Digital Arts and New Media: MFA: Collaboration, Innovation, Social Impact

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Art & Science

The Role of Sound in Integrating Art, Science, and the Environment

UCSC is well established as having one of the most outstandingly beautiful university campuses in the world. Besides its natural splendor, it is home to hundreds of diverse animal and plant species, including invertebrate species that occur nowhere else on earth. Furthermore its direct proximity to the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the spectacular marine ecology of the Monterey Bay, make it one of the most unique and appropriate locales for researching the role that sound communication and phenomena have in integrating complex natural and human ecologies. It has a near infinite potential for both research opportunities and creative projects involving student participation in creating new approaches for environmental sound research, creative performances and art/science collaboration.

This research agenda will focus upon creating diverse opportunities to investigate new methods for increasing the necessary monitoring of our environment through sound, facilitate an increase in our collective environmental sensitivity, discovery of unknown natural and human-made sound phenomena, provide novel inexpensive audio tools for both artists and scientists, and contribute towards practical environmental problem solving. 

Having our aural sense expanded through technology allows our ears to be more on a par with other forms of life that surround us. The advent of digital audio has strengthened this potential as has never been previously possible. The focusing of such technology towards this expansion of consciousness, therefore, has an additional benefit: it gives us access to listening beyond the boundaries of our usual human perception. It applies current technological breakthroughs in digital sound recording and manipulation towards a nonhuman centered and environmentally relevant art practice. While most art making harvests the imaginative potential of the overlap between biological instinct and cultural values—both of which have co-evolved as intertwining genetic and epigenetic streams—this argument has more to do with the historical necessity of where we currently stand in relationship to an earth in crises. Can art participate in the discovery of solutions that can accelerate or extend those of science? This requires a merger of art and science that places the human back into a measured position within the biotic world and encourages both to contribute to a collective environmental activism. This is an art requiring a dance between metaphor and mechanism. The art world needs to ground imagination in a deeper understanding of the natural world, and science needs to reach out beyond the desiccation of professional constraints in order to transform the epistemic errors of the world at large. Perhaps Gregory Bateson said it best: “Rigor alone is paralytic death, but imagination alone is insanity.”
Most attempted collaboration between science and art has occurred at an abstract level. Through this research agenda the hope is to provide an exemplar of how artists and scientists can collaborate towards real world problem solving. Traditional approaches have relied upon a familiar interpretive function where art provides a richness of metaphor for the communication of science to the broader public while science provides new tools and technical knowledge for the arts. One of the polemics that underlies this project is an intentionally subversive attitude towards these familiar relationships. Can artistic insight prove itself to be an effective participant in the framing of a scientific hypothesis? Can artistic creativity originate technical solutions that are useful to artists, scientists, and a broader public? What is the potential for art and science collaboration to not only interpret and communicate empirical scientific data as cultural product but also delineate a research agenda that is worthy of serious scientific investigation? Is it possible for art/science collaboration to fulfill the disciplinary criteria of both in a non-trivial manner?

Our purpose in pursuing this project is three-fold: 1) to ascertain whether or not such full spectrum acoustic portraits might constitute a viable technique for ecological monitoring through the revelation of emergent patterns of information that are not otherwise perceivable to researchers; 2) to contribute information about how different acoustic domains (i.e. aquatic versus terrestrial) structurally couple and exchange acoustic information; and 3) to create an exhibition/publication that not only represents the results of scientific research but is also an immersive aesthetic experience that guides us towards the realization of the limitations of our human senses and how that impacts our relationship to the natural environment. The exhibit/ publication will focus upon the question: what is happening in the living world beyond our senses and how might we best pursue a deeper understanding of their complexity?

Methodology and Tools
The recording process will entail a number of existing field technologies such as digital audio recorders, digital video recorders, high-resolution microphones, ambisonic and other microphones, hydrophones, ultrasonic microphones, geophones, and laptop computers equipped with data acquisition cards capable of appropriate high frequency sampling rates and ultrasonic recording software. An appropriate synchronization strategy for post-analysis between the diverse recording formats will also need to be devised. The project will also need audio playback equipment that is appropriate for the output of full range reference signals to be used for later calibration between the diverse data sets.

Preliminary analytical methods will most likely involve techniques borrowed from dynamical systems theory that can describe various aspects of communicative networks having a large spatial footprint.

with David Dunn

(Formerly "Mechatronics" and "Performative Technologies")