Andrea Polli is a digital media artist living in New Mexico. Her work addresses issues related to science and technology in contemporary society. She is interested in global systems, the real time interconnectivity of these systems, and the effect of these systems on individuals. Polli’s work with science, technology and media has been presented widely in over 100 presentations, exhibitions and performances internationally and, has been recognized by numerous grants, residencies and awards including UNESCO. For comprehensive information please visit www.andreapolli.com
ER. Can you talk about your current work with atmospheric scientists and where this interest in cross-disciplinary collaboration comes from?
AP. I have been drawn to working with scientists who study the natural world, specifically weather and climate. Over the years I have created art projects that use digital media to respond to real time and model-based data describing the global environment. In the process of creating those projects, I have worked closely with meteorologists and atmospheric and climate scientists.
Right now I believe it’s essential that the public have a greater understanding of science, especially in the case of complex issues like climate change. Complexity is a very difficult concept to understand, and an easy idea to misinterpret. Some media figures in the US have been very successful at distorting scientific findings in order to mislead the public, and they can do it because the public doesn’t understand the science. People need to understand these issues in order to make informed decisions.
But all this wasn’t what got me started working with art and science 20 years ago. Then, and now, I found things about science that were very beautiful and poetic. I found that the more I learned the more profound the beauty. So I started working in this area to share my impressions with others.
ER. How did science practically merge into your practice?
AP. The first real collaboration I did with a scientist was ‘Atmospherics/Weather Works’ which was a 16-channel sonification of two historic storms that passed through New York City. I met my collaborator, Dr. Glenn Van Knowe, during an art/science symposium at the Annenberg Center in Los Angeles. I told him about some earlier work I had done creating algorithmic music using chaotic attractors (specifically the Lorenz attractor) and he told me about how the Lorenz attactor was one of the earliest weather models of the movement of air molecules and how since Lorenz’s work, weather models have become vastly more sophisticated. So, we both wanted to hear what the latest models might sound like, and chose to try a hurricane and a winter snowstorm. I secured a venue for the presentation of the work, Engine 27 in NYC, a space with an excellent multi-channel sound system and we planned to model the storms at 5 different elevation levels. One of the interesting questions that came up was just when the storm started and when it ended. In a sense, when did the storm become an ‘object’ to be presented in a gallery? We finally ended up making an arbitrary decision to present 24 hours of the strongest storm activity, 24 hours that was compressed into 5 minutes.
ER. Did you encounter other difficulties within a gallery environment?
AP. In terms of other difficulties, I think it’s important to point out that difficulties can also come from the ‘art’ side. The NYC tech art scene at the time (and today too) seemed to be obsessed with the idea of real-time interactivity and I had to explain to the curators why it wasn’t possible to model the storm in real time on the computers in the gallery (the reason was that the weather models are hugely complex, accounting for several systems across the entire earth and Glenn spent weeks tying up several high end computers modelling the data for the project). The complexity of the model seemed to be less interesting to the gallery than the concept of doing everything in real time, and I felt much more in tune with my scientist collaborator than the gallery for a while during the development for the project, although the gallery ended up being very happy with the final result.
ER. How has working with scientists influenced your own practice?
AP. Working with Glenn taught me a lot about meteorology, but I was still very naive. I learned a little about climate change and asked him about doing a project with me related to climate. Then I learned that the field of weather research and the field of climate research are very separate, and that I would need to find a climate expert for my project. Both weather and climate experts use models, but one big difference is the resolution of the models. Since weather scientists are modelling short-term events, like storms, their models tend to be very high resolution around relatively small geographic areas, while climate scientists tended to use lower resolution models since they are modelling climate change events that happen over longer time periods. However, the climate scientist I started to work with, Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig, the leader of the climate research group of NASA Goddard institute, had just completed a study of climate change effects on NYC that used one of the highest resolution climate models ever used before. The reason? Because climate change events were starting to be seen happening in much shorter time scales, so higher resolution models were necessary to study them. Working on Heat and the Heartbeat of the City taught me about all the different sectors that can be affected by climate change, and although the project doesn’t address it, I also learned at that time about the connection between the increase in the intensity and frequency of storms due to global warming. It seemed like these two separate fields were starting to converge before my eyes due to more rapid climate change!
That led me to doing a real-time project with the help of artist Joe Gilmore and meteorologist Dr. Patrick Market of the University of Missouri, N. N. takes real time daily weather model data from the North Pole and real time images and presents a 4-channel sonification and visualization of the information. Technically, the project makes use of a custom plug-in I developed with the help of artist and programmer Kurt Ralske after I learned about incompatibilities between the software I was using and the way the scientists created the model data with their programs. We first presented this piece as part of a festival commission and the show was scheduled to open in April. One difficulty we had was that the web cam we were grabbing in real time from the pole, positioned by the NOAA, is only there in spring/summer and the date it is deployed depends on the weather conditions (can the ships get through the ice to position the camera, etc.) We did our tests towards the end of the previous summer and expected the camera to be up in time for the opening in April, and it was a bit stressful waiting for it to be deployed. Luckily the weather accommodated our project and we were able to run the piece live!
