Carnegie Mellon University

Image of performers dancing, chalking and playing music

June 15, 2017

Science and Art Unite at Invisible Jazz Labs

By Emily Payne

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Mellon College of Science
  • 412-268-9982

Science and performance art come together in an improvisational tango at the Invisible Jazz Labs in the Space Upstairs, a warehouse gallery loft in Pittsburgh.

The labs, a collaboration between the Ellipses Condition and Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Physics, debuted this year as a four-part series. Directed by Ellipses Condition co-founders Pearlann Porter and John Lambert, the labs present a topic of scientific discourse against a backdrop of poetry, chalk art, music and dance.

"This is not a performance. It's a lab," Porter said. "A lab in search of an idea, in search of discovery — to see what happens when unknowing is in front of us. We are taking science and art, putting it in a Petri dish and seeing what happens."

The key to the labs is the atmosphere of experimentation — an instrumental component inherent in both science and art.

CMU Professor Manfred Paulini, head of the physics graduate program, and physics Ph.D. candidate Matthew Daniels headed the first lab this spring.

"We developed a theme of what to talk about and then let the performers elaborate and improvise their art around the scientist's presentation," Paulini said.

Paulini spoke about searching for dark matter with CERN's Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, where he does research as part of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment. Weaving in stories of the beginnings of the universe, which he likened to a "steaming hot dance floor," Paulini explored how dark matter would be produced in the early universe from a biblical viewpoint, a scientific stance focusing on the Big Bang theory and his personal beliefs as a particle physicist.

As he spoke, artist and Carnegie Mellon graphic designer Jordan Bush filled chalkboard walls with colorful drawings of atoms and particles. Percussionist PJ Roduta hit the drums, which rang out as Paulini touched on the Big Bang theory.

Daniels spoke about magnetism as dancers floated around the stage mimicking his explanation of electrons and particles with their movements. The artists' interpretations of concepts such as magnetic ribbons and spin waves helped the audience better grasp the complexity of the topic.

Image of Jazz Labs

"We are all trying to explain the world around us. In some ways, we are all searching for the same thing: the truth." 
— George Klein

The second Invisible Jazz Lab featured George Klein, associate teaching professor of physics, and CMU biological sciences Ph.D. student Ardon Shorr.

Klein's talk centered on waves and how waves communicate information through vibrations in a medium. To illustrate his point, Bush drew wavy lines across the chalkboard, musicians let notes softly ring out like rippling water, dancers sent pulsing movements back and forth through each other, and the words "We are waves essentially engaged" were sprawled across the wall.

Shorr spoke about how astronauts returning from space can experience health problems caused in part by their suspension in microgravity. To study these diseases, Shorr builds devices to apply altered gravity and compression to developing zebrafish and fruit flies. This allows him to analyze changes in cell communication in an attempt to understand how similar mechanical forces would affect humans. Throughout his talk, dancers simulated a fish suspended in microgravity while Bush drew an interpretation of Shorr's experiment on the wall.

As the Invisible Jazz Labs evolve, Paulini said he is excited to continue building interdisciplinary bridges to bring those interested in art closer to science and those interested in science closer to performance art.

"We are all trying to explain the world around us. In some ways, we are all searching for the same thing: the truth," Klein said. "The truth of the artists might be different than the truth of scientists, but we are all trying to understand what's happening, understand humans and nature, understand how things work. We are not that different," Klein said.

"Scientists want to understand the laws of nature, and artists work more on understanding emotions, but, in the end, they both want to communicate the way they see the world around them," he added.

This summer, the Invisible Jazz Labs will host a web series experimenting with art in Carnegie Mellon lab spaces. Two more installments will be held Sept. 22 and Oct. 27 in the Space Upstairs.