Hearing (and Feeling) the Contemporary Art of Allora & Calzadilla

Imagine standing in a bare room in which a small, 4-billion-year-old rock hangs from the ceiling by a thin wire as three vocalists whistle and breathe on it to make it swing. For some people, such a scenario might be the nightmare version of contemporary art run amok, so far “out there” that it’s never coming back. 

Imagine standing in a bare room in which a small, 4-billion-year-old rock hangs from the ceiling by a thin wire as three vocalists whistle and breathe on it to make it swing. For some people, such a scenario might be the nightmare version of contemporary art run amok, so far “out there” that it’s never coming back. However, standing there and watching the piece, titled Lifespan, part of the new exhibition Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals, I couldn’t help but find myself mentally urging the rock to move, as perhaps others in the crowd were, too. The art of collaborators Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla encourages this kind of chain-reaction collaboration by making you first hear the work and then feel it in your mind and body. For those who think contemporary art’s lost in space, Allora and Calzadilla bring it back to Earth.

Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals, parts of which run at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Fabric Workshop and Museum through April 5, 2015, presents the artists’ largest solo American exhibition yet, but also gathers together old and new works of film, sound, live performance, and sculpture to form a “collage” of multimedia, multisensory, multicultural, multitemporal, multidimensional art. Philadelphia-born Jennifer Allora and Havana-born Guillermo Calzadilla began collaborating in 1995. Using their shared love of meticulous, extensive research into history and culture, Allora and Calzadilla have built an oeuvre focusing on the fascinating intersections and juxtapositions that come from their investigations into the past as a means of analyzing the present and future.

Their biggest splash came at the 2011 Venice Biennale, when they not only represented the United States at that huge, international event, but also became, as residents of Puerto Rico, the first artists from outside the continental U.S. to earn that honor. Their upside down tank with a runner’s treadmill moving in unison with the tank’s tread, a piece fraught with political connotations and titled Track and Field, made a big impression on that biggest contemporary art stage. (Video of the tank and other works from that show can be seen here.)

Rumbling tanks aside, Allora and Calzadilla’s art’s often been about hearing as much as seeing. Inside the Venice pavilion past Track and Field, they placed Algorithm, a 20-foot-tall pipe organ whose keyboard had been replaced by an ATM machine—a mash-up of art and commerce anyone could step up and use. Earlier, in Clamor, the duo gave sculptural and sound form to the interrelation of sound, music, and war by reproducing a concrete bunker and placing musicians inside to “fire” martial music out from the openings. In this new exhibition, however, Allora and Calzadilla “weaponize” sound to demonstrate not conflict, but connection.

The main part of the show featured at the Philadelphia Museum of Art consists of three films by Allora and Calzadilla. In 2012’s Raptor’s Rapture, a flautist who specializes in prehistoric instruments plays the oldest musical ever found, a 35,000-year-old flute fashioned from the wing bone of a griffon vulture, as a live griffon vulture listens nearby (image shown above). In 2013’s 3, a cellist serenades the 26,000-year-old Venus of Lespugue with a piece composed by David Lang based on the ancient Greek Dorian musical scale as a sonic equivalent of the figurine’s physique. Finally, in 2013’s Apotomē, Tim Storms, owner of the Guinness World Record lowest recorded voice in the world, sings a subsonic version of the music played in 1798 for two elephants brought to Paris during the Napoleonic Wars. As Storms sings his impossibly low notes, Apotomē (which Allora and Calzadilla found to be an archaic Greek word translated as “what is cut off” as well as a musical interval discovered by the mathematician Pythagoras) follows him walking through the storerooms of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris towards the skeletal remains of those same elephants, which he then picks up and sings to.

Amplifying the film’s juxtaposition between then and now, alive and dead, Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals includes live performances of A Concert for Elephants (composed this year by Christopher Rountree) by Relache. Listening to the live musicians play along with Storms’ subsonic voice as well as witnessing their animated movements as they played, I felt the music almost more than I heard it. The feeling from my chest down to my toes was all about Storms’ base, but the lyric voice of the strings and woodwinds lightened my heart and head at the same time. Here was surround sound in the truest sense. Likewise, professional chamber choir The Crossing’ performance of In the Midst of Things, a reconstruction of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, filled the halls of the museum with soaring consonance and contrasting dissonance as the group filled the space with their choreography. Dressed in ordinary street clothes, the choir seemed to come out of nowhere to sneak up on the audience, mingling and collaborating with you in the shared space. (A full schedule of live events for the exhibition can be found here.)

