Duke Research Blog

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

Category: Art Page 1 of 4

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

The Making of queerXscape

Sinan Goknur

On September 10th, queerXscape, a new exhibit in The Murthy Agora Studio at the Rubenstein Arts Center, opened. Sinan Goknur and Max Symuleski, PhD candidates in the Computational Media, Arts & Cultures Program, created the installation with digital prints of collages, cardboard structures, videos, and audio. Max explains that this multi-media approach transforms the studio from a room into a landscape which provides an immersive experience.

Max Symuleski

The two artists combined their experiences with changing urban environments when planning this exhibit. Sinan reflects on his time in Turkey where he saw constant construction and destruction, resulting in a quickly shifting landscape. While processing all of this displacement, he began taking pictures as “a way of coping with the world.” These pictures later become layers in the collages he designed with Max.

Meanwhile, Max used their time in New York City where they had to move from neighborhood to neighborhood as gentrification raised prices. Approaching this project, they wondered, “What does queer mean in this changing landscape? What does it mean to queer something? Where are our spaces? Where do we need them to survive?” They had previously worked on smaller collages made from magazines that inspired the pair of artists to try larger-scale works.  

Both Sinan and Max have watched the exploding growth in Durham while studying at Duke. From this perspective, they were able to tackle this project while living in a city that exemplifies the themes they explore in their work.

One of the cardboard structures

Using a video that Sinan had made as inspiration for the exhibit, they began assembling four large digital collages. To collaborate on the pieces, they would send the documents back and forth while making edits. When it became time to assemble their work, they had to print the collage in large strips and then careful glue them together. Through this process, they learned the importance of researching materials and experimented with the best way to smoothly place the strips together. While putting together mound-like cardboard structures of building, tire, and ice cube cut-outs, Max realized that, “we’re now doing construction.” Consulting with friends who do small construction and maintenance jobs for a living also helped them assemble and install the large-scale murals in the space. The installation process for them was yet another example of the tension between various drives for and scales of constructions taking place around them.

While collage and video may seem like an odd combination, they work together in this exhibit to surround the viewer and appeal to both the eyes and ears. Both artists share a background in queer performance and are driven to the rough aesthetics of photo collage and paper. The show brings together aspects of their experience in drag performance, collage, video, photography, and paper sculpture of a balanced collaboration. Their work demonstrates the value of partnership that crosses genres.

Poster for the exhibit

When concluding their discussion of changing spaces, Max mentioned that, “our sense of resilience is tied to the domains where we could be queer.” Finding an environment where you belong becomes even more difficult when your landscape resembles shifting sand. Max and Sinan give a glimpse into the many effects of gentrification, destruction, and growth within the urban context. 

The exhibit will be open until October 6. If you want to see the results of weeks of collaging, printing, cutting, and pasting together photography accumulated from near and far, stop by the Ruby.

Post by Lydia Goff

Combining Up-Close Views of Science, Nature With the Magic of Light

Zinnia stamen by Thomas Barlow, Duke University

Thomas Barlow ’21 finds inspiration in small everyday things most people overlook: a craggy lichen growing on a tree, a dead insect, the light reflected by a pane of glass. Where we might see a flower, Barlow looks past the showy pink petals to the intricate parts tucked within.

The 20-year-old is a Duke student majoring in biology. By day, he takes classes and does research in a lab. But in his spare time, he likes to take up-close photographs using objects he finds outside or around the lab: peach pits, fireflies. But also pipettes, pencils.

A handheld laser pointer and flitting fireflies become streaks of light in this long-exposure image in Duke Forest. By Thomas Barlow.

Barlow got interested in photography in middle school, while playing around with his dad’s camera. His dad, a landscape architect, encouraged the hobby by enlisting him to take photos of public parks, gardens and playgrounds, which have been featured on various architects’ websites and in national publications such as Architecture Magazine. But “I always wanted to get closer, to see more,” Barlow said.

