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04.25.2014 // Big Green Theater

On Friday, April 25th, ArtLab proudly joined the Big Green Theater Festival to celebrate the intersection between environmental education and creativity in honor of Earth Week. Following a special performance of this year’s eco-inspired Big Green Theater plays, ArtLab sat down with director Jeremy Pickard, The Bushwick Starr’s creative director Noel Joseph Allain, and BGT guest environmental scientists Dr. Jennifer Jacquet + Dr. Katherine Alfredo for a conversation exploring our ecological relationship with food and water and the role of the arts in enhancing science education. Please enjoy audio from the evening’s discussion below!

Now in its fourth year, Big Green Theater [BGT] is a community-based program that brings theater professionals and environmental researchers into Bushwick’s PS123’s 5th-grade classroom to develop a series of original environmentally themed plays. A collaborative effort between eco-theater collective Superhero Clubhouse [SHC] and nonprofit theater The Bushwick Starr, BGT at once promotes environmental awareness while providing students with a creative outlet for the exploration of ecological concepts and concerns. The resulting plays are performed in an annual Big Green Theater festival by an ensemble of professional actors, directors, and designers using green theater methods.

BGT Photo

From start to finish, Big Green Theater epitomizes the many merits of weaving the arts into science education. Coming from a science background, what struck me most about the evening’s conversation was how much the eco-experts actually gained from working in the BGT classroom. Discussing scientific research to a room of 10-11-year-olds posed an interesting challenge in and of itself, forcing them to pare back the jargon and plan a lesson that was both informative and engaging. But incorporating the tools of the theater trade—the warm-ups, the hands-on participation, the performative elements—served to ease the transition from the Ivory tower to the 5th-grade classroom, while fostering a more active + collaborative environment than a traditional lecture-based science class. Drawing these youngsters into a creative conversation about their relationship with the planet had the added benefit of providing further insights into how to grow the public discussion about these ecological concerns by talking about the science behind them in a productive and meaningful way.

I am still in complete awe of the resulting plays themselves—how they brought to life the spirit and unique perspective that can only manifest in the mind of a 5th-grader. From our role in climate change to our devastating impact on the planet’s long-standing ecological systems, environmental science is laden with hard truths that we as adults, so prone to guilt, often shy away from. So to see these young playwrights grappling with these ideas to create their own stories is incredibly inspiring. Rather than simply regurgitating facts, they have fashioned ecological concerns—from colony collapse disorder to water pollution—into tales of bees facing alien abduction and oysters hell-bent on revenge. But what’s more, they’ve infused their own distinctive voices, personalities, and preoccupations into the characters. In so doing, these students have managed to actually insert themselves into the environmental issues at hand, crafting stories that simultaneously reflect their relationship to the BGT’s eco-lesson and mirror their relationships with each other + their community.

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Many thanks again to Big Green Theater for inviting ArtLab into their incredible festival and sharing their insights + experiences with us. To learn more about their program, be sure to check out their official website here. And with that, I’ll leave you with my favorite quote of the evening from BGT director Jeremy Pickard:

Really soon into it, the students realize that this program is about them. It’s not about us or the state curriculum; it’s about them. And that is connected to the way we talk about environmental information in the world. If we think that we should change our lives and our perspective for someone else, it’s not going to happen. But if it’s about us—if the story is about us—then change happens.

About Our Guests

pickardJeremy Pickard is the founder and captain of Superhero Clubhouse for which he has written and directed over a dozen productions including his signature series of ecology-inspired Planet Plays. In addition to acting as lead artist on Big Green Theater, Jeremy has collaborated with climate scientists to create site-specific performances at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a project commissioned by PositiveFeedback and Columbia University’s Earth Institute. In honor of Earth Month, he is currently documenting his April-long quest to not throw anything away, in a weekly eblast you can subscribe to here!

jacquetDr. Jennifer Jacquet is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at NYU. She is an environmental scientist interested in human cooperation, with specific interests in overfishing and climate change. Her book about the evolution, function, and future of the use of social disapproval, Is Shame Necessary?, is due out in early 2015. She formerly wrote the Guilty Planet blog at Scientific American, and now contributes to Edge.org. This year, she spoke to BGT students about our impact on trophic cascades and marine food webs.

noel_allainNoel Joseph Allain is the Artistic Director + co-founder of The Bushwick Starr, an Obie Award winning non profit theater that presents an annual Season of new work in theater, dance, and puppetry. As Artistic Director of the Starr, he has presented over 50 companies in the last 5 years and served hundreds of artists. Noel created Big Green Theater with the Starr’s Executive Director Sue Kessler as part of the theater’s commitment to contributing to the local community’s environmental awareness through a creative and interactive process.

Dr. Katherine Alfredo is a Columbia University Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellow. Katherine’s research interests center on drinking water issues in rural, developing areas of the world. She is currently working with Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center, on fluoride and arsenic drinking water issues in India. This year, she spoke to BGT students about international water problems like flooding and drought, and led the students in constructing homemade water filter on a budget of $5.

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?

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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.

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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!

