May 3, 2013
It started with hair. Donning a pair of rubber gloves, Heather Dewey-Hagborg collected hairs from a public bathroom at Penn Station and placed them in plastic baggies for safe keeping. Then, her search expanded to include other types of forensic evidence. As the artist traverses her usual routes through New York City from her home in Brooklyn, down sidewalks onto city buses and subway cars—even into art museums—she gathers fingernails, cigarette butts and wads of discarded chewing gum.
Do you get strange looks? I ask, in a recent phone conversation. “Sometimes,” says Dewey-Hagborg. “But New Yorkers are pretty used to people doing weird stuff.”
Dewey-Hagborg’s odd habit has a larger purpose. The 30-year-old PhD student, studying electronic arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, extracts DNA from each piece of evidence she collects, focusing on specific genomic regions from her samples. She then sequences these regions and enters this data into a computer program, which churns out a model of the face of the person who left the hair, fingernail, cigarette or gum behind.
It gets creepier.
From those facial models, she then produces actual sculptures using a 3D printer. When she shows the series, called “Stranger Visions,” she hangs the life-sized portraits, like life masks, on gallery walls. Oftentimes, beside a portrait, is a Victorian-style wooden box with various compartments holding the original sample, data about it and a photograph of where it was found.
Rest assured, the artist has some limits when it comes to what she will pick up from the streets. Though they could be helpful to her process, Dewey-Hagborg refuses to swipe saliva samples and used condoms. She tells me she has had the most success with cigarette butts. “They [smokers] really get their gels into that filter of the cigarette butt,” she says. “There just tends to be more stuff there to actually pull the DNA from.”
Dewey-Hagborg takes me step-by-step through her creative process. Once she collects a sample, she brings it to one of two labs—Genspace, a do-it-yourself biology lab in Brooklyn, or one on campus at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (She splits her time between Brooklyn and upstate New York.) Early on in the project, the artist took a crash course in molecular biology at Genspace, a do-it-yourself biology lab in Brooklyn, where she learned about DNA extraction and a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). She uses standard DNA extraction kits that she orders online to analyze the DNA in her samples.
If the sample is a wad of chewing gum, for example, she cuts a little piece off of it, then cuts that little piece into even smaller pieces. She puts the tiny pieces into a tube with chemicals, incubates it, puts it in a centrifuge and repeats, multiple times, until the chemicals successfully extract purified DNA. After that, Dewey-Hagborg runs a polymerase chain reaction on the DNA, amplifying specific regions of the genome that she’s targeted. She sends the
mitochondrial amplified DNA (from both mitochondria and the cells’ nuclei) to a lab to get sequenced, and the lab returns about 400 base pair sequences of guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine (G, A, T and C).
Dewey-Hagborg then compares the sequences returned with those found in human genome databases. Based on this comparison, she gathers information about the person’s ancestry, gender, eye color, propensity to be overweight and other traits related to facial morphology, such as the space between one’s eyes. “I have a list of about 40 or 50 different traits that I have either successfully analyzed or I am in the process of working on right now,” she says.
Dewey-Hagborg then enters these parameters into a computer program to create a 3D model of the person’s face.” Ancestry gives you most of the generic picture of what someone is going to tend to look like. Then, the other traits point towards modifications on that kind of generic portrait,” she explains. The artist ultimately sends a file of the 3D model to a 3D printer on the campus of her alma mater, New York University, so that it can be transformed into sculpture.
There is, of course, no way of knowing how accurate Dewey-Hagborg’s sculptures are—since the samples are from anonymous individuals, a direct comparison cannot be made. Certainly, there are limitations to what is known about how genes are linked to specific facial features.”We are really just starting to learn about that information,” says Dewey-Hagborg. The artist has no way, for instance, to tell the age of a person based on their DNA. “For right now, the process creates basically a 25-year-old version of the person,” she says.
That said, the “Stranger Visions” project is a startling reminder of advances in both technology and genetics. “It came from this place of noticing that we are leaving genetic material everywhere,” says Dewey-Hagbog. “That, combined with the increasing accessibility to molecular biology and these techniques means that this kind of science fiction future is here now. It is available to us today. The question really is what are we going to do with that?”
