Lead Artist Juliet Robson interview: hertz Unlimited project – Art meets astrophysics, mathematics and meteorology

hertz is an innovative research and development project, and the creation of experienced Lead Artist Juliet Robson. It is supported by arts commissioning programme Unlimited, which celebrates the work of disabled artists, with funding from Arts Council England. hertz diversely marries four fields of study: art, astrophysics, mathematics and meteorology. The project aims to allow audiences to discover what noise, trapped inside stars in space, sounds like – and what it looks like in the shape of patterns it creates. Further, hertz aims to translate infrasound, which we cannot hear, into physical sensations people can experience.

Here, from her South Oxfordshire studio, Juliet talks about what audiences can expect from the work and also reflects upon the moment she discovered Unlimited were backing her idea

When did you first have the idea for hertz?

It was not one idea, but more a perfect storm of ideas. It was ideas I had had in my sketchbook and it came from research I carried out and then discovering something which became a catalyst. The trigger was about six months ago when I was carrying out research and I learnt that scientists had discovered that stars make sounds like musical instruments. I put that knowledge together with ideas I had previously had and began to look for people who could help me.

Describe hertz in brief?

The work uses hidden frequencies which are generated by natural phenomena around Earth and also by stars. We are connecting the songs of stars to Earth’s hidden resonances through three prototypes which will translate those sounds into visible and tangible experiences for audiences.

What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing the final work?

We hope audiences will take away many things from seeing and experiencing hertz. We will be holding an open studio here in South Oxfordshire, giving demonstrations and making presentations, which will be interactive. We ultimately want audiences to have an extraordinary experience. We want the work to be accessible, tangible and inspirational, and to shine a light on work scientists do. My dad was a research scientist and a botanist, so I grew up learning about the natural sciences. He was incredible skillful, making things which are difficult to grasp fun and accessible and interesting. If hertz can achieve that we will be very happy.

What do you hope personally to take away from the project?

I hope to build an ongoing relationship with the people and institutions I am collaborating with. I am learning a huge amount myself at the moment and getting inspiration for future projects. This is Research & Development, so I hope to reach a point where the project can go forward. I am ambitious for hertz and I hope to extend my practice in this exciting area.

How exciting is it to collaborate with first the Astrophysics Department at the University of Birmingham and the Meteorology Department at the University of Reading, and also individuals Professor Bill Chaplin, mathematician Andrew Gibbs and meteorologist Graeme Marlton?

It is very exciting. I am still pinching myself that all of this has come together. Bill, Andrew and Graeme are all working in cutting edge areas of research, and the prototypes we are creating for hertz will reflect that. It is exciting for me to work with scientists and it is exciting for them hopefully to work with an artist.

How did the four of you come together?

After first having the idea for hertz – making the sounds of stars tangible – I got in touch with Reading university, where I completed my MFA, because I was very interested in reconnecting there. I sent out a call to action really to see if there were any scientists at the university who would be interested in collaborating on this project and also had expertise and ideas on making hertz’s vision happen. Graeme Marlton works with infra waves, which are very low inaudible frequencies and he came back to me. Andrew Gibbs, who is a mathematician and a musician and whose PhD is in an area of acoustics, came back to me. I then contacted Bill Chaplin at Birmingham and asked if he too would be interested in helping.

What were your emotions Juliet when you first heard you had won the Unlimited award for 2017?

I was jumping and down. It is a fantastic and highly regarded award from Unlimited which has now been going since 2012. Applying is quite a lengthy process. You first make an expression of interest and put in a short proposal, and once you are successfully through that stage you then put together a much longer proposal. Unlimited has some amazing partners and allies like the Arts Council, British Council, Spirit and Southbank Centre. Artsadmin, Shape and Unlimited really support you. They want your project to work and particularly support artists who have faced barriers previously in their careers. They help level the playing field for those artists, which is fantastic.

What is the next key milestone now for hertz?

The next key milestone is to build the prototypes and to gather the data we need. We are building a Chladni plate, which is a metal plate you send vibrations through. You sprinkle say sand on the top and the sand magically moves into beautiful geometric patterns according to natural frequencies. Dr Andrew Gibbs is currently writing algorithms so that we can take the sounds of stars, pass their frequencies through the Chladni plate and then see what visual patterns the stars make. The other aspect of hertz is to do with the hidden sounds of our planet. Graeme Marlton is going to be installing a sensor in my back garden, which is going to be fun. It will gather infra waves from we don’t know where yet but, for example, the sensors he uses in research can pick up the imperceptible sound of a glacier moving. We want to explore how we feel those vibrations at too low a frequency for us to hear. We also plan to build a machine or a subwoofer which can pick up infra waves in real time, so if for example you are sat in front of it, it would lift the hairs on your arms in real time with say a deep ocean wave off the coast of Brighton.