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Climate change as art

From data, delight: An artist pulls her sculpture and music from the climate change numbers in the news.

By / Staff writer / April 9, 2010

Nathalie Miebach blends science and art, using data from meteorology and climate change in both sculpture and music.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff


Nathalie Miebach, at first impression, could almost be mistaken for a toymaker. Her studio in Boston's South End is a swirl of beads, tiny whales, flags, origami birds, and spokes of bright colors. Musical scores line the walls. Reedy sculptures sprout from the floor and dangle from the ceiling. Tinkertoys come to mind – as does the Mad Hatter.

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But behind the joyful chaos is a precise order, one of surprising complexity and magnitude. Ms. Miebach creates art by translating weather data into baskets and sound.

Scientists struggle to make sense of statistics about climate change, even as political battles rage over their conclusions. Miebach aims for observation, not answers. Her innovative work focuses on the places where science and art intersect, fueling the imagination without straying from the limits of recorded data. As a result, despite their complexity, her visual and audio renditions of meteorology evoke childlike wonder from what was once a heap of numbers.

"Using this kind of toy language is really useful in disarming the viewer," says Miebach of her colorful, yet careful work. "Scientific data can be very intimidating. The playful elements [of the pieces] are designed to lure you in and then you realize this is all based on numbers."

Consider "Hurricane Noel," the name for both a free-standing sculpture and a musical score based on the wind, temperature, and barometric pressure of hurricane Noel as it entered the Gulf of Maine in November 2007.

The sculpture, standing about three feet tall, has a conical center, with spokes framing a specific time period of the storm's cycle. Working vertically, temperature is translated into red. Barometric pressure is green. Wind speed is blue, and so on. As Noel's recorded numbers – pulled from a weather station in Hyannis, Mass.; a buoy in the Gulf of Maine; and a weather station in Natashquan, Quebec – rise and fall through the hours, the colored reeds warp to form the sculpture's shape.

With the musical score, Miebach assigned each element an octave and each temperature a pitch. Collaborating musicians from Axis, a contemporary classical ensemble, took her score and composed a 15-minute symphonic storm for piano, violin, accordion, clarinet, cello, and double bass. Their only requirement from Miebach: Stay true to the numbers.

"We had to create the piece so that it actually represented the form of the hurricane" while still being pleasing to the audience, says Phil Acimovic of the Axis ensemble. They performed "Hurricane Noel" at the Lily Pad in Cambridge, Mass., in March.