Hal Brown, of Delaware’s medical examiner’s office, contacted the artist recently about a cold case. For the past 20 years, he has had the remains of an unidentified woman, and he wondered if the artist might be able to make a portrait of her—another clue that could lead investigators to an answer. Dewey-Hagborg is currently working on a sculpture from a DNA sample Brown provided.
“I have always had a love for detective stories, but never was part of one before. It has been an interesting turn for the art to take,” she says. “It is hard to say just yet where else it will take me.”
Dewey-Hagborg’s work will be on display at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on May 12. She is taking part in a policy discussion at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. on June 3 and will be giving a talk, with a pop-up exhibit, at Genspace in Brooklyn on June 13. The QF Gallery in East Hampton, Long Island, will be hosting an exhibit from June 29-July 13, as will the New York Public Library from January 7 to April 2, 2014.
Editor’s Note: After getting great feedback from our readers, we clarified how the artist analyzes the DNA from the samples she collects.
April 17, 2013
Artist Fujiko Nakaya believes in the transformative power of fog.
The first time she realized that her fog sculptures could change a person’s memory was in 1976 during the run of Earth Talk, a fog sculpture made for the Biennale of Sydney, Australia. After seeing her sculpture, an electrician told her how he had taken his family to see the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. The mountain was fogged in at first and he couldn’t see it, but the fog cleared and the view of the mountain was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“The instant he saw the fog it changed his experience, and I liked that very much,” explained Nakaya. It was then she understood that her sculptures could feed back to personal experience and improve a person’s feeling about fog. After the electrician’s story, she was determined to reach more people, and not just those in the art world.
For forty years, Nakaya has been creating public fog sculptures all over the world. Currently, she has seven projects going in five countries. Fog Bridge is her first in San Francisco, and is one of three inaugural outdoor artworks created for the new waterfront home of the Exploratorium.
The museum, which mixes science and art in its exhibits, was previously housed at the Palace of Fine Arts, but its new site—three times as big as the last, and at Pier 15—opens its doors to the public today. The 150-foot long Fog Bridge enshrouds pedestrians with fog for ten minutes every half hour; it will be lit at night, and so promises to be a spectacular sight. The bridge is located within the free, 1.5-acre outdoor area that encircles the Exploratorium and features artwork that honors the environment of the bay.
Nine days before the grand opening, Nakaya leaned against a railing to watch test runs of Fog Bridge. The 79-year-old artist was dressed comfortably in layers of black, though the day was warm enough for shorts. Coit Tower rose out of Telegraph Hill against a clear blue sky behind the bridge. Nakaya didn’t have to pull any wizard-like levers to release bursts of fog; the system is pre-programmed and designed to interact with real-time weather data. Each side of the bridge is divided into three sections and controlled by programmed valves in the pump room. For example, an eastern wind will prompt the valves to make fog on the east side of the bridge only.
In this way, an invisible wind is made visible with brush strokes of fog. The process starts with four pumps that force high-pressure water into pipes studded with 800 petite nozzles. At the tip of each nozzle is a hole six thousandths of an inch wide where the pressurized water is forced and meets a pin that explodes the water into droplets 15 to 20 microns wide. Nakaya developed the technology in 1970 with physicist Thomas Mee, and Mee Industries continues to use the patented technology for industrial and agricultural applications.
Nakaya’s fog is, of course, a simulation of the misty blankets that spread over the “cool gray city of love” each summer when cold oceanic surface water interacts with warm moist air offshore. As warm air rises over the inland valleys, the fog is pulled through the Golden Gate, providing needed summer moisture to coastal redwoods, the tallest trees in the world.
“I hope I’m doing homage to San Francisco fog,” said Nakaya adding, “that the bay fog will devour this fog sometimes.”
The Exploratorium sees itself as a place for tourists to learn about the Bay Area’s land and seascapes, and so some of its displays and artwork educate visitors about things like the tide cycle and fog. San Francisco’s fog, however, has declined 33 percent in the last 60 years, according to a study published in 2010 by UC Berkeley biology professor Todd E. Dawson and climate analyst Jim Johnstone, and the trend is expected to continue as climate changes. Dawson says they aren’t sure of the reason behind the decline, but that it may be due to warmer sea surface temperatures. “Fog formation is really about the contrast between temperatures,” he says. “If you warm the water up, the temperature difference goes down and the fog formation goes down with it.”
