Interview with Nathalie Miebach, June 2008

Posted on Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008 at 10:56 am | See all Human Interaction Entries.
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antarctic-explorer a-warm-winter

Above Left: Antarctic Explorer – Darkness to Lightness, Reed, wood, plastic, data, 4,5’ x 3’ x 2’ , 2007, A portable data device for the Antarctic Explorer, this piece explores the transition from complete darkness in June to 24 hour sunlight in October. Data translated include weather patterns, temperature variations, barometric pressure, wind data, azimuth of the sun, sunrise in relation to cardinal directions, tides, moon phases, moonrise and sunrise. Using a base of 24 hour, every weave represents one hour.
Above Right: A Warm Winter, Reed, wood, data, 6’x 5’x6’, 2007, Using a base of 24 hours, this piece converts locally collected data (at Herring Cove), with data from regional buoys (source: Gulf of Maine Observation System) and historical data (source:, NOAA and U.S. Naval Observatory). Data converted includes temperature (air, water, soil), wind speed and direction, tides and moon phases. The time frame translated is Dec 2006 – January 2007.

How do you translate scientific data into beads, reeds, thread and other media?There are really two parts to my process: data collecting and the visual translation of data. The first part, data collecting, takes place in various forms. If I am looking at a specific environment close by, I build very low-tech data-collecting devices that I bring to a particular place on a daily basis. I record both the numbers the devices are measuring as well as everything else that is happening all around me. My own observations and recordings are then compared to sites on the Internet that record similar data nearby. For example, if I am recording weather data, I will always compare what I have recorded that day with what a nearby weather station has recorded, as well as look at weather satellite imagery of that day to place my observations in a more global context. If I am looking at an environment that is too far away or too impossible for me to get to, such as Antarctica, I turn to the Internet and use data from various research stations, university or governmental agencies. As a rule, I always double and triple check data I use from the Internet, even if it is from reputable sites, because there is unfortunately a lot of junk on the Web.

I much prefer doing my own observations because the key to understanding dynamic, complex relationships between different systems within an environment is actually in what you observe peripherally. It is what I observe all around me (the cloud cover, bird behavior, water current, the way the ground feels, the way the air smells, etc.) while I wait for my instruments to record data that helps me see the behavioral complexity of hundreds even thousands of systems that make up weather. I keep describing this as a type of visual ‘listening’ with my peripheral vision, though I am still learning what that actually means.

After I have a good chunk of data recorded, I become a sort of detective in that I look for patterns, inconsistencies, cause-and-effect type behaviors that suggest linkages between certain variables. With a huge cup of coffee and some Steve Reich playing through my headphones, I stare at these stacks of graphs, numbers and diagrams to find something worth investigating further. What I begin to translate depends partially on the format of the data. For example, data that are presented in the form of maps are the worst, because for me to get to the actual value of a piece of information, I have to decode it and extract it from the map itself.

It’s like I am peeling away the visual in order to see the number so I can retranslate it into something visual. Much too complicated! The more numerical and drier it looks, the better. Numbers function a bit like Lego pieces in that I assign each value a physicality that gets integrated into the basket. I never change the value of the numbers to conform to some sort of aesthetic preference. This allows the sculptures to exist as sculptures in space but also as actual devices that could be used to read data from a specific environment.

From the many variables I have collected, I will choose two or three to begin the initial translation process. The basket is my method of translation because it provides me with a simple yet effective 3D grid through which to translate data with. The sculpture is a collaboration between the material, the numbers and myself. The material I use to translate is reed, which has an inherent tension that does not allow me to completely control it. If I push it too hard, it will simply break. The changing nature of the numbers over time as well as the inherent tension of the reed are what create the shape of the basket. I try to let the changing tension of the reed dictate the shape; only in certain instances do I step in and exert pressure when I sense the piece falling physically apart. I never know what the shape will be beforehand, which often leaves me scratching my head — some shapes are easier to work with than others.

