I believe the world is a complex phenomenological experience that can be explained, rationalized, and lived in myriad different ways. The way I see it, we all begin with the same fundamental mystery — why are we here? what is life? — and we attack this problem with whatever tools we find work best; some of us use science, parsing and decoding the secrets of life with a toolbox of methods and reason. Others, with the same goals in mind, use art, arranging ideas and objects in intentional ways designed to root at the questions of existence. Others still depend on the framework of religion to get at the world. These, in my mind, are all metaphysical systems; the answers they provide may be different, but the questions are the same.
I love those rare moments where science or one of its practitioners temporarily delves over to one of these other metaphysical systems. The world is a sticky Venn diagram with all kinds of overlapping circles, wedges here and there of strange harmonious coincidence. When science leads to something beautiful, a pattern or quality of information can become a piece of art; when art illuminates a truth, it can lay bare the physical properties of the world with ineffable clarity. Science and art, culture, music, philosophy: there is a rich conversation happening in those peripheral edges, in those slices of Venn diagram. I always seek them. What better way to soften the culture wars than to examine, and seek value, in such places?
Some genres lend themselves particularly well to “peripheral vision:” documentary film, for example, which at its best is art about truth. This aborted Errol Morris documentary, The True Strangeness of the Universe, which Morris was hired to make in 2000 for an internal conference of IBM employees, is a beautiful example of the value of a creative eye trained in peripheral vision. No stranger to scientific enquiry, Morris quotes Edward O. Wilson: “Science offers the boldest metaphysics of our age. It is a thoroughly human construct, driven by the faith that if we dream, press to discover, explain, and dream again, the world will somehow come clearer and we will grasp the true strangeness of the universe.”
And, of course, the universe is stranger and more beautiful than we can ever anticipate. Take this recent feat by researchers at the University of Sheffield, who have managed to record musical harmonies produced by the magnetic field in the outer atmosphere of the sun. Using satellite imagery of coronal loops — over 60,000 miles long in reality — they fiddled with the visible vibrations, translating them into noises at a frequency audible to the human ear. The result is magnificent: eerie, resonant, a feat of musical composition whose authorship must be split evenly between the sun itself and the scientists who decoded it. Listen here.
This is not the first time the cosmos has been musicalized; Symphonies Of The Planets is a set of recordings built from Voyager probe data — information picked up as Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 drifted through space, passing by the various planets and moons of our little solar system. Each of these cosmic objects emits its own electromagnetic “signature” that can be registered by the various equipment jammed into the Voyagers’ bodies (magnetometers, plasma detectors, low-energy charged particle detectors, radio antennas), then converted into sound; like the music of the sun, the result has an ambient, human quality that is difficult to shake (psst, you can download it here). Here, science delves into the realm of art, and we are left with a strange artifact, an object which straddles two realms, bridging ideas and making information aesthetic.
Speaking of, examine the images in this entry — they all display data of some kind. The first, an installation view from the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson‘s 2008 Take Your Time exhibition at the New York MoMA, is a piece of visual art; and yet, as a presentation of information, it speaks volumes. One could imagine it as an optical experiment, a laboratory display — with a little mist in the air, and bulbs properly set up, look how light can have physical presence, can even form a kind of structure! Eliasson’s use of geometry, optics, and space is informed by a knowledge of and interest in science, and much of his work employs radically simple properties of the physical world to great visual effect. Below, a video of his 2005 piece Round Rainbow, which consists of a circle of glass, a spotlight, and a motor…and everything you’ve ever learned about light.
Like Eliasson, the artist Erika Blumenfeld uses her metaphysical skill set to document and comment on the natural world. Much of her photographic work, like the Fractions of Light & Time: June 17, 2006 – 7:00 a.m. pictured below, is the result of the careful use of custom-made equipment, tools which create an account of light exposed directly onto photographic paper during different periods of time, seasons, durations, and places. Blumenfeld, who has plied her trade as an artist in residence at both laboratories and observatories, as well as in the extreme environment of Antarctica, makes work which documents subtle, incremental changes in atmospheric phenomena; her pieces are information, physical imprints made by the light of the sun and moon, real testaments of the secret processes of the world around us. Image courtesy of the inde/jacobs gallery, Marfa, TX; many more “Light Recordings” here.
And remember that sun music? Scroll up and behold again the photo of coronal loops taken with NASA’s Transition Region and Coronal Explorer satellite. This is pure data, and, yet, like the Hubble images that blow our minds on the regular, couldn’t it stand on its own as an object of beauty? Couldn’t you come to it knowing nothing about Alfven waves moving along coronal loops and still draw something important from it? Yes, but your experience can only be enriched by learning its meaning, just as having a clue about optics makes one’s experience of Eliasson or Blumenfeld (or any of those other countless artists who tinker with these ideas) work even more awe-inspiring. After all, the pleasure is in the overlap — the periphery.