Massive Undertakings: Almost Scientific Interviewed by SyFy

While we wish they’d drop the Y and return to using an I, we’re honored to be featured in the SyFy channel blog Idea Lab.

Any interview where I get to ponder the awesomeness of Batman’s machine shop is a good one.

I’ve clipped out all the great media they used (you can find all that on the various project pages) but pasted the text of the interview below.


You’re a Stanford man, a smart fellow, a real scientist of sorts. Why do you choose to create things in the realm of the *almost* scientific? Why not become a regular lab coat guy instead?

Why did I decide to take all my scientific training and become an artist rather then a scientist? One part of it was looking for a new challenge. I realized that at the end of my life I’d probably be happier if I looked back at my life and saw a great breadth of experiences. This encouraged me to leave science because the longer you sped in science the more your world narrows and deepens. In art I saw the opposite.

Another reason I left the scientific for the Almost Scientific was so I could work more actively and creatively with the physical world. I got interested in science because I was really fascinated by understand how the physical world works. But in science you quickly leave the physical world behind for a world of abstraction. Sure, I ran physical experiments, but then I would spend many more hours, on my ass, in front of a computer, manipulating data.

I realized science started with the physical, concrete phenomena and then generates abstractions that communicate them. But what art is really about is starting with the abstractions and generating physical, specific phenomena capable of communicating them.

At the end of the day, it was more satisfying to start off with the abstraction I wanted to communicate, and to create something physical that was imbued with that idea. In my mind, this made me more an artist then a scientist.

Also, I never looked as good in a lab coat as I do in my dirty shop clothing.

How do “real” science and the imagination interrelate in your work?

Real science and imagination are interleaved in my work in various ways on different projects. For example on the Dihemispheric Chronoaether Agitator, which was commissioned to be a “steampunk time machine,” I approached the design from a scientific perspective, imagining it was a real scientific instrument that was really capable of traveling through time. Each part I created had a function related to how this device would work and what it was doing. So even though it was all made up, there was a rationale for why various parts were placed where. And even though nobody would ever know or ask about individual parts, in my mind they all had a logic to them that allowed me to view it as a scientific object.

Every time I showed it people would ask “Does it work?” And I would say, “Well yeah, of course, it’s a real time machine. It travels forward through time at exactly 1 SPS.” When people asked what an SPS was I say, “second per second.”

Further along in the scientifically informed direction is another work I did called The Neuron Chamber. It was much more rooted in science. I wanted to take my understanding of neurobiology, specifically the morphology of neurons and how they generate these voltage signals called action potentials to communicate, and create a sculpture that would communicate all this.

So on that piece, the science was informing my work a lot more directly. As an example, I wanted the look of neurons in the sculpture to be directly informed by science. I had been unsatisfied with the way neurobiology is represented sculpturally or graphically. Usually neurons are depicted as very smooth and sleek. But really they’re these gnarly, twisted, ugly, lumpy, bumpy things.

Further along the line of using science is the Uira Engine, which is in a lot of ways just as much a scientific experiment as it was a sculpture.There, I was collaborating directly with a scientist University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He does high-voltage research, and we started talking about this effect he was playing with called a dielectric barrier discharge, which is a way to draw lightning on the surface of an object, and I became really interested in this as a sculptural element.

I, using my science background, was able to work with him to create a system that would allow us to test some of the ideas we were talking about, to see, for example, the effects of a vacuum, to see what different effects materials had on it. But I did it in a way that allowed me to make a sculpture out of it.

So that one was a little more mad-science-y. It was taking this effect that wasn’t really fully understood and making a sculpture that would be beautiful and interesting but that would also serve as a platform for understanding this effect a little bit better.

The way that science and imagination interact in my work ebbs and flows, and that’s one of the things I like most about my work. It’s not strictly rooted in science or strictly in the world of pure imagination; it’s able to flow back and forth, and I’m able to include as much science or as little science as makes sense for the piece.

What’s the most important thing that science and the scientific method have brought to your life and work?

I think being trained as a scientist, is probably the most valuable thing I have.

A lot of people think what you learn as a scientist is a lot of facts and procedures. While you do learn a lot of facts and procedures, what you learn that’s more valuable is how to think about things scientifically, how to approach things scientifically, and how to design experiments that ask and answer the most important questions. So science has given me a set of tools for thinking about complex problems and thinking about situations that I use every day.

It’s also taught me how to complete large projects and tackle large questions, by break things down into components and figuring out what order to do things in.

Executing a scientific project from conceptualization, through experimental design, experimental execution, analysis, and publication, is a huge effort, and it takes a lot of work. And creating works of art is very similar in that there’s a conception phase, there’s a design phase, there’s a fabrication phase, and there’s a showing phase. Both are massive undertakings, and you have to persevere through the whole thing. Working in science has really shown me that even at those darkest hours when you think it’s not going to work, or it’s not working, or you think no one is going to care, or nobody does care, that you just push through, and ultimately your hard work will usually be rewarded.

Choose one scientifically enhanced superpower: invisibility, eternal life, or the ability to shoot lightning bolts out of your fingertips at will, or …?

As far as what superpowers I’d want goes, I think I’ve always wanted the powers that Forge (from the X-Men) had. He had this ability to look at mechanical devices, fully understand them and create new mechanical devices that he didn’t even understand. From the point of view of the type of art I produce, that would be really handy.

To be able to look at an ATM machine and instantly know how to rebuild it to be like a giant robotic panda that dispensed red slushy, and could fold my laundry. I think that would be handy.

You can’t go wrong with Magneto and the ability to control the electromagnetic spectrum. I’d make red look more green. I’ve always thought that the ability to control the electromagnetic spectrum pretty much makes you God. And there were so many things that I always imagined Magneto could do with his powers that he never really did. I’d be such a better Magneto, I’d probably be nicer too. And I love the purple consume.

Of course I’d settle for just being Batman. His ride is so much sweeter then mine. And I bet he’s got a bitching machine shop in the bat cave.

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