In high school he started taking pictures of still lifes. But he didn’t just throw flowers and fruit onto a backdrop and call it art. His compositions were a mishmash of insects and plants arranged with research gadgets: glass tubes, plastic rulers, syringes, or silicon wafers like those used for computer chips.

“I like pairing objects you would never find together normally,” Barlow said. “Removing them from their context and generating images with interesting textures and light.”

Sometimes his mother sends him treasures from her garden in Connecticut to photograph, like the pale green wings of a luna moth. But mostly he finds his subjects just steps from his dorm room door. It might be as easy as taking a walk through Duke Gardens or going for one of his regular runs in Duke Forest.

Having found, say, a flower bud or bumblebee, he then uses bits of glass, metal, mirrors and other shiny surfaces — “all objects that interact with light in some interesting way” – to highlight the interaction of light and color.

“I used to be really obsessed with dichroic mirrors,” pieces of glass that appear to change colors when viewed from different angles, Barlow said. “I thought they were beautiful objects. You can get so many colors and reflections out of it, just by looking at it in different ways.”

In one pair of images, the white, five-petaled flowers of a meadow anemone are juxtaposed against panels of frosted glass, a pipette, a mechanical pencil.

Another image pair shows moth wings. One is zoomed in to capture the fine details of the wing scales. The other zooms out to show them scattered willy-nilly around a shimmering pink circle of glass, like the remnants of a bat’s dinner plate.

Luna moth wings and wing scales with dichroic mirror, Thomas Barlow

For extreme close-ups, Barlow uses his Canon DSLR with a microscope objective mounted onto the front of a tube lens. Shooting this close to something so small isn’t just a matter of putting a bug or flower in front of the camera and taking a shot. To get every detail in focus, he takes multiple images of the same subject, moving the focal point each time. When he’s done he’s taken hundreds of pictures, each with a different part of the object in focus. Then he merges them all together.

At high magnification, Barlow’s flower close-ups reveal the curly yellow stamens of a zinnia flower, and the deep red pollen-producing parts of a tiger lily.

“I love that you can see the spikey pollen globules,” Barlow said.

Stomata and pollen on the underside of a tiger lily stamen, by Thomas Barlow

When he first got to Duke he was taking photos using a DIY setup in his dorm room. Then he asked some of the researchers and faculty he knew if there was anything photography-related he could do for their labs.

“I knew I was interested in nature photography and I wanted to practice it,” Barlow said.

One thing led to another, and before long he moved his setup to the Biological Sciences building on Science Drive, where he’s been photographing lichens for Daniele Armaleo and Jolanta Miadlikowska, both lichenologists.

“A lichen photo might not seem like anything special to an average person,” Barlow said. “But I think they’re really stunning.”

Leaving the Louvre: Duke Team Shows How to Get out Fast

Students finish among top 1% in 100-hour math modeling contest against 11,000 teams worldwide


Imagine trying to move the 26,000 tourists who visit the Louvre each day through the maze of galleries and out of harm’s way. One Duke team spent 100 straight hours doing just that, and took home a prize.

If you’ve ever visited the Louvre in Paris, you may have been too focused on snapping a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa to think about the nearest exit.

But one Duke team knows how to get out fast when it matters most, thanks to a computer simulation they developed for the Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling, an international contest in which thousands of student teams participate each year.

Their results, published in the Journal of Undergraduate Mathematics and Its Applications, placed them in the top 1% against more than 11,000 teams worldwide.

With a record 10.2 million visitors flooding through its doors last year, the Louvre is one of the most popular museums in the world. Just walking through a single wing in one of its five floors can mean schlepping the equivalent of four and a half football fields.

For the contest, Duke undergraduates Vinit Ranjan, Junmo Ryang and Albert Xue had four days to figure out how long it would take to clear out the whole building if the museum really had to evacuate — if the fire alarm went off, for instance, or a bomb threat or a terror attack sent people pouring out of the building.

It might sound like a grim premise. But with a rise in terrorist activity in Europe in recent years, facilities are trying to plan ahead to get people to safety.