That said, Nakaya adds that fog always exists as water vapor even when we don’t see it. Only when conditions change is it visual.
In the first week that the museum is open, tens of thousands of people will walk across the bridge and be enveloped by fog. The sensation, I imagine, might feel like walking on clouds. Nakaya, reportedly, is particularly intrigued by the way that fog obscures one’s sight and heightens the other senses as a result. Perhaps this is why the artist believes that fog can improve memories and change thinking. “If you have even one little experience with fog, you start to see things differently,” said Nakaya.
The artist watched the artificial fog pour out of the northeast quadrant of the bridge where it hovered for a windless moment. “Nature is so complex. We can’t understand its complexity,” said Nakaya. “If you just tap one spot it will open up so many things and enlarge imaginations.”
Fog Bridge can be experienced at the Exploratorium through September 16, 2013.
March 15, 2013
To say that Henry Segerman is schooled in mathematics is an understatement. The 33-year-old research fellow at the University of Melbourne, in Australia, earned a master’s degree in math at Oxford and then a doctorate in the subject at Stanford. But the mathematician moonlights as an artist. A mathematical artist. Segerman has found a way to illustrate the complexities of three-dimensional geometry and topology—his areas of expertise—in sculptural form.
First things first…three-dimensional geometry and topology?
“It is about three-dimensional stuff, but not necessarily easy to visualize three-dimensional stuff,” says Segerman, when we talk by phone. “Topology is sort of split along low-dimensional stuff, which usually means two, three and four dimensions, and then high-dimensional stuff, which is anything higher. There are fewer pictures in the high-dimensional stuff.”
Since 2009, Segerman has made nearly 100 sculptures that capture, as faithfully as is physically possible, some of these hard-to-grasp lower-dimensional mathematical concepts.He uses a 3D modeling software called Rhinoceros, typically used to design buildings, ships, cars and jewelry, to construct shapes, such as Möbius strips, Klein bottles, fractal curves and helices. Then, Segerman uploads his designs to Shapeways.com, one of a few 3D printing services online. “It is really easy,” he says. “You upload the design to their Web site. You hit the ‘add to cart’ button and a few weeks later it arrives.”
Before 3D printing, Segerman built knots and other shapes in the virtual world, Second Life, by writing little bits of programming. “What cool things can I make in 3D?” he recalls asking himself. “I had never played around with a 3D program before.” But, after a few years, he reached the limit of what he could do within that system. If he wanted to show someone a complicated geometric shape, that person needed to download it to his or her computer, which seemed to take ages.
“That is the big advantage of 3D printing. There is an awful lot of data in there, but the real world has excellent bandwidth,” says Segerman. “Give someone a thing, and they see it immediately, with all its complexity. There is no wait time.”
There is also something to holding the shape in your hand. Generally speaking, Segerman designs his sculptures to fit in someone’s palm. Shapeways then prints them in nylon plastic or a costlier steel bronze composite. The artist describes the 3D printing process, for his white plastic pieces:
“The 3D printer lays down a thin layer of plastic dust. Then, it’s heated up so that it is just under the melting point of plastic. A laser comes along and melts the plastic. The machine lays down another layer of dust and zaps it with a laser. Do that again and again and again. At the end, you get this vat filled with dust, and inside the dust is your solid object.”
While his primary interest is in the mathematical idea driving each sculpture, and in conveying that idea in as simple and clean a way as possible (“I tend towards a minimalist aesthetic,” he says), Segerman admits that the shape has to look good. A Hilbert curve, the 3-sphere—these are esoteric mathematical concepts. But, Segerman says, “You don’t need to understand all of the complicated stuff in order to appreciate the object.”
If viewers find a sculpture visually appealing, then Segerman has something to work with. “You’ve got them,” he says, “and you can start telling them about the mathematics behind it.”
