SCIENCE, Volume 288, Number 5465, Issue of 21 Apr 2000, pp. 446-447.

Copyright © 2000 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.



Review of the "N01se" exhibition

A Map of Babel

by Trevor W. Robbins*


"n01se A Series of Exhibitions About Information and Transformation,"

Adam Lowe and Simon Schaffer, Curators.

Kettle's Yard, Whipple Museum of the History of Science,

Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, 22 January to 26 March 2000.

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 18 January to 16 April.

The Wellcome Trust's Two10 Gallery, London, 27 January to 19 May.


Catalogue: n01se Universal Language, Pattern Recognition, Data Synaesthetics

Adam Lowe and Simon Schaffer, Eds.

Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, 2000.

Unpaged, £9.95.

ISBN 0-90-7074-78-2


The human brain imposes order on the sensory chaos from the physical world by producing perceptual representations,

often with technological help from instruments such as electron microscopes, digital cameras, or computers that work

on the binary principle. Through art or language we turn this information back into images or propositions, usually to

communicate with other human observers. Our actions result in the reduction, transformation, or control of noisy data.

These are the essential themes of n01se, a multi modal and, indeed, multi-nodal exhibition in Cambridge and London.

The exhibits envelop a range of subjects including, in no particular order, a geometrically correct form of the Japanese

game Go, the "pulse" of DNA, the "perfect language," engraving techniques, mapping the sky with the Cosmic

Background Explorer, artificial intelligence, and aboriginal art. These topics are imaginatively woven together with the

aid of a stimulating book of about 30 essays from such distinguished contributors as Umberto Eco, Merrill Garnett,

Lisa Jardine, Malcolm Longair, and Roy Porter.


The arrangement of the exhibition at five distinct sites in Cambridge and London gave it the air of a parallel distributed

system almost akin to brains and computers. This unusual arrangement had welcome benefits. The specialized emphasis

of each site enabled an integration of the exhibition through an assimilation of features that would have been easy to

ignore had everything been housed together. The Fitzwilliam Museum focused on the binary principle in art with a selection

of prints spanning the centuries. These showed how (by scoring, etching, greasing, or plowing into a metal plate) lines, pits,

or grease marks are made that will hold ink and print as black while untouched areas give white--the principle behind all

intaglio printing. The binary opposites of indentation and surface can therefore, by varying the depth and width of indentation,

produce marks of greater or lesser blackness. Artists have exploited this possibility to produce prints of infinite tonal variety,

and it is appropriate that the main exhibition at Kettle's Yard begins with a print by Ludwig Von Siegen, the inventor of mezzotint.


Certain installations depended on dispersion across the sites for their impact. The hyper-realist artist and electronic engineer

Manuel Franquelo placed 13 small circuit boards on 13 plinths in London, one of which generated a random question with the

use of a preprogrammed vocabulary (for example, "Tell me who meditates?"). After a short pause, one of the other units

randomly composes an answer based on the verb from the original question. After another short pause, all 13 units chorus the

answer with each voice (seven male and six female) singing at a slightly different speed. This chorus is transmitted miles away

to one of the Cambridge venues. A different Cambridge site receives a Morse code version of the same message. Video

cameras at both distant locations record the consternation of humans listening to the Morse code and the humor of those hearing

the chorus. The humor is underscored by the reflection that the 19th-century invention of Morse code, with its associated terse

telegraphy, often led to alienation and deleterious distortions of meaning, results not unfamiliar to frequent users of electronic

mail today. Another "distributed exhibit," Luc Steels's "Talking Heads Experiment," comprised a network of computers, cameras,

and humans teaching each other new words to describe visual arrays of objects (1). The experiment illustrates the dynamic

changes in the lexicon that potentially exist in learning human and artificial languages.


For me, the central theme of the exhibition was the miraculous mechanisms by which information is transformed across sensory

modalities, for example, from the model to the artist's eye thence through the hand and to the subsequent drawing, painting, or

sculpture. The various modalities have to communicate with one another. Sometimes they get blended in common perceptions,

as in synaesthesia, that fusing of the senses by which rare individuals (such as the abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky) can hear

colors or taste shapes. Although the psychologist Charles Myers (who founded the United Kingdom's first experimental psychology

laboratory at Cambridge in 1912) studied cases of synaesthesia before World War I, the underlying mechanisms have yet to be

elucidated. Cross-modal mapping of the senses has had several applications, including the development of Braille notation from

the "tactile typograph" and the "tactile photography" practiced by the blind photographer Evgen Bavcar. For the n01se exhibition,

Bavcar created an image that was carved with a digital router into a layered block of pigmented plaster.


The culmination of the repeated sensorimotor transformations displayed in the exhibit comes from a detailed study of the artist

Humphrey Ocean. The movements of his eyes and hands during drawing were tracked by sensors (and video recorded) as he

scanned and fixated on the model's face. The hand movements have been captured in a remarkable three-dimensional sculpture

that makes one marvel how such a mapping could conceivably help to transform the face into a two-dimensional image. From

research begun by Vernon Mountcastle and continued by many neuroscientists, we have known that the mechanisms for such

apparently effortless transformations are likely to reside in the parietal cortex of the brain. Crucial to the analysis of Ocean's

activities, however, are the periods of suspension of movement when the artist weighs the veracity of his perceptions; pauses

and references to the model diminish as the construction of the representation gathers pace. This special skill of artists is captured

in a story of Picasso told by Françoise Gilot (an artist herself):



Picasso stood off, three or four yards from me, looking tense and remote. His eyes didn't leave me for a second. He didn't touch

his drawing pad; he wasn't even holding a pencil. It seemed a very long time. Finally he said, "I see what to do. You can dress

now. You won't have to pose again." When I went to get my clothes I saw I had been standing there just over an hour (2).



Contrasts between artists (including Ocean) and nonartists in mental processing have been found by John Gabrieli and associates

at Stanford University. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging to quantify differences between the two groups in regional

brain activity during drawing. The artists showed differences in temporal and frontal areas of the brain, which contrasted with the

nonartists' greater dependence on visual areas. The expert knowledge implemented by their neural networks had evidently refined

the ultimate process of turning noisy sensation into aesthetic image.


The comments above focus on those elements that find the greatest resonance with my own interests in cognitive neuroscience

and art. But the scope and ramifications of n01se could make someone reading several independent reviews incredulous that each

has described one and the same thing. The exhibition and book both make us aware of exciting and creative cross-mappings

among science, technology, and art.


References and Notes

1. One can follow or participate in the experiment online at

2. F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life With Picasso (New York, McGraw Hill, 1964).

3. Thanks to R. Bush for advice on technical artistic matters.


*The author is in the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EB, UK. E-mail:


SCIENCE, Volume 288, Number 5465, Issue of 21 Apr 2000, pp. 446-447. Copyright © 2000 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.



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