The team used a computer program called NetLogo to create a small simulated Louvre populated by 26,000 visitors, the average number of people to wander through the maze of galleries each day. They split each floor of the Louvre into five sections, and assigned people to follow the shortest path to the nearest exit unless directed otherwise.

Computer simulation of a mob of tourists as they rush to the nearest exit in a section of the Louvre.

Their model uses simple flow rates — the number of people that can “flow” through an exit per second — and average walking speeds to calculate evacuation times. It also lets users see what happens to evacuation times if some evacuees are disabled, or can’t push through the throngs and start to panic.

If their predictions are right, the team says it should be possible to clear everyone out in just over 24 minutes.

Their results show that the exit at the Passage Richelieu is critical to evacuation — if that exit is blocked, the main exit through the Pyramid would start to gridlock and evacuating would take a whopping 15 minutes longer.

The students also identified several narrow corridors and sharp turns in the museum’s ground floor that could contribute to traffic jams. Their analyses suggest that widening some of these bottlenecks, or redirecting people around them, or adding another exit door where evacuees start to pile up, could reduce the time it takes to evacuate by 15%.

For the contest, each team of three had to choose a problem, build a model to solve it, and write a 20-page paper describing their approach, all in less than 100 hours.

“It’s a slog fest,” Ranjan said. “In the final 48 hours I think I slept a total of 90 minutes.”

Duke professor emeritus David Kraines, who advised the team, says the students were the first Duke team in over 10 years to be ranked “outstanding,” one of only 19 out of the more than 11,200 competing teams to do so this year. The team was also awarded the Euler Award, which comes with a $9000 scholarship to be split among the team members.

Robin Smith – University Communications

Hamlet is Everywhere. To Cite, or Not to Cite?

Some stories are too good to forget. With almost formulaic accuracy, elements from classic narratives are constantly being reused and retained in our cultural consciousness, to the extent that a room of people who’ve never read Romeo and Juliet could probably still piece out its major plot points. But when stories are so pervasive, how can we tell what’s original and what’s Shakespeare with a facelift?

This summer, three Duke undergraduate students in the Data+ summer research program built a computer program to find reused stories.

“We’re looking for invisible adaptations, or appropriations, of stories where there are underlying themes or the messages remain the same,” explains Elise Xia, a sophomore in mechanical engineering. “The goal of our project was to create a model where we could take one of these original stories, get data from it, and find other stories in literature, film, TV that are adaptations.”

The Lion King for example, is a well-known appropriation of Hamlet. The savannahs of Africa are a far cry from Denmark, and “Simba” bears no etymologic resemblance to “Hamlet”, yet they’re fundamentally the same story: A power-hungry uncle kills the king and ousts the heir to the throne, only for an eventually cataclysmic return of the prince. In an alternate ending for the film, Disney directors even considered quoting Hamlet.

“The only difference is that there’s no incest in The Lion King,” jokes Mikaela Johnson, an English and religious studies major and member of the Invisible Adaptations team.

With Hamlet as their model text, the team used a Natural Language Processing system to turn words into data points and compare other movie scripts and novels to the original play.

But the students had to strike a balance between the more surficial yet comprehensive analysis of computers (comparing place names, character names, and direct quotes) with the deeper textual analysis that humans provide.

So, they developed another branch of analysis: After sifting through about 30,000 scholarly texts on Hamlet to identify major themes — monarchy, death, ghost, power, revenge, uncle, etc. – their computer program screened Wikipedia’s database for those key words to identify new adaptations. After comparing the titles found from both primary and secondary sources, they had their final list of Hamlet adaptations.

“What we really tried to do was break down what a story is and how humans understand stories, and then try to translate that into a way a computer can do it,” says Nikhil Kaul, rising junior in computer science and philosophy. “And in a sense, it’s impossible.”

Finding the threshold between a unique story and derivative stories could have serious implications for copyright law and intellectual property in the future. But Grant Glass, UNC graduate student of English and comparative literature and the project manager of this study, believes that the real purpose of the research is to understand the context of each story.

