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An eye and ear on the Earth

With webcams and `sonification,' a UCI exhibit connects us to our environment.

January 18, 2007|Shana Ting Lipton | Special to The Times

THE sight of cars piling onto Interstate 5 is a familiar one to many. But in the multimedia art installation "Airlight SoCal," the air pollution surrounding the vehicles is the focal point. The freeway is depicted via a real-time webcam, as its footage and audio mutate based on incoming smog data from the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

This and other meteorological phenomena make up "Atmospherics / Weather Works," a retrospective of New York artist Andrea Polli's work on display at UC Irvine's Beall Center of Art and Technology. The show, which consists of seven installations, is the result of her collaborations with organizations such as NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and individuals from the scientific community here and abroad.

In a dark exhibit space illuminated mostly by video footage of environments from the Arctic to Southern California, Polli has taken mundane data on pollution, global warming and ecology that might leave the average viewer befuddled and translated them into provocative, more accessible sonic and visual works of art. Temperatures, storm intensity and smog levels find a voice through "sonifications," or information-conveying audio, an opus of erratic electronic sounds that could easily make up the score of a sci-fi movie.

But this is not "Plan 9 From Outer Space." Instead, the exhibition is an example of the larger mixture of art and science spreading with increased vigor at academic establishments in the last few years.

"Science is a contemporary culture that's absolutely shaping our reality, and media artists are closely linked to the same technologies that scientists use," says Victoria Vesna, chairwoman of the department of design and media arts at UCLA.

"A lot of scientists think of themselves as artists or think of what they're doing as artistic," says Polli, adding that she has always felt welcomed by those she has approached for projects.

One of the first members of the scientific community to collaborate with Polli on this body of work was New York meteorologist Glenn Van Knowe of MESO, a commercial meteorological firm in New York. The two met at a symposium about art and science in 2000 and germinated the seed that would become "Atmospherics / Weather Works," the centerpiece and namesake of the exhibit at UC Irvine. Like some retro ad for a hi-fi system, it consists of multi-level speakers that take up the lion's share of space in the show.

Amid this eight-channel audio cluster, visitors might be prone to look for physical evidence of the artwork, but the crux of the piece is the sound swell pumping out of the speakers. It might conjure recollections of an early Brian Eno album or the theremin-inspired effects in an episode of "Star Trek." In actuality, it's an audio depiction of Hurricane Bob's ravaging of the northeast U.S. in 1991 -- the product of data refashioned as sonifications.

Originally commissioned for Engine 27, a sound gallery in New York, the exhibit succeeded in its debut in reaching its creator's goal: "I wanted people to be able to make an emotional connection to the data." Polli recalls a young woman who had almost died in the storm crying when she heard the audio piece. "Somehow listening to the sonification -- even though it doesn't sound like the storm itself -- made her remember it," she says.

Polli's propensity to seek out raw facts, figures and configurations began at an early age; she is the daughter of a computer scientist, and "I grew up around computers and would program stuff all the time as a kid." She continued to explore her scientific predilections later while at art school, but "my art professors really looked down on that stuff; it was commercial and geek domain."

Times have changed, of course. Eleanore Stewart, director of UC Irvine's Beall Center, says today's technologies give multimedia artists the chance to "expand human senses so we can hear things that we as humans have never been able to hear before and see and experience the world in new and deeper ways."

Case in point: The installation "T2," which combines a variety of data and operates in real time, like "Airlight SoCal." In "T2," a video screen triptych is made up of wind and wave data, and live webcams, from New Zealand and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, as well as a live feed of breaking environmental news. The periodically updated webcams depict time-lapse animation of recent coastal activity. And for the installation's audio component, wave data determine the sound pitch and wind data control the harmonics.

As for what motivates Polli, she essentially defines herself as an artist preoccupied with environments -- be they soundscapes or landscapes. Yet she is not quick to categorize herself as an "environmental artist," which might presume an activist's agenda. "The bottom line of art and science is not so much that we're going in there as watchdogs, but we're going in there [to explore] the human dimension."

If there is a message embedded in all the data that make up the exhibition, it may be summed up simply with Polli's parting words: "Appreciate every breath that you can take of clean air, because we're really lucky to have this atmosphere."


'Atmospherics/ Weather Works'

Where: Beall Center for Art and Technology, UC Irvine, 712 Arts Plaza, Claire Trevor School of the Arts, Irvine

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; noon to 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays

Ends: March 17

Price: Free

Info: (949) 824-4339,

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