Making Art Out of Earthquakes

Berkeley's Ken Goldberg explores how to help people understand the physical realities of a geologically active world.
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The Hayward Fault runs through the center of the UC Berkeley campus, famously splitting the university's football stadium in half from end to end. It has, according to the 2008 Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast, a thirty-one percent probability of rupturing in a magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake within the next thirty years, making it the likeliest site for the next big California quake.

Nonetheless, for the majority of East Bay residents, the fault is out of sight and out of mind--for example, five out of six Californian homeowners have no earthquake insurance.

seismic16.jpgThe Hayward Fault trace superimposed onto a map of the University of California, Berkeley, campus, as seen in the USGS Hayward Fault Virtual Tour

Meanwhile, three-quarters of a mile north of Memorial Stadium, and just a few hundred yards west of the fault trace, is the office of Ken Goldberg, Professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at Berkeley.

Goldberg's extensive list of current projects includes an NIH-funded research initiative into 3D motion planning to help steer flexible needles through soft tissue and the African Robotics Network, which he launched in 2012 with a Ten-Dollar Robot design challenge.

seismic22.jpgseismic23.jpgseismic24.jpgThree robots from the "10 Dollar Robot" Design Challenge organized by the African Robotics Network

Alongside developing new algorithms for robotic automation and robot-human collaboration, Goldberg is also a practicing artist whose most recent work, Bloom, is "an Internet-based earthwork" that aims to make the low-level, day-to-day shifts and grumbles of the Hayward Fault visible as a dynamic, aesthetic force.

seismic2.jpgScreenshot of Bloom, 2013, by Ken Goldberg, Sanjay Krishnan, Fernanda Viégas, and Martin Wattenberg

Venue stopped by Goldberg's office to speak with him about Bloom and the challenge of translating invisible seismic forces into immersive artworks.

Our conversation ranged from color-field art and improvisational ballet to the Internet's value as a vehicle for re-imagining the relationship between sensing and physical reality. The edited transcript appears below.

• • •
seismic18.jpgA Bay Area seismograph (Marcin Wichary)

Nicola Twilley: When did you start working with seismic readings in an artistic context, and why?

Ken Goldberg: Well, I had just finished grad school, I had started teaching at USC in the Computer Science department, and I was doing art installations on the side. And I was building robots.

I had just completed an installation for the university museum when I stumbled onto this, at the time, brand new thing called the World Wide Web. My students showed me this thing and I realized: this is the answer! The Web meant that I didn't have to schlep a whole bunch of stuff to a museum and fight with all their constraints and make something that, in the end, only 150 people would actually get out to see. Instead, I could put something together in my lab and make it accessible to the world. That's why we--I worked with a team--started developing web-based installations.

seismic15.jpgThe Telegarden, 1995-2004, networked art installation at Ars Electronica Museum, Austria. Co-directors: Ken Goldberg and Joseph Santarromana Project team: George Bekey, Steven Gentner, Rosemary Morris Carl Sutter, Jeff Wiegley, Erich Berger. (Robert Wedemeyer)

We actually built the first robot on the Internet, as an art installation. It got a lot of attention--tens of thousands of people were coming to that. Then we did a second version called The Telegarden, which is still the project I'm probably best known for. It was a garden that anyone online could plant and water and tend, using an industrial robotic arm, and it was online for nine years. I actually just found out that there's a band called Robots in the Garden, which is exciting.

What was really interesting to me about The Telegarden was this idea of connecting the physical world, the natural world, and the social world through the Internet. I was interested in the questions that come up when the Internet gives you access not just to JSTOR libraries and to digital information, but also to things that are live and dynamic and organic in some way.

That really drove my thinking, and my colleagues and I began to do a lot of research in that area. I registered some patents and won a couple of National Science Foundation awards, formed something called the Technical Committee on Networked Robots, and wrote a lot of papers. From the research side of it, there are a lot of interesting questions, but, from the art side, it also led to a series of projects that look at how such systems were being perceived, and how they were shaping perception.

I worked with Hubert Dreyfus on a philosophical issue that we call "telepistemology," which is the question of: what is knowledge? What counts as objective distance? In other words, people were interacting with this garden remotely, and that raised the question of whether or not, and how, the garden was real, which is the fundamental question of epistemology.

seismic19.jpgThe Telegarden, 1995-2004, networked art installation at Ars Electronica Museum, Austria. Co-directors: Ken Goldberg and Joseph Santarromana Project team: George Bekey, Steven Gentner, Rosemary Morris Carl Sutter, Jeff Wiegley, Erich Berger. (Robert Wedemeyer)

Epistemology has always been affected by technologies like the telescope and the microscope, things that have created a radical shift in how we sense physical reality. As we started thinking about this more, we became interested in how the Internet is causing an analogous shift, in terms of, hopefully, reinvigorating skepticism about what is real and what is an artifact of the viewing process. I edited a book on this for MIT Press that came out in 2000.

In the middle of all that, then, I moved here and met someone from the seismology group. They agreed to give me access to this live data feed of movements on the Hayward Fault, a tectonic fault that cuts right through the center of Berkeley--in fact, right through the middle of campus, not far from here. I was really interested in this idea of connecting to something that was not just the contained environment of a garden, but something much more dynamic and naturally rooted and global.

I guess I should add, as well, that a big factor for me was when I moved up here and became intrigued by the total amnesia and denial that people here have about their seismic situation. I would ask people, "What do you have in your earthquake kit?" And they would reply, "What? What are you talking about?" Now, of course, twenty years later, I don't have an earthquake kit, either. [laughs]

Manaugh: I think that's quite a common scenario. When we first moved out to California, we bought several gallons of water, a few boxes of Clif Bars, extra flashlights, and even earthquake insurance, and the native Californians I knew here just looked at us like we were paranoid survivalists, hoarding ammunition for Doomsday.

Goldberg: It was that sort of reaction that got me thinking a lot about how people are not conscious of the fault, or about earthquakes, in general, and I began wondering how you could make that more visually present. Also, the old seismograph was an interesting visual metaphor for me. Everyone recognized that form, but I wanted to play with it. I thought we could make a live, web-based version, which you can actually still see online.

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Presented by

Geoff Manaugh & Nicola Twilley

Geoff Manaugh writes at BLDGBLOG. Nicola Twilley is the author of Edible Geography. In 2012-13, they are traveling to sites around the United States with their portable-media project, Venue.

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