Music, sculpture give scientific data new depth

Data are traditionally organized into two-dimensional graphs and charts, but are there other ways for us to access and visualize science? Artist Nathalie Miebach is taking a different approach, translating weather and other data into sculptural and musical form — and, in doing so, blurring the lines between science and art.

Boston Tides

“Boston Tides” (2006) captures data related to the gravitational influence of the sun and moon on tides at Boston Harbor. All images courtesy and copyright of Nathalie Miebach.

Temporal Warmth

“Temporal Warmth: Tango Between Air, Land, and Sea” (2008) translates land and water temperature information from Herring Cove beach on Cape Cod.

Miebach’s work is currently being shown as part of “The Observant Eye” at Beard and Weil Galleries in Norton, MA, and it will also be on display beginning in April at the Cotuit Center for the Arts in Cotuit, MA.

Her method for creating these three-dimensional representations — using basket weaving with natural reeds — may strike some as a bit unusual. She has also begun creating musical scores from data; these scores are then translated into woven sculpture and can also be played by musicians.

“While visualization of data is nothing new, the use of sculpture and musical performance as translation mediums is still somewhat unorthodox,” Miebach said in an interview with Whitney Dail for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Antarctic Surveyor II

“Antarctic Surveyor II” (2008) incorporates moon, sun, and wind data from Antarctica.

Miebach collects basic data herself — measuring things like tide, air and water temperature, and moon phases — and compiles it along with related information from the Internet, such as data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration buoys, for example. For the sculptures, she then maps each data element into a different visual element, essentially translating the information into a three-dimensional form using basket weaving.

“Every colored bead, every colored string represents a weather element,” she explained in a TED talk. “And together these variables not only construct the form, they also reveal behavioral relationships that may not come across through a two-dimensional graph.”

Miebach said she finds weather to be a fascinating subject: “Weather is an amalgam of systems that is inherently invisible to most of us,” she noted. “So I use sculpture and music to make it not just visible, but also tactile and audible.”

Although weather and climate change are her current focus, Miebach has studied other types of phenomena; in fact, it was astronomy that triggered the idea for this work. In 2000, she was taking astronomy classes, and while she enjoyed the subject, she found it frustrating to grasp aspects of time and space when they were presented with a projector in the usual two-dimensional formats.

In the Shadow of a Giant

Detail of “In the Shadow of a Giant” (2013), which reflects wind, temperature, and snow data from the 1978 and 2013 blizzards in New England.

Meanwhile, she was also studying basket weaving with a local artist, and it occurred to her that she could combine the two areas.

“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 to get a more tactile, physical sense of what I was learning about in astronomy,” she told Dail.

Translating scientific data into music is another way of potentially revealing new patterns in the information, in addition to adding a different “level of emotionality” to the work, according to her artist statement. For these works, Miebach translates weather data into musical scores, and from the scores, she creates sculptures.

Musicians can play the original scores, but the sculptures also become unique three-dimensional musical scores. “Every single bead, every single colored band represents a weather element that can also be read as a musical note,” she said in the TED talk. (Audio clips of compositions are available here.)

Hurricane Noel

Sculpture (2010) and accompanying musical score of data from the 2007 passing of Hurricane Noel through the Gulf of Maine.

“What I love about this work is that it challenges our assumptions of what kind of visual vocabulary belongs in the world of art versus science,” she said. For example, a sculpture that can be played as a musical score will be viewed differently depending on its context. In an art museum, it’s a sculpture. In a science museum, it’s a 3D visualization of data. In a music hall, it becomes a musical score, she explained.

Such ways of thinking about and presenting science might also make it more accessible for a broader audience.

“Not everyone has a PhD in science, so for me that was my way into it,” Miebach said.

More information about her work and upcoming events is available at nathaliemiebach.com.


Nicole is an editor and writer living in San Francisco.

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