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Jun 11, 2014



If you're reading this blog, you probably know that ASKlabs strives to explore the intersection of science and art. We aim to document stories of creativity at the art/science interface to inspire global audiences of all ages. We have a blast interviewing brilliant hybrid folk and hanging around with our cameras while they're at work exploring, building, inventing.

However, since our September 2013 Nerd Nite talks, the arrival of the $1000 genome, and the rise of consumer genomics, a number of big ideas have been swirling around ASKlabs. First off, facial morphology is an indication of how genetic syndromes present and there are often behaviors associated with the syndrome as well. Second, while many people are getting their genomes sequenced affordably now, there still isn't much information understood about which genes do what. Deciphering the human genome will be the work of molecular biologists, and bioinformaticians over the next few decades. Third, these are exciting times for genomics so we are developing a documentary exploring genetic privacy and the complex issues surrounding it.

We all see from family resemblances and identical twins that our faces are genetically-determined. However scientists do not yet know which genes do what. What if someone were to quantify a huge amount of facial data? Could we then link facial features directly to disease and behavior, forgoing the need for genetic data? We know that this is a big, impossible, and totally wacky idea but we think it could be an interesting dataset to add to the personal genomics mix. After all, if we don't ask, and if we don't measure, then we'll never have the data, and we'll never know the answer, right?

In short, we are getting obsessed with the idea of exploring the connections between genes and faces. There are a couple of big challenges we will need to figure out first such as: how will we acquire a large amount of facial data? How accurately can we measure human faces?

Watch this space for news and updates on the face project.

CommentsCategories Art Big Data Facetopo Science

Apr 17, 2014



The STEM to STEAM educational movement strives to put the "A" (Art/Design) in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) learning. As the STEM to STEAM movement grows, it is important to document STEAM-specific learning. In gathering evidence about STEAM learning, we are showing how well STEAM works and how integral all the subjects in STEAM really are.

We recently had the opportunity to document an educational project from start to finish. On the one-year anniversary of the 2013 Boston Marathon, which was a day of both tragedy and bravery for the Boston community, Advent School students created artwork as a memorial in honor of the Marathon and a celebration of the City of Boston. The Advent School, a Boston independent elementary school dedicated to innovative teaching and learning styles, developed a project for their older students to create an installation of flowers made by hand. We filmed the process - not only to document the outcome but to show that learning is an integral part of project design. You can watch the video here:

A visiting artist, Amy Flurry, Co-Founder of the Paper-Cut-Project, led the students in creating “Flowers for Boston.” Amy brought plants and flowers for the students to study and instructed them on how to recreate the shapes and structures of flowers with bristol paper. We filmed as the students used investigative processes and learned to transform their observations into representative artwork. It was fascinating to capture the students’ careful examination of the details of flowers, and then to watch as they put that new knowledge to use in engineering sculptural interpretations. 

Documenting learning helps children, parents, teachers, and administrators to learn, teach, and understand. Not only does it encourage reflection and memory for students, but strengthens planning and curriculum development as well as engagement from parents and administrators. Making learning visible means that everyone involved in the educational process can take an active role in evaluating progress and discovery. 

Thanks to Advent Art Instructor Saskia Van Vactor and David Van Vactor for making this art/science learning possible at the Advent School. The “Flowers for Boston” installation can be seen at J.P. Licks, 150 Charles Street on Beacon Hill, until Friday, April 25.

CommentsCategories Art Boston STEM to STEAM Tags #bostonstrong

Mar 26, 2014



A few months ago, I headed to New York's Hudson River Valley with my family to visit Storm King and Dia: Beacon

The first time I visited Storm King was to grab a couple of shots for my Serra documentary for Gibbs Farm.

"Seeing the Landscape: Richard Serra's Tuhirangi Contour" DIR. Alberta Chu. 2003. An ASKlabs Production for the Keystone Trust.

