Duke Research Blog

Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke.

Author: Irene Park

Visualizing Climate Change, Self, and Existential Crises

Nothing excites Heather Gordon like old Duke Forest archives do. (“Forestry porn,” she calls it.) Except maybe the question of whether a copy is inherently worse than its original. Or the fear of unperceived existence and dying into oblivion. Or a lot of things, actually.

Gordon, a visiting artist at Duke’s Rubenstein Arts Center, is blending data and art through origami folding patterns. She doesn’t usually fold her designs into three-dimensional figures (“I hate sculptures”), but the outcome is nevertheless just as—perhaps even more—exciting that way.

Heather Gordon, Durham artist
Heather Gordon, visiting artist at the Rubenstein Arts Center.
Photo by Michelle Lotker

Gordon happened to stumble upon the idea simply by proceeding through day-to-day life. Namely, she found herself growing increasingly frustrated by online security questions. “They’re always asking stupid things like ‘what’s your favorite pet’s name?’, and I can’t remember what I put 10 years ago,” she said. (And Gordon says she loves all her pets equally.)

Instead, she thought that data visualizations could make for a much more effective security protocol by making use of personal data that only the individual in question would know and remember. “A shape could define you,” she said.

Most recently at the Ruby, Gordon worked with the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the Duke University Archives to collect old photographs, spreadsheets, letters, and other documents that would contribute to her arts project. Gordon says she knew it was something she had to do when she found an archived letter addressed to Duke’s Dr. Clarence Korstian reading, “Thanks very much for the two shipments of twigs.” 

But what was most artistically compelling to Gordon was the light intensity data. Using the documented entries and calculations, she noticed that there were four quadrants in each plot, with 10 readings in each quadrant. Given this, Gordon used a compass to create a series of concentric arcs reminiscent of ripples in a pond. The final product put all four quadrants together to create a painting.

abstract painting
This pattern was derived from archival data on light intensity in the Duke Forest.
Photo by Robert Zimmerman

The second half of the Ruby project is directly linked to its title, UNLESS. Inspired by Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, Gordon took the word “UNLESS,” converted each letter into its respective ASCII value, and mapped those numbers into a tree pattern. As in The Lorax, she hoped to tackle issues of resource management and climate change and the idea that unless something is done, climate collapse remains imminent.

For the final product, Gordon used tape to display the tree patterns in colored stripes onto the glass windows of the Ruby. The trees will remain on display into Spring 2020.

tape piece on the Ruby's windows
Gordon’s UNLESS on display at the Rubenstein Arts Center.
Photo by Robert Zimmerman

Yet Gordon’s portfolio neither begins nor ends with UNLESS.

For instance, she’s created an installation called ECHO, inspired by an old personal project of mapping a series of mostly failed “intimate communications” over the course of a year. “I realized I was just seeing what I wanted to see,” Gordon said, reflecting on the project. And thus ECHO was born as an examination of self-awareness, reflection, and authenticity.

The installation itself used strips of mirror tape in a pattern derived from dates of correspondence with Gordon’s close friends. With dancer Justin Tornow, she also put on a dance performance within the space. Unintentionally, ECHO also became a case study in the perception of copies versus originals; a hundred or so audience members chose to crowd around a tiny door to watch Tornow dance, even though the exact same performance was being broadcast live on TVs just a few feet away.

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Tornow’s dance performance.
Photo courtesy of Heather Gordon

In another project, titled And Then The Sun Swallowed Me, Gordon revisits a childhood fear: “I was obsessed with the idea that the sun could go into supernova at any moment, and you wouldn’t know,” she explained. Even now, a similar panic persists. “I’m afraid of unperceived existence,” Gordon said. “No one will know about me 3,000 years later, and I stress about it.”

The folding pattern was made using the atomic radii of elements in suns that are capable of supernovas. Wrapped in black tape around the walls of a large room, the installation is explosive. In the center, a projection shows a swimmer swimming, though moving neither forward nor backward. It’s a Sisyphian swimmer, Gordon explains, forced to go through the motions but unable to find purpose.

And Then The Sun Swallowed Me, featuring a projected Sisyphian swimmer.
Photo courtesy of Heather Gordon

Gordon finds connections where most people can’t. There has long existed a gap between the sciences and the arts, but she seems to suggest that there need no longer be. And she also somehow manages to blend philosophy and existentialism quite gracefully with humor, youthfulness, and creativity. 

