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Art and Science: A Work in Progress

By Alissa M D'gama, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard’s campus is no stranger to musical performances, but it has yet to play host to a piece that uses the human body as its score—at least, until the unveiling this Sunday of the Gigue project, which uses computer programs to measure and transform a person’s heartbeat into music.

“The interactive experiences causes the audience member to become the performer,” says creator Yi Wei ’10. “It’s a twisting between performer and audience member and also science and art.”

With the unrolling of “The Laboratory at Harvard” this Sunday, Wei won’t stand alone in trying to bridge disciplinary divides. As part of a growing academic effort to find points of overlap between art and science, Harvard is launching the three-year venture in the Northwest Science Building as a home for projects at the nexus of the two fields.

Laboratory at Harvard founder David A. Edwards has been a leader for the burgeoning movement, authoring a book called “Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation” that touts the growing body of research as a way to reverse a worrisome trend toward tunnel vision in academic disciplines.

By driving the two disciplines together, he says he hopes to foster a culture of creative innovation often lost amid the strictures of the academic world.

“The very phenomena or processes instinctive to a five-year old child that are key to how that child learns has been driven out of our institutions,” says Edwards. “We need to create sandboxes in our institutions that allow us to be children again in the sense that we are encouraged to move from one corner of the sandbox and not have to justify why we go from one corner to another.”

FROM DREAM TO REALITY

After then-Engineering School Dean Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti recruited Edwards to the faculty of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences with the hope of integrating his entrepreneurial nature into the undergraduate curriculum, they decided to expand more broadly “because innovation and creative people are there in every field,” says Venky. “They are there in arts, the social sciences, and engineering.”

The idea evolved into Edward’s popular class Engineering Sciences 147, “Idea Translation: Effecting Change through the Arts and Sciences.”

“Now I think it has come to a stage where we should really make it somewhat more public,” says Venky, who is also a member of The Laboratory’s Executive Committee. “Hopefully, The Laboratory will really have some strong positive impact on not only our undergrads, but more broadly on society.”

The Laboratory is a collaborative effort between SEAS, the Provost’s Office, the Graduate School of Design, the American Repertory Theater, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Idea Translation Lab, and Le Laboratoire, an art and design center in Paris.

This collaboration between art and science institutions is just one way The Laboratory hopes to bring together the often separate—but in many ways, proponents say, quite similar—disciplines.

“Both in arts and science the concepts of creativity, innovation, research, exploration, and discovery are essential, says Lori E. Gross, the associate provost for arts and culture and a member of the Laboratory Executive Committee. “Artists and scientists actually understand each other very well because they’re involved in this concept of making and researching.”

Gross, Edwards, and Venky all say they hope The Laboratory will serve as a place for students to work together and spark new ideas.

“When you make things, you tend to work more collaboratively and that is very important to the Harvard undergrad spirit,” Gross says.

Edwards says he hopes the lab can inspire students to set into motion ideas that have a cultural value.

“We’re interested in students developing ideas and being able to imagine bringing them all the way to fruition,” Edwards says. “We want to give them as many resources as we can to help that idea go as far as it can.”

FROM IDEA TO PRODUCT

Sunday’s opening celebration for The Laboratory will feature exhibitions by current Harvard undergraduates, ranging from a new way to transport water to a program that translates heart beats into music to a way of making electricity from bacteria in dirt.

When Michael P. Silvestri ’10 saw the difficulty women and children in third-world countries like Namibia had transporting and purifying water with existing resources, he and a team of students developed a new container that was both easy to transport and economically feasible.

“Basically our idea is a portable, collapsible, rugged-use water purification and transportation device that models the form and function of a biological cell,” says Silvestri.

George Zisiadis ‘11 took his project in a different direction, creating Streetview, a new way of experiencing public space.

“It’s an experience via the lives of strangers,” says Zisiadis. “What that means is that people’s memories and experiences within a space are recorded and captured and then people can listen to those memories that people have had in that space by walking around.”

His demo on Sunday will feature an iPhone with a map of Harvard Yard and a block representing a person. Audience members can drag the block around and simulate walking though the yard while experiencing the changing things they would hear if they were actually walking from Memorial Church to Widener Library.

Wei based her Gigue music project off a study done at the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which found that healthy hearts literally sound more musical than unhealthy ones. She says she hopes to expand the program to measure more than just heart rate.

“I took that idea and ran with it,” Wei said. “Basically Gigue is an interactive musical experience where music is derived in real time through the senses of our body. I wanted to track people’s biorhythms, like heart rate or gait, in real time, and convert that into music.”

Wei collaborated with programmers who are also musicians to set up her exhibition, which will allow audience members to see their heart rate converted into a melody.

Just like the space in which The Laboratory is being created, these student projects are a still under development.

“The idea of the space is to showcase process,” says W. Hugo Van Vuuren ‘07, a Fellow at SEAS, who will be helping to start up The Laboratory at Harvard. “The space itself is a work in progress. The space is in beta—modular and always evolving.”

—Staff writer Alissa M. D’Gama can be reached at adgama@fas.harvard.edu.

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