The intersection of science, music, art and improvisation has long fascinated experimental artist Pamela Davis Kivelson. Her latest foray into the busy intersection – Drawing with Gravitational Waves – reaches out of this world.

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Video by Kurt Hickman

Artist Pamela Davis Kivelson created a participatory performance piece with violinist and scientist Lucy Liuxuan Zhang and creative coder Xiaohan Zhang.

Inspired by LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), Kivelson joined forces with classical improvisational violinist and scientist Lucy Liuxuan Zhang and creative coder Xiaohan Zhang (no relation) to create a participatory performance piece.

Kivelson presented the piece to three Stanford audiences during the fall quarter. She considers it an ongoing project where each performance informs the next.

The idea began with a workshop she taught in the Design Program at Stanford called Drawing Emotions in Motion, followed by a conversation with Rainer Weiss, the LIGO scientist who shared this year’s Nobel Prize in physics for the observation of gravitational waves.

She recalls her experience with the Drawing Emotions in Motion students: “I learned that while exploring intuitive drawing together in the workshop, people connected, united and felt inspired. The more people were inspired, the better they felt and the easier it was to learn complicated material like gravitational waves.”

In talking with Weiss, Kivelson was particularly impressed by his emphasis on the perspective that his discovery represented a collective accomplishment involving the collaborative contributions of many people over a long period of time. They talked about how science is often portrayed as a solitary undertaking, but that major advances are nothing like that. Rather, they are highly collaborative.

She pondered Drawing for months before joining forces with a musician and a coder and adapting it for different audiences as an exercise in reconciling intuitive and rational thinking, and creating individually and with others.

Variations on a theme

In each iteration of Drawing, Kivelson invites audience members to make solo drawings while listening to live violin music, followed by making collaborative drawings, again, listening to live music. For her part, Lucy Zhang improvised her musical response to the audience’s drawings and the dynamical transformations of Kivelson’s paintings projected on large screens in the room. The transformations were generated using algorithms based on gravitational dynamics implemented by Xiaohan Zhang.

The creative loop of drawing, playing, looking and listening encouraged participants to be spontaneous and instinctive, but at the same time connected to the rational foundation of playing notes on an instrument, processing visual and audio material, and making marks on a whiteboard or paper. The loop lent itself to solo and collaborative creativity.

The first presentation of Drawing was to Stanford faculty, students and invited speakers and attendees of the 2017 Stanford Complexity Symposium, an interdisciplinary event organized by the student-led Stanford Complexity Group.

Tailored for the symposium audience and inspired by the group’s interest in complexity science, Kivelson subtitled the piece Active Matter and focused on creating opportunities for the collective behaviors of the participants to emerge from their interactions with the individual elements of improvisational sound, visuals and drawing.

“I was surprised by the way complexity theory lends itself to drawing,” Kivelson said after the performance. “It felt like the symposium audience could have kept going for a long time without running out of material.”

The second adaptation of Drawing, subtitled Wayfinding, was presented as a workshop to a small group of Stanford undergraduate and graduate students at Stanford’s

Comparing this second adaption to the first, Kivelson noted that each audience has its own language or voice when they draw. After a short time, the students started to operate in sync with each other, and without exchanging words they began spontaneously drawing on each other’s work.

“There was a feeling of increased intimacy in the room and exultation at getting it right and understanding each other,” she said. “Midwifing that exploration was exciting.”

The culminating adaptation of the participatory performance was open to the public, and included a scientific introduction to the physics of gravity waves by Shamit Kachru, professor of physics and director of the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics.

With every seat taken in Wallenberg Hall Learning Theater, and overflow audience members spilling into the hallway, there was a kind of giddy tension in the room as people picked up pens and paper and attempted to follow Kivelson’s instructions to draw to Lucy Zhang’s music. Tension and a feeling of not knowing quite how to respond quickly gave way to engrossed creative output.

“The confusion and inspiration of the audience as they tried to synthesize their reactions to the projected images and the music was reflected in their drawings. Similar stages of confusion and inspiration accompanied the development of the modern concept of black holes and of the LIGO detectors,” said Kachru.

In the discussion that followed the final drawing performance, one participant asked Kachru if connections between areas that are naively completely distinct, such as drawing, music and physics, ever led to breakthroughs in science. His answer: Yes. “The modern history of physics and mathematics is full of such fruitful unifications of disparate areas of thought,” he said.

The discussion after the performance was as thrilling as the drawing exploration because the science faculty and students in the audience conveyed the sense of the daring, edgy and imaginative thinking required to solve hard problems and how scientific truths are often built in nonlinear and aesthetic ways, Kivelson said.

Reflections and looking forward

Reflecting on Drawing, Kivelson said: “I wanted to look closely at the collaborative experience and human inspiration. What is the moment when you know something, you have figured it out, when you are sure in your bones that you have achieved a new level of understanding? How is it that some people can really trust their intuitions to such an extent that they can commit years of their lives to a journey, for example, over 40 years to the discovery of gravitational waves, with no roadmap telling them where they need to go?”

For her next project, Kivelson is working with Betsy Devine, guest curator for the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, on a creativity in art and science exhibition about Nobel laureate Richard Feynman (1918-88), the theoretical physicist known for his work on quantum electrodynamics and his interest in drawing, including Feynman diagrams. The exhibition will open in Singapore in October 2018 and travel to the Nobel Museum at a later date.

Kivelson is also creating another interactive drawing project closer to home. This time it is based on a series of painterly drawings that capture emotions in motion and micro-expressions during live events. The goal is to show some of the meta information that we see but do not necessarily notice. It will take place in San Francisco next year.