Serra’s work at Storm King, Schunnemunk Fork, is comprised of four walls that express the fall of the land. This time the work was different than other times I had seen it; the grass had grown very tall around the pieces. I thought that Richard would probably prefer the tall grasses to be cut.

Richard Serra. Schunnemunk Fork. 1990-91. Storm King Art Center

We spent a perfect Fall afternoon at Storm King exploring large-scale sculptures by Di Suvero, Calder, Lewitt, Nevelson, and Snelson, to name a few. I was pleased to experience a couple of the more recently installed works: Maya Lin’s earthwork was quite substantial and the kids had a blast with its topology; Goldsworthy’s wall meandered and crossed a brook.

TOP: Maya Lin. Storm King Wavefield. 2007-08. BOTTOM: Andy Goldsworthy. Storm King Wall, 1997-98.

The next day we visited Dia: Beacon. Dia was formerly located in Manhattan’s Chelsea district but moved out of the city to a spacious Nabisco plant several years ago. I will never forget first seeing Serra’s Torqued Ellipses at Dia's raw warehouse space in the late 1990s.  Dia: Beacon is a stunning art museum, the ceilings are shaped like the teeth of a saw and let in all this amazing natural light. It’s just huge: Heizer, Serra, Flavin, Lewitt, Warhol, De Maria, Beuys, Irwin, Neuhaus, the list goes on. 

Works by (L) Michael Heizer and (R) Dan Flavin at Dia: Beacon. (By advance appointment you can get inside the barrier around the Heizers to get a closer look.)

On these art pilgrimages, I love experiencing art with kids, and am also encouraged by the promise that their minds are developing new connections.

We've talked about STEM (science + technology + engineering + mathematics) to STEAM (science + technology + engineering + arts + mathematics) before, and more voices are joining in on this movement. On Arts Advocacy Day in April 2013, world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma spoke about the importance of arts education for the future of our nation. Ma discussed the national STEM to STEAM education movement stating: “STEM without STEAM loses steam, but STEM with STEAM will power our country forward. The qualities crucial to success in the 21st Century workforce will not come just from studying science, technology and engineering and math, as important as those disciplines are.”

Kenneth Snelson. Free Ride Home. 1974. Storm King Art Center.

And there’s proof that art makes kids smart - good news for educators fighting to keep arts funding. In 2008, university researchers completed three years of studies on the relationships between the arts and cognition. The Dana Consortium Report Learning, Arts, and the Brain showed strong links between cognitive abilities and arts education (press release here). These projects were preliminary, and did not lead to the identification of definitive causal relationships.

A more recent study, according to an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Brian Kisida, Jay P. Greene and Daniel H. Bowen, took advantage of the "perfect opportunity" to investigate links between art and its educational benefits. A few years ago, a Walton (Walmart, Sam’s Club) heiress opened the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. School field trips to the museum are free, thanks to a generous endowment, but the local schools far outnumber the available slots for visits so a lottery system was instituted. This creates a unique opportunity for social scientists to conduct research on the effects of museum visits on school age children: to study groups of kids who had never been to art museums in an educational setting (and to have control groups in the kids who had not yet been chosen by lottery). Their findings indicate significant benefits in critical thinking, arts engagement, and diversity of ideas. Though research in this area is still in its early days, it provides strong support for strengthening arts curriculum in schools.

Get inspired by art and grow your brain connections! Storm King Art Center reopens for the 2014 season this week, so dust off your picnic blankets and put some air in your bicycle tires. (While you're in the area, we've heard the Hessell Museum at Bard College is worth a visit too.)  Happy trails!

TOP OF PAGE: Sol Lewitt. Five Modular Units. 1971. Storm King Art Center.