Here are a few selections from Segerman’s large body of work:
Segerman made up the word “autologlyph” to describe sculptures, such as “Bunny” Bunny, pictured at the very top, and this sphere, above. By the artist’s definition, an autologlyph “a word, which is written in a way that is described by the word itself.” With “Bunny” Bunny, Segerman used the word “bunny,” repeated many times over, to form a sculpture of the Stanford Bunny, a standard test model for 3D computer graphics. Then, in the case of this sphere autologlyph, block letters spelling the word “sphere” create the sphere. Minus the bunny, many of Segerman’s autologlyphs have a mathematical slant, in that he tends to use words that describe a shape or some sort of geometric feature.
This cube, shown above, is Segerman’s take on a Hilbert curve, a space-filling curve named for David Hilbert, the German mathematician who first wrote about the shape in 1891. “You start with a curve, really a straight line that turns right angle corners,” says the artist. “Then, you change the curve, and you make it squigglier.” Remember: Segerman does these manipulations in a modeling software program. “You do this infinitely many times and what you get at the end is still some sense a one dimensional object. You can trace along it [the line] from one end to the other,” he says. “But, in another sense, it looks like a three-dimensional object, because it hits every point in a cube. What does dimension mean anymore?” Hilbert and other mathematicians became interested in curves like these in the late 19th century, since the geometries called into question their assumptions about dimensions.
“I had been looking at this thing on a computer screen for a year, and when I first got it from Shapeways, and picked it up, it was only then that I realized it was flexible. It is really springy,” says Segerman. “Sometimes the physical object surprises you. It has properties that you didn’t imagine.”
Round Klein Bottle is a sculpture, much larger than Segerman’s typical pieces, that hangs in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Melbourne. (The artist applied a red spray dye to the nylon plastic material for effect.) The object itself was designed in something called the 3-sphere. Segerman explains:
“The usual sphere that you think of, the surface of the earth, is what I would call the 2-sphere. There are two directions you can move. You can move north-south or east-west. The 2-sphere is the unit sphere in three-dimensional space. The 3-sphere is the unit sphere in four-dimensional space.”
In the 3-sphere, all the squares in the grid patterning of this Klein bottle are equal in size. Yet, when Segerman translates this data from the 3-sphere to our ordinary three-dimensional space (Euclidean space) things get distorted. “The standard Mercator map has Greenland being huge. Greenland is the same size as Africa [in the map], whereas in reality, Greenland is much smaller than Africa. You are taking a sphere and trying to lay it flat. You have to stretch things. That is why you can’t have a map of the world which is accurate, unless you have a globe,” says Segerman. “It is exactly the same thing here.”
Segerman is now toying with the idea of moving sculptures. Triple Gear, shown here, consists of three rings, each with gear teeth. The way it is set up, no single ring can turn on its own; all three have to be moving simultaneously. As far as Segerman knows, no one has done this before.
“It is a physical mechanism that would have been very difficult to make before 3D printing,” says the artist. “Even if someone had the idea that this was possible, it would have been a nightmare to try to build such a thing.”
March 1, 2013
In 2000, Nathalie Miebach was studying both astronomy and basket weaving at the Harvard Extension School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was constantly lugging her shears and clamps with her into the room where she’d study projections of stars and nebulas on the wall.
Understanding the science of space could be tricky, she found. “What was so frustrating to me, as a very kinesthetic learner, is that astronomy is so incredibly fascinating, but there’s nothing really tactile about it,” says Miebach. “You can’t go out and touch a star.”
Soon, something in the budding artist clicked. Her solution? Turn space data into visual art, so that she and other learners like her could grasp it.
Miebach’s final project for her basket weaving class was a sculpture based on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, a well-known astronomy scatter plot measuring stars’ luminosities against their surface temperatures. Temperature readings travel downward from left to right, and the wider the diameter of the star, the higher the luminosity. The graph is used to track stars as they evolve, showing how they move along the diagram as shifts in their structure cause changes in temperature, size and luminosity.
Miebach translated the relationship between star luminosity and temperature into a thick, funnel-shaped sculpture (shown above) with tightly interwoven reeds. She uses the temperature and luminosity values of specific stars on the diagram to inform the manner in which she weaves the reeds.
Basket weaving involves a three-dimensional grid with vertical spokes that create structure and horizontal weavers that fill in the sides of the work. The sculpture achieves its shape through the interaction of the materials—usually, straw, grass or reeds—and the amount of pressure exerted on the grid by the artist’s hand.
