An Interview with Timothy Weaver
This week, I have the pleasure of presenting a conversation with friend, colleague and mentor, Timothy Weaver. We first met during a Pd workshop in Santa Fe, NM in 2004 and became fast friends. Years later he inspired me to return to school to study and teach with him in the Emergent Digital Practices program at the University of Denver. Tim works at the intersection of art, life sciences, technology and live cinema. His installation and live cinema performance works, while they are founded in rigorous investigation and field research, manage to transcend the data and create a richly layered and often sublime sensory experience. As you will see, Max is at the center of much of his process, but there is a lot more going on than patching.
Hi Tim, thanks for taking the time to sit down with us and talk about your work. Before we dig into what you are up to now, can you tell us a little bit about how you came to new media through your previous life as a biologist?
It is always great to connect with you Cory! We miss you in the EDP cohort at DU and having your physical presence over on the Front Range.
As you mentioned, my process as a biomedia artist relies on my cumulative knowledge base as a microbial ecologist and bioenvironmental engineer, among other academic and professional encounters. My first professional pursuits out of engineering grad school at Purdue were investigating extreme microbial environments and how the biosphere and the human condition might benefit from accelerating biodegradation of toxic chemicals that humans unconsciously emit into the ecosphere. I spent time on the East and South Coasts investigating and patenting environmental bioprocesses, and eventually ended up in Boulder working for a biotech startup and doing environmental work in Colorado. After a misfire in biotech (Hooray for the biotech world!!) I went on to an MFA in Sculpture and Installation Art at CU-Boulder, a Fulbright in Ecuador followed by stints in 3D (CAD, CAM and animation) and web3D software development, where I encountered new processes to creatively express what I had been concerned with as a scientist. After teaching Creative Programming in Sweden, I ended up at a welcome homebase as a Professor in Digital Media Studies & eMAD at University of Denver with my present brilliant colleagues into what has coalesced into the Emergent Digital Practices (EDP) Program. These are all the rational professional nodes, but the inspirations came from long travels in the Himalayas and Central and South America in between. Phew!! Yes very surreptitious, but such a good ride.
Great, thanks for the overview. How do these two worlds tie together for you? Would you say that your move to making art was to escape from the science world or was it to address some aspect of the inquiry that you weren’t able to do while working within the field?
As an artist, I have explored a range of projects whose common thread has been to investigate the fragility and persistence of lifeforms at the common interfaces of vulnerability – whether from the pressures of human induced extinction or the origins of life and the microbiome in deep sea thermal vents. As an artist-scientist, my wish is to introduce new sensoria – sonically, visually, physically, and/or spatially, and so on – for the convergent unraveling of ecological/biological complexities and poetics. Through the seeding of new sensoria to audiences, I am attempting to sustain the human tie to the wonders of the natural world.
My creative process, pursuits and engagement as an artist are essentially the same today as they were in the 1990’s during my career as a ecological scientist and engineer. What has shifted is the means of disseminating and facilitating outcomes, dialogue, and the bridge for content and consciousness-raising with respect to broadening a purely scientific white-paper approach into the immateriality, venues and global networks of new media.
On your webpage you say that your “concerted objective is to contribute to the restoration of ecological memory through a process of speculative inquiry along the art | science interface.” Can you unpack that for us? I’m particularly interested to know what you mean by ecological memory and speculative inquiry. Could you walk us through how you address these issues in the context of some of your installation and/or performance works?
Ecological memory can be defined as the network of species, their interactions in space and time, and includes its life-history experience with environmental change. A loss of ecological memory has been linked to the loss of perception of place and the associated loss of cosmology. The grounding of ecological memory is the critical anchor point to our residence on earth. At the present time, contemporary encounters and testimonials with non-human and human life forms are on new narrative ground – shifting from the first person encounters with iconic mega and bio-fauna in our biological space/territory of the past to now locating our biological and ecological relationships as distances between genetic or biochemical data forms.
For example, what is the experiential distance between facing a polar bear on the arctic tundra and interacting with 16S rRNA data of that species’ microbiome? How do we evaluate the fate of that iconic being in this new data space? Both of these are vestiges of ecological memory, but the differ radically in terms of spatial narrative, experience and meaning.
Experimenting with the data forms of digital and synthetic biology requires literacy with basic scientific principles together with an understanding of the highly specific forms of expression in biological and ecological systems. In my creative work and as a Professor in EDP at DU I am bringing together the public, students and professionals – artists and scientists – to investigate these issues more deeply together through immersive experience and speculative inquiry… postulating what could be through digital bio/ecological data and media resources.
Speculative inquiry is high risk, but it is needed to arrive at new language and a grasp of the possibilities. We have such great nondestructive tools in the digital realm (no lifeforms or environments are sacrificed in our models) to broaden the dialogue and the ecological imaginary. An essential part of the critique remains in the form of what we do accomplish through the speculative and the experience of simulacra.
And what do you think we might accomplish through the speculative? How might the “ecological imaginary” effect ecology?