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CommentsCategories Art Environment STEM to STEAM US Tags Storm King, Dia Beacon, Serra, Di Suvero, Maya Lin, Goldsworthy, Nevelson, Lewitt, Calder, Heizer, Judd, Snellson, Flavin, De Maria warhol

Feb 24, 2014



James Turrell was part of the Southern California Light and Space movement in the late 1960s like Eric Orr, the artist behind Electrum. 2013 was a big summer for Turrell with concurrent shows in Los Angeles at LACMA, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, TX, and the Guggenheim in NYC - and this was his first solo show in New York City since 1980.

For a time (around the turn of the millenium, after completing the Electrum documentary) I was obsessed with Turrell’s Roden Crater project, and made queries about helping to document the creation of this monumental and notoriously secretive work. At the time it seemed like a huge undertaking that would never see completion; now it is nearly finished and open by invitation to generous patrons of Turrell’s work.

L: Portrait of Turrell by Chuck Close on the cover of New York Times Magazine (June 20, 2013) via; R: Roden Crater, satellite photo USGS

This Fall, when a friend called with an extra ticket to the sold out James Turrell Symposium at the Guggenheim I jumped at the chance to go -- the show was to come down in less than a week. After securing our symposium tickets, we were met at the museum’s side entrance, VIP style, and taken to see the Turrell works. The works we saw, First Light Turrell’s aquatint renderings of light cubes, were so luminous that on first impression I thought there actual lightboxes lit from within; only upon closer inspection I was amazed to find that they were paintings. They were sublime. Wow. In two adjacent galleries there were light works, one a light projection into the corner of a room Afrum I (White), and another projected onto a flat wall. On our way down the ramp, there was a long line to see Ronin a very tall light work maybe two stories tall that juxtaposed walls to create the perception of an entire wall being ajar. We wandered through Aten Reign in the Guggenheim rotunda on our way to the symposium taking place in the basement level auditorium.

We took in talks by scholars of art history, religion, and modern art as they discussed the way Turrell’s life experiences have influenced who he is as an artist, and the rituals and philosophies of light and perception apparent or inherent in his works. Nat Trotman, Co-Curator of the Turrell exhibition, moderated a conversation among the three presenters.

I got to experience Aten Reign for myself while my pals waited in the long line (45 minutes) for Iltar in the highest exhibition room. I found a spot on the chaise bench that circled the perimeter of the room and got comfortable. The light gradient shifted so slowly it was initially imperceptible. The light intensity and color gradient change with the passage of time. 

Aten Reign in the Guggenheim rotunda, September 2013

Iltar was to be experienced in small groups of fifteen or less, hence the long wait. The room was quite dim. There was a rectangular piece on the wall which initially seemed like a grey rectangle painted on the wall, but was in fact, an unlit opening to another room. So really it was nothing. But we waited so long to see it so I stayed for a while. It made me think of the Emperor’s New Clothes, but I did enjoy it very much.

Amazingly, I got another chance to see Turrell's work at his retrospective at LACMA over the holiday break while visiting with family and friends in LA. It was a much more extensive show than that in NYC, and more experiential. For one piece, we donned booties and entered a large room transformed into a color wash chamber with a group.

Unbelievably, on our day to visit the Turrell show at LACMA, there had been a couple of cancellations and we got the hottest tickets in town -- sold out for the entire duration of the show: Perceptual Cell and Dark Matters. Each 20-minute appointment to see these works (individually and in pairs, respectively) is spoken for; most of the museum staff hasn't even had the chance to experience these works.

Turrell's Perceptual Cell is reminiscent of the isolation tank (aka sensory deprivation tank) popular in the 1960s, developed by John C. Lilly. The attendants (sporting A Clockwork Orange-like black derby hats with their white labcoats) give you the option of color wash or strobe effect (I chose strobe). After signing a waiver, you remove your shoes and lie on the narrow bed, with noise cancelling headphones on. An emergency panic-button is placed in your hand. Like a drawer, the bed with you on it, is rolled into the chamber, sealing the opening. Once in the chamber, the strobes created fractal-like mathematical patterns in my vision, almost inside my head it seemed. I was uncertain whether my eyes were open or closed. After a time, the assault of the strobing multi-colored light on my perception was dizzying. Here, the results of a googleimage search for 'Sierpinski carpet' can help me share what I experienced (minus the small headache.)

