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February 24th 2005: Art and science - interview with the creators of Sol

[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 approach?
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 collaborations?
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.

More ...

Dataview by Thorbjørn Lausten:

Glimmer by Thorbjørn Lausten:


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