Technology, Art Fuse in Interactive Exhibit





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Though you might not know it to pass by the Hearst Anthropology Museum on UC Berkeley's campus, a new interactive work of art located nearby has been busy turning greenhouses gases into moving harmonies.

"Oxygen Flute 2.0," which outwardly resembles a futuristic greenhouse, opened Monday night.

The exhibit was created by UC Berkeley practice of art and film studies professor Greg Niemeyer along with Stanford University music professor Chris Chafe.

A visitor stepping inside the exhibit's chamber first notices 58 stalks of live bamboo surrounding the central viewing platform.

Each stalk, or culm, of bamboo, served a commemorative purpose.

"The motivation (for the installation) comes from the story where 58 Chinese illegal immigrants suffocated in a shipping container en route to the United Kingdom," Niemeyer said. "This incident is an example of how far our civilization has come today."

Visitors soon began to notice something else unusual within the chamber-computer-simulated flute music that changes in response to their own breathing.

A sensor continuously recorded fluctuating levels of carbon dioxide within the chamber while a computer presented data to visitors by altering the flute tempos and rhythms accordingly.

Several flutes presented real-time data while others presented carbon dioxide data recorded from previous visitors.

"We display a very large amount of data in real time, through music," Niemeyer said. "By hearing, we can perceive many different types of information without being confused."

The flute music was based on a computer simulation of 9,000-year-old bone flutes excavated from Jiahu, China.

A more subtle percussive sound within the chamber was actually a hydrophone recording of thousands of snapping shrimp at the Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey Bay, intended to symbolize the ocean's vast role in the carbon dioxide cycle.

Niemeyer and Chafe used aesthetic judgment when choosing these sounds-intending to express the themes of their work.

"What you hear is a quartet of flutes and a very subtle percussion section going on all the time," Chafe said. "This is the sound work that was directed by a composer's instincts, as opposed to a scientist's."

Niemeyer and Chafe also intended for the chamber to send a message about the greenhouse effect-which manifests itself quickly to visitors in the form of intense heat inside the exhibit.

The greenhouse effect is a form of global warming caused by solar heat trapped near the planetary surface by atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide.

"This growth chamber displays the greenhouse effect," Niemeyer said. "Our main point is to directly display a breathing person's effect on the environment."

The professors hoped that visitors to the installation will become more cognizant of pressing environmental issues.

"We're both very personally concerned with environmental issues on a planetary scale," Chafe said. "The installation lets you have a look at human influences and interactions on a local scale."

Although bamboo metabolizes carbon dioxide and produces oxygen particularly effectively, the 58 stalks within the chamber are far from sufficient to meet the needs of even a single visitor.

"We would need a field of 1,000 acres of bamboo per person (per day) in order to sustain breathing," Niemeyer said. "If we were in the chamber for 12 hours, we would probably suffocate."

Niemeyer and Chafe made a point of noting that in the past 200 years, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 300 to 400 percent, which they blame on the byproducts of the Industrial Revolution.

Visitors inside the chamber were capable of temporarily raising carbon dioxide readings to nearly 70 times those of average Berkeley levels.

The long-term consequences of continuing rises in global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are dire, Niemeyer said.

"The only cause we know for the increase of carbon dioxide is human activity," he said. "We will die much sooner from overheating than we will from lack of oxygen."

Niemeyer and Chafe both hoped that visitors will leave the exhibit with a renewed sense of appreciation for the environment.

"The final component (of the installation) is one of intense beauty and of the generosity of nature," Niemeyer said. "The final level is one of hope and privilege."

At least several observers on opening night seemed to have grasped the intended message.

"I'm sort of aware that it's all a cycle that comes back to you," said Lawrence Wang, a visitor to the installation. "It's a little delayed reaction in there, but I think it's pretty clear."

The original "Oxygen Flute" was commissioned in 2000 and displayed in at the San Jose Museum of Art.

The new version features deepened flute sounds, as well as tomato seedlings meant to symbolize the tomato crates that the Chinese immigrants were hiding amongst while inside the shipping container.

The installation was funded by a grant from the Intel Corporation.

"Oxygen Flute 2.0" is being hosted by UC Berkeley's Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

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