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The Binary Coalescence Project // When Art Meets Astrophysics

Melbourne-based artist Aiv Puglielli explains his extraordinary audiovisual Binary Coalescence Project. Produced over the last year in collaboration with leading astrophysicists in the field of gravitational waves, the works explore the relationship between the arts and science, reimagining the physical world through the unique lens of music and visual art. We chatted with Aiv to better understand this innovative project.

Photo: Sarah Clarke

The Universe “chirps”; Artists Listen

Art responds, rather than imitates science in astronomy-inspired audiovisual artworks created by multidisciplinary artist Aiv Puglielli.

For Melbourne-based artist Aiv Puglielli, the ongoing explorations into the origins of our universe are provoked and amplified as part of his three-part audiovisual Binary Coalescence Project.

Over the past year, Aiv has been leading a cross-country artistic collaboration responding to the topic of gravitational waves. In a series of 3 audiovisual works, responds to scientific research from University of Western Australia’s astrophysicist Dr. Linqing Wen at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav).

The cosmic phenomenon of Binary Coalescence occurs when two objects with strong gravity such as black holes or neutron stars spin and move closer to eventually collide. This merger phase produces gravitational waves that travel billions of light-years to be detected on the audio spectrum by observatories and supercomputers here on Earth.

Under the Binary Coalescence Project, Space+Time, Continuum and Pond were each produced utilising different concepts from the same science. Space+Time is a filmic exploration of the exact moment of merger following millions of years of spiralling to produce the “chirp” sound that Dr. Wen’s supercomputers detect. “We are grabbing something that lasts a few seconds and stretching that out to 8 minutes to look at those granular details within and seeing what ideas could be provoked”, Aiv explains.

If Space+Time was observing the phenomenon, Continuum observes the pursuit of information. Imagine: standing next to a busy freeway on the phone with the wind distorting what you hear – Continuum explores the exact “chirp” detection astrophysicists have been searching for amidst a background of extraneous noise. The piece incorporates work from Singapore-based creatives Germaine Png and Cheryl Chitty Tan, who contributed electronic samples from real wave detections and spoken verbatim information from Dr Wen’s interviews. Aiv explains that “[for Continuum] sometimes we hear fragments of the science delivered verbatim, at times we hear echo and reverberation, sometimes it sounds entirely nonsensical…but it is still communicating that relationship [of information and noise]”.

Conceptually, the recently released third installment entitled Pond takes the approach of an exploration of communication and interaction in space. Featuring spoken word contributions from multidisciplinary artist Rina Fu, and both Mandarin and English research extracts from the STEM partner Dr Linqing Wen herself, we hear about 'rippling outwards' in an analogy of space and time as if it were a pond, which is then mirrored in the audio composition. Sonically navigating an ambient and intimate space between the aural worlds of both prior installments of the Project, the work interweaves recorded voices, labiodental ASMR-inspired sounds and manipulation of brass valves over a flowing synthetic bedding.

"UNO" By Rina Freiberg for the Continuum Project

In referring to this Project as a collaboration of science and art, Aiv has distinguished the works he has produced as projects of impact rather than outreach in relation to a STEM context. He cites the lasting impression on creatives to have engaged with and create their own understanding of the science to collectively arrive at the final release. This impacts not only the creatives but the audience differently to an outreach presentation, to which Dr. Wen agrees.

Binary Coalescence Project explores science engagement via art where the audience are performers responding back to the scientists. As a new artistic concept, Aiv sees an immense possibility for creative response on a global sphere using new art forms that will not be tied to any one language or culture.

The act of listening and observing an otherwise unnoticeable phenomenon if not for digital measurement reminds audiences of the consciousness of our place within the immense discovery of our Universe.

Byline: Olivia Lee, Aiv Puglielli

Q and A with Aiv Puglielli

FROCKUP: Hi Aiv, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. How've you been over the last year with everything going on?

AIV: Well! It’s been a year with lots of push and pull - highs and lows which seem quite distinct, and yet in retrospect there’s something good to be said about that: it’s never felt dull. I’m very thankful to be safe and able to keep creating during this time.

F: Congratulations on an incredible and truly unique release. What led you to taking on such an ambitious project? And what was your experience like working with some of Australia's leading Physicists in Gravitational Waves?

A: Thank you. I don’t think if you’d asked me a few years back about whether I’d be involved in a project like this I’d have known quite what to say, other than maybe ‘huh?’. The creation of the project I think came about as a kind of piecemeal - I’d just worked on a gig with Miro Lauritz and Pat Jaffe (who went on to be the pianists in the first track ‘Space+Time’) at Theatre Works, and an old creative producer colleague from Perth reached out and said “Hey, I’m talking to some astronomy researchers at the moment” … and I guess the rest is history? As for the astrophysicists I’ve worked with on the Binary Coalescence Project, particularly Dr Linqing Wen - incredible to work with, and wildly interesting in what they spend their lives pursuing.