Once the basket sculpture is done, I have a temporal landscape on which I can plot more data on top that is related to the initial relationship I was looking at. In some ways, this is when I start to ‘visually listen’ again, for how and what I will translate further on this shape will depend on what conceptual aspect I want to further explore as well as how it will aesthetically fit together. Colors and shapes are assigned to various variables (red for temperature, blue beads for wind strength, etc.), with legends next to the sculpture letting the viewer know what each of them means. These choices are directed through a combination of referencing commonly associated shapes or colors with certain variables (for example, temperature is almost always either red or blue), as well as the availability of materials I happen to have in the studio.

On a surface level, my current work is about translating science data related to weather or polar regions undergoing drastic changes due to climate change. But on a deeper level, this work is also about thinking. Assigning colors and shapes to certain variables is very much like assigning a concept to a particular word. Like an anthropological linguist, I try to create my own sense of meaning through these colors and shapes that articulate the nuances, patterns and inconsistencies I see as developing a visual language that enables me to articulate relationships I see or sense within the environment I am observing.

Is data collection part of your artistic process?
Yes. It is as important as the visual translation process of these numbers into sculptures.


What compels you to respond to and interpret the environment?
To experience an ocean wave by putting your feet in the water, hearing its roar, watching a white foam crest and fall over on top of the wave and clashing with the previous wave’s retreat, tasting the salt in the air and feeling your feet being sucked into the ocean and toward the sea as the wave recedes, is an entirely different way of understanding wave dynamics than reading it from a book on oceanography. It is the experience of it that sinks deeper into your mind than a paragraph will ever do. Experience is a way of recognizing, registering and sensing beauty.

Left: Barometric Pressure: Herring Cove, Cape Cod
Reed, wood, data, 36”x36”x36’, 2008, This piece looks at the relationship between barometric pressure, cloud cover, soil temperature readings and bird sightings during a 30-day period on Herring Cove Beach, Cape Cod.

The only way for me to physically and intuitively understand weather is to spend time in an environment and record it. However, it isn’t just a process of recording numbers, for I could get those from the Internet with much less hassle. It has to do with actually trying to understand an environment as an interconnected ecosystem in which thousands of variables interact with one another. For me that has meant spending many hours observing and just being outside to learn and try to understand what I am looking at through experience. That’s not always easy to do, particularly when it’s pouring outside and I am drenched to the bone trying to write down what I see with my half-frozen hand. But if I didn’t do that, I know I would never get a glimpse at those interconnections within an environment and thus never really come to a deeper understanding of what weather actually is and means in an environment

But experience itself is only the beginning. Science is a wonderful lens through which to probe deeper into those observations of the natural world. I disagree with Walt Whitman’s famous poem When I Heard the Learned Astronomer because numbers and figures DO provide a window into an invisible structure or system that builds the scaffolding of what I’m looking at. If nothing else, science is a useful lens through which to gawk at beauty within the company of doubt and reason.


What other media did you consider before deciding on weaving?
I began translating science data through basket weaving long before I got into weather. This juncture happened somewhat serendipitously in 2000 or so, when I took a class at Harvard Extension School in astronomy, which coincided with a class in basket weaving I took at Cambridge Adult Education. The frustrating part about astronomy to me was that I never seemed to be able to get a real sense of the time and space dimension we talked about in class because everything we ever looked at was on the two-dimensional plane of the projector wall. At some point the light bulb went off in my head that I could actually use basket weaving as a three-dimensional grid through which to translate astronomical data with to get a better sense of what I was learning about astronomy. About two years ago, I began to focus on weather through a collaboration with the Wright Center for Science Education, which was piloting a project on climate data collecting.

Right: Wind Anemometer: Herring Cove, Cape Cod, Reed, wood, PVC, data, 68”x40”x37”, 2008, This sculpture functions as both an anemometer to be used on the beach to measure wind, as well as a sculpture on which my own collected data is recorded. Looking purely at the effects of wind in a specific location on Cape Cod (Herring Cove Beach), I translate data of living systems or other weather indicators that are affected by the wind.

Right now the possibilities weaving provide in 3D translations of data seem limitless to me. However, I am always conscious of not wanting to fall into a type of translation that feels too predictable or comfortable. I am therefore always trying to find new visual ways to translate the information, be that in 2D and 3D. I am constantly building things out of coffee stirrers, cardboard, packing peanuts or whatever I have lying around to keep my mind and the translation process fresh. Many of these failed attempts do end up in the final work.