"Fast Fourier Transforms, Diffraction Patterns, and J" by Ned W. Allis (, Jeffrey P. Dumont (, Flynn J. Heiss (, Clifford A. Reiter ( Source:

In contrast, Dark Matter is quiet and calm: you grope your way into a pitch dark chamber (using the railing as your vision is useless). The chamber is anechoic (dampened for noise so there is zero sound). You feel for a chair and settle in to gaze at nothing, again unsure whether your eyes are opened or closed. What is vision in complete darkness? After a while a faint glow emerges in your peripheral vision. 

While I've tried to describe these works by James Turrell, its cliche but words really don't do justice. These are perception-altering works which must be experienced. I chalk it up under the category of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and my mind's eye revisits them often. 

The show at LACMA is in its final days - coming down and the end of April 2014 - definitely go see it if you get the chance. (I personally plan to visit The Color Inside, Turrell's Skyspace at UT Austin this summer, as my timing to see Turrell's Meeting at MOMA PS1 has always been off...)

And I'll close with a Hollywood anecdote: an artist friend of ours has a friend who works at LACMA. One morning, early, before the museum doors opened to the public, Brangelina were spotted climbing into the Perceptual Cell together. 

James Turrell page on
James Turrell website
 by Peggy Weil
Roden Crater website (implements a changing color wash effect - check it out!)
Doug Aitken INTV w Turrell in the NY Times T Magazine Website
Visit The Pace Gallery London James Turrell: Recent Works through April 5, 2014

TOP OF PAGE: Two separate shots side-by-side looking up toward the ceiling in the middle of the Guggenheim Museum in New York during James Turrell's light exhibition Aten Reign. Photos by Adam Shankbone. From

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CommentsCategories Art UK US World Tags turrell, james turrell, roden crater, art and space movement, eric orr, electrum, guggenheim, LACMA, peggy weil, perceptual cell, dark matters UT Austin, Color Inside, Skyspace, Pace, London

Jan 24, 2014



We've blogged about feature documentaries about science and art, and more recently about experimental sciart docs. In the spirit of the quick-fix, on-the-go need for science, we decided this time we’d explore the many mini-docs about science on the web. There are literally thousands if not millions of science videos available online, and not all of them are dry educational explanations. Most involve demonstrations, illustrations, and fun new ways of thinking about bits of science like the periodic table.

Periodic table by Armtuk, from Wiki Commons

Lots of people have YouTube channels, with subscription services offered for their frequently updated science videos. Smarter Every Day has a video explaining the physics of how cats manage to land on their feet (particularly interesting and poignant for me, since my cat fell four stories and survived!). Other channels include: Minute Physics; Vi Hart’s channel, which includes math doodling videos explaining how to draw fractals and infinite series; SciShow and AsapSCIENCE; Numberphile, Deep Sky Videos and Sixty Symbols; Veritasium; The PBS Idea Channel; and VSauce.

NASA has a great video series, PBS and the Public Library of Science have Science Bytes, and Stephen Palumbi’s lab at Stanford has a collection of microdocs on sustainability and coral reefs. Science Daily covers the latest videos, and Story Collider and Khan Academy have archives of their lectures and events.

Then there are videos which have won competitions, awards, and funding from certain groups, which are not serialised like the videos above. Collections of these videos include Planet SciCast, Sloan Science and Film, the WellCome Trust’s YouTube channel, the HHMI short films site, and the International Film Festival at CERN’s site.

Seriously, whatever you’re looking for, you can find it. Expand your horizons! Bend your mind!

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TOP OF PAGE: Screenshot from Vi Hart’s Video “What is Up with Noises?” shown below. 

CommentsCategories DocFilm SciComm Science