Text by Anthony Thomas
Modern thought leaders and innovators continue to drive scientific development at a relentless pace, often in ways that leave the minds of simpletons like you and I to simply observe in utter awe. Through their niche brand of inquisitorial thought, our understanding of the world around us continues to be guided in directions previously incomprehensible. It leaves little to the imagination as to why we all seem to have become so polarised in our attitudes toward the age old debate; art vs. science. But is it a debate that’s becoming ever complacent as we develop new methods of effectively integrating the two? Society probably isn’t yet capable of producing a definitive answer, but the work of artists like Nathalie Miebach is certainly indicative of a shift toward a middle ground forming between the two. On first glance her sculptures may appear to be random but what you’re actually looking at is the visual representation of various weather systems and when I say that, I don’t mean Miebach’s personal interpretation. I mean that through the collection and translation of appropriate data, Miebach literally represents a scientific event through an artistic medium. While shipping complications prevented the physical presence of her work at the current Datascape exhibition, I couldn’t pass up having an internet chat with the Boston resident to help fully explain exactly what it is she does.
MM: Tell me a little bit about yourself! How did you come to be an artist?
NM: My path to becoming an artist was a curvy one with lots of digressions along the way – I took the long route. I studied political science and Chinese first, spent some time living in Indonesia and China before coming back to the US. It was only after I started to use my artistic process towards understanding science that I began to think of myself as an artist. This was in 2000 or so. I didn’t come from a family where being an artist was really an option, so it took a while for that possibility to even become visible for myself.
So back in 2000 was when you first began to create the static/sound sculptures?
Yes, in 2000 was when I began to make sculptures based on science data. Sound came much later in 2009.
The fact you use science data to create art must be hard for some people to understand. How exactly does it work?
Actually, it’s quite simple. My main method of translation is basket weaving, which is a very simple 3D grid that is held together by tension of the weave. I use basket weaving as a kind of scaffolding to place the data on top and allow it to distort and shape the basket. I usually begin first by gathering my own data – usually weather related. I then choose only two or three variables to translate onto a woven form. Imbedded in the way I use the woven form is a kind of time matrix – for example, 24 hours. Thus, when I have translated those 2-3 variables, I not only have a physical form to react to, I also have a kind of 3D timeline, on which I can put more data on top. The whole sculpture ends up looking very complicated, but it actually is just a system of layers – each of which is quite simple.
Is that the idea of “the numbers creating the form, not me”? Does that unpredictability of form hold any meaning within the art?
Yes, I never know what the form will look like. One of the reasons I use natural reed is that it has a lot of tension. This means that it is the numbers creating the form, not me. My work would look very different if I were to use wire, because then I would control the form completely. Not having total control of the material allows the numbers to create the form. That is what I love so much about this work; there is a dimensionality hidden within the numbers that the material reveals.
What is you find so fascinating about weather?
There are so many things. From a sculptor’s perspective who uses data, it is an endless source of readily available material. All I have to do is stick my nose out the window and there it is. But weather is so much more than just data. It’s this constant companion to our own lives that it invariably becomes tied to our emotions and memories. So many people remember the weather on 9/11 because it was such a significant day. Weather is also such a visceral phenomenon. I had to walk through a blizzard several months ago with 60mph winds. No matter how I shielded my eyes, the snowflakes were like daggers against my eyeballs. It was so loud, so cold, so windy that it nearly lifted me up. This is all stuff that the human mind is very good at picking up. It’s almost like every time we go out, we subconsciously take a peripheral inventory of what weather actually feels like. I love this about the human mind and that weather can reveal that. Weather is also so tied to an environment. You can’t really understand weather without also understanding the environment from which you extract the information. Weather is an amalgam of systems that interact with other systems in an environment. Those interactions reveal themselves only over time, but it is only when you begin to see the visual connections in the environment and how they are tied to weather, that the complexity of weather reveals itself. Sorry, I am rambling.
You say weather is an amalgam of systems. Do you find it ironic that your work is also an amalgam of systems; namely those belonging to art and science?
Visualizing and musically interpreting weather data through musical scores, sculpture and installations offer alternative ways in understanding complex systems, which are conventionally presented to viewers solely through the lens of science. To be honest, when I am in the studio I don’t think about what I do is art or science. I think about weather and the various systems and behaviours that build it. I think about what I have at hand in terms of materials, what I know about weather and then search out what I don’t know. When one is genuinely curious about something, these distinctions between science and art become a bit meaningless. It’s only once it leaves the studio that those filters of interpretations come back in. What I do think a lot about in the studio is ‘play’. I think of ‘play’ as a kind of elastic sense of logic that lets you push and prod the parameters of a discipline, while also disregarding some of the conventions that set those disciplines apart. It’s not always successful, but failure is a huge part of play. You can’t play without failing. Sometimes it is the pieces that fail that interest me the most, because they end up posing new questions I have never even considered.
So you feel the boundaries between science and art don’t need to be there?