In essence, Gordon knows that there’s a lot in this world that’s worth freaking out over, but she handles it quite expertly.

By Irene Park

Dreams of Reality: Performing Dementia

White Lecture Hall’s auditorium is a versatile space. It hosts classes, speakers, and student organizations. And this Wednesday, White 107 was an institution for the elderly, an elementary school classroom, a lake, and an old blue house.

On October 23, Duke welcomed solo artist Kali Quinn to the stage to perform her now 13-year-old, one-woman show, Vamping. Vamping is an artistic and humanistic rendition of dementia, inspired by Quinn’s personal experience with a grandmother who moved into an institution just as Quinn was leaving for college on the other side of the country. It tells the story of 91-year-old Eleanor Butler, who drifts in and out of old memories, joys, and regrets as she experiences dementia in an elderly care facility.

Eleanor undergoing a PET scan

Throughout the hour-long performance, the physicality of the stage remains constant. There is one actor, Quinn herself, accompanied by a few props: a projector, a wheelchair, a blanket, a voice recorder. Yet each of these, Quinn included, shapeshift constantly. Quinn plays not only Eleanor, but also a caregiver, a granddaughter, and Eleanor’s younger selves at different stages of life.

That’s what dementia is like, Quinn explains. It’s experiencing a hundred different things all at once. 

“I don’t know what’s dream and what’s awake,” says an elderly Eleanor as she returns from an old memory and just before she’s immersed into another one.

Vamping captures the existence of identity and personhood in diagnosis, according to Jessica Ruhle, Director of Education at the Nasher Museum of Art. While the story has no clear plot and no clear resolution, it flows in a way that is real and personal. At 91, Eleanor re-experiences her elementary school spelling bee, her 16-year-old flirtationship with the boy who would become her husband, the birth of her first child, her regret at not being a better wife and mother and grandmother, and so much more. She doesn’t particularly succeed in making sense of it all, but neither does she try. The resolution is simply an acceptance of life’s complexity.

A series of memories, materialized through pieces of film, are held over a 91-year-old Eleanor. This is the last scene of the performance.

Janelle Taylor, a medical anthropologist at the University of Toronto and one of the panelists following the performance, explained that this complexity is what differentiates pure medicine from an anthropological approach. “I do kind of the opposite of what medicine does,” she said. “Medicine makes sense of things by excluding possible causes and contexts. Anthropology seeks to bring it all together.”

The entanglement of all these different possible factors perhaps explains why Quinn’s performance also offers glimpses into the lives of caregivers, family members, and others who share in the experience of dementia. In many cases, a single diagnosis affects a far larger network than just the diagnosed patient.

And though that’s true in Vamping as well as the panelists’ experiences with dementia, they acknowledge that other stories of the same condition often go untold. “We’re very alike in our whiteness, our economic condition and ability to afford professional care,” said Ruhle, referring to herself and Quinn. After all, Eleanor experiences dementia within a care institution—which, according to Eleanor in the play itself, costs about $85,000 per year.

Taylor added that she was searching for more data on diagnosed persons who have no healthcare or no family. Unfortunately, there isn’t much existing research on such people, and the data are difficult to find. And adding onto that, there are many cases of dementia that are never formally diagnosed at all.

But even so, Quinn’s performance is important to share. Vamping doesn’t attempt to do the impossible by telling a universal narrative of aging and dementia; instead, it gives an immensely personal and humanistic story of one patient’s experience of life.

Even the cold realities play into its personal nature as well. As Eleanor exclaims at one point in the performance, more money is spent yearly on Viagra and breast implants than on Alzheimer’s. The implication is clear: there’s a need for more research, and there’s a need for more humanness.

By Irene Park

Meet the New Blogger: Irene Park

Hi! My name is Irene Park. I’m currently a sophomore at Duke, but I was born and raised in the D.C. area: home to NIH, NASA, the Smithsonian, and countless other major research complexes. I suppose my proximity to all these different knowledge bases must have influenced my current self in some way, as I’ve got a lot of multi-dimensional ideas free-floating through my mind.

At the top of Montserrat in Barcelona, Spain!

