For Nathalie Miebach, the mysteries of art and science are best engaged by their individual components: colors and temperatures, reed and wind speeds. Through a time- (and hands-) intensive weaving process, she creates sculptures that visually interpret scientific data. The resulting sculptures – intricately crafted yet curiously natural – invite new understandings of astronomy, ecology, meteorology. Nathalie’s work, recently seen in a solo show Sarah Doyle Gallery at Brown University, is now on exhibit in 185th Annual Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary American Art, at NYC’s National Academy Museum (through 6/8). Locally, you can see her work in Transformations in Wellesley College’s Jewett Gallery (through 4/4).
Her explorations of art and science go one step further in her latest project, which first translates weather data into musical scores, and then into sculptural forms. The project will reach a peak this Sunday, March 14, 3 PM, at the Lily Pad in Inman Square, Cambridge, when the Axis Ensemble performs “Hurricane Noel,” one of Nathalie’s weather data musical scores, and she’ll present sculptural work from the same score.
We asked Nathalie about this project, the pull of the sciences, and her relationship with music composition.
ArtSake: Your recent works – including those that won you a 2009 Artist Fellowship – are woven sculptures derived from weather data. What sparked the addition of musical scores?
Nathalie: It’s a hard question for me to answer, because I’m still trying to figure it out myself. It has to do with nuances that are embedded in numerical behaviors that scientific instruments don’t pick up, but the human mind does. In that lies an imperfection/perfection of the human mind I find incredibly fascinating and beautiful. I’m becoming more interested in the way humans understand weather as opposed to how instruments record it. Musical notation has been a type of mediator in helping me give these nuanced, idiosyncratic ways of understanding weather a larger voice.
It was, in part, my growing interest in the nuances of behaviors I was observing in weather. After looking at meteorological data collected from weather stations and my own daily observations collected from a specific environment, I began to notice how I was relying and beginning to trust my own observations more than my instruments. Observing weather by looking at a computer screen versus daily observations taken from one’s own backyard yields a completely different understanding of the environmental interactions of weather. While I think both are important, I began to notice that my own observations were a lot more nuanced by the things I was observing in the environment around me. Weather never happens in isolation, but always in the context of an environment. Thus, observing weather is about observing an environment reacting / influencing weather.
That nuanced reading wasn’t coming through in my translations from numbers to sculpture. This is how I came to reach for musical notation, as a vehicle to allow me to integrate and give voice to that little glimmer of nuance that was creeping into my observations. Just like a composer can tweak and shape the notes of a melody, I can use tempo and rhythm to nuance the musical translation of the data into musical notes. The notes themselves are still based on actual numbers I collect.
I am beginning to realize how important it is to me to feel a little naive about what I’m working on. I seem to constantly gravitate towards that stage in learning where you don’t really know what you’re doing, cross your fingers and somehow intuitively hope for the best. I certainly feel that way about music and have been lucky enough to work with such patient (and polite) musicians who are both very forgiving and honest about my musical inabilities.
ArtSake: The sound clips from the project you’ve posted on your website are fascinating. What has surprised you about the musical performances? And how have you found the process of collaborating with musicians?
Nathalie: The biggest surprise to me is how it all comes back to sculpture. I got into musical notations because the sculptural language I was using was no longer reflecting the way I was interpreting and understanding the data. Translating scores into sculptures and listening to musicians interpret the data has made me rethink sculpture in so many ways. After sitting in on a rehearsal with the Axis Ensemble, I went back to my studio and just stared at my sculptures for two hours. I was blown away by the ease at which music can express so elegantly nuances of behaviors. Rather than feeling discouraged, I feel my respect for sculpture has been deepened because of music.
There is something very liberating about inviting other voices into the translation process. When I give musicians the score, I tell them what it’s about, what portions of the score are flexible and those that aren’t. Then I pretty much withdraw and give them lots of freedom in determining rhythm, tempo, number of instruments, etc. For me it’s important that they make it their own, for this is the whole purpose of inviting others into the translation process. It gives me other examples of interpretations that I can then use to reevaluate my own sculptural translations of the same score.
