I have always viewed art with a scientific mind whether realizing it or not; always drawn to artists that approach their work with a systematic or even a scientific approach—Duchamp’s Standard Stoppages come to mind. This personal revelation was inspired by a long discussion with friends following a visit to Sarah and Joseph Belknap’s MCA exhibition and talk. Since my job at the Adler Planetarium involves science and engineering, this revelation may not seem so surprising, and it becomes even more clear when you discover that my roots and education were in the arts.
The earnest melding of art and science is a long overdue union fertile with potential. But it is also a marriage of two worlds with contrasting geographies of language and intention, both fraught with the need for navigation and cooperation.
Scientists frequently employ artists to visualize their discoveries. An explosion in the discovery of exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than the sun) in the past few years has increased this pairing of artists and scientists to imagine these worlds according to the best interpretation of the data gleaned from observation. Perform an image search for “exoplanet” and you’ll see dozens of examples. The intention is to make these distant worlds real for the scientists as well as the public, but these visualizations are speculative at best—meant only to inspire the imagination. The Belknaps interpret the surfaces of planetary bodies by exaggerating texture and color similar to the hired artists, yet they display them as deflated shells. They have goals other than accuracy in mind. It becomes an interesting contrast between conceptualization and interpretation—the world of the scientist versus that of the artist. The Belknaps’ works, however, often toe this line between the accuracy of science and the impressions of art.
The work in the exhibition that ended up having the greatest impact on me was a tiny image tucked in a corner, dwarfed by their room-sized earth/moon crater work. The piece overlays four months of satellite images of the sun on a single sphere. It shows the motion and evolution of sunspots across its surface. It is an impressive piece mainly because it bridges the worlds of art and science so effectively. It is as informative as it is thoughtful. Yet it is not a work an astronomer would have made—that’s what makes it so impactful to my science brain. Instead, it is a demonstration of how artists, wittingly or not, can bring light to processes and patterns in the universe. It is informationally scrappy but visually dramatic. Astronomers think of sunspots (relatively cooler, thus darker, magnetic storms on the sun’s surface) not as blights but as part of a natural process and this work by the Belknaps demonstrates this idea that the sun is not a perfect sphere of light but that even its “imperfections” are shaped by physical processes. It is the mysteries of those processes that inspire astronomers to study it.
Artists are inspired by science and scientists are inspired by art. But this implies a gap. Science without the scientist is as incomplete as art without the artist. Where the land and the sea meet is where science and art should thrive. The geography at the intersection of science and art benefits best from shared exploration.
Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli: How would you describe Manual Cinema?
Sarah Fornace: Manual Cinema is a shadow puppetry and live animation company. We use overhead projectors, humans in silhouette, and a band with a quadrophonic sound system to create an experience that feels like being at an animated movie. However, you’re seeing everything being constructed frame by frame and note by note in front of you.
Drew Dir: We use the old-school overhead projectors you had in your elementary school, and we use hundreds of shadow puppets to create feature-length stories that are told entirely through sound and music and imagery. We can do pretty much anything a moving camera can do, but we do it all on an overhead projector.
ACL: What is it like to be part of Manual Cinema?
DD: It’s a highly collaborative process. All of us come from very disparate backgrounds. Some of us come from theater, some of us come from movement and dance, from visual art, so we all sort of bring our own strengths to the process, but the stories that we tell, including the story of Mementos Mori, are all created collaboratively. We all enter a room together, and we sit down writer’s room style and hash out the story, and we continue to do that.
What’s most rewarding for me is that we’re working in sort of an impossible medium. Creating, making stories with shadow puppets on overhead projectors is an incredibly demanding kind of medium to work in, and you’re constantly failing actually, but that experience of constantly failing and discovering more things about the medium and pushing through and making new discoveries is what makes the work really rewarding. Four years on, we’re still learning so much about cinematic shadow puppetry that it’s exhilarating to work in a medium that, that gives back and that teaches you so much constantly.
Julia Miller: We work in a way that combines classic staging of theater, but also animation in a way that animators work. We work from an outline of a script, but then we transfer that into a storyboard, and that storyboard then becomes our visual script, and then with the storyboard, we use that to build all the puppets. We shoot demos of the storyboard, so we’ll film each frame of the storyboard in rehearsal, and then I’ll edit together the demos of the story, so then we have a digital version of the show that exists. That our ideal staging. Then we go back to the rehearsal room and try to figure out how to do that in real time and space on the projectors.
