June 2010

Almost Science, Always Art


Alan Rorie is a neuroscientist by training. These days, however, you’re more likely to find him using an MIG (metal-inert gas) welder to send sparks skimming over a cool slab of metal than peering at glowing monkey neurons through a microscope.

The Dihemispheric Chronaether Agitator from Almost Scientific on Vimeo.

From Neurons to the Neuron Chamber

Not too many years ago, Rorie was a graduate student at Stanford University, investigating the amalgamation of different types of information in the cortexes of macaques during the decision-making process.

Now, Rorie amalgamates metals (and sometimes other materials) into works of art in a process that he calls “almost scientific.” This is also the name of the science and art collaborative that Rorie founded, as well as the name of his website, www.almostscientific.com. The goal of Almost Scientific, the collaborative, is to “educate scientists about art and artists about science” through the creation of art pieces that tend to be quite large, with moving parts.

Rorie always has been intrigued by moving parts— as a child, he says he was “really interested in taking stereos and blenders apart and putting them back together.”  He also loved to read and write stories, which eventually led him to study the humanities in college. But, Rorie began to feel that the true source of being able to understand and appreciate the humanities was rooted biologically, in the brain. “What makes a great painting or symphony really has to do with how you perceive it,” says Rorie, “so I became very interested in the neuroscience of perception.”

By the time Rorie discovered that neuroscience wasn’t yet able to explain how the brain experiences art, he had nonetheless become intrigued. “I was already hooked on just understanding the brain and how it works,” he remembers. To this end, Rorie did a stint at the National Institute of Mental Health, then moved to California for graduate school.

Slowly, however, Rorie began to see that his future was not at the bench. It took a while for him to decide that he wanted to focus on, as he puts it, “art and creative pursuits.” Arriving at this conclusion wasn’t easy, particularly because everyone, including himself, thought of Rorie as a scientist.

The Process of Creation

In his studio in West Oakland, Calif., Rorie creates works with fantastical names: the Raygun Gothic Rocketship, the Triaparator and the Neuron Chamber. This last work is an “electro-kinetic sculpture” that demonstrates what neurons are and what they do. And, yes, it uses electricity: 9,000 volts make for an impressive action potential as they arc, a blinding blue light, down axons made of metal.

The Neuron Chamber at Lightwave in Dublin, Ireland from Almost Scientific on Vimeo.

Rorie not only is interested in teaching nonscientists about neurons— he also would  like them to understand the mechanical workings of the Neuron Chamber. “In the sense [that] I can teach either the scientific content of my sculpture or the physical mechanics of it,” he says, “I am happy to do that.”

Rorie appears to derive a great deal of satisfaction from the design and construction of his work. Because many of his pieces are large and have moving parts, he makes use of engineering techniques— for example, CAD (computer-aided design) programs during the planning process— as well as tools intended for more industrial purposes, such as the MIG welder.

“A lot of the really large-scale pieces that I work on require a tremendous amount of engineering,” says Rorie, “and that is a huge part of the challenge and the fun and the beauty of these pieces.” He seems to revel in the process of creation, or as he puts it, “figuring out how to take something crazy and make it real.” This also is part of the message of Rorie’s works— to inspire people with the way he has taken a material as strong and rigid as metal and molded it to represent something as delicate as a human neuron.

As in science experiments, meticulous planning in art only goes so far. Nothing ever comes out the way you planned it, Rorie says, so you always have to be ready to adapt to the reality of the work. “At a certain point, you stop telling the work what it’s going to be,” he explains, “and it starts telling you what it is.” But, unlike many scientists, for whom the ultimate thrill is seeing their work published, the excitement is over for Rorie once a piece is done. “It’s more the process that’s important to me— it’s more the thrill of doing than the thrill the final product brings.”

Action, Reaction

Science and art may seem to exist in separate spheres, but Rorie believes that ultimately, they’re both about communication. It’s the direction in which the two are communicating  that’s different, much like a reaction that can run in two different directions. The way Rorie sees it, scientists generate conceptual abstractions to explain physical phenomena, whereas artists generate physical embodiments of their abstract ideas, thoughts or knowledge. The Neuron Chamber was an experiment in this concept for Rorie: He wanted to take his knowledge of neuroscience and communicate it via a sculpture of “high-voltage, robotic neurons in an alien observation tank.”

So, was the experiment successful? Paul Doherty, founding director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, thinks so. He watched people interact with Rorie’s Neuron Chamber while it was installed at the museum. “As the visitors figured out what was happening, they could predict aloud what the spark would do next, then laugh if they were correct, or moan if they were not,” Doherty recalls. “[They] had been drawn into the world of sparks and neuron modeling.”

Rorie often creates pieces that move, light up, or spew sparks or steam. He does this not only because he enjoys the engineering challenge but also because it makes the art more “alive.” Kinetic art has “action and reaction to the world around it,” Rorie says. “It gets touched and moved; it wears down.” In a way, the moveable aspect of Rorie’s art is a continuation of the bidirectional communication experiment. Moving parts encourage people to interact with the art, which means that Rorie’s pieces sometimes wear out or break. He doesn’t mind— in fact, he likes to fix them because it gives him something to do at gallery shows.

“The Path Is That Simple”

More by Alan Rorie

• The Almost Scientific website.

• Follow Alan Rorie on Twitter.

For bench scientists who yearn for the freedom of arc welding, Rorie has this advice: find something you love and do it, and soon you’ll get to be it. He expands upon this in two parts. The first is that there isn’t necessarily a formal process for every step of one’s career. “You don’t need to apply,” he says. “If you want be a carpenter, you just go and be a carpenter. The path is that simple.”

The most difficult step may be overcoming one’s self-identification as a scientist, as it was for Rorie. So here’s the second part of his advice, which is more of a pep talk for those who don’t view proficiency with a confocal microscope as a skill that can be translated to another line of work: “Your education as a scientist is deeper and stronger than just the field in which you work.” Rorie notes that while he doesn’t do science anymore, he uses the skills that he learned as a graduate student every day.

Besides, says Rorie, as a scientist, “you are on the cutting edge of knowledge— so why can’t you do anything else that you imagine doing?” 

Leslie W. Chinn is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute.

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