My process uses a firm scientific platform as a point of departure for speculative exploration into the “ecological imaginary”. I find that by identifying a solid scientific platform, a speculative dialogue can be inclusive of both scientific and creative anchor points. The synergy of transdisciplinary exchange for a broader realm of possibilities can be undertaken by retracing a speculative line of inquiry as a narrative framework (linear or nonlinear). This establishes trust to relationships of the imagination and a storyweb for how far we can speculate together – and, most importantly, how far we can imagine and undertake the critical solutions/perspectives/actions that must come about for a coexistence of our residence on earth and survival on the planet in balance and regard to other lifeforms and ecologies.
Another area I know you are invested in is creating unique control interfaces for manipulating your audio and visual materials live. What are some of these interfaces and what do they add to the dialog for you as performer and for the audience/participants?
Expanding beyond the screen and the reinforcement of experience through physical cognition opens up new channels for content realizations and irony (if that is a part of the target). I have been working with a number of control interfaces that bring into play physical interaction and – sometimes – the suspension of disbelief. It’s a super fun place to work, and it’s incredibly applicable to relaying content to an audience.
In my recent projects, I have been working from the extinct species archive at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. I have directly scanned a number of iconic extinct North American bird specimens – including the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet, the Imperial Woodpecker and the Eskimo Curlew, among others. I have also been working with lost insect specimens, such as the Rocky Mountain Locust from the melting glaciers of Wyoming. These species all became extinct under the human hand of the 19th & 20th centuries. I have been printing high resolution imagery as digital prints on paper of these scans and historic engravings on a variety of scales – from 2’ X 3’ on the small end to 12’ X 12’ for room sized installation format. I have been using the smaller prints in backlit light boxes as electronic performance control interfaces. On these prints I draw over wing and body form of the birds and insects with graphite – essentially making a graphite circuit on the surface. Thru a wireless Max and Arduino-based interface (I call the probeDuino), I can channel and modify video and audio signal through the form during live cinema performance – essentially reuniting transcoded protein sounds and data with the lost organism’s form.
My favorite comment on using this control system for the re-animation of an extinct specimen is that it is electronic witchcraft(!??).
I also have been developing new interfaces from a combination of 3D ceramic printing of biological forms (modeled in Blender and then printed on our DIY clay/porcelain printers in EDP and DU Ceramics). Once glazed and fired, these forms can be interacted with for audio and/or video performance via a connection of the final conductive glaze to a capacitive touch-sensor breakout board and then routed back to Max (Sorry to geek out there!).
I am currently expanding these control bases for manipulations in spatial sound/Ambisonic environments for an audience’s spatiotemporal experiences, and in developing performance and installation work. Max again is the platform and the collaborative bridge for building/sharing in these experimental spaces thru novel control devices and populating sound objects, database/data matrices, network flows and interactivity. Opening up transdisciplinary sharing of ecoinformatic-to-sound transcodings in these spaces gives us new sensorial ground between artists and scientists as data becomes available from the extremes of the deep biosphere and the mesopelagic ocean.
Speaking of Max, how does it fit into your workflow?
Max has been my go-to toolbox and patching environment for connecting transdisciplinary networks of data streams/sources, media forms, interactive installation design, performance, sensing and the invention of new devices for content delivery. The bio- and eco-informatic data sources I work from can be from my field sampling, from sources shared from collaborating scientists or from open source public databases based in the US, Europe or Asia. Initially my projects build up a sonic or visual foundation that is transcoded from proteomic and/or genomic information – i.e. protein or DNA/genetic sequence data is converted to sonic/visual sequence through Max/MSP programming. I spent a number of years composing media (sonic and video) as works or sound objects from the genomes and/or expressed proteins of extinct or endangered species – specifically, species that were lost to the human hand in the 19th & 20th centuries – and conceivably species that our great grandparents could have seen daily and now we will never witness. This process gives me both a scientific transcoding platform to think and listen through as I further explore immersive content that I need to witness and acquire.
Tangential to my studio work, each of my projects emcompasses the act of site-specific witnessing the current state of the environment of the species that has been lost or is endangered. For example, for the work Hylaea:Alcidae (2012/15) I conducted field recording over a number of years in Newfoundland and southwest Iceland as environmental witnessing of the lost environment and former nesting grounds of the Great Auk that was hunted into extinction in the 19th century. The sonic foundation of the work was built from a Great Auk genome and protein sequencing project conducted by Norwegian scientists.
For the work Biological Narrative #8:manuMindo (2008/10), field research, audio, and video recording was conducted in the northern Ecuadorian Andes/Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, the Peruvian Andes, the Manu Biosphere Reserve and the Madre Dios and Manu Rivers/watersheds of Peru as witness to the downstream impact from equatorial glacial recession. The sonic foundation of this project was built on transcodings from human cryptochrome proteins – the proteins that are central to our biological clocks, perception of light and navigation- all conceptually central to human exploration and expansion on the planet.