ACL: How does the sound in the show interact with the puppets on stage?
SF: Kyle composes for quadrophonic sound so that it is all around the audience and he likes to describe it as hyper-real, so if a door swings open it’ll swing open across the audience rather than just the amount it would swing open.
Kyle Vegter: Being the sound designer for Manual Cinema is the most exciting thing and the most terrifying thing, ever. My job is to take a 2D puppet and make it real and living and breathing and envelope the audience in this world that we’re creating. So all of our sound design is mixed in surround. There are two speakers in front of the audience and two speakers behind. The way that sound design works in our shows is that it’s a little bit augmented in comparison to film sound design. In film sound design, they don’t do a lot of panning. Sounds don’t move around a lot, but in ours I over-exaggerate gestures that happen in the world. So when a door opens, it opens across the entire auditorium to sort of give you a sense of being inside of the world.
One of the characters is dead throughout the show, so we’re still trying to figure out how that works. What kind of sound world can we create? What does it sound like when you’re dead? We’re trying out a bunch of different filters. Maybe you only hear from 500 hertz and above, so everything becomes high pitched and you’re only getting half the information. That’s the way I think about character and development and how sound worlds work with puppets.
ACL: How does Mementos Mori compare with Manual Cinema’s other productions?
JM: We’re experimenting with a couple of new things. It’s our first multiple protagonist show as opposed to a single character. We follow through a narrative arc.
SF: One of the most exciting parts about our MCA residency is the enormous stage space that we have access to here. This is actually the first time we have set up the set up for this show, because it’s simply too big for our studio. Usually, a Manual Cinema show will have one screen and then a table of projectors with three to four projectors on it. Then we will have one camera that is live-feeding to a large screen above it, so you’ll be able to see the actors and puppeteers creating the image on a single screen and then it’s fed to a single screen.
But here at the MCA on this new show, we have two screens on the ground, so there’s two sites of creation where the shots are being constructed and live-edited by the puppeteers together. Then there’s also a video editor on stage who takes the feeds from the two cameras trained on the two screens and then feeds it to a single screen above. Essentially we can now double the amount of information we want to put into the show. We can simply move faster; shadow puppets want to move really slow, and what we try to do is try to push them to move at the pace of film, and they don’t want to do that. By doubling the number of projectors, the number of puppeteers we have, we can edit much, much faster during the show.
JM: There are so many layers to our work, and I’m constantly learning about them, especially with this show because it’s the first time we’re working with performers that aren’t founding members of the company. There’s been a huge step in trying to articulate what our process and technique are to fresh brains who don’t have context for it yet. That has been really a great learning experience on our end.
ACL: How are characters developed on stage?
SF: One way we give a lot of character information is through the types of shots we use. Melba has a lot of point-of-view shots because we’re seeing the world, which is large and looming at her. She is seven years old and experiencing a lot of new things for the first time. We have these very stark point-of-view shots that we intercut with medium and far shots of her.
1. A Celebration of Marriage Equality: 2014 marked the year that the State of Illinois extended the right to marry to all couples, regardless of sexual orientation. When the legislation passed we knew we had to do something special to celebrate, so a core group of staff at the museum got together and quickly arrived at an ambitious idea: make the museum available for weddings all day, for free. We partnered with Equality Illinois for the event and sent out an open call for couples to participate. The response was overwhelming; filled with stories of couples who had long been in love but were not allowed the right to marry their partner until now. On June 2, we opened our galleries for 15 spectacular weddings spanning all traditions, cultures, and kinds, and hosted a free reception for each couple on our terrace in the back. Even with a little rain, it was a beautiful day.
2. “The Diversity Talk” by William Pope.L: Given that unofficial title by artist William Pope.L, the talk upended any expectations of what panels and discussions on diversity are supposed to be like when the panelists, Pope.L, Zachary Cahill, and Lisa Yun Lee, joined Romi Crawford on stage in full animal costumes—an idea from collaborator Wolfie E. Rawk. The costumes obfuscated all identities and physical appearances (so much so that it took some time to figure out who was who) and added some unexpected levity to the talk. As Pope.L wryly noted, diversity conversations often become divisive among potential allies, so an undoubted high point was when the artist-dressed-as-rat asked the packed house to check under their seats for the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.” As the audience sang the chorus, “America! America! God shed His grace on thee/And crown thy good with brotherhood/From sea to shining sea,” it was an inescapable realization that, in this moment of togetherness-by-song, we were describing a nation we are still working to better.