In my free time, catch me looking up cheap flights across the world, staring out the window at nothing in particular, or trying to figure out how to magically save the Amazon. And as you might expect, I’m still relatively undecided about my major simply because I feel that there’s just too much in this world to learn. Picking one specialized area is a bit daunting for me.

But what I do know is that I love stories – both hearing and telling. At age 11, I made a whole blog dedicated to chronicling what I found to be my sister’s strange K-pop obsession. That phase of her life was rather short-lived, however, and eventually I better realized my interest in journalism. I became a writer and editor for my high school newspaper and editor-in-chief of my county one. I became a film buff as well, building a portfolio that included several award-winning shorts.

In general, what I’ve learned through my last few years of storytelling is that while research is typically considered purely objective knowledge, it’s nothing without its “softer” side. Virtually everything can change depending on how a subject is framed through words, sound, or visual media. Being able to effectively communicate – whether informatively, editorially, or both – is and has always been an immensely important task.

One of the many pictures taken while “working on a film” with my group.

That’s something I’d like to build upon during my time with the Duke Research Blog: being able to turn data into words, words into sentences, and sentences into ideas. I find historical, environmental, sociological and anthropological research especially interesting, but those are already some very long terms with highly complex concepts that desire a whole lot of unpacking.

Hopefully I’ll be able to do some of that here. I might also go out on a limb and hope that my experiences at Duke Research Blog could potentially help me decide on a major, but I’m guessing all that interesting new information will just make me more confused. But who ever said that was necessarily a bad thing?

A photo of my friend and me (R) trying to figure out the inner workings of my brain.

Across the Atlantic: Caribbean Music and Diaspora in the UK

According to Professor Deonte Harris, many of us here in the U.S. have a fascination with Black music. But at the same time, we tend not to realize that it’s. . . well, Black music.

Harris, an International Comparative Studies professor at Duke, holds a freshly minted Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from UCLA. At the moment, his research focuses especially on the practice and influence of Afro-Caribbean music and diaspora in London.

Image result for deonte harris ethnomusicology
Deonte Harris, Ph.D.,
Assistant Professor of the Practice of the International Comparative Studies Program

He chose to conduct his research in the UK because of its large overseas Caribbean population and because he found that not much scholarship was dedicated to Black Europe. “It’s such a rich space to think about different historical entanglements that affect the lives and trajectories of Black people,” he explained.

Those entanglements include the legacies of colonialism, the Slave Trade, empire, and much more. The racialization of such historical processes is necessary to note.

For example, Harris found that a major shift in Black British music occurred in the 1950s due to anti-Black racism in England. Black individuals were not allowed to socialize in white spaces, so they formed community in their own way: through soundsystems.

These soundsystem originated in Jamaica and debuted in the UK in the postwar years. A soundsystem was the organization of Black individuals, music, and machines, typically in basements and warehouses, for the enjoyment of Black music and company. It became a medium through which a Black community could form in a racialized nation.

Notting Hill Carnival 2007 004.jpg
Notting Hill Carnival, London: An annual celebration of Black British culture.
Photo by Dominic Alves.

Today, Black British music has greatly expanded, but still remains rooted in sound systems.

While the formation of community has been positive, Harris explains that much of his research is a highly complex and often disheartening commentary on Blackness.

Blackness has been created as a category by dominant society: the white community, mostly colonizers. Black music became a thing only because of the push to otherize Black Britons; in many ways, Black culture exists only as an “other” in relation to whiteness. This raises a question of identity that Harris continues to examine: Who has the power to represent self?

In the U.S. especially, Black music is a crucial foundation to American popular music. But as in the UK, it finds its origins in community, folk traditions, and struggle. The industrial nature of the U.S. allows that struggle to be commercialized and disseminated across the globe, creating a sort of paradox. According to Harris, Black individuals must reconcile “being recognized and loved globally, but understanding that people still despise who you are.”

To conduct his research, Harris mostly engages in fieldwork. He spends a significant amount of time in London, engaging with Black communities and listening to live music. His analysis typically involves both sonic and situational elements.

But the most valuable part of Harris’ fieldwork, perhaps, is the community that he himself finds. “Ethnomusicology has for me been a very transformative experience,” he said. “It has helped me to create new global relationships with people ⁠— I consider myself now to have homes in several different places.”

By Irene Park

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