In preparation for the 1977 NASA launch of the Voyager 1 space probe, Carl Sagan’s scientific team member and fiancee Anne Druyan was tasked with imprinting symbols essential to humanity on a disc of gold that might, if found by some civilization light-years away, help explain who we are here on Earth. On it, she included EKG and EEG recordings documenting her own heartbeat — but with a twist. While recording, Druyan thought about what it was like falling in love with Sagan, with the tiniest hope that perhaps the recordings might reveal to other beings the depth of human emotion, rather than just a sound or a brain wave.
Is that art? It’s complicated, but Dario Robleto thinks it could be. The cross-disciplinary, Houston-based artist will attempt to explain how when he delivers a performative demonstration and talk, "Sounds in Outer and Inner Space: An Unknown History of the Human Heartbeat," on Thursday, December 1, at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. And be prepared for liftoff: Robleto’s groundbreaking practice crosses the line between science and art in ways you might not have known were possible.
“Essentially, she snuck love on board as something that should be on our final message,” Robleto says. “What does one gift to the only woman whose heart has left the solar system?”
The storyteller in Robleto was entranced by the human side of Druyan's story and the cultural history of the heart: “It’s a huge if. Who knows if her love is literally in the signals millions of years from now, if some unknown technology finds it? It’s as much art as it is science.” But his inner scientist was also inspired by the story to take a giant step forward. He “went on a quest to find the first heartbeat,” he explains, a search that led him to both rare nineteenth-century heartbeat recordings and annals of contemporary heart science that could change the way we view the heart’s physical and psychic presence.
“I’ve tried to discover, from the artist’s viewpoint, what are the key moments in that history? It’s part of a multi-year research project, trying to tell story of the human quest to record hearts and brains as physiological signals,” he explains.
Robleto came into his revolutionary hybrid thinking naturally, studying biology before moving into art. “Science and art have never been at odds to me, as most people assume they are,” he says. “I see creativity in science: There are strict working methods, rigor, protocols and experimental goals to take things beyond superficial referencing. My pet peeve as an artist is that the bulk of collaborations between science and art begin and end there. I want to push the boundaries of what art can do — it’s a different level of engagement that I'm after. I’m getting there, but there’s always more to do.”
Not everyone is on the same page regarding the broader intersection of art and science. “Something that’s completely enthralled me is the incredible push-back from people in the humanities about neuroaesthetics in general,” notes Robleto. “I went into it assuming we have a lot in common, but there’s incredible opposition from artists. It’s fascinating. I feel it’s more of a communications problem about one side misunderstanding the message of the other."
And the negativity works both ways. “I work around scientists, but they don't really know what I do,” Robleto continues. “They assume I'm there to paint their portraits or something, but that has nothing to do with my practice. Their knowledge of arts is not deep; they don’t expect anything from art. People in the humanities do the same thing — they make terrible cliché assumptions about scientists and oversimplifications about what scientists are doing.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way, says an open-minded Robleto. “Artists should be bridge-builders,” he argues. “I embrace that responsibility. It makes me a better communicator. We should be observers of other fields. Some ideas are so big that they transcend the field of their origin. And that’s where I feel the artist comes into play.
“In my talk, I mention that recent artificial heart technology suggests we don’t need a beating heart anymore," he continues. "If that’s right, the price is that humans must let go of a defining feature of our humanity. If science pulled that out from under us, that’s something we have to explore culturally. None of the doctors would even think to explore that. They would conclude that the idea that who you are is your heart is ridiculous, but I think they're wrong. I think there are more direct ramifications.”
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Robleto hopes his practice inspires others to take the leap into true collaborations between seemingly unlikely studies. “The young artists I speak to and teach don't necessarily grow up as artists thinking you need to worry about other fields. You don't get the training to do these things. The way the world now relates to information is naturally cross-disciplinary — using the language of trans-disciplinary thought is just instinctual to them. But the infrastructure’s not there to actually challenge them. They have no skill sets to do it in an interesting way. That shocks me and scares me,” he laments. “What does that mean? Generally, they Google something, and that's as far as it goes.
“That can’t be the standard.”
To that end, in his lectures — part discussion, part performance, part installation — Robleto lays out the new hybrid model of his practice in an unprecedented way. Listen to the heartbeat; hear the future.
The Visiting Artist, Scholar and Designer Program at RMCAD presents Dario Robleto’s lecture "Sounds in Outer and Inner Space: An Unknown History of the Human Heartbeat" at 6:30 p.m. (doors at 6 p.m.) Thursday, December 1, in the Mary Harris Auditorium. For information and tickets, $10 for the general public and $5 for students and 40 West Arts District members, visit VASD at RMCAD online.