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Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Art Installation Combines Music, Visuals with Climate Change Data

Published on April 21st, 2011 by Michelle Ward

Transforming raw data on climate change into a sensory experience is the goal of a new multimedia art installation at the University of Kansas.

“Mutatis Mutandis,” a Latin phrase meaning “by changing those things that need to be changed,” explores the relationship between time and glaciers. An interdisciplinary group used sound and information graphics to powerfully illustrate glaciological data from the past 400,000 years.

The installation, which is free and open to the public, will be on display through the end of April at the Commons in Spooner Hall. It is available for viewing from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, noon to 4 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and 7 to 9 p.m. on Saturdays.

“Much of what Mutatis Mutandis explores is the audio-visual Tristan Telander, Nolan Lem (Center), Prof. Kip Haaheimrepresentation of time durations,” said Nolan Lem, a sophomore in electrical engineering and computer science from Leawood, who conceived the project. “By representing these extremely long time spans in shorter intervals, trends are made more urgent and accessible.”

An accomplished saxophone player, Lem interned with Kip Haaheim, associate professor of music, in the fall. Their work with programming and audio-visual environments inspired them to collaborate on Mutatis Mutandis. Haaheim said the idea of using hard data on ice sheets and sounds recorded from actual Arctic environments was compelling. He helped repurpose the recordings while Lem developed a computer program to interpret data and generate the sounds. Twelve speakers across the Commons will play various pieces. In one segment, ice cracking and popping represent climate change over the past 40,000 years.

“I have worked on several such projects in the professional world and the result of people with widely varying interests and skills can produce profoundly creative results,” said Haaheim, who oversaw the project. “The cross-pollination between the usually different audiences for the arts and sciences expand the possibilities for both.”

Using the same data sets, Tristan Telander, graphic designer at the Spencer Museum of Art, created four large-scale visualizations that range from 4 to 25 feet in length. She turned data into binary pixels to give images a processed and quantified look. Up close, these tiny elements become a blur of incomprehensible images. But with greater perspective, the pixels began to vary in size and form more meaningful images.

“As humans, we lack the capacity to understand change at a staggeringly slow pace; yet with progressive technology, we are able to perceive this slow change more rapidly and with urgency,” Telander said.

Performance art will include the melting of a 300-pound block of ice into a glass enclosure on Saturdays during the exhibit’s run. The giant ice block symbolizes a real-time process of glaciological change. The melting ice confronts the audience with the reality of the glaciological condition, said Lem.

The KU-based Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, the World Glacier Monitoring Service and the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica provided mass balance records, ice core analysis and ice sheet elevation readings for the project.

The Commons, a partnership at KU that promotes learning across disciplines, funded Mutatis Mutandis.