Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Berkeley Big Bang: Day 3

June 3 was the last day of the Berkeley Big Bang and a celebration of forty years of Leonardo.

Introduction: 40 Years of Leonardo

Stephen Wilson kicked off the event with refections on the 40 years of Leonardo - the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology. He wondered “How will the Journal survive?” given the mounting language and production issues.

He then presented a review of computers and art thirty years ago (the time he joined Leonardo and today. I can quibble with facts. He twice mentioned Wired magazine when I believe he intended to say Byte magazine. He talks about the lack of art in the computer field in 1979, yet Melvin Prueitt’s books on computer graphics had already entered their Dover reprints stage of life by 1974. But I cannot dispute his conclusions: the world of art and computers has grown from a smaller and lonelier place to a huge place that nonetheless has issues such as still being marginalized.

Osmosis: What Can Arts Do for the Sciences:

Piero Scaruffi introduced the first panel.

Chris Chafe pointed out that art poses questions that are interesting to science. A clip of a young Chinese virtuoso playing the arhu demonstrated the complexity of motion a human body can generate manipulating a musical instrument. Even a guitar player being monitored using ninety channels of data just begins to provide the data (let alone the computation) needed to synthesize a computer generated simulation

Bronac Ferran reminded us that we live in a world of science but the laymen so often does not understand this. She referred to a range of artists from Gustav Metzger to Isaac Asimov as precursor to scientific events. Then talking about partnerships between Art and Science she showed a lovely clip of prismatic reflections in the Berkeley Hills created by Liliane Lijn in 2007

Melinda Rackham described successes in twenty years of embedding artists in scientific laboratories which she described using terms such as “nimble innovation” and a “playful polygamy”. She showed several projects. A strong requirement is that all artists must keep logs - while respecting IP and confidentiality. A good example was Leah Heis blog at She left us with her vision of placing creativity at the center of culture.

Jim Crutchfield covered some of his work in partnership with David Dunn a musician. A quite unanticipated affect was discovered while researching the infestation of pine tree by bark beetles. This is a major out break affecting millions of trees in the American West. It turns out that the beetles may be helped by the trees. Drought causes chemical changes in the resin which generate ultrasounds that may attract the beetles. A discovery made by artists and scientist working together. How can we further facilitate smart people talking?

Brilliant Noise: How data Becomes Experience for Artists and Scientists.

Tami Spector introduced the panel.

Camille Utterback led us through several of her projects of interactive video installations - using these to offer insights into the artistic process. So, for example, “Noise is what frustrates clear interpretation.” and “How to use messiness to create mystery?” and “how to use accidents?”

Laura Peticolas is an astronomer who works with sonifying astronomical data. She worked with Lialine Lijn, providing the soundtrasck for her film shown by Bronac Ferran. With her curerrent project she was trying to 1. data scientist could use. 2 Build a public outreach 2. Generate great music. She found it impossible to do all three so concentrated on 2 - but the concentration seems to have helped 1 asnd 3.

Douglas Kahn ran us through the history of “whistlers” - naturally-occurring very low frequency radio signals. These may have first been heard by mankind in 1876 well before the invention of the radio by Thomas Watson (Alexander Graham Bell’s partner) when they built the first test lines. Ever since they have been used by artists. Sometimes unsuccessfully such as Merce Cunningham’s failed attempt in 1966 but more often to good results such as Alvin Lucier’s Sferics in 1981.

The New Sensuality: Epistemologies of the Very, Very Small

Piero Scaruffi introduced the panel.

Jennifer Frazier described the challenges challenge of presenting nanoscience: “We cannot see it!” It’s very, very, very small. The usual scales are 10 to 1000 nanomaters. DNA molecules is about 2 nm across while a virus is about 1000 nanometers. And things behave differently “down there” for example small particles of gold look red and aluminum may spontaneously combust. The Exploratorium frequently works with artists to come with new ways of visualization.

Wayne Lanier showed his work in micro videography. He pointed out that when we view the unfamiliar we have dificulty seeing what’s there. It is very difficult for the brain to attach meaning to images it cannot identify. Using his images alongside his own musical compoisitions and a colleaague’s he put forward the very provocative thought that there is something in a combined video/musical sequence that may help the brain interpret the unusual.

Ruth West told us that Charles Darwin faced a visual problem: how to illustrate evolution? In our modern world we face many issues with rendering the many abstractions we deal with in high-density samplings of complex phenomena - with things that are multi-scale and multi-modal such as metagenomics. She turned perception inside out “how you think you see determines what you see “. And she left us witrh a difficult question “Is the an alternative to the zoom?” Is the another way to negotiate multi-scalar data especially when there are gaps in the data?

Finally Tami Spector presented the winners of the first Leonardo Art/Science Student Contest.

All in all the Berkeley Big Bang was a fascinating three day experience. The presentations were more artistic than the usual academic presentations. The talks were more erudite than the usual museum talks. The combination of the two styles made for a very riuch and nuanced symposium. Bravo and thanks to Rick Rinehart, DMAX and BAM/PFA!

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