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Composing Chaos

Composing Chaos

Composing Chaos

December/January 2014 issue of American Craft magazine
Nathalie Miebach, Portrait

In her latest work, Nathalie Miebach has added another dimension – sound. “The point, really, is to hear the information,” she says. Violist Dimitri Murrath plays a score generated from weather data. Photo: Cary Wolinsky

Cary Wolinski

Of all the images of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, perhaps the most haunting were the wrecked seaside amusement parks: the roller coaster half-submerged in the ocean off the New Jersey shore, the still-standing Ferris wheel overlooking Coney Island in ruins. For Nathalie Miebach, these eerie, elegiac sights captured a conundrum: What compels us to keep building, and rebuilding, on sites that are vulnerable to increasingly extreme weather?

“Here was a story, a human conflict, that I found very interesting. To me, it was a metaphor for the human inability, almost, to accept that our climate really is changing,” says the Boston-based artist, 41, whose fascination with weather – how it interacts with environments and affects people – has informed her work for almost a decade. She made a series of Sandy-inspired sculptures, elaborate basket structures she wove by hand in a colorful riot of reeds, wood, bamboo, and other materials. Their wildly intricate shapes suggest carnival rides, full of twists, turns, and whirls, with all the chaos and cacophony of, well, a storm. Though they exhibit a kind of gorgeous madness, there is method to it.

What Miebach does in all her work – which ranges from sculpture to wall pieces to large installations – is take scientific data and render it in tactile, three-dimensional form. In her Sandy series, the ups and downs of a roller coaster correspond directly to wind speeds recorded on the night the hurricane made landfall. Temperature, humidity, tidal patterns, the migratory habits of krill – you name it, Miebach has woven it.

“I stay true to the numbers, in the sense that you can read the weather off these pieces,” she says. “There is a numerical logic, a way of translation, at the root of it all.”

Research is a big part of Miebach’s craft, especially if her subject is a particular environment, be it stormy Atlantic waters or Midwestern city streets. “In order to truly understand weather, you have to understand the environment as well. And an environment is not an app; it will not reveal itself to you quickly,” she says.

Working for months if necessary, she’ll gather data from weather stations and the internet but also go out in the field, using simple measuring tools and her own senses to take it all in: rainfall, plant and animal activity, cloud patterns, the color of water, how sound travels differently on a humid day. Later she’ll plot her structures in detailed drawings, then do the slow, meticulous handwork that brings them to life.

The results are objects of extraordinary playfulness and wonder. Are they art, or science, or both – or something else entirely? It’s the kind of question people interested in innovation like to contemplate these days. No surprise, then, that Miebach’s work has been attracting attention across disciplines. She won a coveted spot as a Fellow and speaker at the 2011 TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) global conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. In 2013 she took part in Synergy, a project of MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution that “catalyzes partnerships between artists and research scientists”; out of that came To Hear an Ocean in a Whisper, a large, ambitious piece she made in collaboration with oceanographer Jonathan Fincke, about the marine ecosystem of Georges Bank in the Gulf of Maine.
Kids love Miebach’s work, which is why science teachers were among the first to embrace it, she says, even before the art world. “On one side, my work is very didactic, almost like a graph that tells exactly the relationship between variables, a very scientific representation. On the other, it’s a fanciful, magical, crazy expression of weather that still uses data as a source of material, but has crossed a boundary.” It challenges us to think about how we visualize information: Is data just as valid in a sculpture as in a graph? Have we been conditioned to associate some visual languages with scientific fact and others with aesthetic expression? If the latter is true, then she wants her work to be “right at the cusp of that tension.”

A blend of science and art seems to be part of Miebach’s DNA. She grew up in Germany, her father’s native country, until the age of 12, when his job as an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope brought their family to the United States. “He would come home with pictures that the Hubble took, and he would talk about these galaxies, millions of light years away,” she remembers. Her French-born mother was creative, and enjoyed weaving baskets, crafting stained glass, and painting. Miebach was involved in theater as a teen, earned a BA in political science and East Asian studies at Oberlin College, then spent two years teaching English in Indonesia. There, she discovered that “if you wanted to understand what was going on politically, you hung out with artists.” That revelation sparked her interest in visual art, “not just as a language, but as a vehicle of thought.” 

Back in the United States, she enrolled at the Massachusetts College of Art, where she got an art education degree and later an MFA in sculpture. In between, she studied basketry with Lois Russell, today president of the National Basketry Organization, who encouraged her to “think outside the vessel.” She made work about astronomy for a while, then “came down to Earth.” All along, she has reveled in the endless structural possibilities of the basket form, which she regards as an ideal modern tool for data visualization. Take any brainstorm map, matrix, or web, she points out, “put it in 3D, and voilà! You have a basket.”

Miebach’s latest work involves yet another dimension – sound. Looking to bring more nuance to her pieces, she thought about how a composer writes down a basic melody, then achieves an emotional quality by adding notations, or directions to the player, around it. So now she’s translating data into scores that she can use to build a sculpture, and that also can be read and played by a musician.

The “melody” is fixed data, such as wind levels, temperature, and barometric pressure. Less quantifiable elements, such as cloud cover, are given a more free-form visual and musical treatment, leaving room for a player to interpret and improvise. (Visit her website to hear samples.) The sinking of the Andrea Gail in the “Perfect Storm” of 1991 was her inspiration for a series of these 3D musical scores, including a boat form on wheels representing tidal calendars, and maplike wall pieces that track the dance of two storm systems as they combine into one massive Nor’easter.

“The point is not to make a purely expressive piece, though some musicians have done that,” she says. “The point, really, is to hear the information. What kind of dissonance comes out of it, what kind of harmony? Is there harmony?”

For herself, Miebach has found harmony in diverse worlds, “different resonance in different communities.” She relates deeply to craftspeople, but also seeks out the company of data visualizers, a tech-oriented group that has coalesced in the last few years and encompasses designers, coders, sculptors, filmmakers, “people who are really interested in numbers and data, what data can be.” She thinks it’s no coincidence that the DIY maker movement rose in tandem with a tidal wave of technology overwhelming our lives. Even at the tech conferences she attends, she says, “what I hear over and over again is this real need for making things tactile.”

Nathalie Miebach’s solo show, “Changing Waters,” a look at the meteorological and oceanic interactions in the Gulf of Maine, is at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles through January 5. Joyce Lovelace is American Craft's contributing editor.