Miebach’s next project involved transforming scientific data of solar and lunar cycles into sculpture. In the piece pictured above, the artist transferred three months of moon, twilight and sun data from Antarctica into layers of woven reeds. She assigned the vertical and horizontal reeds of the basket grid specific variables, such as temperature, wind and barometric pressure. Changes in these variables naturally altered the tension exerted on the reeds, and the varying tensions created bulges within the piece. The changing values of these variables distorted the tension between the reeds, driving the warped shapes that emerged in the piece.
Reeds are not unbreakable; if too much pressure is exerted, they snap. If Miebach used wire, she’d be completely in charge of the process, and no tension would exist to guide the piece into its final shape.
“Because these cycles change every day, you are working this grid in different ways,” she says.
The thick, ribbon-like blue lines circumventing each bulge are segmented into hours of the day. The naturally colored reeds representmoon data, the yellow reeds sun data and the green reeds twilight.
The yellow spheres on the exterior of the shape signify sunrise and the smaller navy balls represent moon phases. The orange spokes protruding from each bulge of the sculpture represent solar azimuth, or the spherical angle of the sun, and solar hours, which measure the passage of time based on the sun’s position in the sky. Red spokes designate the ocean’s high tide and yellow spokes, the low tide. The basket grid becomes a pattern representing the changes of these variables.
This weaving process remained the same when Miebach’s subject changed from sky to sea during an artist residence on Cape Cod several years ago. Armed with basic measuring tools like thermometers purchased at the hardware store, Miebach studied the Gulf of Maine every day for 18 months, checking and recording temperature, wind speeds, barometric pressure and other climate indicators. She gleaned additional data from weather stations, satellites and anchored buoys bobbing up and down in open water.
The result was multiple woven sculptures examining different aspects of the Gulf of Maine. A 33-foot-wide wall installation called “Changing Waters” (pictured above) depicts the geography of the gulf. The blue material represents its currents, streams and basins, delineated by changes in the water that Miebach recorded and assigned to each tiny segment.
“To Hear an Ocean in a Whisper” (pictured below) examines the effects of currents, temperature and tidal patterns on krill living in the Georges Bank of the Gulf of Maine. The roller coaster represents the Labrador Current, which flows from the Arctic Ocean and along Nova Scotia’s eastern coast. The merry-go-round inside shows how krill activity changes as temperature, salinity and wave height vary, and the Ferris wheel tracks the diurnal cycle of the tiny crustaceans. A swinging ship-style ride follows the tidal patterns of the Bay of Fundy on the northeast end of the gulf and nearby whale sightings.
“Everything is some sort of data point,” Miebach says. “There’s nothing there just for whimsy or aesthetic purpose only.”
The artist has taken this same approach with her latest project: translating scientific data into musical scores. When Miebach relocated from the coast of Maine to Omaha and then Boston in 2006, she realized the cityscape influenced weather dramatically, and not in the same way that the shoreline did.
“In an urban environment, you have infrastructure, you have heat bubbles that hover over cities, you have the lack of vegetation, and all these create very localized fluctuations in weather data that the weather instruments are very sensitive in picking up,” she says.
Miebach found that she could not accurately express in her basket weaving the subtle fluctuations in weather that cities foster. Instead, she began experimenting with musical notation as a medium, which she says provided the flexibility she needed in artistically representing weather data at the street level.
In the score pictured above, the royal blue squiggly lines represent cloud cover. The notes signify weather variables: orange is humidity, red is temperature and green is barometric pressure. The sky blue lines zigzagging across the sheet indicate wind direction, and the pink shading represents tempo for musicians to interpret.
Interpreting scientific data in this way allowed Miebach to translate the nuance of weather she felt was present in a city environment without altering the information in any way. “One thing that has been very dear to my heart from the very beginning is that I don’t change information for any aesthetic purpose,” she says. “I want the information to stay true, so that when you look at the sculpture, you’re still seeing the weather.”
In her musical score for Hurricane Noel, which swept along the Atlantic Ocean in 2007, Miebach correlated each change in a given weather variable she had measured with a note on the piano keyboard. The piano scale is drawn as black-and-white column on the left-hand side of the sheet music (pictured above). Shaded regions represent shifting cloud cover during the storm.
