Email interview with Semiconductor conducted by N. Elizabeth Schlatter, curator, November 2012

Within the context of this exhibition your work 20Hz seems to be a direct visualization of the flow of energy, although it is not exactly a smooth flow, more like a vibrating sequence of patterns. The video “depicts” a geomagnetic storm, solar wind creating a temporary disturbance in the earth’s magnetosphere. How were the images in 20Hz derived? Did you have an idea of what kinds of forms and movement you wanted to include? 

We knew we wanted to create a different way of representing a waveform, beyond a single undulating line. We had been looking at interference patterns and ways these are captured for inspiration, and the aesthetic grew from the technologies used to do this. We were also thinking of electron microscopy. The developmental phase of a work like this is very lengthy as we don’t depend on the software for the visual representation but want to develop our own visual language, so there’s a lot of time consuming experimenting. We worked in 3D software and programmed it to take the sound and directly generate these kinetic sculptures.

I read that you worked with a scientist already involved with turning the data from CARISMA (Canadian Array for Realtime Investigations of Magnetic Activity) into audio. So how did the soundtrack to 20Hz emerge from that? Did you remix/interpret/sculpt what was given to you? Or did you wholly create the sound from the data?

We worked closely with the scientist Andy Kale to process the sound. The nature of the data means it has to be up-sampled to bring the frequency into our audible range but there’s different ways this could be done so we spent time to-ing and fro-ing with him to get what we wanted. So what you hear is the raw data as sound but we then created a composition with the sounds to allow for a kind of narrative to emerge. We did this scene by scene before the animation was generated so we could control the flow of the piece. If we were to leave the data raw the piece would have quite a different rhythm without much action for long periods, this may lend itself well to an installation work but we knew we wanted to make a short moving image piece.

Along those same lines, is it correct to say that there is translation (or maybe transformation is a better word?), going on with this piece, that is, magnetic forces and energy transfers turned into (or emitting) sound, and sound turned into visual shape and movement in your piece. And then, in the viewer’s experience, transforming the sound into a comprehension or concept of what a geomagnetic storm is. Is this kind of fluid transmission of data/ideas of the physical world into an experience for the viewer relevant to your work? If so, how does it motivate you in terms of choosing projects? 

Our work is very much about creating first person experiences for the viewer and questioning how we experience the physical world through the language of science. When we work in this way, directly translating scientific data which is representing something beyond the limits of our perception, it isn’t to try and create a realistic interpretation of what form the matter takes but to re-interpret the data to, on the one hand to create a new experience that becomes a humbling and even phenomenal visualisation and on the other hand to question how science mediates our experiences of the physical world. A solar physicist once said to us “science is a human invention it’s nature that’s real,” and we like to probe the boundaries of the science, its language and philosophies and ultimately question our place in the physical world.

What is it about the “secret lives” of invisible magnetic fields that intrigue you? Or is it more that you’re interested in all things solar? Why do you want to visualize a force or a movement that most of us are unaware of?

It’s a way to speculate about what science tells us about the physical world that exists beyond our senses. We’re interested in the material nature of these things, as a painter is interested in the material nature of paint say or a sculptor his material. This invisible matter has become our medium via the tools and processes of science. It’s the signature of these tools that we are really seeing in our work not the matter itself, but the way man has invented the language of science. We like how this is so self referential, that we think we are ‘seeing’ the sun or ‘seeing’ the magnetic field lines but we are really only being reminded about the presence of the human as observer.

20Hz looks old by which I mean, it’s in black and white, the imagery is fuzzy, and that fuzziness is present also in the sound. It is reminiscent of a science movie from the 1950s. And this then makes the video seem somewhat more authentic or authoritative. Was that intentional?

We referenced some scientific techniques that are used to observe the invisible world and adopted shallow depth of field and particular qualities such as the black and white and the amount of detail so that it feels like you are witnessing these events for real through the technology of man. It’s not a device to try and trick people into thinking it is the actual Earth’s boundary but to raise questions about the validity of scientific endeavor compared to our everyday experiences of the natural physical world.

Regarding the psychological concept of “flow,” I wondered if you might talk about your creative process as an artistic team and if you ever find yourself in a state of creative flow together or separately? When/if that does happen, does it occur at various stages throughout the making of a work?

We can each take on different roles during the making of an artwork, but we tend to jointly develop the work through intensive periods of brainstorming and experimenting being wholly focused on realising the work. It does tend to take over everything else in life. The flow as mentioned here sounds like a continuous state of being arising from one activity though, there are a lot of elements that go into making an artwork like this and this state can occur through the different stages, the research, sound development, conversations not just what would be considered the actual making of the work in the same way if you were drawing or painting. There are a lot of interruptions and technical difficulties when working with CG animation, but I guess you do need this sense of ‘flow’ to see you through as it’s a very time consuming and labour intensive process. In this sense the final vision is very important and I guess the determination and motivation to get there could be this ‘flow’.

20Hz was co-commissioned by Arts Santa Monica + Lighthouse. Supported by the British Council. Commissioned for the Invisible Fields Exhibition at Arts Santa Monica, Barcelona. 2011-2012  Audio Data courtesy of CARISMA, operated by the University of Alberta, funded by the Canadian Space Agency. 

20 Hz from Semiconductor on Vimeo.


UK artists Ruth Jarman (British, born 1973) and Joe Gerhardt (British, born 1972) founded Semiconductor in 1997. Their fellowships include the NASA Space Science Fellowship 2005 and Smithsonian Artists’ Research Fellowship 2010. Their installations have won them awards that include Best Film at the Cutting Edge from the British Animation Awards 2008, Nature Magazine’s Scientific Merit Award 2009 and Samsung Art Prize 2012, and have been shown at venues such as the Royal Academy of Arts, London (2009), the Exploratorium, San Francisco (2009), and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (2012). Works influenced by their Galápagos residency were presented in their exhibition “Worlds in the Making” at FACT, Liverpool (2011). 

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