Mixing disciplines is clear necessity, but do we need art?

Alfred Nobel was a man of many talents – poetry, science, languages; and no formal education. And as I mentioned in my last post, he would have struggled to qualify for the Lindau meeting where every year winners of his prize gather together.

There are changes afoot with respect to how we determine authority and legitimacy, as I also mentioned in my last post. There is also an accompanying trend when it comes to expertise and specialisation, and it takes two forms: interdisciplinarity and cross disciplinary migration.

As Nobel Laureate Hamilton O. Smith told me earlier this week, “I’ve always felt that you should change your area of research every 12-15 years because you stagnate in a certain area after a while. Not always, but you need to move on. And if you move into another area you can bring new insights into that area.”

That such changes can be successful is attested to not only by Smith’s career. There are numerous other examples; this month journalist Shane Snow launched his book Smartcuts, in which he argues that some of the world’s most successful people – such as the most popular US Presidents – rise up in one discipline, and then hop over to an equivalent height in a completely new field.

64th Lindau NobelLaureate Meeting Lindau, Copyright: DAAD/Nicole Maskus-Trippel
Rolf Zinkernagel at Lindau 2014. Image courtesy of DAAD/ Nicole Maskus-Trippel*

But aside from discipline hopping, there’s also a good deal of collaboration. Rolf Zinkernagel was a surgeon working with vet Peter C Doherty when they discovered how the immune system recognises foreign cells, which led to their 1996 Nobel Prize. According to Zinkernagel, it was important that they came from different fields looking at life, and that they were working with no preconcieved ideas. A similar attitude is taken by the younger scientists at Lindau. Over dinner I spoke to a fascinating psychiatrist who was also working on model brain cell systems to study bipolar disorder and ADD. She told me that in her lab it was of utmost necessity that she work with psychologists, neurologists, imaging specialists, and a bioinformatician, in order to understand the wealth of varied data they’re accruing about the workings of the brain.

But as Angela Michel* of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory told me, interdisciplinary collaboration is pretty much a necessity when you’re working on complex problems – such as their project on the structure and geography of the human gut microbiome. The organisation was designed in the 70s, and run nowadays, to promote conversation and collaboration.

Research in Germany Press Tour 2014

The awesome architecture of EMBL. Image courtesy of DAAD/ Volker Lannert*

Of course, most of these examples, barring Snow’s Smartcuts, relate to interdisciplinarity within science. What about outside? There are some efforts at EMBL, where artists and humanities experts, such as Martin Kemp, have visited and given seminars. Other examples have been thin on the ground this week, though just like Nobel, quite a few Laureates seem to have artistic flair aside from scientific excellence – mostly in the form of musical talents: taken Smith’s piano playing, or Thomas Sudhof’s conviction that he owes his powers of concentration to bassoon playing. Of course, there’s evidence that playing music can make beneficial changes in the brain, possibly because it helps us to live with uncertainty.

photo 2-1

Then there’s Australia’s Physics Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, whose skills as a vintner supplied libation to the attendees of the Monday International dinner (courtesy of his home country, see above).  Though he says that the Nobel is good for his wine-making, I have yet to discover whether his wine-making activities have augmented his cosmic research.

The question I’m left asking is, would these eminent scientists gain anything from interactions with artists? Was there anything that could have come out of their having, say, an artist in residence in their lab? As always, we come up against the tricky problem of pinpointing in a concrete fashion the effect that mixing together artists and scientists has on the scientists’ work. However, as I remember Prof Rob Kesseler saying, trained artists are better at spotting patterns and phenomena in visual data than scientists, a statement supported by a number of studies in neuroaesthetics, such as Robert Pepperell’s work on ambiguous images which shows that artists are better at noticing visual subtleties. Artistic skills, just as musical skills, may be beneficial to brain development, and transferrable to progressing areas of science.

*My sincere apologies for having an incomplete photo credit on first publishing this blog. The EMBL representative we met was in fact Angela Michel.