Miebach says she transposed wind speed into the upper two octaves because howling winds are a dominant aspect of any storm. Each note on the scale receives a range, from zero to two miles per hour, two to four miles per hour and so on. The same goes for temperature and barometric pressure readings.
The Nineteen Thirteen, a group of cellists and percussionists, performed Hurricane Noel at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2011 (listen to the ominous-sounding song here). Another cellist group offered up a different interpretation.
But transforming the musical scores into live performances isn’t the end. Once she feels that she has captured the nuances of weather data from urban settings, Miebach then uses her melodious blueprints to create woven sculptures such as the one pictured below.
The amusement-park themed “To Hear an Ocean in a Whisper” that Miebach made in collaboration with Jon Fincke, an oceanography graduate student at MIT, is on display in “Ocean Stories: A Synergy of Art and Science,” an exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Science through June 2. Her latest piece, “The Last Ride,” translates weather and ocean data from Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed the Jersey Shore’s Star Jet roller coaster. It will be featured in the Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s annual art auction on April 13.
February 21, 2013
When Julia Lohmann set out to create an artwork for the street-level windows of the London headquarters of the Wellcome Trust, the health research foundation, she chose a classic subject: the female body. But where Lohmann broke from tradition was her medium. The German designer created her large-scale portrait of two reclining nudes using 9,000 petri dishes, each containing an image of live bacteria.
Suzanne Lee, a British fashion designer, is attempting to grow clothes. She cultivates bacteria in vats of sugary green tea and then harvests the cellulose that forms on the mixture’s surface. The durable film serves as a pleatherlike fabric.
The Italian artist Giuliano Mauri planted 80 hornbeam trees amid columns of bundled branches in Arte Sella, a sculpture garden in northern Italy. The trees inch up the columns to form Cattedrale Vegetale, a Gothic cathedral complete with naves.
All these works are prominent examples of a nascent aesthetic movement called biodesign, which integrates living things, including bacteria, plants and animals, into installations, products and artworks. “Designers and architects, more and more, want to design objects and buildings that grow by themselves,” says Paola Antonelli, design curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
Biodesign takes advantage of the “tremendous power and potential utility of organisms and their natural interaction with ecosystems around them,” says William Myers, a New York City design historian and author of the new book Bio Design: Nature + Science + Creativity. “It can be a means of communication and discovery, a way to provoke debate and explore the potential opportunities and dangers of manipulating life for human purposes.”
Some ventures are very down-to-earth. Microbiologist Henk Jonkers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is developing self-repairing “bio-concrete”; he adds limestone-producing bacteria to cement and, over time, they fill in cracks. If adopted widely, the material could benefit the environment, since concrete production is a major source of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Other proposals read more like science fiction. Alberto Estévez, an architect based in Barcelona, wants to replace streetlights with glowing trees created by inserting a bioluminescent jellyfish gene into the plants’ DNA.
The biodesign movement builds on ideas in Janine Benyus’ trailblazing 1997 book Biomimicry, which urges designers to look to nature for inspiration. But instead of copying living things biodesigners make use of them.
The effort brings artists and scientists together. “These novel collaborations are often joyous contaminations in which scientists feel, even just for a moment, liberated from the rigor of peer review and free to attempt intuitive leaps,” Antonelli writes in a foreword to Bio Design.
Julia Lohmann teamed up with Michael Wilson, a microbiologist at University College London Eastman Dental Institute. Wilson, who studies the bacteria that inhabit people, grew common bacteria from the female body and photographed the colonies under a microscope. Lohmann affixed these photographs to actual petri dishes and positioned each type of bacteria where it would occur on or in a woman’s body—pictures of the scalp microbe Propionibacteria, for instance, cover the head.
“The petri dish is a magnifying glass into this other world,” says Lohmann, who was inspired by the mind-bending fact that only one in ten cells in the human body is actually human. The rest are microbes. “There is so much advertising out there that tells you that all bacteria are bad, and it is simply not true. We couldn’t live without bacteria, and they couldn’t live without us,” says Lohmann. She considers her mural Co-existence to be part of the counter propaganda.