I have one rule I try to adhere to with every piece, which is to incorporate at least one element I feel unsure about. It’s a way of keeping the work, the question and my process at the edge of comfort/discomfort, which is where I believe new discoveries are born.

Where does the art begin and the science end?

I think when one is genuinely curious about something, the categorizing by disciplines become irrelevant. I don’t think of either art or science when I am in the studio — I think of weather, of behaviors, of trying to visualize that which I cannot see but not whether what I do is art or science. While it is easier for me to define and perhaps thus distinguish the boundaries of what is and isn’t science, the parameters of art are much more fluid, open and up for debate. Does the practice of one necessarily exclude the practice of the other? I suppose the distinction between these two fields becomes particularly tricky when I come across persons, particularly scientists, who have never lifted a brush in their life but whose approach to thinking about a particular problem feels very akin to those of an artist. What is that particular quality that makes it so? I’m not entirely sure myself, but I do think that a healthy respect for intuition, contradiction, nuance, reason as well as a knack for being able to disregard the very parameters of mental thought any discipline imposes on itself, are all in there. Rooted in that perspective is a firm belief that art is fundamentally a language of thought before it is one of visual means. It is also where I think the still unexplored and huge potential for art lies — in that recognition and exploration of art as a mediator between thinking and the visualization of that thinking.

And yet I can’t deny that some of the very conceptual boundaries that define art and science are what attract me to them. A question articulated through science begins with a very different premise confined by its own language, expectations and rules than if I address that same question within the context of art. What I love and deeply respect about science is that its very premise, its very raison d’etre, rests on doubt. solar-beginningsArt is an enormously versatile language through which to express nuances, contradictions and peripheral specificity, even absurdity — all through the logic of visual means. In that sense, both disciplines provide the perfect ingredients to dig deeper into any question. Like an opportunistic leech, I take from both disciplines what I deem as essential in helping me explore what I am curious about.

Left: Solar Beginnings of Everything that Changes, Reed, wood, data, 56”x66”x27”, 2008, Private Collection. Without the sun, there would be no weather. Without weather and its daily changes, there would be no life on Earth the way we know it. Somehow within this daily search for equilibrium in the atmosphere and in the water, every life form find its own niche to survive. For the past 6 months I have gone to Herring Cove nearly everyday to observe how this specific coastal environment adjusts to daily variations in weather. This piece looks at these changes, all of which find their ultimate origin in the sun. Data translated includes: air & water temperature, barometric pressure, tides, solar azimuth and moon phases. Time frame is Oct. 07–Mar. 08.

What do these sculptural forms reveal about the science?
To me they reveal less about science but provide a window into human thought and the way one constructs meaning and understanding about something. What I do visually in my work is what every person does every day — I just happen to give it a visual form. Every person is confronted with situations where one only has bits and pieces of incomplete information. However, our brains are wired in ways that allow us to fill in missing gaps by either drawing analogies to what we already know or using simple Sherlock Holmesean deduction to come up with some answer that appears both logical and reasonable to the individual. Now my answer and your answer might be completely and widely different. And your answer may be as illogical to me as a doorknob on a wheel axle, but it’s completely logical to you. But that’s the beauty of human thought — this illogical logic that leads to a form of reason.

What do you learn from your sculpture?
As an artist, it is often the moments of despair, of being stuck, of building something that takes hours to make just to see it crumble into pieces when I realize that making art is really not about making anything. It is about having a conversation with yourself, the medium and the questions you are addressing through your work. It is about learning how to listen to this trio of partners and treating it like a collaboration all the way through. This is not always easy, because my vision of what I want to do often gets redirected into unexpected paths and territories that require me to learn new things, work with materials I have never used before, ponder questions about things I never even knew existed. It requires me to trust my sense of curiosity to lead me toward the next question and to trust the material to lead me into new ways of articulating those questions. My work reminds me daily that curiosity, wonder, risk-taking and doubt are my most important, most trusted partners in the studio. If I start making work that doesn’t feel like it’s teetering off the edge of some great abyss, then the conversation between the sculptures and myself has stopped. The unknown is neither comfortable nor predictable, but that is part of the pleasure of finding things out.