Time Slides #Success and Time Slides #Fail


The plan was to go to over to the gallery to set up at 2:30. At 2:26, after a week of late nights and frantic preparation to make Time Slides record and play back in a responsive loop, I plugged the external battery into the sound card – there was a spark, and it stopped working. A little warning LED started blinking. That was it – the audio card was dead.


I know the whole point about the exhibition – The Ability To Fail in Public – was to embrace the potential of failure and see it in a constructive and creative light, but having put in so much work on the project, to have achieved close to what was wanted at the outset in so short a time, and then to have it break at the last minute… that was quite a blow.

Dejected, I drew black tears on my face – the bitter tears of failure – and packed up to go.

At that point, the cavalry suggested exhibiting the defunct electronics at the show, plugged in so that the visitors could see its pathetic blinking. We decided to check to see if we could power it with the battery pack alone, so it was more portable for display. Having pulled the necessary bits together, we plugged in and lo! it worked.

Thereafter ensued a frantic 5 hours of tree climbing (to install Time Slides #Fail) and cupboard renovating (to create a novel exhibition site for Time Slides), before the first visitors showed up at the Kreuzberg Pavillion and started to engage with the work.

Time Slides and Time Slides #Fail both went down a storm tonight.

Time Slides is an interactive work reminiscent of a spider in form. It records and creates layers of sound from passers by, playing them back to create a vertical slice through time in one place. It is created as a highly intimate experience, and as with the other works in The Ability to Fail in Public, it focusses the visitor on the auditory experience – in this case using sound to create temporal distortions.

Here’s Time Slides in action:

Time Slides #Fail is much harder to capture on camera. It superimposes an evening in Brussels when Belgium played in the World Cup onto an evening in Berlin when Germany played, distorting time and space together to reveal the unique and similar elements of national experiences.

Installed in front of the gallery, in a tree on the square at Naunynstraße, the sounds of the busy Brussels streets, recorded just as Belgium won against Algeria in the World Cup last week, were extremely at odds with the visual stimuli of the surroundings. Passers by would look around confusedly, and the disjuncture produced had a particularly strong effect on cyclists, whose sensitivity to traffic noise is very important in addressing their vulnerability on the road.

Here’s the audio for Time Slides #Fail:

You can see some super pics of the exhibition on their facebook page of the event.

Time Slides was a great success, and Time Slides #Fail was deemed “Formidable!” by one visitor. We did, however, fail to fail.

**Edited to include media for Time Slides #Fail

Many thanks go to Claudia Mannigel, who initiated and organised the exhibition, Heiko and Alessandro from Kreuzberg Pavillion, Jun Matsushita and Sam Carlisle.


More Code – trying to loop and layer in ChucK

I’m still battling with ChucK. I can now record and play back in real time, but can’t loop. Record and play back in real time:


adc => LiSa loopme => dac;

//alloc memory

60::second => loopme.duration;

//set number of layers

10 => loopme.maxVoices;

// print get voice

<<< loopme.getVoice >>>;

//start recording input


<<< “recording” >>>;

2000::ms => now; loopme.play(1);

2000::ms => now; loopme.play(0);

//10 sec later, stop recording //10000::ms => now;

//loopme.record(0); 500::ms => now;


However, looping doesn’t work and I can’t work out why because I don’t understand all the syntax in the example file… Here’s my messy attempt.

adc => Envelope e => LiSa loopme => dac;

//alloc memory
10::second => loopme.duration;
//confirm that the length of the buffer is what you expect
<<<“buffer duration = “, loopme.duration() / 44100.>>>;
//set number of layers
10 => loopme.maxVoices;
// print get voice
<<< loopme.getVoice >>>;

//440. => loopme.freq;
//0.2 => loopme.gain;

//set times for recording fade in/out and sample loop length
100::ms => dur recfadetime;
2000::ms => dur mylooplen;

//start recording input; record 2 seconds worth
e.keyOn(); //can also do without the Envelope and use loopme.recramp(dur) to set a recording ramp
//1000::ms => dur loopme.recramp;
now + (mylooplen – recfadetime) => time later;
while(now < later) {