Of Brain Games + Space Jams: Jan 24th Weekly Roundup

Highlight of the Week: Dolphin Dance Project

“When you approach dolphins with dance, they recognize it as intelligence.”

Conceived by dance educator + musculoskeletal research scientist Chisa Hidaka, the Dolphin Dance Project brings humans and wild dolphins together in a collaborative + improvised underwater dance for film. Incredibly, the dolphins dance of their own free will, engaging in a cross-species movement-based conversation, without the temptation of a treat or reward, inspiring respect for the intelligence and beauty of underwater life. As someone who has become increasingly concerned about the state of our oceans + our impact on life underwater, this project has really resonated with me since I first learned about it at Cursiosity3’s Dance in Art + Science event last week. For more video and information, visit the Dolphin Dance Project online here!

Tweeter’s Digest

sweet selections brought to you by my twitter feed

The sound of space: Voyager provides music from solar system and beyond by Samuel Gibbs [@guardiantech]

Data visualization is all the rage this day, but Domenico Vicinanza, project manager at Géant—Europe’s high-speed data network powering Cern + the Large Hadron Collider—has translated data from NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 into music that’s out of this world!

Science Goes to the Movies: ‘Her’ [@SciFri]

On this edition of Science Friday, scientist film critics weigh on on Spike Jonze’s latest film, Her: the story of a man who falls hard for his operating system, adding a new dimension to *technophilia*!

Dreamcasters: how video games alter our subconscious by Katie Drummond [@verge]

Intrigued by her son’s video-gaming hobby, psychologist Jayne Gackenbach investigates the effects of hardcore gaming on dreaming + the unconscious: “The major parallel between gaming and dreaming is that, in both instances, you’re in an alternate reality… It’s interesting to think about how these alternate realities translate to waking consciousness, when you are actually reacting to inputs from the real world.”

Review: Auditory Hallucinations, Composed by Ajai Raj [@TheScientistLLC]

The music in your head. Stanford music professor Jonathan Berger transports audiences into the world of imagined sound with Visitations—a pair of one-act chamber operas inspired by the science + sensation of auditory hallucinations.

Brain Games: Move Objects With Your Mind To Find Inner Calm? by Amy Standen [@NPRAllTech]

Playing with brainwaves: the rise of commercially available EEG headsets a la Emotiv + NeuroSky’s MindWav Mobile has made for some pretty awesome projects—from Orbit brain-controlled helicopter to funky//fresh NeuroDisco.

The Art of Science: Hiroshi Sugimoto Gets Right to the (Infinity) Point by Michelle Banks [@finchandpea]

Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto sculpts his way to the infinity point, artfully modeling equation for a surface containing a single point extended to infinity in his piece Mathematical Model 009 [below].

Hiroshi Sugimoto. Mathematical Model 009 [2006]

Dance, Factors, Dance: A Variation On Yorgey’s Factorization Diagrams by Stephen Von Worley [@DataPointed]

Inspired by Yorgey’s factorization diagrams, DataPointed artist + scientist Stephen Von Worley crafted the Factor Conga: “a promenade of primes, composites, and their constituents” breaking numbers down into their prime factors.

Talk Piece: Modes Of Perception And Communication Discussed At NYC Leonardo LASER by Ashley P. Taylor [@SciArtinAmerica]

How can we take advantage of all our senses? SciArt in America thoughtfully recaps the work and discussion presented at last week’s NYC Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous [LASER]—featuring artist-activist Eve Mosher, installation artist Nina Yankowitz, communication + perception researcher Mark Paterson, and New York-based artist Sherry Mayo.

Beauty and the Brain [@BBCRadio4]

What can the brain tell us about art? Can there ever be a recipe for beauty? Or are the great works beyond the powers of neuroscience? BBC Radio 4 explores the world of neuroesthetics.

SciArt in the City

01.27.2014 – SciArt Speed Date // Collaborate // 7:30pm @ The West

Beer, Brooklyn, breaking boundaries. ArtLab + SciArt in America have joined forces to co-opt the speed date format as artists + scientists pair off in a series of conversations geared towards creating cross-disciplinary collaborative connections. If you’re interested in participating as a “dater,” be sure to email me. Or if you’re just curious, stop by and say hello!

01.29.2014 + 01.30.2014 – CULTUREMART 2014: Science Fair // 7pm @ HERE

Science Fair is an opera-singer’s love-song to the scientific worldview. Conceived and performed by mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, and featuring pianist Mila Henry, Science Fair melds Science and Opera into a witty evening of songs, slides, and live experiments.

Through 03.02.2014 – Science Inspires Art: The Cosmos @ New York Hall of Science

View images from ASCI’s 15th Annual international competition and exhibition. These stunning images relate to astronomy, space exploration, extra-terrestrials and the nature of matter or time in relation to universal laws.

My Pic of the Week

metastasis of music
The Metastasis of Music. These cancerous vinyls by artist Jasmine Murrell were inspired by cancer researcher Dr. Scott Lowe’s work. The piece was showcased at the Ligo Project’s Art of Science Gallery Night as one of four works to come out of six-month long collaborations between artists and scientists. For more information, be sure to check out Ligo’s Facebook page!