ArtSake: I’m curious about your background in the sciences. What drew you to weather in the first place?
Nathalie: I don’t have a background in science in that I was never formally trained, aside from a few continuing education courses I took / am taking at Harvard Extension School. However, I love science and the fact that the whole premise of it rests on doubt. I’m learning about the ocean right now and can’t get over the fact of how amazing barnacles are!
My first sculptural interpretations of data began with astronomy. Weather came into the picture in 2006 when I had two consecutive artist residencies at the Fine Arts Work Center. Zach Smith, a climate educator from the Wright Center for Science Education, knew of my work and approached me about a project on climate change. At the time I knew I wanted to figure out a way for me to collect my own data to see how the sculptural translation process would change. Until then I had relied mainly on data sources from the web. I was to field-test one of their instruments for the Wright Center on the beaches of Cape Cod, while I would be tutored on how to collect science data. I knew very little about weather and only the most basic Climate Change 101 information. I soon realized that if there was any hope for me to truly understand the complexity of climate change, I had to first understand weather. That’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.
ArtSake: What is it about weaving that allows you to access and explore such complicated material?
Nathalie: Weather is not really complicated when you break it down to its components. It gets messy when you draw back and watch this cacophony of variables interact. And even worse when you look back in time as well. That’s what meteorologists do on TV with their complicated models. I stay safely in the realm of just a few variables, so that things never get too complicated.
Weaving is incredibly versatile and allows you to pretty much build anything you want. As a Lego fanatic, there is nothing that brings me more pleasure than building something with my hands. Weaving is the next best thing to that. Weaving also takes time, which allows the questions I am addressing to evolve and change over time.
ArtSake: This is a question we sometimes ask in our nano-interviews, and I always find the responses interesting: what artist do you most admire but work nothing like?
Nathalie: Since I barely play the recorder, this should qualify. My biggest visual influence has actual been classical music, particularly Minimalism. I’m particularly drawn to Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Arvo Paert and John Adams for creating music that has always felt to me extremely sculptural. Incidentally, it is also the kind of music I reach for when I am trying to figure out some structural problem I am facing or when I am looking at data and trying to discern behavioral patterns. I guess it helps me think.
Spending time with these composers for days and days in my studio has also made me very aware of the very act of listening and how important it is in sculpture. So much of understanding sculpture and weather seems to be the act of simply listening – for materials, for behaviors, for structure, for meaning. And there is nothing simple about that.
When music finally did enter the process, I had this keen sense that it was this presence in my studio that had been sitting there for a long time, asking itself what took me so long.
Nathalie Miebach is the winner of the Blanche E. Colman Award and a 2009 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship in Sculpture/Installation. Her work is included in the upcoming book publication of Data Flow 2: Visualizing Information, from the Germany-based publisher Die Gestalten Verlag. Nathalie will give artist talks at Salem State College (March 22nd, 11 AM) and the Montserrat College of Art in Beverly (April 22, noon), and will participate in “The New Materiality: Digital Dialogues at the Boundaries of Contemporary Craft” at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, May 29, 2010 – Feb 6, 2011.
Images: all work by Nathalie Miebach; detail of URBAN WEATHER PRAIRIES – SYMPHONIC STUDIES IN D (2009), Reed, wood, data, 16x15x15 ft; SHOULDER WEATHER THROUGH NEW URBAN FRONTIERS (2009), Wood, data, reed, 45x45x27 in; score for STORMY WEATHER, INTERNAL STORMS; EXTERNAL WEATHER, INTERNAL STORMS (2009), Reed, metal, wood, data, 33x40x60 in; URBAN WEATHER PRAIRIES – SYMPHONIC STUDIES IN D (2009), Reed, wood, data, 16x15x15 ft; score for HURRICANE NOEL.