“Appropriating without recognition removes the historical context of how that story was made,” Glass explains. Often, problematic facets of the story are too deeply ingrained to coat over with fresh literary paint: “All of the ugliness of text shouldn’t be capable of being whitewashed – They are compelling stories, but they’re problematic. We owe past baggage to be understood.”

Adaptations include small hat-tips to their original source; quoting the original or using character names. But appropriations of works do nothing to signal their source to their audience, which is why the Data+ team’s thematic analysis of Wikipedia pages was vital in getting a comprehensive list of previously unrecognized adaptations.

“A good adaptation would subvert expectations of the original text,” Glass says. Seth Rogan’s animated comedy, Sausage Party, one of the more surprising movie titles the students’ program found, does just that. “It’s a really vulgar, pretty funny movie,” Kaul explains. “It’s very existential and meta and has a lot of death at the end of it, much like Hamlet does. So, the program picked up on those similarities.”

 Without this new program, the unexpected resemblance could’ve gone unnoticed by literary academia – and whether or not Seth Rogan intended to parallel a grocery store to the Danish royal court, it undoubtedly spins a reader’s expectation of Hamlet on its head.

By Vanessa Moss

Chronicling Migrant Deaths Along the US-Mexico Border

Science, especially social science, is rarely apolitical. Nonetheless, researchers are often hesitant to engage with the political implications of their work. Striving to protect their objective, scientific stance, they leave the discussing and at times the fighting to the politicians and legislators.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason de León is not one of those researchers. Politics is not merely implicated in his work, but rather drives it. De León studies undocumented migration between Mexico and the United States.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project.

As director of the Undocumented Migration Project, De León studies what happens to the bodies of migrants crossing the desert to reach the U.S. using “any genre I can steal from,” he told an audience at Duke University on April 5. Using tools from archeology, forensics, photography, and ethnography, de León and his team have been providing novel insights into one of the most urgent political challenges currently facing the nation.

De León acknowledged the political reality of his work immediately by opening his talk with a quote from President Trump about building a “great wall.” However, he was quick to clarify that the problem of missing migrants is not partisan. Rather, it has a long history that he argues started with the 1993 immigration enforcement policy, “Prevention through Deterrence.” This policy’s aim was to redirect illegal immigration to the desert rather than to stop it. Politicians hoped that in the desert, where security is weak and the terrain treacherous, the natural terrain would serve as a border wall. Inherent in this policy is the assumption that migrant life is expandable.

In the wake of this policy, the human smuggling industry in northern Mexico experienced a swift influx and the number of known migrant deaths began to rise. Since the 1990s, over 600 migrant bodies have been recovered from the Sonoran Desert of Arizona where de León conducts his research. Until his team conducted the first forensic experiments on the site, people could only speculate as to what was happening to the bodies of missing loved ones hoping to make it across the border. Now, de León can offer some helpful if heartbreaking data.


De León examines the human consequences of U.S. immigration policy in his book, “The Land of Open Graves”

De León’s archeological method, “desert taphonomy,” examines both the natural and cultural processes that determine what happens to a dead body. Anthropologists studying the body’s decomposition were initially interested only in natural factors like the climate and scavenging animals. Recently, they have realized that the decomposition process is as social as it is natural, and that the beliefs and attitudes of the agents involved affect what happens to human remains. According to this definition, a federal policy that leaves dead bodies to decompose in the Arizona desert is taphonomy, and so is the constellation of social, economic, and political factors that drive people to risk their lives crossing a treacherous, scorching desert on foot.

Guided by this new approach, de León studies social indicators to trace the roots of missing bodies, such as “migrant stations” made up of personal belongings left behind by migrant groups, which he says can at times be too big to analyze. De León and his team document these remnants with the same respect they pay to any traditional archeological trail. Items that many would dismiss as trash, such as gendered items including clothes and hygiene products, can reveal much needed information about the makeup of the migrant groups crossing the desert.

