Foremost in the minds of many of us this past week has been Hurricane Sandy, which has been battering the eastern coast of the United States and which, as I write this, is now on its way up through Canada. The power of storms has been a source (or should I say force?) of inspiration for artists, such as Turner (Morning after the Deluge) and John Martin, who saw it as an opportunity to explore the sublime. But moving beyond the epic, and ongoing, battle between man and nature, has the science of storms ever served as an artistic inspiration?
Boston-based artist Nathalie Miebach creates intricate and beautiful sculptures based on weather data which, in her hands, become elaborately decorated baskets swirling out of themselves, punctuated by bobbles, beads and bling. Surprisingly, these structures are actually 3D visualisations of weather data, with the axes of the sculpture representing different meteorological elements, such as air pressure or temperature. So weather data controls the form that the baskets take, and what might appear at first to be decorations or adornments are actually additional types of data, gathered either by Miebach herself with her home-made collection devices or from publicly available data sources such as NOAA.
In addition to the physical forms of the baskets, Miebach also translates the weather data into music (often this music is an intermediate process in achieving the final sculpture). In other words, she first translates the scientific data into music, and then translates the score into sculpture. Moreover, Miebach notes that our ears are more attuned to nuances in what we hear than our eyes are to nuances in what we see. What can we learn by listening to a storm? Miebach’s music is both stark and beautiful (ex- listen here to Hurricane Noel, played by the Axis Ensemble), and while I can’t interpret it in the same way as I can a scientific diagram, does that really matter? In fact, you could easily argue that it’s just that my ears aren’t (yet) as attuned to the data as my eyes (but for someone who’s blind, surely listening to data would make some sense?).
Part of what I love about Miebach’s work is that she approaches science in a very different way from those of us who are traditionally trained in these fields. Scientific data can be quite abstract, but for those who aren’t so good at abstract thinking and who learn by doing or touching, sculpture offers a way to make weather data tactile. For kinesthetic or ‘haptic learners’ this type of work offers an opportunity to make sense of data in a way that’s a bit more tangible—Miebach points out that we lose a sense of spatial sensibility when dealing with data on the flat plane of the computer screen—and her sculpture offers a counterpoint to that.
As Miebach puts it, she is working to challenge the ‘vocabularies’ that are used in art and science. In some ways this isn’t such a new idea—the Aristotelian notion of the Music of the Spheres assigns ratios to the movements of the planets in the same way that there are proportional relationships between pleasing musical notes. The idea was that closer, ‘slow moving’ spheres produced lower tones, while those further away moved faster and produced higher ones. The result of this celestial motion would be beautiful harmony. In a similar way, Miebach proposes, there is a way of listening to data, or touching it, that isn’t actually any stranger than looking at it on a page or computer monitor.