June 2010

Almost Science, Always Art

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.”

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