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Semiconductor Joins Art and Science

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What is the theory of everything? Are art and science disciplines that cannot coexist in the same space? For answers to those questions – and a tip on an interesting film collaboration screening tonight at the Gene Siskel Film Center, we turn to Eight Forty-Eight's film critic, Jonathan Miller.

A quick lesson in electronics: the term “semiconductor” typically refers to a computer chip. But it also refers to a material through which an electric current passes. These materials possess intriguing properties. When a substance is a semiconductor, it can both impede and permit the flow of electrons. UK filmmaking team Joe Gerhardt and Ruth Jarman have aptly chosen the name Semiconductor for their collaboration. Their work shuttles betwixt and between the poles of art and science.

When scientists investigate the physical world, their work often takes them to realms beyond the reach of the human eye. Akin to scientists, artists make things visible, and they often shine light on unforeseen or overlooked phenomenon. Jarman and Gerhardt's work make it clear how much the two endeavors have in common.

Their work takes form through adept computer-based manipulations of sound and image. The pair produce visualizations that accompany electronic music, live performances and site-specific installations. A unifying theme weaves its way throughout their work.  They consistently exhibit a concern with space, from software-derived artificial landscapes, to morphing cityscapes, and on to celestial spans.

In 2007 during a fellowship at the NASA Space Sciences Lab at UC Berkeley, Jarman and Gerhardt made Magnetic Movie. As their camera ambles through various labs, we hear scientists describe the nature of their research. In the apparatus-filled labs, we see magnetic fields take shape.  They crackle, stretch and flow. Hairy, sparking white tendrils and arcing bands of elastic red and yellow twitch out into the air. Pale green sheets bubble through walls and out into the surrounding landscape.

Semiconductor establishes the contradictory character of their undertaking at the outset. These artists take the fact that magnetic fields are not visible as an invitation to make them appear. By synchronizing their images with actual audio recordings of solar activity, they give life to the unseen forces flowing through us.

The artists transcend the role of mere illustrators by virtue of the rich qualities they give to their images and the playful spirit they bring to the heady halls of advanced research. Watching Brilliant Noise, a film they made at the NASA lab in Berkeley in 2006, I was ready to conclude that their imagery seemed artificial, even a bit overdone in its effort to mime the image of solar activity.  That was before I realized that they were using actual research images and not digital simulations. In stark vistas of deep black, cosmic grey and solar white, they take us on a trip to the surface of the sun.

The images that Semiconductor mined from the NASA archive for this film reflect the technology that produced them: it would be naïve to consider them direct, unmediated images of things as they are. The tools that enable us to see set the parameters of what we see. Semiconductor leads us up to this boundary and pushes against it, extending the reach of our vision in the process.

In Brilliant Noise, the filmmakers present nature in a way that brings to mind art. Conversely, in 200 Nanowebbers, their artwork calls to mind the natural world. Working from an electronic music soundtrack by Double Adaptor, Jarman and Gerhardt create a model of an evolutionary process. At first, we see black tangles of involuting lines. Then little nodes spark into sight on the black filaments. Soon colorful stacks made of hexagons, rods and rectangles spread and grow along the squiggly matrix. It doesn't detract from this event to recognize that it originated in the computer. The artists conjure up a hybrid, recombinant nature.

In Do You Think Science, there are no digital manipulations. Using a straightforward documentary style, Semiconductor turns their attention to scientists. In this 2006 film the filmmakers put us in the position of researcher. A series of top astrophysicists grapple with a question that has been put to them. But we have to infer what the question is. Can science understand everything? Is it possible for us to solve the mystery of reality, to understand the physical world completely? The answers cover a wide range of possibilities. Ultimately, Jarman and Gerhardt seem to accord with an opinion expressed by Goethe that… “it well becomes man to assume that there is something unknowable, but that he does not have to set any limit to his inquiry.”

In their eerie electronic soundscapes and striking digital imagery, Semiconductor unmistakably enlighten us to the shared identity of art and science.

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