F: You’ve identified the combination of scientifically rigorous STEM information and artmaking as a means to “open doors of communication and mutual respect between both respective sectors and broad audiences.” How have you upheld the delicate balance between these two fields? What do you think the STEM community can learn from and add to the arts, and vice-versa?

Photo: Sarah Clarke

The big thing to consider is coming to the table with respect for what each part of the Project team has to contribute. Each part of the work coming together is a result of someone’s time, their energy, their profession. The goal here with engaging the STEM information is to avoid taking unnecessary liberties with what is known of the phenomenon of ‘binary coalescence’ (it’s only been detected for a handful of years) and instead build a creative work upon what is observed, what is actually known, and then to use that as a doorway into what could be. That’s where I think the creative voices come to the fore - we spend huge amounts of time working within realms of the imagination, or extrapolating on memories we have lived through, and we can help visualise and evoke what is theorised by the STEM researchers in a given context. As for what we can learn … I’ve seen from the immediate STEM sector reactions to this work that the creative sector has this ability to really ground STEM ideas in our own humanity and perception of culture, whereas we as creatives should take more heed of what researchers in STEM and beyond are investigating, as I think their findings can really give us clarity of the things we perceive in the world around us.

F: Have there been any other notable projects in the past that have attempted to create this dialogue between the two fields? Furthermore have there been any films, poetry or any other mediums that have informed aspects of this project?

A: I think there has for a long time been at least an element of dialogue between the two fields - I suppose it’s where we see the emergence of genres like ‘science fiction’ and the like. For ‘binary coalescence’ of black holes or neutron stars (or combinations of these), this project is to my understanding among the first creative responses to the concept to exist, simply because it’s so newly observed. The closest immediate reference I’m aware of for the interaction of broader observed concepts of astrophysics with artmaking would be Björk’s ‘Biophilia’ album, which I continually returned to during the Melbourne lockdowns and found myself immersed in.

F: The project is very conceptual, how do you think audiences without much prior knowledge of Physics or the concepts explored will react to these pieces? Do you have any advice for those in this position?

A: I think audiences will be left with an overall sensation of how each track makes them feel, with the intention that this has evoked a representation of the concept itself. For ‘Space+Time’ it’s the overall shape of the phenomenon, for ‘Continuum’ it’s the sensation of discerning information against noise, and for ‘Pond’ it’s a perception of ourselves becoming these objects interacting across space and time, and noticing the external effects of our presence around us. I suppose to any audience member I’d say, “pop on some headphones, enter with an open mind, and let it wash over you” - nothing more than that is necessary.

F: The first project ‘Space+Time’ is an exploratory audio-visual work which connects Australian artmaking and scientific study, while ‘Continuum’ features real gravitational wave detections, combining electronic beats to explore the idea of the pursuit of information. How does ‘Pond’ both combine and differ from its previous counterparts to create this exploration?

A: ‘Pond’ was created with the prior two tracks as points of sonic reference in scale, dimension and constitution. It then leans back into a state of ambience, something I keep wanting to describe as the ‘horizontal’, rather than the more ‘vertical’ linear patterns I perceive earlier in the Project. Retaining a combination of verbatim speech, acoustic and synthetic sound sources, it definitely sits for me in a more personal and intimate environment.

F: ‘Pond’ explores themes of intimacy and human interaction within the context of gravitational waves, and our sensitivity to the external environment. These concepts have become increasingly more apparent during the last 2 years; was this composition influenced by thoughts and feelings of the pandemic?

A: It was somewhat inevitable, in retrospect, that making each part of this Project over the span of several months would begin to give indications of my own experience of these times we’re in. ‘Pond’ definitely is influenced by my own musings on intimacy and physical interaction, as its early construction came directly out of the sixth Melbourne lockdown. Having other works currently in the pipeline (such as a sound art commission for Nillumbik Shire Council), I actually have noticed this popping up across the board. “Art reflecting life”, something like that?

F: Thanks for taking the time to chat to us about your project. Do you have anything else currently in the works that you can tell us about?

A: My pleasure! A visual response for ‘Pond’ is currently in production, to be released in the near future. Beyond that, the Binary Coalescence Project has allowed me to interact with a whole new sphere of project partners both in Australia and internationally, many of whom I’m currently moving forward with in respective pre-production stages for new works. I’ll be releasing a sound art commission from Nillumbik Shire Council called ‘Sculpted Voices’ in mid 2022, which involves a lot of community input and collaboration. Stay tuned!

Check out the Binary Coalescence Project on Bandcamp

Words by Aiv Puglielli

Photos by Sarah Clarke

Artwork by Rina Freiberg

Interview by Sean Ruse and James Morgan

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