[February 24th 2005]
Art and science
- interview with the creators of Sol
The project Sol - Latin and Danish for 'sun' - is presenting
real recordings of two sun cycles recorded over 22 years (1978-2000).
Sol is created by Florian Grond (chemist) Frank Halbig (musician), Jesper Munk Jensen (PhD student in Earth Sciences)
and artist Thorbjørn Lausten. The exhibition has previously
been shown at ZKM and opens at Esbjerg Kunstmuseum in Denmark on
March 5. Artificial let all of the four creators explain for themselves.
Firstly, could you give our readers a short introduction to
the Sol project? What is it all about?
Thorbjørn Lausten: SOL deals with the visualization of scientific
data, natural sciences, but is in general dealing with epistemological
issues, which are nearly exclusively dealt with in a verbal/written
manner and much less in visual manners. Images can be as exact and
accurate as verbal descriptions and can contain a lot more information
than a verbal/written message.
Florian Grond: SOL is a contribution to the discourse of complexity.
Many scientific disciplines take the advantage of communicating
by images and recently some of them are also developing methods
for the auditory display. The main reason for that is the increasing
complexity in scientific results, be it a measurement or the output
of a simulation.
Frank Halbig: The installation SOL is a sensual time travel throughout
22 years of solar data visualized on a 4 wall video projection and
made audible with a 4 speaker surround system.
It addresses a broad audience, laymen as well as scientists. In
SOL you can hear an impossible sound scape.
Jesper Munk Jensen: The installation SOL is a visualization of
solar data recorded through the last 22 years. The data chosen are
related to or affected by the solar magnetic activity and therefore
show large variations during the two 11 year solar cycles the data
contains. The solar magnetic activity is especially interesting
as it can strongly influence the technology-based society of today.
Solar eruptions related to the magnetic activity can cause power
outages, render satellites useless as well as cause beautiful auroral
displays. There are even evidence that the solar magnetic activity
can be related to global warming.
When dealing with visualizations of scientific data, what makes
the framework of art especially useful compared to a regular scientific
Thorbjørn Lausten: One very relevant and useful aspect
of scientific data visualization in an artistic context is that
the visual arts have a deep understanding and long experience in
image making, which also means an understanding of the mental mechanisms
behind visual representations. It is often believed, also within
the various sciences, that representation/s are an automatic process,
which is absolutely not the case. No matter what kind of representation/s
we are dealing with, we have to consider motivation and interpretation
as an integral part of the representation. And, which is always
forgotten, no matter what kind of technology we use, the way technology
is constructed is in itself an interpretation. Visualization of
data in an artistic context may be useful, but I think that the
issue of relevance is more important.
Florian Grond: If we would put it simple, science tries to convince
by making no choices in order to keep generality of the results.
In the field of arts one meets a more evolved awareness about the
necessity of making choices to make a statement that is at least
noticed. SOL is provocative for both arts and science. On the one
hand it shows that art really needs to deal with a extended idea
of nature as the outer space and must not only refer to itself,
on the other hand if science appears on a media surface and wants
to stay transparent it must not represent itself in a naive manner,
getting contextualized by non scientists as something already known,
or even worse as something terribly new.
Frank Halbig: For me it was a challenge to compose a music precisely
controlled by scientific data trying to transport ideas and feelings
from our anthropomorphic perspective to the sun. In my opinion the
human condition must be respected to create something not boring
after 5 minutes. The sounds chosen are highly charged with emotions,
something that is usually avoided by science. Yet emotions keep
us focused to particular phenomena.
Jesper Munk Jensen: When making a scientific visualization one
tries to be as objective as possible in order to preserve the validity
of the result presented. In art aesthetic considerations can be
weighted higher in order to produce a visualization that speaks
to the senses as well as the mind. In this way the resulting visualizations
can present the same physical phenomena is very different ways.
What are the possibilities of the Sol visualizations having a role
in the scientific framework as well as being artworks? Can they
be fed back to the scientific frame without problems?
Thorbjørn Lausten: Visualizations of the kind that we
use in SOL already have a role in science but most often the various
implications of using that kind of visualization is not conscious
to science. In many sciences you still think that you are observing
something out there, which may be the case, but more important is
it to make clear, that you observe the conditions under which you
observe, which among other things means your personal background,
the financial and political situation, and the technology used,
play a decisive part in what is often considered an objective and
neutral situation. All that is very well known within the visual
arts, and it ought be more widely known within the sciences.
Having the just mentioned in mind, it should be clear, that aesthetic
visualisations of scientific data can make clear how the visual
apparatus is functioning both within art and science. In scientific
imagery you compose your results in a manner not unlike visual arts,
making it clear that the objective world of science is as much a
construction as is visual art.
Florian Grond: If I may take the idea of feeding it back as a necessity
of being useful, I would like to reply with Baudrillard who said:
The question if art is useful or not is not a useful question. But
if SOL could stimulate scientists to think about the presentation
of their work in terms of aesthetics, even more if they use media
traditionally belonging to the context of arts, science could become
less suggestive, more rational and more convincing because it reflects
its own conditions of representation as Thorbjorn put it above.
But I think in order to achieve that, SOL should not serve as a
model but rather as a challenging hint.
Frank Halbig: Science mostly tries to generate objective sounds
and images thereby suppressing as far as possible the sensual impressions
from the material substrate, which can never completely removed.
But I think that even in science the conscious handling with these
questions can be fruitful if it rises the level of attention in
the audience. Sound is a distinguished medium to perceive the information
in a holistic way. Thus sound serves in SOL as ubiquitous information
that guides our attention to specific events. In our case you can
direct your glance to a specific video projection, if you notice
drastic changes in the soundscape.
Jesper Munk Jensen: As a scientist it is very interesting to see
the data one works with visualized within an artistic framework.
It makes it possible to appreciate the data in a new way and perhaps
think about them from a different perspective. When a scientific
visualization is presented it is often taken to be the 'truth'.
It is important for the scientist and the public to be aware of
the choices and uncertainties associated with the visualization.
In SOL the choices made are exposed by presenting scientific data
in a different framework.
The group of collaborators behind Sol have very different backgrounds
in respectively art and science. Can you tell me a bit about the
working process and some of the advantages and pitfalls of art/science
Thorbjørn Lausten: When it comes to the working process
we had in making SOL I remember the situation as a very open minded
and based on a great mutually respect. In a project like SOL you
have to make clear that you work in a team, but so far I can only
recommend that kind of working.
Florian Grond: I would really like to emphasize what Thorbjørn
said. The solutions turned up as the work progressed, since it's
hard to talk about images and sound we produced a rich variety,
discarded most of them and selected jointly what you can see.
Frank Halbig: Our team with a wide spread background was definitely
an advantage for a complex and border-crossing project like SOL.
The different approaches really provoked intensive discussions in
advance, something I've mostly encountered after a project presentation.
But I hope the discussions continue in the audience. I think it
was only possible in this particular constellation, it was hard
work, but great fun.
Jesper Munk Jensen: A lot of different data sets were presented
in traditional scientific visualization. We then discussed which
data sets and time periods would be most interesting to work with.
This collaboration has been extremely interesting and given a new
perspective on the data. The biggest challenge was probably to ensure
that everybody was speaking the same language as the languages of
art and science can be very different at times.
Dataview by Thorbjørn Lausten: http://solar-center.stanford.edu/art/lausten.html
Glimmer by Thorbjørn Lausten: http://www.stedet3.dk/T_Lausten/entry.html