series of carbon-exchanging reactions, carbon flows between carbon-storing reservoirs—rocks, the ocean, the atmosphere, plants, soil, and fossil fuels—and carbon-consuming plants + animals in what is known as the carbon cycle. Since the early 2000s, McPhee has become increasingly fascinated with this cycle as the inspiration for much of her work. On the inception of Carbon Song Cycle, Z mentions:

Christina kept talking about how she was interested in the carbon cycle. And I said, “Well, what if we make a song cycle about the carbon cycle and call it Carbon Song Cycle.” And we both laughed at that, and then realized: “Wait a second, that’s really good!”

Our climate relies on this delicately balanced dynamic exchange of carbon to ensure that carbon levels are kept in check. Changes in this carbon cycle impact carbon levels within each reservoir. Atmospheric carbon gases are instrumental in regulating Earth’s life-sustaining temperature, while ocean carbon stores regulate pH levels vital for ocean life. But over the last century, humans have thrown this delicate balance out of whack, releasing mass amounts of ancient, stored carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and rapidly destroying much of the plant life that absorbs + transforms carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.

The global carbon cycle // yellow numbers indicate natural fluxes + red indicate human contributions in gigatons carbon per year, white numbers indicate stored carbon [Image: US Department of Energy]

Carbon Song Cycle uses the musical form of the song cycle not only to parallel the journey of carbon cycling through a landscape, but also to evoke a sort of tension between manmade + naturally-occurring ecological forces, mirrored through the visual composition. On the footage utilized within the piece, McPhee notes:

When I moved to California, I began shooting seismically active sites and then began looking at geothermal sites and petroleum fields. I had footage from these places that are hard to shoot—oil fields where they chase you off if they see you. These are dynamic landscapes where the biosphere and high-tech energy production are in an explosive mix—like petroleum fields literally right in the middle of the Salinas River bottom.

Intertwined with these documentary images are animated scientific visualizations + live hand-drawn renderings of climate change data courtesy of the interdisciplinary scientific journal Nature Climate Change, the NOAA, and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. On integrating this data into her video composition, McPhee adds: “We as artists can take this material and move it to a bit of a different context so it becomes legible in a slightly different way that’s more open and allusive—alluding to data and alluding to research.”

Architectural multiscreen video from Carbon Song Cycle // first performed at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, April 2013 [Image: Peter Cavagnaro]

The song cycle itself consists of 10 movements scored for voice with live processing, bassoon, viola, cello, and percussion. Within the accompanying sound design, Pamela Z additionally features audio from interview recordings with McPhee, probing her preoccupation with the carbon cycle, and Stanford scientist Dr. Richard Zare, delving deeper into the chemistry of the cycle. According to Z: 

My way of starting any project is to record interviews and take fragments of those recordings to build text collages for the musical part of the composition. I also am very interested in scientific data and lists—aesthetically I like their sound, their language. You’re using some fragments of language, but the listener gets all kinds of other insights that you’re not necessarily putting in there.

Through this cyclical layering and re-layering of multiple forms of content, Carbon Song Cycle offers audience members an immersive + dynamic performative experience. The listener // viewer becomes free to take some form of authorship in their own experience of the work to perhaps draw their own conclusions on what is being presented + why. McPhee shares:

The most amazing thing we have found is that audience members are finding their own trajectories of query within the work. When we showed it at Berkley Art Museum, people came up to us saying, “We learned so much from your presentation.” And we laughed because we weren’t trying to teach anything explicitly. But the audience is teaching themselves through this experience. It’s a non-didactic teaching, and a really great outcome of our effort.

New Yorkers can catch Carbon Song Cycle for themselves Wednesday, November 20th, 8pm @ Roulette, a center dedicated to presenting experimental music, dance, and intermedia // buy your tickets here!