I was in a similar situation in Antarctica this past austral summer. It’s interesting being so dependent on the weather and the weather models that the scientists are using. I think that’s something special about really diving in to this kind of work, that being involved with the weather and climate is full of uncertainties.
ER. Have you noticed an appreciation/understanding for sound within science disciplines?
AP. In my experience, atmospheric scientists have been very open to the idea of sonification and one of my collaborators, Dr. Kuoying Wang of National Central University in Taiwan explained to me that he thought the reason for this openness has to do with the widespread use of visualization in atmospheric science. Scientists working today have seen a radical transformation of the field in their lifetimes due to visualization. Dr. Wang said that today it would be impossible to do his work without visualization. Sonification, he believes, could become just as important in the future.
ER. Can you pinpoint any similarities or differences between the two fields?
AP. On the level of the concepts of the work, there’s no difference collaborating with scientists or artists, both I have worked with have been heavily involved in the work on the conceptual development side. I was almost going to say that the scientists have been more involved in this, but not really, just in a different way, for example a scientist might have an idea of some natural phenomenon and might be able to point out aspects of a data set that illustrate that phenomenon, while an artist I’m collaborating with might talk about the form of the work from an aesthetic side, both of those things to me are formal.
The difference between the two for me has been when you get down to the nitty gritty making the work. Not being scientists and being familiar with all the scientific tools, I usually can’t be involved with the hands on scientific work. So I can ask if data sets can be formatted in certain ways but I can’t actually do it alongside the scientists. With other artists it’s different, all of us can get into the code of what we’re doing and make adjustments. So there’s a little bit of a disconnect unfortunately when working with scientists, where you have to use language to communicate the ideas rather than working directly. So this requires a lot of clarity and a lot of understanding of what the science is.
ER. There is a great deal of rigour (conceptual, social, environmental) in your work. Do you think ‘sound art’ demands this approach as it (sound) is often seen as an inherently abstract phenomena?
AP. Any form of media must be able to contain information, static or active (or, as Marshall McLuhan would say, ‘hot’ or ‘cold’) and it must be able to communicate that information. If media (including sound) is information that is communicated in a distributed form, what makes media or sound art? When discussing art in ‘The Aesthetic Dimension’ Herbert Marcuse says that under the law of aesthetic form, reality is necessarily sublimated, content stylized, and “the ‘data’ are reshaped and reordered in accordance with the demands of the art form.” When Marcuse uses the term ‘data,’ he is not referring to the digital ‘data’ that many contemporary media artists work with; instead he’s talking about the raw material of experience of which digital data is just one part. So, if one is to work within Marcuse’s framework, media artists reshape and reorder information.
ER. Your own sonification methods then attempt to reshape information?
AP. A large part of my work involves reshaping and reordering information using data sonification, and my sonification methods are influenced heavily by the historical and contemporary work and research of the international Acoustic Ecology community. This process of translating data into an unfamiliar form for an aesthetic purpose can be compared to what Herbert Brun calls ‘anticommunication’. In a 1970 position statement on technology and composition to UNESCO, Brun called the process of new language development ‘anticommunication’ and saw it as the offspring of communication, an attempt to say something through new modes and an active way of re-defining or re-creating the language.
Also in the 1970’s Joseph Beuys framed the question of communication as art by creating the term ‘social sculpture’ to define a process in which the art is the process of thought, speech, discussion and political and environmental action that embraces many disciplines, opens participation and frees art from its materiality creating an active space of potential.
So, within Beuys’ universe, art not only reshapes and reorders information, but also can reshape the communication and distribution of media. Beuys did both when he called for a reshaping of the unbalanced worldview of the West in his 1974 ‘Energy Plan for Western Man’ and when he reshaped the definition (and distribution) of art with the idea of social sculpture.
ER. How important is context and writing in your final works?
AP. Context is essential; it’s why I went through the trouble to go all the way to Antarctica! A big part of the work’s development is figuring out appropriate interpretations of the data based on the context whether that is the soundscape of a specific area or the aims of the scientific study. Writing is always an element of the work, but more a necessary part of getting the work produced rather than an essential part of the process of making the work. My projects require a lot of resources and I have to write all kinds of grant proposals and other things to make them happen.
ER. Can you pin point a moment/memory where your interest in sound began?
AP. Even as a child, I had been interested in mathematics and computers. These were the days when you had 5 1/4″ floppy disks and had to insert a disk with your operating system every time. I would play with the computers and write simple programs using mathematical concepts, mostly things like randomness and looping, and sometimes using the text to speech capability of the computer to make these very funny mechanical sounding words, but mostly printing text and colours to the screen.
I would follow Scientific American magazine and when I was in college, I remember an issue that came out with a big picture of the mandelbrot set or some other fractal on the cover. All my friends and I (and everyone who was into computers at that time, it was huge) got really excited and started typing in the code the magazine provided and playing around with different images. Of course right around that time the book Chaos came out and the whole thing exploded, lots of interest in these kinds of recursive algorithms as changing the world. Stephen Wolfram came out with a book not too long ago called ‘A New Kind of Science’ that does a good job codifying everyone’s ideas and hopes for this new paradigm.
