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In The Lab Where Art and Science Fuse

At UNT, Ruth West uses DNA data to create art. Tonight, she's on the State of the Arts panel at the DMA - 'Data is the New Paint.'

by Jerome Weeks 22 Sep 2016
Ruth West

Ruth West's work is so multi-layered and cross-disciplinary, she was 'cross-appointed' by UNT three years ago to head up the xRez Art & Science Lab. That means she's a professor in visual arts, engineering, information and biology. West's hi-tech, pathbreaking artworks can involve interactive ways of experiencing gene sequences or astrophysics. And all this re-visioning of art and research happened because her parents didn't want her to pursue her love of painting.

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

Video: Dane Walters

I’m wearing 3D glasses in a pitch-black room at UNT, and I’m facing a screen the size of a wall. This entire lab is a virtual reality projection room with 10-channel stereo sound. And what’s on screen looks like intersecting streams of stars. Or like Dallas from a DC-9 at night — all those lines of glowing lights going off into the distance.

“So what you’re seeing now looks like a 3D galaxy,” says Ruth West, director of the xRez Art & Science Lab at UNT.” But with your arm movements, you can move this entire galaxy around.”

Ruth West will be a guest at the State of the Art panel discussion, ‘Data is The New Paint,’  Thursday, Sept. 29th at the Dallas Museum of Art.

This projection-room set-up is called ATLAS in Silico (we’ll get to why in a bit). At the moment, I realize the system must have a Knect motion-sensor adapted to it because my arm movements, as West says, can make the tumble of bright dots revolve and invert, which triggers whooshing and humming noises. On screen, a blue wand also appears, and when it sweeps through the dots, it sounds like it’s crunching glass — with the dots sometimes popping into lines of type with geographic locations (Biscayne Bay) or measurements of different qualities (salinity) and sometimes blurring into little clouds, as if I’ve run my hands through the bottom of a stream and the sand has puffed up, clouding the water.

If this is a galaxy, I seem to be splashing about in it, generating little nebulae in my wake.

“That blue stick is a pointer,” West explains, “it’s your right hand, and it moves with your hand, and basically, if you close your hand, it makes a selection from this universe of data, like scooping it up.” I try it — more breaking glass — “and just close your hand again, let it go, and it goes back into that big ocean of data.”

The crunching noises stop; a low murmuring begins. Which means ATLAS also has a text-to-speech program because it’s murmuring statistics at me.

I turn to West. “So you’ve reinvented the ending of ‘2001′ — only you’ve added a lot more data.”

In fact, upon first encounter with ATLAS, there is some of that cosmic rush, the glowing, disorienting geometry that Dr. Bowman faces at the end of the Kubrick film. But the experience is also somewhat playful and investigatory, like a video game with abstract shapes — sort of Minecraft minus all the construction work and jumping spiders: “Let’s see how this works” and “I wonder what that looks like from the inside?”

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So now who seems all teched-up? Ruth West talks with Jerome Weeks in the xRez Lab. Photo: Dane Walters

And all of it is a universe of data. Everything I’m pushing and grabbing out of the darkness is data. Each bright dot represents the DNA of a different marine microorganism. They were collected from seawater all over the world by the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition (GOS), launched by Craig Venter (famous as one of the first people to sequence the human genome). When the University of California at San Diego released this data in 2007, in a single day, it doubled the amount of genetic sequences we know.

West happened to work at UC San Diego in imaging research – just down the hall from the computers crunching all that DNA.

“So I started thinking about what would happen if you could experience something about that data,” she says, “just something aesthetically that would clue you into its immense power. Or even just the way it was changing our understanding of life on earth. So that’s how that work got started.”

That’s why it’s called ATLAS — because it is an atlas, meaning a book of maps or ocean charts — and ‘in Silico,’ short for silicon, because instead of paper maps bound in leather covers, this atlas is bound up in silicon chips.

This is what Ruth West does. Or one of the things, anyway. She moves from the microscopic to the digital to the artistic – and back. And tries to let us take the same voyage but without all her messy work. She (and her students) invent an interactive travel guide through the data for us. An atlas. Or an app. Or an artistic VR installation.

The simplest but necessarily inadequate term for all this is “data visualization.” But obviously, we’re not talking about pie charts, graphs or Venn diagrams. Put together, the seawater samples from the GOS expedition gave us a gigantic, genetic snapshot of our planet’s microscopic ocean life. It’s a crucial source of photosynthesis and food for larger marine life, for our entire ecosystem.

So how do you convey all that? Well, ATLAS in Silico more or less immerses you in it. It throws you into the deep end.

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JD Talasek of the National Academy of Sciences. Photo: JD Talasek.

