What if you could hear the stars singing?

By Deborah Caulfield for Disability Arts Online magazine, December 2017.

What if you could hear the stars singing? Juliet Robson’s hertz

Juliet Robson at a sharing of hertz.
(Photograph: Deborah Caulfield)

Artist Juliet Robson has been utilising installation, sculpture, performance, film and video, and sound art for 25 years. She works in response to sites and environments and is passionate about engaging with visitors and users of those spaces. As well practicing art she has advised on disability access to contemporary art galleries, museums and arts organisations.

I began by asking Juliet, why hertz, where did the idea come from?

“Named after Heinrich Hertzhertz describes the pitch of any given audible, inaudible note or frequency. We chose hertz for the project title because we’re connecting two happenings: stars singing and invisibly vibrating, and the earth’s hidden resonances.

Growing up, I was always looking at the stars, curious about the constellations and moon cycles. My parents loved to share with me their knowledge of the natural world and encouraged curiosity.”

Artists concept sketch of hertz event, 2017.
(Credit: Juliet Robson)

Juliet is also a trained classical singer with a degree in contemporary art and 20th-century music composition. The project brings together two loves and passions – music and science – allowing her to go into them in more depth, and to work with scientists, for whom she has a deep respect.

Indeed, the hertz team is practically a work of art itself. As well as astrophysicist Professor Bill Chaplin, meteorologist Dr Graeme Marlton, and mathematician Dr Andrew Gibbs, the team includes independent curator/producer Kate Stoddart.

For Juliet, collaboration is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the hertz project, and her first time working with a producer.

“I’ve loved getting to know people I’m working with, their work and research, and exchanging knowledge with them. I’m looking forward to seeing how hertz influences their research. It’s easy to see how science can influence an artist’s work, but less easy to quantify how artists affect scientists’ work.

Series of blue and white lines in a graph
Graph of infra wave frequencies made by summer storm, 2017
(Image credit: Graeme Marlton)

It’s not something artists tend to do, but Unlimited strongly advised applicants to have a producer on board. It’s an interesting and rewarding process for both of us. We’ve been working together since the mid-90s – we co-curated a festival in Nottingham called VITAL with a day seminar called Vital Signs that commissioned international disabled and non-disabled artists for example (written about in a piece for Whitechapel Art Galleries ‘Parallel Lines’) – but it’s the first time Kate’s been in a producer role for me.”

I asked Juliet about the access challenges she faces.

“Between 2010 and 2015 my career had limitations upon it, partly because of health issues and partly due to geographical isolation in Devon.

Black and white photo of a flower-shaped star system
First signature pattern made by harmonic vibrations of star Kepler 36,
found in the Cygnus constellation. 2017.
(Photo: Juliet Robson)

In 2015 I returned to the South East which has better physical access, better access to contacts, colleagues and collaborators, so more opportunities for networking and funding. In 2016 I designed and built an accessible studio, for my own and (in future) other artists’ use.

So I have removed a number of barriers I was facing, which is why I was able to realistically embark on a project like hertz.

I needed to prepare, as much as possible, for new physical challenges in respect of unpredictable chronic pain or other health issues.

It’s been challenging at times to stop myself worrying about that interfering and compromising the project. I’ve been doing it for a year now and so far haven’t dropped the ball or let anyone down, so that’s a great confidence boost.”

hertz close up shot
hertz close up shot

I asked Juliet how she’d feel about being categorised as a ‘disabled artist’, or her art being including under the ‘disability arts’ banner?

“I don’t have a simple answer and that, in part, is deliberate. I don’t personally use any prefix to ‘artist’.

In reference to being under the banner of ‘disability arts’, you would need to look at the body of my work, writings, and projects I’ve facilitated and curated since the early 90s to get a real insight into the why, how and when I have shown work under that and other banners. It’s about putting the right work in the right context.

A project is in the planning stages, which will in part explore those issues through the lens of one artist’s practice (mine) and how questions like these have been navigated. It will be framed through conversations with a curator (Kate) and others.

It will include lines of enquiry such as how investigations can take a more universal approach when dealing with the construct of normality, suggesting that identities are (necessarily) fluid.

That said, if a prefix is needed, I’m currently liking ‘furry toed lesser spotted’, but don’t read anything into that and don’t hold me to it.”

The R&D phase of hertz ends by mid-April 2018. What will have been achieved by that point? What audiences will see and experience when it goes public?

“I’m now thinking creatively and conceptually about the development and production of hertz the art work. I’ve begun conversations with organisations and individuals who can help make that happen.

By mid-April 2018, and the end of my Unlimited award, the project so far will have been evaluated and I’ll have a plan of how to go forward with the next stage.

We’ll have finished developing the infrasound sensor, so audiences can experience in real-time the inaudible, secret soundtrack of their city for example.

We also plan to have captured the infrasound of falling stars and/or a meteor shower, and the imperceptible movement of an Icelandic glacier.

And I hope to have fixed glitches with the Chladni machine and built another prototype.”

I wondered why Juliet is building her own Chaldni machine, rather than using an off-the-peg kit. Was it because of the nature of the sound, and if so, what were the challenges?

“You’re right. Those Chladni plates use pure sine waves (a particular type of wave) to create the patterns at different hertz, and are used to demonstrate aspects of physics in education, for example. They’re small electronic machines made for very specific purpose and are not adaptable for the kind of sounds I’m using or what you find in the natural world. I have one and it’s great, but you need ear plugs when you use it because the single electronic tone produced at some points is like a painful fire alarm.

Some of the challenges of improving it are to do with the type of speaker I’m using, and the contact between the metals parts.

For the vibrations to transmit evenly, and for the sand to move consistently, the material and surface of the metal plate need to be right.

Also, the plate needs to be absolutely flat and level – any bends or too much slanting one way or the other and the pattern will be disrupted or not take shape evenly.”

Lastly, I asked Juliet how the final pieces will appeal to both arts-oriented and science-oriented audiences.

“hertz will be an artwork first and foremost and will be experienced as that. But it is an artwork borne out of research that scientists do; it could not be made without it.

Through the art, audiences will get an insight into the science experientially. If they then want to explore more about how, for example, the stars make sound, they will be able to access that information through a variety of platforms that could be highlighted in any interpretation or information.

There’s great potential for events to happen alongside hertz – talks, panel events or workshops. These could be about the science but also could be about collaborating with scientists and/or how artists and scientists can influence each other’s work for example. All of this depends in part where and how it is developed.

As Bill said, people may go to see hertz for the art, but if they come away saying, ‘Wow, stars make sound’, that will be a success.”

You can listen to the sounds of the stars by catching up with the project on Juliet Robson’s blog.