De León argues that human decomposition is a form of political violence, caused by federal policies like Prevention through Deterrence. His passion for his research is clearly not driven by mere intellectual curiosity; he is driven by the immense human tragedy of migrant deaths. He regularly conducts searches for missing migrants that families reach out to him about as a desperate last measure. Even though the missing individuals are often unlikely to be found alive, de León hopes to assuage the trauma of “ambiguous loss,” wherein the lack of verification of death freezes the grief process and makes closure impossible for loved ones.

The multifaceted nature of de León’s work has allowed him to inspire change across diverse realms. He has been impactful not only in academia but also in the policy and public worlds. His book, “The Land of Open Graves,” is accessible and poetic. He has organized multiple art exhibitions that translate his research to educate and empower the public. Through the success of these installations, he has come to realize that exhibition work is “just as valuable as a journal article.”

Backpacks left behind by undocumented immigrants in the exhibition,
“State of Exception.”

Hearing about the lives that de León has touched suggests that perhaps, all researchers should be unafraid to step outside of their labs to not only acknowledge but embrace the complex and critical political implications of their work.

Guest Post by Deniz Ariturk

New Blogger Rebecca Williamson: The Moon and Some Stars

Hello! My name is Rebecca Williamson, and I am a freshman here at Duke University. Coming into college, I plan to major in economics, but that could very well change. As for my interests outside of the classroom, I enjoy singing and theater and am a member of Out of the Blue, one of the all-female a cappella groups here at Duke!

Rebecca Williamson, Duke 2022

Rebecca Williamson, Duke 2022

I fell in love with Duke the second I stepped on campus. I am excited to see what Duke has to offer me, but more importantly, what I can offer to Duke.

My interest in science, specifically astronomy, was piqued at a very young age. By age six, I had not one, but three,  Moon in my Room light up toys (remote controlled models of the Moon that scrolled through the waxing and waning phases of the Moon at the touch of a button) mounted in my bedroom. By nine, I had the entire planetary system (yes, including Pluto) hanging from my ceiling. Though I cannot say that my interests remain with astronomy, it is what first got me invested in science. I have since gained interest in the natural sciences and animal sciences, though every so often I do press some of the buttons on my Moon in my Room remote.

Some random boy imagines he's as cool as six-year-old Rebecca.

Some random boy imagines he’s as cool as six-year-old Rebecca.

My love of writing, however, was spawned by my love of theater. As an active member of my high school’s theater community, I was roped into being a part of, and eventually became the president, of my school’s Cappies Critics team. As a Cappie, I was expected to watch local high school plays and musicals and write critical, holistic reviews of them. This program jump-started my love for writing and helped me to develop my own unique journalistic voice.

solar system mobile. www.luxrysale.comI hope to combine my interest in the natural and animal sciences with my love for writing and chronicle some of the amazing research going on in these fields both on campus and around Durham! I also hope to incorporate my interests in music and theater into my inquiries and document scientific research surrounding music and the arts in the Duke community.

Duke University Research Blog, look out, because here I come!

Post by Rebecca Williamson

Researcher Turns Wood Into Larger-Than-Life Insects

Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio creates larger-than-life insect sculptures. This wooden mantis was exhibited at the Art Science Gallery in Austin, Texas in 2013.

Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio creates larger-than-life insect sculptures. This wooden mantis was exhibited at the Art Science Gallery in Austin, Texas in 2013.

On a recent spring morning, biologist Alejandro Berrio took a break from running genetic analyses on a supercomputer to talk about an unusual passion: creating larger-than-life insect sculptures.

Berrio is a postdoctoral associate in professor Greg Wray’s lab at Duke. He’s also a woodcarver, having exhibited his shoebox-sized models of praying mantises, wasps, crickets and other creatures in museums and galleries in his hometown and in Austin, Texas, where his earned his Ph.D.