“Imagine being able to go into a Jackson Pollock painting and re-arrange the shapes,” says JD Talasek, the director of Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC. “In essence, what Ruth has done is created a format where we become more intuitive with the information in the world around us. The viewer can play, explore and discover.”

Ruth West says it’s not ‘what you see is what you get,’ it’s how you see that shapes what you know. Think of how the microscope changed how we see our world.

“And now with the technologies of the 21st century,” she says, “all of that is being abstracted into data. As an artist I like to think of that data as a raw material.”

West calls herself an artist – but also a researcher. In fact, her original career was in biomedicine — because her parents didn’t want her to pursue the painting she’d loved ever since she picked up a brush at the age of three.

But about a dozen years ago, a physician colleague of West’s visited her home to plan a charity event. She saw every surface there was covered with painted canvases in progress.

“And she said to me, ‘Ruth, you have a secret life.’ And so there I was,” West says, laughing, “faced with the fact that I was really an artist living in a parallel universe. So how do you reconcile those?”

What West did was quit her job as a department manager at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in LA. She set out to make a living as a professional painter.

“I had no clue how to survive. I think it’s really hard to even express what it means to say ‘I will be an artist,’ when you just haven’t gone to art school. I was completely self-trained as a painter,” she says. “Part of what you get from academic training as an artist is a professional lineage, connections to that broader professional world of galleries and patrons. I had none of that. I didn’t even know how to make a portfolio for myself.”

She learned from friends — even just how to photograph her paintings to make them look good when she pitched them to galleries. All of that is why, West says, she considers her first gallery show in Venice, California — within a year of leaving the medical center — “a miracle.”

“I sold some work at the opening  — which was a huge relief — and things slowly evolved from there.”

But eventually, scientific research called her back – although now it was to work with things like “visual analytics” and “collaborative imaging.”

Cross-disciplinary artist-scientist-engineer pioneers like West are actually not all that rare anymore. In fact, West was recently appointed the 2018-’19 chair of LEAF — the Leonardo Education and Art Forum. It’s a program of Leonardo/The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology (Leonardo/ISAST), an organization dedicated to just this sort of boundary-spanning research and creativity. Current board members include an electrical engineer, museum directors, astronomers, an organic chemist and art curators. In this regard, the xRez Lab, West maintains, is not simply a lab for the research and development of student-collaborative, artistic-scientific projects. It’s an experiment itself; it represents a re-thinking of higher education’s departmental framework, the whole way colleges work within narrow specializations.

Yes, she says, expertise — mastery of a particular field — is vital these days. But mastery of yourself is fundamental, too. Knowing that you don’t just think as a lawyer, manager or a paramedic. We’re immersed in a world much richer than that. And West wants people to experience that simply seeing can be immersive and interactive. Especially with our new world of data.

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An image of the multi-station project, One Antarctic Night.

 

A new xRez Lab project, One Antarctic Night, is an astrophysics display that’s partly funded by the NEA. It will be an installation that’ll let viewers ‘re-mix’ the hundreds of thousands of photographs a robotic telescope took during a single night in Antarctica. Another project has developed an app for “rephotography” — which simplifies long-term, time-lapse photography for “then and now” documentation of precise locations and times.

With all such efforts, West says she follows the same basic method. It’s similar to her teaching in the lab — or even how she transformed her own life. She overwhelms herself with information until she feels uncertain and uncomfortable.

“And the more uncomfortable I am,” she says, “and the more it looks like I’m floundering, the more I know I’m going to be on to something new. Sometimes I just have to wait – until I can make sense of what that is and find the path forward.”

Basically, what West does is throw herself into the deep end.

When did you consider yourself a professional artist?

So there’s like two key points in my life where I owned that. One, I can honestly tell you that when I was three years old, I knew. I have this memory of holding this paint brush and watching this color drip off the brush and knowing that I was just in love with color and that I would do this whatever ‘that’ meant because — what do you know when you’re three?

But you kind of know, and so then, the rest of my life took kind of a very different journey, but I can tell you that art-making was my secret life. During the day I would go and work in biomedicine or manage a very large health center in Los Angeles, and then I would live in a painting studio.

And it became really clear to me that I was a professional artist when I was volunteering with one of the physicians working at the hospital. And she came to my house because we were going to talk about a charity function we were both working on. And she came in and she literally went like, ‘Um what is this?’ And I’m just walking around trying to find a place for us to sit because the floors, the walls, every surface was covered with a canvas that had some painting in some stage of progress on it.

And she said to me, ‘Ruth, you have a secret life.’ So there I was [laughs], faced with the fact that I was really an artist living in kind of a parallel universe.

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‘Three Goddesses,’ acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Ruth West.

What have you given up for art?

It’s more like what haven’t I given up, if you want to know the truth. What have I given up? It’s like everything.