I rarely walk away with any concrete answers from my work. In fact, I am often more puzzled after I have made a sculpture than before. Ironically, for me that is always a sign that the piece is a success. Sometimes asking a question is not really about finding an answer, but about delving deeper into the mystery and basking in its beauty.


What other types of art do you make?
I feel like I have found a tiny universe in the visual translation of scientific data through weaving that I could dwell in for three lifetimes. Right now, I am happily playing in my little puddle, making sculptures and installations. I have noticed of late that my work seems to drift into music and theater again. During my residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, I build an orchestra of sculptures and wall pieces, which allowed me to address the learning process about weather and what it means in an urban environment much more idiosyncratically.

Right: Temporal Warmth: Tango Between Air, Land and Sea, Reed, wood, data, 36”x38”x32”, 2008, Private Collection. Everyday that I go to the beach, I take the temperature of the air, land and sea. This somewhat mundane activity of sticking the thermometer into the sand, water or air, soon became a type of game in which I would try to guess which of these variables would be the warmest. All three have varying efficiencies in storing heat, which articulate themselves over time. This daily dance of temperature became for me the invisible pulse of the place from which to gauge the changes I noticed in the flora and fauna.

My secret other love is theater, which is what I did before I went into visual arts. Like an ex-lover you can’t quite forget, it nags at me from time to time. The stage is one of those venues where I think mysteries and the beauty of unanswered questions can be expressed in both the privacy of the viewer and within the public sphere of an audience. That moment of being on stage after a performance, after everyone has gone, is one of those extreme points of beauty and mystery, of not being able to see, yet sensing something still so tangible, that I wish I could somehow express through my sculptures.

eastern-maine-shelf-buoy jordan-basin-buoy cobscook-bay-buoy

In late summer, Right Whales are often found in large numbers at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. In this piece, which consists of three sculptures, I am translating various ocean and air data to help me understand what ecological conditions exists to entice these whales to congregate in such large numbers in this particular area. Each sculpture translates ocean and air data specific to the topographical location of the buoy in the Gulf of Maine. All buoys for this project are of the Gulf of Maine Observation System (GOMOOS). Local buoy data is also compared to larger, historical climate/weather data sets.

Above Left: Eastern Maine Shelf Buoy, Reed, data, wood, plastic, plaster, 2’x2’x4’, 2008, Private Collection
Above Middle: Jordan Basin Buoy, Reed, data, wood, plastic, plaster, 2’x2’x5’, 2008, Private Collection
Above Right: Cobscook Bay Buoy, Reed, data, wood, plastic, plaster, 2’x2’x7’, 2008, Private Collection

Artist Statement
My work focuses on the intersection of art and science and the visual articulation of scientific observations or theories. Using the methodologies and processes of both disciplines, I translate scientific data related to physics, astronomy, oceanography and/or climate change into three-dimensional structures. My method of translation is principally that of weaving – in particular basket weaving – as it provides me with a simple yet highly effective grid through which to interpret data in three-dimensional space. The data I use is a combination of my own, which I gather on a daily basis using low-tech data-collecting devices that extract weather data from a specific environment, as well as regional or global data from the internet. By staying true to the numbers, these woven pieces tread an uneasy divide between functioning both as sculptures in space as well as navigational instruments that could be used in the actual environment from which the data originates.

Central to this work is my desire to explore the role visual aesthetics play in translation of science information. By utilizing artistic processes and everyday materials, I am questioning and expanding boundaries through which science data has been traditionally visually translated (ex: graphs, diagrams), while at the same time provoking expectations of what kind of visual vocabulary is considered to be in the domain of ‘science’ or ‘art’.

For the past 2 years, my work I have been working on a project called “Recording and Translating Climate Change on Cape Cod”, which focuses on collecting weather data from a specific place, Herring Cove Beach, over a 14 month long period. The data is collected from the water, air and the coastal environment. These numbers, combined with my own daily observations, led to the series of sculptures I have send you images of. All of these pieces look at the complexity of interactions and relationships between air, land and water that make up weather. The purpose of this work is to gain a better understanding of weather and ultimately what it means to live in an age of human-induced climate change.

What Do You Think?