Over at The Fabric Workshop and Museum, in addition to Lifespan’s suspended, swaying stone, are the new sculptures that give Intervals its title—a series of dinosaur bones set upon clear plastic podiums to the approximate height of where they would have been on the living, ancient creatures. Because the clear supports extend beyond the bones, which appear to float in midair despite their heft, there’s a hazard for viewers that makes you hyperaware not just of the art’s physical presence, but also your own. There’s no sound to surround you in Intervals, but you find yourself physically surrounded by the sculptures as you view them in the round and from above or below, “surrounding” them in turn.

On a more cosmic level, a new video installation, The Great Silence depicts the interesting juxtaposition in the artists’ home Puerto Rico of the world’s largest radio telescope seeking intelligent life “out there” beside a sanctuary of endangered Puerto Rican parrots who can speak but can’t be “heard” by the human civilization threatening their existence. “We’re a non-human species capable of communicating with them,” science fiction author Ted Chiang imagines the parrots thinking in subtitles accompanying the film. “Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?”

But what are museums that stage contemporary art exhibitions looking for? Contemporary art, even work as critically praised as that of Allora and Calzadilla, is often a hard sell to the general public, who feel befuddled or intimidated by the braininess of the work. But The Atlantic’s Marion Maneker recently made an interesting analogy between the rise of fancy cuisine and a possible opportunity for contemporary art to reach a wider audience. Just as meat and potatoes Americans once scoffed at enjoying fancier dishes, today’s generation—thanks to whole networks devoted to cooking and the elevation of cooking itself to a competitive sport on reality shows—can now entertain the idea of experiencing more adventurous fare. More people know the term “molecular gastronomy” than ever before. I’m not a complete “foodie,” so I’ve never had a deconstructed grilled cheese sandwich (perhaps with some truffle foam), but I’d be willing to try one.

Maneker’s point is that contemporary art like that of Allora and Calzadilla could easily whet the appetite of the art equivalent of the “foodie.” There’s a definite “cool” element to ancient dinosaur bones, the oldest instrument ever found, the lowest voice ever recorded, and forgotten meanings of ancient words that can turn obsessive for today’s information age generation. Perhaps the most attractive element of Allora and Calzadilla’s art is its subtlety and nuance, which leaves interpretations and reactions up to the viewer as a collaborator on equal footing rather than as an unknowing audience preached down to. As in the world of food, your tastes are as legitimate as those of the most renowned gourmet or critic. As the artists remarked in an earlier interview, their goal is to provide the “poetic glue” that holds the artistic experience together just enough for the audience in fill in the blanks from their perspective. When you see how Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals brings together artists, writers, musicians, animals, and even dinosaurs, the welcoming, collaborative spirit sweeps you along. Just as the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 2012 exhibition Dancing Around the Bride dispelled the misperception of Marcel Duchamp as an isolated genius declaiming from on high, Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals brings alive the interplay of contemporary art at its finest and invites you to grab a partner and dance along.

Of all the dinosaur bone sculptures of Intervals, the one that struck me the most featured two vertebrae from the same spine but set in their proper places, leaving a phantom backbone for us to complete out of thin air. Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals is an exhibition that runs along your spine, firing neurons and sparking connections that reward further examination and inspire deeper curiosity, the very mission of any museum. You’ll come away wanting to mix up some “poetic glue” yourself to piece your world together in newer, more interesting ways than you ever imagined you could see, hear, or feel.

[Image: Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. Raptor’s Rapture, 2012, Single channel video projection with sound. 23:30 minutes. Image © Allora & Calzadilla.]

[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Fabric Workshop and Museum for the image above from, other press materials from, and an invitation to the press preview for Allora & Calzadilla: Intervals, which runs through April 5, 2015.]

[Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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