3. School Partnerships: Working with the community is a major and amazing part of the work that the MCA does every single year, but because it isn’t hanging on the walls of our galleries, many people don’t know about our partnerships with Chicago schools. This year we began sharing stories of our work—how we’re bringing students to the museum, working with the teachers to develop new modes of teaching and art-inclusive curricula, and how we’re enabling Chicago artists (above) to work with students in order to build their understanding of art and their own creativity—on social media and our blog, with more stories to come.
On a related note, we also shared Analú Maria López’s recent archival discovery of a grainy slide featuring Keith Haring, evidence of how far back the MCA’s collaboration with Chicago Public Schools goes. This led to additional discoveries in the museum’s archives about the 1989 collaboration between the MCA and Chicago Public School students. The next time you walk the passageway between the Orange Line trains and Midway Airport and think, “Hey, those panels look like a Keith Haring!” you’re right. They’re by Haring and CPS students, a collaboration we helped organize in 1989.
• Rappers in Museums: “A hip-hop concert inside a museum—not too many places are doing this you all,” remarked Hologram Kizzie, aka Psalm One, during her set for “The Language of Hip Hop,” a Word Weekend hip-hop showcase cocurated by Fake Shore Drive that also featured The Boy Illinois and Saint Millie. If you’ve been following us on Twitter, you may know that Lupe Fiasco is a regular visitor (often bringing his family to exhibitions). Looking to feed a growing curiosity about contemporary art, he asked curator Naomi Beckwith, in early 2014, for a more intensive study of our exhibitions. And David Bowie Is brought in even more hip-hop stars, including Usher and Chicago’s Chance da Rapper.
• Official David Bowie Day in Chicago, Proclaimed by the Mayor: Speaking of David Bowie Is, it was pretty amazing that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel issued an edict declaring the opening day of the exhibition, September 23, officially to be David Bowie Day in Chicago. If only we could have actually gotten him to wear the Ziggy Stardust makeup.
• #BowieFlashMob: Civic pride for David Bowie Is wasn’t just limited to official offices, of course. Museum staff and visitors were completely surprised by the unplanned David Bowie flash mob that took place on the MCA Plaza during the excitement of opening day. For about 10 minutes, around 25 David Bowies performed a choreographed dance routine to a medley of Bowie songs, then just as quickly as they appeared, they vanished, leaving behind only wonder and joy for those that witnessed it. Fortunately it was captured on video, and in this digital age anyone can enjoy it.
• Amanda Ross-Ho’s Proud Father: Artist Amanda Ross-Ho’s sculpture THE CHARACTER AND SHAPE OF ILLUMINATED THINGS graced the MCA Plaza from 2013 into 2014. Near the end of the exhibition we received the above review from Ruyell Ho, Amanda Ross-Ho’s father, on the MCA’s Facebook Page, proving that you’re never too old or too successful for your parents to be proud of you. Hopefully this makes you smile as much as it has made me smile.
• MCA DNA launches: Over the years we’ve had a number of blogs for different projects, but this year we launched the museum’s ongoing blog, MCA DNA. I’m already looking forward to what 2015 will hold.
—Chicagoan of the Year, Chicago Tribune
Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo
—Exceptional Art Exhibitions of 2014, Chicagoist
Elevator Repair Service, Arguendo
—Christopher Borelli’s “Favorite Things of 2014,” Chicago Tribune
MCA-featured artists, exhibitions, performances, and programs all garnered notable mentions in Newcity‘s “Top 5 of Everything 2014″:
The Museum of Contemporary Art, especially during Family Day
—Top 5 Places that Aren’t Explicitly Tot-Oriented but Will in Fact Make Your Half-Pint Feel Right at Home
Isa Genzken: Retrospective
—Top 5 Bricolage Exhibitions
—Top 5 Confrontations of the Male Gaze and Ugly Patriarchy
—Top 5 Gratifying Talks and Performances I Made It To
—Top 5 Artworks as Activism
Lilli Carré, The Negotiation
—Top 5 Drawing Shows
William J. O’Brien
—Top 5 Subversively Conceptual Crafters
Miller & Shellabarger
—Top 5 Sweater Weather Artists
—Top 5 Dance Venues of 2014
The space race and David Bowie are inextricably linked, even today.