Exactly. Something I would add is that it’s easier to distinguish the boundaries of what is and isn’t science, while the parameters of art are much more fluid, open and up for debate. Does the practice of one exclude the practice of the other? The distinction between these two fields become particularly tricky when I meet people, particularly scientists, who have never lifted a paint brush in their life, but whose approach to thinking about a particular problem feel very akin to those of an artist. What is that particular quality that makes it so? A healthy respect for intuition, contradiction, nuance, reason as well as a knack for being able to disregard the very parameters of mental thought any discipline imposes on itself. Rooted in that perspective, is a firm belief that art is fundamentally a language of thought, before it is one of visual means. It is also where the still unexplored, and huge potential for art lies – in that recognition and exploration of art as a mediator between thinking and the visualization of that thinking.
An interesting aspect of your work is that “everything is some sort of data point, there’s nothing there just for whimsy or aesthetic purpose only.” That’s quite a utilitarian perspective. Is it that your science background influencing your artistic practise or is it simply the only way to accurately represent the data?
Yes, in some ways it is a very utilitarian approach because I’m after something specific. I’m using the data not to build a beautiful sculpture with, but to visualize behaviours, connections and networks that the data is a part of. I have always thought of my sculptures as 3D scaffoldings of a thought in process rather than sculptures. The way they are constructed and hold together include all the twists and turns a human mind will take when thinking through an idea, yet still guided by a focused curiosity that is trying to understand weather better. There is also something very honest about the basket structure itself. It’s a grid held together by tension and by the materials that are woven. Every basket will reveal the way it was build and what makes it structurally sound, if you know how to read it. It’s one the reasons basket weavers always turn the basket on its head and look at its bottom in order to understand the structure. If you push the grid too much, the basket will fall apart. I love looking at information within these very real, physical parameters of the basket. The structures I create have to not only function conceptually, in that I still want you to be able to read the weather off them, but they also have to hold structurally together, so they can function as sculptures. There are a million other ways of approaching the translation of data in 3D. I happen to find the basket as my entry point into exploring the tactile, physical quality of data, and even though I’ve done with now for over 12 years, I feel like I have only touched the surface of it.
It was only in 2009 that you began experimenting with sound. What motivated you to do that?
Musical notation started to enter my translation of weather data into sculpture, in part, when I became aware of nuances that are embedded in numerical behaviours that meteorological instruments don’t pick up, but the human mind does. In that lies an imperfection/perfection of the human mind I find incredibly fascinating and beautiful. After working with meteorological data for several years now, I began to notice how I was relying and beginning to trust my own observations more than data readings from my own weather instruments. These observations, often done peripherally out of the corner of my eye, were often not picked up by my weather instruments, but began to influence the way I was interpreting the data I was collecting. I am also becoming more interested in how humans perceive weather as opposed to how scientific instruments record it; particularly how emotions or human experiences influence the way we remember weather. Musical notation is a vehicle that allows me to integrate and find new sculptural solutions to that little glimmer of nuance and emotion that is creeping into my weather observations.
I was drawn to musical notation because it is a visual language that allows me to bring in more nuanced expressions of the data without actually changing the data. A composer can work with a short series of notes and make those sound happy, sad, distressed, quiet, etc. by just adding notations around the notes, but not actually changing the notes themselves. The data I use is a combination of my own collected observations as well as data available from local weather stations, off-shore buoys and satellites, that is available from the Internet. These objective weather readings, such as barometric pressure, temperature and wind, are combined with notations of specific human experiences – both my own and those of others. The integration of both leads to a musical/sculptural translation that explores how human emotions and experiences influence the perception of weather.
I never know, nor care, what the musical score sounds like when I build it. I’m not interested in building the score to produce a specific sound, because I don’t want to impose any kind of preconceived notion of what it should sound like on the visual creation of the score. I want the data to reveal itself sonically through the behaviours it creates with other data nearby. To me as a sculptor, the scores don’t function sonically at all. Rather, the score represents a kind of sculptural shorthand that I can use to begin the translation process into 3D with. Collaborating with musicians gives me yet another way of seeing and evaluating my own sculptural translation of that same score as well as being a vehicle to broaden the discussion of how weather can be understood through visual and audio means. The human ear is better at discerning differences in sound than the human eye is in differentiating images. It’s this extra bit of sensitivity to nuance that I am hoping to expand upon through these collaborative musical performances.
The biggest surprise to me has been how difficult it is for the audience to separate their own expectations of what a storm should sound like from what it actually sounds like. The scores are constructed of only a tiny, tiny fraction of variables that actually make up a storm. I only use three variables, temperature, wind and barometric pressure, in my scores. The musical interpretations of them are always different depending on the musicians and their instruments. This has to do with the fact that when you are working with storm data, you are working with extremes – very high values such as wind or low values such as barometric pressure. As these variables are laid out on a piano keyboard, I sometimes build scores that have an 8-octave range. Not many instruments have that range, so musicians have to dissect the score and reassemble it in a way to fit their own instruments without altering the information.
Having said all that, I should also clarify that I have no musical background. I play a tiny bit of flute and some guitar that never went beyond the campfire song level; however, the beauty of naiveté is that you don’t know how naïve you are until you are neck deep in the water; you turn around and see the shore way off in the distance. This has definitely been my experience with using musical notation. While it’s not always the most flattering feeling, I have come to believe that feeling a little bit naïve about what I do is actually a healthy sign. Sometimes you take the most courageous decisions when you don’t know what sort of taboos you are actually breaking. It makes me nervous when I get the sense that I actually know what I’m doing, because in some ways, the conversation and the search has then ended and it’s only about the making and no longer about the exploring.