Most people think about, you know, if you’re going to be an artist, how do you survive? But honestly, my family was really dead-set against my being an artist when I was younger. So that’s how I ended up training in microbiology and genetics and working in biomedicine. And honestly, when you look through a microscope, that’s a whole other world too. That’s a whole other way of seeing, and it’s incredibly beautiful.

So that was all right, but you know what I had to give up wasn’t just about, ‘OK, how do you live?’ but it’s like who I was. I knew myself in a certain way. And who I was was this person who made art in private and then lived this life that is a very effective, management professional in biomedicine or research. You know, I even published in ‘The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.’

But my dad got really ill, and I was with him at the UCLA emergency room. While I was standing next to the gurney he was lying on, he looked at me and no longer knew who I was. He didn’t remember me or that I was his daughter. He literally asked me, “Who are you?” It was pretty late at night and had been a long, stressful day — and then this.

It hit me. All my life I had been living to please my family. To meet everyone’s expectations. But all my life, all I had ever wanted to do is be an artist and making paintings. I realized that instant that if I kept going on, I would have only one regret at the end of my life, wishing I had been able to be an artist. So five days later, after my dad was stable and out of ICU, I quit my job.

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Students in the xREZ Lab at UNT. L-to-R: Mike Tarlton, Max Prola, Kathryn Hays (back to camera) and Brandon Lane. Photo: Dane Walters

And then I had to completely redefine myself. I had no clue how to survive. I think it’s really hard to even express what it means to say ”I will be an artist,’ when you just haven’t gone to art school. I was completely self-trained as a painter, and so I had to give up certainty. I had to give up knowing who I was and any sense of any kind of charted path or even people believing in me. People believed in me where I was before. Who’s going to believe in someone who just makes artwork in private and then decides they’re showing up at a gallery to exhibit it?

Part of what you get from academic training as an artist is a professional lineage, connections to that broader professional world of galleries and patrons. I had none of that. I didn’t even know how to make a portfolio for myself.

So when I decided to dedicate myself one hundred percent to making a living from my paintings, a friend of mine introduced me to some of their artist friends, and they showed me their portfolios and how they presented their work. I spent months figuring out how to photograph my work for the portfolio. It was difficult because the painting technique I use means that the light bounces around inside the layers of paint, so the paintings looked terrible in the photographs. Finally, I met a photographer who helped me photograph them. And I sent out so many slides and letters I couldn’t count them.

But within that first year, I got a reply [from a small gallery in Venice, California]. I sold work at the opening  — which was a huge relief — and things slowly evolved from there. So that’s why I consider it a miracle that this show happened for me .

Do you follow any rituals before you start to work, do you have any habits you have to follow?

When it comes to these data artworks, I have a way that I start with by just overwhelming myself. Most often, I’m learning about things that I’ve known nothing about, and I have to try and understand it from the perspective of the people who created their data in order to be able to get on the other side of it, to be able to think about their data as something that I can either comment on or provide a different view into. ‘What’s the cultural importance of this data set? Why does it matter to you or me or humanity that someone has understood that you can actually look at life on earth not as organisms or populations but as individual DNA sequences that exist at that moment in time?’

And it’s mind blowing. That data set [from the Global Oceanic Sampling Expedition], that was basically like seeing the earth from the moon. That’s how radically different a view of life on earth it was. And how do you respond to that as an artist?

So for me, I have to overwhelm myself, and then when I get super-saturated, I kind of step back and it’s in that stepping back that what needs to come forward emerges.

 

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Hypotheses on a whiteboard in the xREZ Lab. Photo: Jerome Weeks

How has being in North Texas affected your art?

It actually has affected me a lot coming here. You know, there’s Denton in particular and North Texas itself is going through a complete transformation. So I think it actually is very synergistic that the journey of my life has been about things constantly shifting and transforming, and the energy here, whether it’s the new tech startups or even the construction on just the highway just makes it possible — I think about that in terms of what we see every day and how much sensorial input we get and that we’re constantly tuning that out.

So it’s this perpetual process of meaning-making and in creating art and in particular this whole art-science interface I’m trying to call attention to, to crack that open and make that something you can experience, you know?

But back to UNT. So Denton is very synergistic. This place is transforming — like, this university is transforming itself, Denton is transforming itself. And that’s everything from small things that you might think are just everyday things in a city like new restaurants or a natural food store or highway construction. It’s all about this exchange of people and ideas. And so I found that I had to ask the question ‘What’s gonna change when I come here?’

I came here because I was given an amazing opportunity and I work with some awesome people. And then this opportunity to integrate scholarship or research with art practice and really try to explore things more deeply — well, I think UNT is completely reinventing itself. And as artist, there’s nothing actually more interesting than going somewhere where the vibration around you is of reinvention and re-envisioning.

 

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