//    pitchmod.value() => loopme.freq;
1000::ms => now;
//2000::ms => now;
recfadetime => now;


<<< “recording” >>>;

//disconnect input and hangout a bit
loopme =< dac;
1000::ms => now;
<<< “hanging out” >>>;

//now, manipulate the sample
//    get a voicenumber; note that this voice won’t actually be reserved until you play it
loopme.getVoice() => int voice1;

<<< “getting voice number 1” >>>;

//we’ll play voice 1 forward, and then crossfade it with voice 2 backwards
loopme.play(voice1, 1);

<<< “play voice 1” >>>;
//(mylooplen – recfadetime) => now;

//just as voice 1 is going to fade, bring in voice 2
loopme.getVoice() => int voice2;
loopme.rate(voice2, 1.);
loopme.playPos(voice2, mylooplen);
//loopme.voiceGain(voice2, 0.2);
loopme.play(voice2, 1);

//wait until voice 1 had finished fading, then turn off
recfadetime => now;
loopme.play(voice1, 0);

//wait for voice 2 to finish
2000::ms => now;


////start recording input
//<<< “recording” >>>;

//2000::ms => now;



//2000::ms => now;


//10 sec later, stop recording
//10000::ms => now;

500::ms => now;

Digital Ghosts

I’m working on Time Slides #Fail – my back up for The Ability to Fail in Public. The recording I took, which I plan to upload here once it’s ready, is full of people – their ghosts, trapped in the instant of celebration, or inquiry, jubilation or mundane every day activities. But listening to them closely as they pass through my sphere and I through theirs, is a highly intimate experience.

It raises questions for me over privacy. So I’d appreciate thoughts: Is it possible, or will it be in the near future, to identify people through their voice, and what is an adequate privacy stance for publishing a sound recording that contains very short snippets of people talking along with various other background noises?

Adventures in RPi: programming with Chuck to trigger record depending on loudness

The flyer for our show at Kreuzberg Pavillion

Earlier this week Saturday’s exhibition, The Ability to Fail in Public, was announced. Here’s a non-permanent link to the exhibition.

I’ve been trying to programme the RPi for Time Slides – using ChucK. Somehow I managed to lose both the script I’d written and the doc I’d written detailing the script I’d written. #Fail! (how ironic)

Anyway, this is as far as I’ve got with the ChucK script, in a kind of wild mashup of some ChucK example files and a bit of wizardry (level -10)… I can now print “hello” when the mic registers a particular volume. Now I need to work out how to turn the print command into a record command (through LiSa?) and how then to play this back, and loop subsequent recordings over the top. All before Saturday. Wish me luck, I’ll need it!


// LiSa might be good for starting recording recording
// and then manipulating the loop

//start getting input from mic, something like…
adc => FFT fft =^ RMS rms => blackhole;

// split mic in ???

// if audio > loudness of X  (RMS) -> record
// set parameters – from loudness script
1024 => fft.size;
// set hann window
Windowing.hann(1024) => fft.window;

// get name
me.arg(0) => string filename;
if( filename.length() == 0 ) “foo.wav” => filename;

// control loop
while( true )
// upchuck: take fft then rms
rms.upchuck() @=> UAnaBlob blob;
// print out RMS
if( blob.fval(0) > 0.001 ) {

<<< “hello” >>>;
// advance time
fft.size()::samp => now;

// play recorded sound on loop

//.channels – (int, READ only) – the number channels on the UGen

//Zero crossing detector. Emits a pulse lasting a single sample at the the zero crossing in the direction of the zero crossing.
//(see examples/zerox.ck)
//this is useful if you want to make it loop without a glitch


In terms of Time Slides #Fail, I managed to get some super recordings last night of Brussels after Belgium won against Portugal in the World Cup. Awesome timing.

Experiments in #Fail -ure


I have the pleasure of exhibiting next week at the Kreuzberg Pavillion in a show curated by the amazing Claudia Mannigel – called The Ability to #Fail in Public – (**edit /15:41/ – the title was inspired by my post, not the overall sensory concept for the exhibition which is all Claudia’s, who has been very visionary in the creation of the show ** inspired somewhat by my earlier post Are You Happy to #Fail in Public?)