The Colombia-born scientist started carving wood in his early teens, when he got interested in model airplanes. He built them out of pieces of lightweight balsa wood that he bought in craft shops.

When he got to college at the University of Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, he joined an entomology lab. “One of my first introductions to science was watching insects in the lab and drawing them,” Berrio said. “One day I had an ‘aha’ moment and thought: I can make this. I can make an insect with wings the same way I used to make airplanes.”

Beetle carved by Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio.

His first carvings were of mosquitoes — the main insect in his lab — hand carved from soft balsa wood with an X-Acto knife.

Using photographs for reference, he would sketch the insects from different positions before he started carving.

He worked at his kitchen table, shaping the body from balsa wood or basswood. “I might start with a power saw to make the general form, and then with sandpaper until I started getting the shape I wanted,” Berrio said.

He used metal to join and position the segments in the legs and antennae, then set the joints in place with glue.

“People loved them,” Berrio said. “Scientists were like: Oh, I want a fly. I want a beetle. My professors were giving them to their friends. So I started making them for people and selling them.”

Soon Berrio was carving wooden fungi, dragons, turtles, a snail. “Whatever people wanted me to make,” Berrio said.

He earned just enough money to pay for his lunch, or the bus ride to school.

Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio carved this butterfly using balsa wood for the body and legs, and paper for the wings.

His pieces can take anywhere from a week to two months to complete. “This butterfly was the most time-consuming,” he said, pointing to a model with translucent veined wings.

Since moving to Durham in 2016, he has devoted less time to his hobby than he once did. “Last year I made a crab for a friend who studies crustaceans,” Berrio said. “She got married and that was my wedding gift.”

Still no apes, or finches, or prairie voles — all subjects of his current research. “But I’m planning to restart,” Berrio said. “Every time I go home to Colombia I bring back some wood, or my favorite glue, or one of my carving tools.”

Insect sculptures by Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio.

Insect sculptures by Duke biologist Alejandro Berrio.

Explore more of Berrio’s sculpture and photography at https://www.flickr.com/photos/alejoberrio/.

by Robin Smith

by Robin Smith

How a Museum Became a Lab

Encountering and creating art may be some of mankind’s most complex experiences. Art, not just visual but also dancing and singing, requires the brain to understand an object or performance presented to it and then to associate it with memories, facts, and emotions.

A piece in Dario Robleto’s exhibit titled “The Heart’s Knowledge Will Decay” (2014)

In an ongoing experiment, Jose “Pepe” Contreras-Vidal and his team set up in artist Dario Robleto’s exhibit “The Boundary of Life Is Quietly Crossed” at the Menil Collection near downtown Houston. They then asked visitors if they were willing to have their trips through the museum and their brain activities recorded. Robleto’s work was displayed from August 16, 2014 to January 4, 2015. By engaging museum visitors, Contreras-Vidal and Robleto gathered brain activity data while also educating the public, combining research and outreach.

“We need to collect data in a more natural way, beyond the lab” explained Contreras-Vidal, an engineering professor at the University of Houston, during a talk with Robleto sponsored by the Nasher Museum.

More than 3,000 people have participated in this experiment, and the number is growing.

To measure brain activity, the volunteers wear EEG caps which record the electrical impulses that the brain uses for communication. EEG caps are noninvasive because they are just pulled onto the head like swim caps. The caps allow the museum goers to move around freely so Contreras-Vidal can record their natural movements and interactions.

By watching individuals interact with art, Contreras-Vidal and his team can find patterns between their experiences and their brain activity. They also asked the volunteers to reflect on their visit, adding a first person perspective to the experiment. These three sources of data showed them what a young girl’s favorite painting was, how she moved and expressed her reaction to this painting, and how her brain activity reflected this opinion and reaction.

The volunteers can also watch the recordings of their brain signals, giving them an opportunity to ask questions and engage with the science community. For most participants, this is the first time they’ve seen recordings of their brain’s electrical signals. In one trip, these individuals learned about art, science, and how the two can interact. Throughout this entire process, every member of the audience forms a unique opinion and learns something about both the world and themselves as they interact with and make art.

