Writings / Press

Read an interview with Alberta Chu, a past speaker, in The Editorial

Listen to founder Deborah Davidson on Massachusetts Cultural Council’s podcast Creative Minds Out Loud! 

Episode 23: Vivid, Beautiful Language Spoken Between Art & Science







April 29, 2016 

A Catalyst Conversation on a damp, late-March evening, at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center: the dark side of evolution looms large, as do hopes that music can offer a model for mechanically aligning evolution’s processes with moral purpose.

Kevin Esvelt, leader of the Sculpting Evolution Group at MIT’s Media Lab, presents the problem: we have the capability now to alter and/or enhance genetic traits of entire wild populations. Though evolution itself is amoral, we—this species that has developed the ability to read and write genetic code or “nature’s language”, as Esvelt puts it—can reflect and make choices about where, when, how and especially why to intervene. His concern is that the techniques are so simple and the “arms race of technology” so pressing, that science will have sweeping effects on the natural world before the ethical implications are fully sorted out. Here, the title of this conversation, “The Boundaries of the Possible”, are a set of nature-imposed parameters that we are keeping ourselves within at the moment, but are poised to exceed.

Coming not simply from the other side of the spectrum, but from a different spectrum altogether—that of sound—is Tod Machover, leader of the Opera of the Future Group, also at the Media Lab. Machover paints a portrait of experimentation across all of the different axes involved in making music: the boundaries of the possible in terms of sounds having emotive resonance; the boundaries of the possible in terms of capacity for a composition or a performance ensemble to incorporate limitless contributions; and the boundaries of the possible in terms of the technical capacity of humans and instruments to create musical sound.

Immediately the two get into a discussion of transhumanism. Are there any biological or cognitive constraints on what we can find musical? Could we/should we engineer better or other kinds of ears? Does science have any imperatives to apply its resources to resolving inequalities in the distribution of hearing before it focuses on augmenting hearing? There is also spirited discussion of the value of open source models in science and music as a means of both expanding a knowledge/experiment base and adding transparency/increasing access. Can the open source-ness and lack of predetermination in musical improvisation offer any tools for thinking about the problems involved in adapting scientific practice for a changing landscape? None of these questions are resolved, just raised and debated with earnest audience participation and sometimes laughter.

My take—which drifts a little bit over towards an anthropology of science perspective—is that we can’t trust our perception that we are ethical beings capable of assessing what’s right and wrong in the long run, any more that we can trust evolution to be moral. Evolution is a human-identified and articulated law, we can’t stand outside of these definitions, and our explanations of what is moral are rooted in historical time and space, which cannot rationally be applied universally.

Coda: Best of all was the time that was taken to celebrate a few specific artists that we’ve lost—recently and not too, too long ago—for their radical musical experimentation. Names that rang out like bells still pealing included Pierre Boulez, David Bowie, Marvin Minsky and Charlotte Moorman.

Heather Kapplow (heatherkapplow.com) is a Boston-based conceptual artist. Her work involves exchanges with strangers, wielding talismans, alternative interpretations of existing environments, installation, performance, writing, audio, and video. She has also written about art for ArtDependence, Hyperallergic, WBUR’s ARTery, WGBH’s World Channel, Big Red & Shiny Magazine, BDCWire, and Transgender Tapestry.


Subjective Data: Nathalie Miebach and Ari Daniel
December 18, 2015 

In the latest installment of Catalyst Conversations, sculptor Nathalie Miebach and science writer Ari Daniel came together at the Cambridge Innovation Center to discuss their respective work. It became clear in the course of the evening that while their mediums differ, both Daniel and Miebach are storytellers, weaving threads of data into compelling objects and engaging pieces of radio journalism.

Miebach’s vibrant, playful sculptures have long struck me as quixotic in their strange determination to provide a static, three-dimensional interpretation of a temporal state. She uses data points taken primarily from weather events and natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy, translating them into complex woven forms meticulously composed of everyday objects and lengths of reeds. Reflecting on the relationship between source material and finished sculpture, Miebach said that her goal was “to let the complexity live, without dissecting [the data] into a chart or a graph”. This tumultuous relationship between part and whole adds a dramatic sense of movement to her work, and is a clear reference to the original weather event. Ari Daniel began his talk with a fascinating clip from one of his recent stories; a kind of science whodunit focused on a receding glacial mass in Greenland. Interestingly, Daniel used the language of sculpture when explaining the process of crafting a story, presenting the metaphor of stringing beads onto a necklace to describe how a story is composed of many pieces of information that build upon one another over time. 

Throughout the brief lectures and subsequent discussion, the theme of objectivity versus subjectivity was ever present. Miebach and Daniel both mentioned that while finding or collecting objective data sets is an important part of their process, data is only a starting point; the ultimate goal is to use data to provide a framework through which subjective truths can be exposed. What struck me most forcibly about this Catalyst Conversation was the importance the two interlocutors placed on the power of narratives to widen our perspectives. If there was a thesis to the evening, perhaps it would be that science needs to be personal; by presenting subjective truths using objective data, Daniel and Miebach provide us with the tools to consider scientific data in a way that is relevant to our own everyday lives.  This acceptance of complexity exposes the profound trust they have in their audience. In an age where the didactic is often preferred to the nuanced, it was encouraging to encounter two storytellers who believe that multi-valent discussions can be just as powerful as vitriol-laden monologues.

