Earlier this year, physicist Matt Bellis helped Jen Stein, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz and me to put together a Processing data visualization for Jen’s PUCK project. For Matt, getting us up and running on visualizing a very simple data set was relatively trivial, especially compared to the amazing work he’s done with the Particle Physics Wind Chime.
Like particle physicists the world over, Bellis is forced to improvise ways to share his research with the public, using whatever comes to hand. He’s animated bristling spheres of particle tracks in sophisticated vector graphics – complete with cool soundtracks. He’s illustrated fundamental relationships between different particle types with Google Docs. Bellis has developed a whole toolbox of methods to help him explain particle physics. Until recently, however, all the tools in his toolbox were visual.
A trained musician, Bellis came up with the idea of rendering the results of particle collisions as sounds. The process of rendering data into sound is known in general as “sonification.” Bellis wanted to sonify data from BaBar.
“I had the idea of the BaBar detector as an instrument,” Bellis said, but not one played by human hands. It would be played by the particles gusting through it, like wind through a wind chime.“Think of it,” Bellis said. “The wind itself makes no sound. You hear the wind if it rustles the leaves in a tree. The motion of the wind itself doesn’t necessarily make a sound. The wind has to interact with something to make noise.” In the same way, “When you have these particles that pass through the detector, they send it ringing, resonating in some way.”Thus was born the idea of the Particle Physics Windchime: A computer application that could take particle physics data such as particle type, momentum, distance from a fixed point, and so on, and turn it into sound. (Symmetry Breaking)
What was your trajectory into this kind of art practice?
I come from a background in Architecture and Media Art, and have been experimenting with alternate trajectories for what has come to be called urban computing for about ten years now. I have always been fascinated with cities and technology, and my practice has emerged out of a curiosity regarding how forms of mobile and embedded, networked and distributed computing can shape our experience of the city and the choices we make there.
Most location- and context-sensitive apps are about making things faster and more efficient. Serendipitor slows things down and disrupts the flow. Why do you think this is an important thing to do?
Computer science and engineering are practices that hold optimization and efficiency as important design challenges. And that’s all well and good when we’re talking about relatively instrumental applications of these technologies in urban environments. But artists frame questions in ways scientists and engineers do not, and when considering the implications of these technologies for urban life, one has to wonder what other criteria could be relevant. Who really wants a faster, seamless, more optimal and efficient life?
Projects like this are inherently multiple — even paradoxical. As you write on your website (quoting Deleuze), “AND is neither one thing nor the other, it’s always in-between, between two things.” Why does this kind of instability inspire you?
Well, as Deleuze says a little further on in that quote “it’s along this line of flight that things come to pass, becomings evolve, revolutions take shape.” Much of my work looks for ways out of static dichotomies that serve to maintain the status quo. Destabilizing tactics often reveal the more subtle and nuanced forces at play in a given situation, and help open up lines of thinking that can help us move beyond established belief systems.
How have people been using the app? What kind of feedback have you received — and what kind of data have you gathered?
The feedback has been surprisingly positive. People seem to really enjoy the app, and have been using it around the world. Many have suggestions of their own, ideas for new instructions, ways to share their routes, etc. Much of this is anecdotal in nature, however, and I do think that the plural of anecdote is not data.
What were you looking for when you set out to design Serendipitor? And what did you end up finding?
Serendipitor is one component of a larger project called the Sentient City Survival Kit (http://survival.sentientcity.net), a project that explores the implications for privacy, autonomy, trust and serendipity in this highly optimized, efficient and over-coded “smart” city heralded by ubiquitous computing evangelists for some time now. With Serendipitor, what started as an ironic proposition – that in the near-future, finding our way from point A to point B will not be a problem, but maintaining consciousness along the way might be more difficult, and that we would need to download an application for “serendipity” from the App Store – turned out to be quite popular when implemented as an app. I didn’t expect to find that the irony could be so easily lost in the process!
What’s next — for you, and for smartphone-enabled humanity?
Smartphone-enabled non-humanity, of course. 😉
The question of how to mark the places where we store nuclear waste such that people in the distant future won’t do things like build towns or nurseries or farms on top or inside of them is one of my favorite transmedia design challenges. It’s a thought experiment that asks us to imagine a way to communicate with a diverse and unknowable range of cultures and attitudes across a vast gulf of time. Nuclear waste can take upwards of 20,000 years to decay.
Solutions to the problem, such as those proposed by the Human Interference Task Force, a workgroup formed in 1981 by the US government, include the construction of monumental reinforced concrete architectural elements (obelisks, pyramids, and so on, all inscribed with a range of frightening DANGER! symbols), the breeding of super-friendly genetically-engineered cats that change color in the presence of radioactivity, and the establishment of a multi-millennium-scale religious order or “atomic priesthood”.
PEG-LA co-conspirator Sarah Brin is one of the coordinators of Revel, “a public invitation to participate in fun, social, and adventurous challenges on streetcorners, in parks, and in all parts of town. [The Revel] iPhone app organizes missions by type and by location, deepening your connection to your neighbors and your city.” Revel is looking for creatives to propose challenges that will be incorporated into the experience. From the call for participation:
WHO CAN PROPOSE A CHALLENGE?
Everyone! We’re looking for a broad range of missions in a variety of fields. Challenges can be as simple as a set of instructions written for one person, or more complex, involving multiple people in different roles. No technical knowledge is required.
CAN I PROPOSE MORE THAN ONE CHALLENGE?
Absolutely. Submit as many as you like under as many topic headings as you like.
We’re looking for challenges that relate to the following topics: Appreciation, Exploring, Fitness Training, Neighbors & Networks, Leadership, Photography, and Storytelling.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?
Aside from excitement of giving tens of thousands of people an experience they won’t forget, there’s $20,000 in prize money available to the authors of the challenges that generate the highest number of positive experiences.
WHEN IS THE DEADLINE?
The deadline for entries is July 15, 2011. (getrevel.com)
Groundcrew is the creative force behind Revel.