For the exhibition, I’m aiming to make a site-specific work that plays off the location of the gallery on the quiet square on Naunynstraße in Berlin by recording and playing back sound in real time. But there’s very little time to make the piece – especially as I have to dash off to work in Brussels on something else all week – and I am trying to use a Raspberry Pi for the first time in a sound installation. All in all, it’s rather ambitious – although quite comparable to the level of ambition for all the projects we thought of for the exhibition – and I’ve had to put in place quite a few contingency plans in case I can’t pull it off. Hence the title of the show!

So, in order to try to get this show on the road, I have got myself an audio card for the RPi and have got some way with setting it up. Then things got way too complicated for me at 11pm last night and I had to call in the cavalry. This morning, we have got this far – with the help of Claudia’s speakers – we can play mp3s through the sound card with real time processing (technical bits to follow) at a volume loud enough for an outside installation. I may even manage to exhibit without needing a mains power line thanks to a new piece of kit I got – a lovely battery thingy that can power speakers and the RPi.

With me leaving tomorrow evening, #success is by no means certain… but hope springs eternal.

A call for a new language for interdisciplinarity

Why do we still need to fight for the idea of interdisciplinarity? I recently reported on the Wellcome Collection Hub and Reading Room renovation for CultureLab. These two new spaces mark a watershed for active interdisciplinary research and its dissemination into the wider community.

In my article, I juxapose this most contemporary enterprise with that of the Gaberbocchus Common Room, set up in 1957 by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson – a project that has been brought to public attention by an excellent exhibition at London-based gallery GV Art.

What is striking when you read the Common Room paraphinalia, is that the rhetoric its users applied to collaborations between disciplines is almost word-for-word the same as that which we use today in debates around the globe on the future of art and science collaborations. What’s also striking is that the misappropriated Two Cultures rhetoric, which often used as a justification of the division between the disciplines of science and arts (rather than the call to bridge the differences between science and literature as it was intended by CP Snow), is the one most commonly applied to these interdisciplinary endeavours. As I recently asked UCL Natural Sciences and BASc undergraduates and post-grads at my seminar on interdisciplinarity – the benefits of sharing knowledge from many disciplines on a common theme seem so obvious, it’s a wonder we have to so constantly justify it.

So why does a divisive paradigm persist? It’s something I have discussed widely and have come to the conclusion that it is perpetuated by 3 main factors:

1) Institutional structure
* physical boundaries get in the way of people meeting and exchanging knowledge* a lack of flexibility in demands on time, deliverables and top-down structures for courses and assessment hinder exploration of ideas

2) Funding models
* eligibility requirements can stymie good ideas
* bias towards institutions conferring legitimacy for applicants – in an era of portfolio careers, interdisciplinarity and start-ups this loses a lot of good people
* assessment criteria for the success of a project are usually outcome-oriented and fairly immediate. they often neglect value in information exchange, networking and longer-term delivery or inspiration

and most importantly:
3) An inadequate lexicon for interdisciplinary endeavours, and interdisciplinary researchers
By naming something we make it real to ourselves. But by naming we also tie something down into a generalisation that loses its uniqueness and nuance. Negotiating this problem is an issue in interdisciplinary research, for which there is no established language. It is time to develop a new language for interdisciplinarity – something that allows those practicing a multi-faceted approach to knowledge to name themselves and thus persist in the social consciousness. It’s something that Giles Lane recently had a stab at with his notion of Public Agent, but I think we maybe need to move beyond an amalgamation of existing words, to create a new description of people who seek to know the world in a multi- or interdisciplinary way – focussing on their way of knowing, not their means of production.

This perhaps would have helped the Themerson’s endeavour, and their own historical reputations too.

So, I’m going to kick off with a suggestion to get the conversation going. I think we need to keep familiar syllables to make a new word – but you can by all means disagree and go elsewhere with it.

How about: Netknower ?

OK, your turn.