by Ken Goldberg, Sanjay Krishnan, Fernanda Viégas, Martin Wattenberg. Text by JoAnne Northrup.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of JoAnne Northrup’s essay on “Bloom” from our Summer 2015 issue.
Most Californians aged thirty or older can tell you where they were and what they were doing when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hit. I had just started graduate school at the University of Southern California, and I remember calling a friend in San Francisco while the quake was still underway. She described her immediate experience of undulating streets and sidewalks, surfing the seismic waves, and struggling to stay upright. The catastrophic results of the quake included loss of human life and the collapse of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland. How on earth can a seismic event like this be translated into an experience that, instead of being traumatic and frightening, is life affirming? The artist, roboticist, and University of California, Berkeley, engineering professor Ken Goldberg has been thinking about this for almost twenty years.
In 1997, Goldberg conceived of using a live seismic-data feed to activate an artwork he called mementomori. He met with colleagues at the UC Berkeley Seismological Lab to request access to the seismometer that continuously measures the Earth’s motion on the Hayward Fault. After a series of conversations in which he assured them he would respect the data, they agreed. With an economy of means and in monochrome, Goldberg transformed the seismic data into a live display that resembles the readings of an electrocardiogram—in essence, the data represents the beating and dynamic shifts of the Earth’s heart. There are emotional memories connected to such an interface—sitting with a loved one at the hospital, watching the trace go up and down measuring the heart’s electrical activity. These are not necessarily happy memories. The title of the work is derived from the Latin phrase meaning, “Remember that you will die.” In art history, a memento mori is an artwork designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the shortness and fragility of human life.
One year later Goldberg collaborated with Randall Packer, Gregory Kuhn, and Wojciech Matusik to create Mori, a live acoustic installation based on the seismic data source. Commissioned by the InterCommunications Center in Tokyo, Mori appeared in that institution’s 1999 Biennale. The seismometer captured the movements of the Hayward Fault and converted these readings into digital signals transmitted continuously via the Internet to an acoustic installation. That installation was then included in an Independent Curators International exhibit that traveled to six galleries and museums across the United States.
I experienced this installation when it was on view in 2001 at the Walter and McBean Galleries at the San Francisco Art Institute. I remember being in the gallery, walking up a curved ramp into a darkened enclosure, and looking over a railing onto a screen that broadcast a visual representation of the seismic activity. Lying on my back in the space, I felt as though I had ventured into the Earth’s womb and was able to experience tectonic shifts as they occurred in real time, translated into rumbling sound waves. Composer Packer used natural sounds like thunder, lightning, and waterfalls to covey the story, with speakers mounted right underneath the floor so that you could feel the sound in your bones. The installation provided a compelling ambient experience, but also it conveyed a hint of threat. After all, it’s very groovy to take part in an immersive art installation, but this one pointed out the real consequences of living in a state where earthquakes were an accepted part of everyday life. What if the Big One hit while you were inside Mori? The dark viewpoint at the foundation of Mori was perceived by critic Reena Jana of Artforum who wrote, “The fragility of life is one theme sounded by this disturbing, meditative work.”
In 2006, to mark the centenary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Goldberg collaborated with Muriel Maffre, a principal dancer in the San Francisco Ballet, to create a third variation in this series of artworks. It was performed on 4 April 2006 at the War Memorial Opera House one hundred years after the 1906 earthquake. The score was composed for Mori by Packer, triggered by real-time seismic data. Maffre improvised, as no one could predict the precise sound in advance.
All three of the works in this series: mementomori, Mori, and Ballet Mori share associations of memento mori: warning, rebuke, reminder of mortality, monochrome, the grave, death, and decay. Goldberg described the mood by quoting Shemp from the Three Stooges, “The morbid, the merrier.”
Bloom incorporates the same seismic data as the precedents. The mood of the piece was decidedly upbeat, exuberant, colorful and playful—replacing pessimism with optimism. The blooms resemble the representations of earthquake magnitude found on maps.