Got an article or event at the interfaces of art and science? Care to share? Just tweet @thisisartlab or email me!

12.10.2013 // Film + the Unconscious

On December 10th, ArtLab presented Film + the Unconscious: a conversation between cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin and filmmaker Alexandra Stergiou. Through moderated discussion and audience participation, the evening explored what happens in our brains as we watch our favorite films: how does film portray the way we think and dream? How can filmmakers appeal to the unconscious to strike a mood or evoke emotion? What is the neuroscience behind some of filmmaking’s oldest tricks?

Still craving more neuroscience insight? Enjoy this clip of Heather fielding a question from the audience about why filmmakers dream in film.

about the guests

Heather-Berlin-webHeather Berlin is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Using neuroimaging techniques, she explores the complex interactions of the human brain with the goal of improving treatment for impulsive and compulsive psychiatric disorders. She is also interested in the neural basis of consciousness and unconscious processes. An avid science communicator, Heather has appeared as a featured scientist on the Discovery Channel’s Superhuman Showdown and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio, while sharing her work with live audiences at local events including the Secret Science Club and Lucid NYC.

4856_789965730189_4898480_nAlexandra Stergiou is a New York-based filmmaker. A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she landed in Brooklyn where she worked at Vice as Associate Producer on the cult TV show, The Vice Guide to Everything. Serving as director and cinematographer on numerous productions, her films have screened across the U.S., being honored by the Columbus International Film and Video Festival (Chris Award for Humanities), New York University’s First Run Film Festival (Wasserman Finalist, Award for Achievement in Documentary, National Board of Review Student Award Nominee), and the Jesse Thompkins III Foundation (Emerging Storyteller Award).


Many thanks to The West for hosting Film + the Unconscious. Stay tuned for more events from ArtLab: The Series!

Welcome to ArtLab

Oversimplification is the kryptonite of any scientific idea, oftentimes turning pop science into an elaborate game of telephone, carelessly paring away all the nuances and caveats that make the idea so impactful in the first place. The lateralization of the brain, first studied by Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Walcott Sperry in the 1960s, has been perhaps the biggest victim of bastardization by oversimplification.

The left brain//right brain divide has been pigeon-holing folks for decades now, neatly sorting us into the science-oriented versus the artistically-inclined. The rational male versus the emotional female. The *Spocks* versus  the *Kirks*. The practical, ordered, and scientific world is the territory of the left brain, while the imaginative, aesthetic, artistic world is the right brain’s domain…

… The problem with such a black-and-white picture of the brain is that it doesn’t account for all the grey in your grey matter. Sure, neuroscientists agree that the right hemisphere sees the bigger, interconnected picture, and that the left hemisphere picks out details and organizes information to create a sort of rule-bound world. However, regardless of whether math or science or business or literature or philosophy is your jam, you likely rely heavily on both your left and right brain.

As a molecular biologist, I deal almost exclusively in the microscopic, “hidden” world. The world that belongs to the right side of my brain. Of course I spend most of my days making observations, honing in on details and organizing them in my lab notebook searching for patterns in the data. But, what I depend on while devising my experiments and what I rely on while telling the story of these microscopic molecules is all the right-brain power I can muster.

Scientists are in constant search of patterns inherent not just in the data in front of us, but patterns that can be applied broadly to the natural world. We consider the information gathered from the observable world, and extrapolate it to a model through right-brained induction. More importantly, we must be able to weigh the evidence and see what fits into our existing models and what doesn’t, which is a task our think-inside-the-box, rule-bound left brains cannot do. If not for our right brains, we may to this day still believe that the sun rotates around the earth! We may never have transitioned from Newton’s laws of physics to the law of relativity!

Likewise, artists cannot operate solely with their right hemispheres. Sure our right brains give us a whole sensual picture of the world. And maybe artists are slightly better in touch with their right brains compared to their scientific/mathematical counterpoints. But the fact remains that artists depend on their left brains for the detail, the focusing, the ability to convey meaning through language be it written or musical or moving.

The left brain is what allows the photographer to hone in on one a particular moment in time that is relevant or impactful or just downright gorgeous. The left brain is what releases all the insight and emotion and imagery floating around in the writer’s right brain onto the page through language. The left brain is what gives the painter the ability to capture the details of her subject to get the shading just so.

With all this said, something I have been struggling to grasp for quite some time now is why it is that so many scientists and so many artists feel that we belong to two separate worlds? It’s obviously not so simple as “well scientists and artists exist in two fundamentally different brain spaces” because they don’t. Some of the most creative people I’ve met are scientists and some of the most methodical people i’ve met would count themselves artists. We even deal in the same mediums. Open any scientific journal and you’ll see some of the most stunning images you’ve ever seen. Scientists deal in movies, images, color, sound… We all speak the same language, so why aren’t we talking? I have started this blog as a dare to myself to step outside the Ivory Tower and actually venture to talk about what it is we do up here using the language of art. The language of the so-called right brain.

Welcome to ArtLab.

* Photo taken from Iain McGilchrist’s TED talk “The Divided Brain”