One thing that fascinated me about chaotic systems and using mathematics in general was that it is so abstract. I was making paintings and drawings and was frustrated with the way these works didn’t seem to have the beautiful intangibility that I found in mathematics. I thought that even an abstract painting was really direct and representational (after all, you could see the paint on the canvas). The other thing that frustrated me about painting and drawing I think is that the final result didn’t see to me to unfold the way a computer program would.
But, this was a time when the art world was really hostile towards computer work (if you can believe it, things have really changed!) So, in graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I continued to paint and draw and did computer programming on the side for fun. I was lucky to find a mentor, composer and artist George Lewis, who one day caught me in the computer lab and was interested in what I was doing when none of the other faculty were. You have to understand; this was a time when there were big debates about whether or not video was art so if you were doing computer work you were really uncool.
So, George of course was involved with the sound area so I started taking classes in sound and met a bunch of faculty who were engaged with the same kinds of programming systems I was interested in, Peter Gena Bob Snyder and Shawn Decker for example. I became fascinated with what I thought was the abstract nature of sound. I don’t completely think this anymore, but that was the hook for me at first.
ER. Onto your wonderful CD Sonic Antarctica, can you talk about the background to the work?
AP. Sonic Antarctica is an exploration of a place through sound and sonification. It combines the idea of exploring a place with your ears rather than your eyes with the idea of exploring data through sonification rather than visualization.
Another very important part of Sonic Antarctica is giving voice to the scientists doing research there. In the interviews some of the scientists talk about how speaking to the public had been looked down upon in the scientific community, like popularizing science rather than actually doing research, but they also talked about how important it is to speak to the public in a political climate that has been hostile to scientific research, especially in regard to climate, so the research will not be misunderstood.
ER. Can you explain the process of ‘sonification’ or ‘audification’. I understand it as scientific data which has somehow been subjected to change?
AP. There is a movement related to the sonification of scientific data, and a lot of information about work in that area can be found at icad.org, the site for the international community of auditory display, a group that holds an annual conference and posts papers online. In the 90’s ICAD was commissioned to write a position paper about sonification for the US National Science Foundation, and this document, which can be found on their site, really does a great job outlining the actual historical uses of sonification and imagines possible future benefits to scientific research.
I’m interested in sonifications that share qualities of the real world soundscape. Although people don’t always realize it, (especially in urban areas people tend to try to tune out the soundscape) the soundscape has a strong effect on our understanding of our environment and quality of life.
So, I am playing a little with trying to create a kind of data soundscape that uses qualities of the real world soundscape to convey information. Acoustic ecologist Bernie Krause has done some really interesting research, for example, analyzing soundscapes and how they indicate the health of a natural environment. A data soundscape that indicates an unhealthy environment could draw from Krause’s research and recordings.
I’ve been really interested and active in the global acoustic ecology community. It has been so influential (well, AE along with advances in recording technology, music concrete, film, etc.), that now what is defined as ‘music’ includes a lot of soundscape material (field recordings, soundscape structures, etc.) so it’s difficult to really make a distinction between music and soundscape.
However, for me the main thing is that I’m influenced by the soundscape as much if not more than by music and that I definitely don’t limit my palette to traditional instrumental sounds. In fact, I don’t usually use instrumental sounds at all (except voice), and am much more interested in building new sounds using the data. For example, I’ll start out with white or pink noise and use the data to ‘carve’ the sound into a shape. The data is not only affecting the pattern of sounds but the actual sounds themselves.
ER. Clearly noise and environmental issues filter through your practice, how influential has R. Murray Schafer and acoustic ecology been on your practice, and where do you think you may differ from that area?
AP. Schafer talks about the ‘sound object’ defined by Pierre Schaeffer, the sound disconnected to the source, and Schafer is interested in re-establishing the ecological connection. When you look at the success of the Acoustic Ecology movement, it’s clear that it is possible to re-establish that link, and I think that sonification of environmental data brings this to another dimension, although I think like data visualization, data sonification has shortcomings and it is important to always remember that it is an interpretation and also a simplification of the data. It’s important also to remember that the numerical data itself is also a simplification; it’s impossible to collect data on everything that is happening in an environment. The best we can do is go out into the world and experience it with the most sophisticated sensors that exist, our bodies.
ER. And finally as always, Ear Room asks; what does the term sound art mean to you?
AP. For me it’s really stretching the limits of the possibilities of sound, for example exploring and questioning the way music functions in society, mixing sound with other sensory media, creating systems for distributed sound, etc.
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I’m happy to see Ear Room’s interview with Andrea and your previous issue with Seth. I learned about Ear Room on the phonography yahoo group. We in the World Listening Project have been thinking about producing an online journal like Ear Room, to focus on global activities in sonic arts, acoustic ecology, and field recording. It would also feature listening examples.
I invite anyone interested to subscribe to the WLP yahoo group: http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/worldlistening/
World Listening Project: http://www.worldlisteningproject.org
All the best for Happy New Year,