From these media resources, I typically follow with the development of a performance/live cinema version or – as I call it – “afterlife” cinema. This, then, gives me a staging for understanding/experimenting with interactivity and building evolving versions of the work for interactive installation and audience interactions. I use Max to facilitate all of this content, connections and interactions.
My latest projects are not only using Max for creative transcoding, effects and interactivity but my collaborators and myself are building toolkits for sampling, assessing and preserving endangered acoustic ecologies and environments that eventually will be made available as a Max package for artists and citizen scientists – so my projects are building science toolkits as well as creative media tools and teaching tools. For patching together my transdisciplinary projects, Max is the toolkit for the creative and scientific imagination. With evolving features, it just keeps getting better – in that I can expand on the Max or shared package base or build out custom biomedia tools for collaboration, for myself and/or for teaching and outreach.
As a Professor in DU’s Emergent Digital Practices Program, I integrate patching and patch teaching modules into exploration of transcoding, interactions, sensing, devices, networks and installation into my courses in Systems, Interactive Art, Sustainable Design and Biomedia. For expanded outreach, I facilitate Max patching workshops for bio- and eco-informatic transcoding as part of my Visiting Artist gigs. One of these recent workshop was conducted as part of the cultural program of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 20) in Lima, Peru thru Fundacion Telefonica for Peruvian new media artists and environmental scientists. This workshop provided creative expression options for developing new modes of environmental consciousness to one of the bioregions that is currently most impacted by global climate change.
Wow. I feel like there’s already a lot to chew on, but before I let you go, what are you researching or working on now that is the most exciting to you?
Over the past year I have been expanding my Art-Science investigations where creative and scientific sensibilities can result in new ways of knowing and enable the emergence of novel approaches to creative inquiry where art and science are on equal footing for research. Art can inform science and science can inform art. With the current immersion in complex data, finding our way in the saturated drift that characterizes the digital world we must explore the possibilities of new sensoria to elucidate meaning and compose and configure accessible and novel interpretations.
The two projects that I am currently balancing and enjoying are global in scope and are once again witnessing extensively in the field while developing in the studio.
A New Media Investigation into the Migrations and Movements of Cetaceans is an investigation into creative forms of digital/electronic media that can successfully broaden the dialogue into the survival and preservation of animal migrations and movements. The project is observing recording and tracking two Cetacean (whale and dolphin) journeys, migrations and movements on multiple scales to expand the bio-historical expression of migrations and human-animal interactions through the voice(s) of new media. The project’s coastal segment has been following the longest reported mammalian migration on earth (12,000 miles) of the Eastern Pacific Gray Whale. The fieldwork in the breeding/calving grounds of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve in Mexico will begin this February/March, and follow additional segments to the open sea in Sitka Sound, Alaska. This migratory tracking will also take into account documented deep sea whalefalls on the migratory route where whales have died and fallen to the ocean floor during their journeys. Whalefall microbiome data is being transcoded to sonifications from databases established by MBARI in Moss Landing, CA. as representations of the afterlife.
In tandem to coastal work, field work and recording has been undertaken in the mainstem of the Peruvian Amazon (Loreto Province) in observing the survival status of the Amazon Pink River Dolphin (boto) that is currently under duress from hunting and exploitation as catfish bait in Peru and Brazil. The boto is a freshwater dolphin that evolved independently of salt water Cetacea. In the past and in indigenous cultures, the boto has been protected by its assumed supernatural and mythological status. Colonization in the Amazon has eroded this protection as the supernatural beliefs in the species have faded from ecological memory. This project is being supported by a DU Professional Research Opportunities for Faculty Grant.
Project ECAT – An EcoAcoustic Toolkit for research and the advancement of scientific and creative literacy in ecology – is a project collaboration between the University of Denver Emergent Digital Practices Program and CCRMA (the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University). My collaborator from CCRMA is the visionary composer Jonathan Berger, who also has a deeply established process in art-science investigations with his neurocognition and music studies. Project ECAT is supported by the National Academy of Sciences Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI). NAKFI is a futures initiative aimed at breaking open high-risk & new ways of collaboration and knowing in the sciences. 2015-16 is the first time NAKFI has paired scientists and artists together in their collectives. The EcoAcousticToolkit (ECAT) will expand the scope of ecoacoustic research providing sonic software and hardware tools integrating sonification and auralization of endangered environments to enhance literacy and awareness of fragile and endangered acoustic ecologies.
This is a 2-year project and we have already undertaken field recordings in the Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California, Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Communal Reserve in the mainstem of the Peruvian Amazon, the Abra Patricia Cloud Forest in northern Peru, plus sites here in the Colorado Rockies. While I am covering field work of endangered canopy forests in North and South America, Jonathan is in creative space on a Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome and a Guggenheim Fellowship. For Project ECAT, he is currently exploring the last ancient forests that survived the Roman Empire. You can find more info on Project ECAT here.
Thanks again for this opportunity to get all of this out, Cory. Hope we see each other over on your side of the Divide soon!
Thank you, Tim. It’s always a treat to hear about your research and to get your perspective. Perhaps when your ECAT project gets a little further along we’ll have a chance to hear more…
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