LASER: The Fragmented Orchestra
Vishnu Varma discusses the Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous, looking at the intersect between art and science and what happens when the two meet.
In February, I attended the 7th London LASER (Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous) talks, which is an evening of talks given by a few guest speakers working at the intersections of art, science and technology. The event itself was enjoyable, with a crowd that was more than willing to discuss the talks during the intervals. There was one talk however, that really caught my attention. More specifically, one example, ‘The Fragmented Orchestra’ that was mentioned in a talk by Dr Timothy J Senior, a scholar in neuroscience and an artist. His talk was based around the collaboration between the sciences, arts and humanities in order to understand complex systems in sciences such as analysing brain activity and understanding mental illnesses. The main idea behind the talk was that when it comes to investigating complex systems, the sciences should consult the arts and humanities as things start to become too complex to emulate accurately using conventional scientific methods as we know them today.
‘The Fragmented Orchestra’ was a great example of the idea Dr Senior was trying to convey. ‘The Fragmented Orchestra’ was a large distributed musical structure that was installed across the UK between December 2008 and February 2009. The structure connected 24 public sites across the UK (from playgrounds to art galleries) and was as much a musical piece as much as a simplified model of the neuronal structure of the human brain, centred in Liverpool’s FACT(Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) gallery. Each of the sites had a sound-box installed which streamed sounds from the sites to one of the 24 speakers in FACT. Like an actual human neuron, these ‘neurons’ only fired when it received over a minimum amount of stimulus, or in this case, sound, causing a fragment of sound to be relayed to the FACT gallery. Although the structure was essentially an incredibly small cortex with of just 24 ‘neurons’, it was still large enough to achieve a good amount of complexity.
As an art piece, ‘The Fragmented Orchestra’ transcends the common use of metaphors to convey its intention, and instead used science and technology to become an actual representation of how the human brain processes sound. By adapting mathematical models of biological neuronal networks developed by computational neuroscientists, the structure could emulate enough complexity to allow the system to ‘learn’ how to respond to new patterns of sound input over time.
Without having had the chance to listen to it myself, I still believe that ‘The Fragmented Orchestra’ deserved its PRSF New Music Awards victory in 2008 as it was undoubtedly an amazing collaboration between disciplines. However, thinking back to the aim of Dr Timothy Senior’s talk, the structure seemed to be an amazing piece of art created using the sciences, but I couldn’t find any clear indication that this project benefitted the development of the sciences as he had suggested it would. Even so, the project still makes you stop and think. And, for me, any work of art that makes you stop and think is a successful one. Any work of art that makes you stop and think about science can be nothing but a brilliant collaboration.