Celine Browning is an artist, writer, and educator living in Boston. For more information about her work, visit: celinebrowning.com.

Catalyst Conversations: On Beauty
October 15, 2015

Sitting in a packed room at the Broad Institute, I was privileged to be part of the audience for the HUBweek installment of Catalyst Conversations. Thursday’s conversation began with a spirited presentation by David Tester, Senior Software Engineer at Google and Visiting Researcher at the Broad Institute. Tester’s talk revolved around the question “is life sciences a beautiful thing?” Endeavoring to answer this question, he looked to nature, positing that perhaps beauty could be found in mathematics and repetition, citing naturally occurring examples of fractals such as ferns and shells. Tester often used beauty as a metaphor for concepts such as truth, knowledge, and power. While his explorations into what beauty could be were interesting and expansive, he made it a point to never give a single definition, ultimately telling the audience that he felt beauty was too elusive a concept to conform to a single definition.

Emily Eveleth followed Tester’s presentation with an in-depth view of her series of large still life paintings featuring donuts. Eveleth’s view of beauty had a much more down-and-dirty quality than Tester’s; rather than equating beauty with some form of truth, Eveleth seemed more interested in finding beauty in corporeal reality and lived experience. In explaining her monumental painted pastries, Eveleth revealed that the models often lay in her studio collecting mold for weeks- a perfect example of how she gleefully blurs the line between repulsion, attraction, sexuality, and desire. Her complex, multifaceted view of beauty was similar to Tester’s in that she too focused on beauty as a quality that reveals reality.

The question and answer session of this conversation was the highlight of the evening for me- the audience seemed more than usually interested in asking exploratory questions aimed at getting to the heart of the matter. Many of the questions seemed to revolve around the problematics of trying to come up with a unified theory of something so subjective. A particularly poignant moment occurred at the very end of the evening, when one audience member cited periods in history when science and math have been used to justify a specific view of beauty: such as the enactment of ugly laws, or eugenics policies in Germany and the United States- both of which resulted in horrible human rights abuses. This was a welcome reminder that while such conversations may seem superfluous, they have very real ethical implications. All the more reason to keep having these discussions- I’m looking forward to the next Catalyst Conversations, hope to see you there! 

Celine Browning is an artist, writer, and educator living in Boston. For more information about her work, visit: celinebrowning.com.

It’s Physical: Kim Bernard and Jacob Barandes Discuss the Magic of Movement
October 1, 2015 

Last night, I joined about sixty people at the MIT List Center to hear another great conversation exploring the fertile ground between art and science. It was clear from the very beginning of the evening that Kim Bernard and Jacob Barandes are connected by a deep fascination and appreciation for the laws that govern the physical world.

Artist Kim Bernard began by talking a bit about how movement informs her work. From dancing, to martial arts, to a growing interest in physics, Bernard’s creativity is fed by the motion of bodies large and small. Much of her work has a strong sense of play- which is really another word for experimentation, something that scientists certainly know a lot about. Physicist Jacob Barandes used Bernard’s sculptures as a jumping off point to touch on a variety of topics in physics, from history to contemporary discoveries like the Higgs-Boson particle. Their discussion flowed back and forth in an integrated, choreographed dance of ideas. In this way, their talk felt like a natural expression of their work; organized; yet free-flowing.

Much of Bernard’s work is meant to be experienced rather than simply seen, and it was a great treat when she periodically played videos that showed her kinetic sculptures in motion. As an artist who is not well versed in science, it was fascinating to then hear Barandes explain how Bernard’s pieces worked- a brief primer on waves allowed me to see Bernard’s Quantum Revival in a whole new light.

It was very clear that members of the audience were taken with the interplay, as the question and answer session was very spirited. Towards the end of the talk, Barandes reflected, “to the extent that physics plays a role in Kim’s work, <it’s similar to> the way that a painter uses colors; Kim uses physics as a palette to create things that might be difficult to create or express in other ways… using the tools of physics to provoke the viewer…”

Luckily, we all still have time to share in that provocation, as Kim Bernard’s solo show will be up at Suffolk University through 10/3.

I’m looking forward to the next Catalyst Conversations, where Emily Evelyth and David Tester will be tackling the sticky subject of beauty.

Celine Browning is an artist, writer, and educator living in Boston. For more information about her work, visit: celinebrowning.com.

Thoughts on Music and the Brain from Deborah Davidson
June 27, 2015 

I have been curating conversations between artists and scientists for over 2 years, working with a wide range of makers, practitioners and researchers on an equally broad range of ideas and subject matter.

The most recent conversation on March 23rd at the Bartos Theatre in Kendall Square, between performer extraordinaire Stan Strickland and renowned neuroscientist Ani Patel, embodied everything that I strive for in this endeavor of art talking to science. The two men were completely sympathetic, and really listening and responding to each other in conversation as if they were doing so musically. What they discussed touched all of us, as the sense of rhythm is innate to our species.

They are each in their own way compelled by the idea of music as a way of healing and connection. I was as enthralled as the audience, in spite of all the preparation in realizing the program, I was indeed lifted up; we all want to reprise the evening and do it again!

This post first appeared on the Kendall Square Association Blog