In the exhibition David Bowie Is, a striking display featuring the first high-resolution photograph of the Earth as seen from the Moon’s orbit aboard the 1968 Apollo 8 mission draws the viewer in. This image is displayed alongside Bowie’s promotional material and sheet music from the breakthrough hit “Space Oddity.” In the song Bowie explores the isolation and uncertainty experienced by astronauts. Commenting on the inspiration for “Space Oddity,” Bowie explained: “here was the great blast American technological know-how shoving this guy into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there.”
Timed to coincide with the launch of Apollo 11, the popularity of “Space Oddity” skyrocketed when the song was used as background music during the British coverage of the moon landing. Yet, as Bowie pointed out, “I’m sure they [the BBC] really weren’t listening to the lyrics at all” considering Major Tom is stranded in space.
Since that momentous giant step for mankind in 1969, “Space Oddity” remains an inspiration for scientists. This is best seen in astronaut Chris Hadfield’s excellent 2013 rendition of the song, filmed on his final day aboard the International Space Station. Hadfield used his time in space to reignite enthusiasm for space travel and his final offering—the first music video in space—captures the wonders of space exploration.
Bowie’s response via Twitter encapsulates the song’s many layers and continued relevance: “Hallo spaceboy . . .”
We find magic in these things.
METEORITES: They are so old. Most of them about 4.55 billion years old. You can hold something that is as old as or older than our Earth. Something from the beginning of our making. Hands tremble. The feeling is intense. Every day about 100 tons of meteoroids—fragments of dust and gravel and sometimes even big rocks—enter the Earth’s atmosphere.* They are glass on the floor you missed when sweeping up the glass you dropped, it is only until you step on a rogue chard that you are reminded that, at some point, something happened to create it. They are lost. They never had a chance to collide into a larger body and take part as a family (a planet, a moon). It is not until by chance they do fall to earth that we get to welcome them home.
LIGHT/OUR EYES: Our organism evolved with two cameras that work in parallel, save when a fly lands on your nose, then not so parallel. These cameras are amazing feats of biological engineering but they do have limits (technically 380 nm to 750 nm of the electromagnetic spectrum). This is where it gets very interesting. Many other species see different ranges of this spectrum. Some see a much broader range, for instance, the mantis shrimp has 12 color photoreceptors compared to our 3. This has not stopped human’s technological ability to understand and create new eyes that can visualize the spectrum in other ways. In 1965, JPL scientists hand drew and colorized the first images of Mars from data while impatiently waiting for all of the photographs. Pillars of Creation (1995), an image that opened our imagination, is a perfect example of this. Comprised of 32 images, including X-rays, wavelengths in near infrared and far infrared, it far surpasses our own spectrum. Scientists use this data and function as artists to re-create that which is imperceivable to the human eye. Can you imagine what your eye could see if we had evolved like the mantis shrimp?
TOUCH: Have you ever fallen asleep in an awkward position only to awake to an arm that has “fallen asleep?” It is an experience that can be a bit shocking. It is upon touching your body in this affected area that you can truly feel your own body. The nerve receptors do not register and your body is a new object.
Touch is an essential quality in the way that we approach art. As we look beyond what is perceivable, imagine time on scales almost unregistrable, touch provides an account of true absolute presence. The materials we work with, such as silicone, become waypoints of our own existence. While we carve, nestled up in steamy, full-face respirators, foam spraying in the air, preserved from the unnerving loud noises of air compressors and grinders, we imagine foreign landscapes and our bodies navigating these spaces. We imagine what the moon feels like, how the body changes weight in different gravities. We imagine we are explorers lost and finding our way through touch.
ATMOSPHERE: We call it the sky. We call it looking up. A Chicago winter can seem claustrophobic because of it. As we write this, we sit in anticipation of a glimpse of the sun. It is our window into the past, present, and future. Humans have always looked up. We have hung upside down on monkey bars and imagined falling into the sky. It is our source of understanding and mythologizing. The Milky Way as strewn breast milk across the sky; comets as signs of war and famine; the moon as cheese. When it rises we see colors and a veil of blue, but all the stars, all the vastness, still remain just beyond that thin blanket allowing life.