Children with EEG caps explore art.

Contreras-Vidal is especially interested in the gestures people make when exposed to the various stimuli in a museum and hopes to apply this information to robotics. In the future, he wants someone with a robotic arm to not only be able to grab a cup but also to be able to caress it, grip it, or snatch it. For example, you probably can tell if your mom or your best friend is approaching you by their footsteps. Contreras-Vidal wants to restore this level of individuality to people who have prosthetics.

Contreras-Vidal thinks science can benefit art just as much as art can benefit science. Both he and Robleto hope that their research can reduce many artists’ distrust of science and help advance both fields through collaboration.

Post by Lydia Goff

What is a Model?

When you think of the word “model,” what do you think?

As an Economics major, 
the first thing that comes to my mind is a statistical model, modeling phenomena such as the effect of class size on student test scores. A
car connoisseur’s mind might go straight to a model of their favorite vintage Aston
Martin. Someone else studying fashion even might imagine a runway model. The point is, the term “model” is used in popular discourse incredibly frequently, but are we even sure what it implies?

Annabel Wharton, a professor of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke, gave a talk entitled “Defining Models” at the Visualization Friday Forum. The forum is a place “for faculty, staff and students from across the university (and beyond Duke) to share their research involving the development and/or application of visualization methodologies.” Wharton’s goal was to answer the complex question, “what is a model?”

Wharton began the talk by defining the term “model,” knowing that it can often times be rather ambiguous. She stated the observation that models are “a prolific class of things,” from architectural models, to video game models, to runway models. Some of these types of things seem unrelated, but Wharton, throughout her talk, pointed out the similarities between them and ultimately tied them together as all being models.

The word “model” itself has become a heavily loaded term. According to Wharton, the dictionary definition of “model” is 9 columns of text in length. Wharton then stressed that a model “is an autonomous agent.” This implies that models must be independent of the world and from theory, as well as being independent of their makers and consumers. For example, architecture, after it is built, becomes independent of its architect.

Next, Wharton outlined different ways to model. They include modeling iconically, in which the model resembles the actual thing, such as how the video game Assassins Creed models historical architecture. Another way to model is indexically, in which parts of the model are always ordered the same, such as the order of utensils at a traditional place setting. The final way to model is symbolically, in which a model symbolizes the mechanism of what it is modeling, such as in a mathematical equation.

Wharton then discussed the difference between a “strong model” and a “weak model.” A strong model is defined as a model that determines its weak object, such as an architect’s model or a runway model. On the other hand, a “weak model” is a copy that is always less than its archetype, such as a toy car. These different classifications include examples we are all likely aware of, but weren’t able to explicitly classify or differentiate until now.

Wharton finally transitioned to discussing one of her favorite models of all time, a model of the Istanbul Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox Christian Church and later imperial mosque. She detailed how the model that provides the best sense of the building without being there is found in a surprising place, an Assassin’s Creed video game. This model is not only very much resembles the actual Hagia Sophia, but is also an experiential and immersive model. Wharton joked that even better, the model allows explorers to avoid tourists, unlike in the actual Hagia Sophia.

Wharton described why the Assassin’s Creed model is a highly effective agent. Not only does the model closely resemble the actual architecture, but it also engages history by being surrounded by a historical fiction plot. Further, Wharton mentioned how the perceived freedom of the game is illusory, because the course of the game actually limits players’ autonomy with code and algorithms.

After Wharton’s talk, it’s clear that models are definitely “a prolific class of things.” My big takeaway is that so many thing in our everyday lives are models, even if we don’t classify them as such. Duke’s East Campus is a model of the University of Virginia’s campus, subtraction is a model of the loss of an entity, and an academic class is a model of an actual phenomenon in the world. Leaving my first Friday Visualization Forum, I am even more positive that models are powerful, and stretch so far beyond the statistical models in my Economics classes.


By Nina Cervantes

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