Friday, November 13, 2009

Wild Music

Berkeley-based artist Gail Wight is speaking tonight in the refurbished Mammal Halls of the Harvard Natural History Museum. I'm looking forward to her talk on taking a walk with Darwin's ghost and learning about her recent projects. The talk is teasing her upcoming book and exhibit, Restless Dust, at the San Francisco Center for the Book, where Wight is artist in residence. I am very sorry I am going to miss that show, because I love the off-kilter wonder-cabinet-meets-Wonderland aesthetic that infuses everything Wight does. Here is Wight's statement from the SFCB website:

In attempts to understand life, I have: made maps of various nervous systems, practiced art while under hypnosis, conducted biochemical experiments on myself and willing others, executed medical illustrations in black velvet, documented dissections of humans, dissected machines and failed to put most of them back together, removed my teeth to model information systems, translated EEGs into music, painted with slime mold, made music with mice, drawings with bones, and have attempted to create models of my own confused state.  The interplay between art and biology, theories of evolution, cognition and the animal state-of-being form the groundwork for my thoughts. In what ways do we resemble worms? Is a machine more or less reliable due to its lack of endorphins, emotions, and opiate addictions? Can an artist collaborate with other species? What does compassion look like at the neuroanatomical level? My artwork investigates issues in biology and the history of science and technology. It explores the cultural impact of scientific practice, and our ongoing redefinition of self through epistemological constructions. I try to follow the ways in which these ideologies--both metaphysical and manifest--travel through time, moving from the scientific to the social sphere, the social to the scientific, and so often become the overlooked of the everyday.

Her past projects as documented on her website are really something else. I love invented instruments (see: Harry Partch) and music and instruments based on natural and animal sounds (such as the daxophone, a bowed instrument modeled on the great vocal range of the badger). When you combine invented instruments and animal music, well, it just doesn't get any better, in my book. Wight is the mastermind behind Rodentia Chamber Music, La Traviata staged for crickets, and a Plexiglas cello in which whisker switches (and of course they have to be whisker switches) are tripped by mice, playing prerecorded cello music and amplified mouse scufflings.

I had just taken my resident nine-year-old to the Museum of Science's exhibit Wild Music: Sounds and Songs of Life. A bad idea: school holiday, for one thing, and they have a Harry Potter exhibit on at the moment, for another. We love the MOS, but not when it's that crowded with Potterites. We skipped quickly through Wild Music and headed to the planetarium show instead. On a quieter day, I might make my way back to the Wild Music exhibit at the MOS, to try my hand at the parabolic microphone, but wishing they'd brought in some artists and musicians who could have explored music in a wilder way.

More about Wight here.

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