INTERVIEW: JULIET ROBSON
How has the engagement with physicists changed your practice, inspired/stimulated new ideas and ways of working?
“Initial ideas for hertz and the star machines were drawn from longstanding concepts I had been playing with for art works. I have notebooks full of ideas that reflect on the physics of sound and artworks that have a sensory aspect to them. My interest is to make invisible sound tangible.
I came across an article in the Birmingham Post about the work Bill Chaplin was doing sonifying the data of the stars. I sought a way to apply Bill’s research to my conceptual ideas and manifest them in an artwork with scientific authenticity. I have a deep interest in societies historical relationship with stars. How they have shaped our systems of faith, agriculture, navigation etc. Today we are losing sight of stars due to earth’s light pollution. It requires a pilgrimage to find a landscape where stars are clearly visible. One of my motivations is to communicate this loss and reconnect us with the significance of stars.
For me, simply a representation of the sound of stars is not as powerful as the incredibly inspirational concept that stars make sound and ring like bells. With my artwork I aim to recreate the actual sounds of stars as closely as possible. Creating the star machines has required me to embrace technology, which has been a steep learning curve, and brought about a new surprising way of working. At the same time I am first and foremost an artist and thus make creative choices. The star machines are sculptures, in which science is made visible and tangible. However, their value does not rely on people comprehending what they are doing. Their beautiful and mysterious quality as artworks is crucial and I am cautious of them being limited to an engagement tool.
The ongoing work being done by the UoB Astrophysicists department has a deep synergy with my interests as an artist. Bill and his colleague’s empathy for my artistic process has been invaluable in supporting this creation. Gaining knowledge of the research has motivated me to develop the star machines further using stars we can see with the naked eye from the TESS project and simulating aging stars. I envisage a whole orchestra of stars made up of multiple star machines. I have also been exploring how you can feel the invisible sounds of our planet. The sound is too low to hear but with the right technology it is possible to feel the sound of your location in relation to stars in real time. Connecting the earth to the stars to look at our place in the wider cosmos. I am experimenting with using a huge amplifier and speakers to enable vibrations to be felt throughout the body.”
How has this impacted your audiences and those who you reach?
“Making and touring hertz in collaboration with the UoB Physics department has fostered new relationships and platforms to share the work. I have a fantastic new assistant who was inspired by the workings of the star machines when we met at the Oxford Science festival. My residency at 101 outdoor arts in Newbury was instrumental in designing and building the star machines. Martin, the Head technician there is now a key part of the hertz team and is my primary technician for the star machines.
There is a great interest in the music world for the essence of the star machines. Max Ernst featured the star machines on BBC’s Late Junction.”
How has working with a scientist changed your understanding of your career?
“The project (hertz) is the first time I have worked with scientists. Overall it has given me an understanding and deep appreciation for the ways artists and scientists can collaborate, affect each other’s work and learn each other’s language. This can only be achieved though a commitment by the artist to meaningfully engage in scientific research and for the scientist to trust in the artist’s ability to create something that communicates on both an artistic and scientific level. Finding a successful working partnership, where both parties meet on a common ground is not easy. Simultaneously the partial mystery in each other’s processes of research and creation motivates the relationship. I am very interested in historical relationships between artists and scientists.
Both parties may have different priorities, especially if they attached to an organisation. Juggling and doing justice to the needs and agendas of different funding bodies has also been challenging and something to learn from. The process and outcome of creation are both enabled and comprised depending on the funding source. The funding body Unlimited – which supports exceptional art made by artist with disabilities – has generously contributed to this project. However, considering the legacy of my practice, I am wary of my work being limited to disability art or as primarily an educational tool for the field of Physics.
The University of Birmingham has a particular understanding of the power of immersing art and science together. Their funding for the RND and tour has made the project possible and supported the fundamental time required for the Bill and I to learn how to communicate. However, funding from science research sources generally focuses on impact and engagement. My main motivations are to make an outstanding artwork with the use of cutting edge science that is accessible to as many people as possible. Something interactive, intangible, mysterious, an encounter that leaves people with questions. I don’t aspire to be a physicist; I want to retain and share the mystery of true science. When presenting the star machines together with Bill, audiences can really appreciate the depth of both the art and science encapsulated in them.
I am pleased to say that every work of art I have made I am happy with. You have to understand that you cannot please everyone. That’s the artist’s license.”
Do you feel that your processes and outcomes can inspire/further the field of physics?
“I believe that hertz has already demonstrated the ability for art and artists to inspire the general public and visitors to art works and talks. I know hertz has inspired the physicists (collaborators) in a number of ways.
Every bit of the machines is so extraordinarily precise and considered. The experimentation element of their production has influenced and inspired both scientists and myself in our research. I started using colourful sand to visualise the sounds, however the smaller white grains give a more accurate scientific reading, hence I choose to use white sand the majority of the time. As an artist I need to know why I am doing something scientifically as well as visually. I appreciate low-tech materials if they can convey what I want to convey. Being disabled, I am drawn to create artworks that offer a particular array of stimulation for the senses and are accessible to as many people as possible, which I believe takes science to the next level.”
First published at https://www.phyartuob.co.uk/interview-juliet-robson.
For more information about the Phyart project which explores the collaborations taking place between artists and scientists from the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Birmingham (UoB) go to the Phyart website.