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Oxygen Flute installation Oxygen Flute 2.0 in the courtyard outside the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology. (Steve McConnell photos)

Interactive, high tech artwork at UC Berkeley recalls Chinese immigration tragedy
21 October 2002

Oxygen Flute slideshow Audio slideshow: See and hear Oxygen Flute

By Kathleen Maclay

Berkeley - Step inside a silicone-sheathed capsule outside Kroeber Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, and you'll find yourself amid 58 live bamboo stalks, tomato seedlings, sauna-like heat and very unusual background music.

You have just entered "Oxygen Flute 2.0."

This interactive work of art was installed by Greg Niemeyer, an assistant professor of art, technology and culture in UC Berkeley's departments of art practice and film studies, and Chris Chafe, director of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University.

Greg Niemeyer inside Oxygen Flute
Co-creator Greg Niemeyer inside the Oxygen Flute capsule: "Our globe is nothing but a much larger container."
 

Niemeyer and Chafe say their project blends elements of architecture, music and computers to make statements about the environment, the interdependence between living things, the global economy, immigration, modern agriculture and the convergence of the natural with the synthetic.

But the artists' central point is to commemorate the tragic deaths of 58 Chinese immigrants who suffocated in an unventilated shipping container en route to England in the spring of 2001.

"Our globe is nothing but a much larger container," says Niemeyer. "The heat, the carbon cycle and the fragile air quality of the (Oxygen Flute 2.0) chamber reference the greenhouse effect, which makes the Earth's atmosphere as hospitable as the freight container in which the Chinese immigrants died."

Although bamboo is a fast-growing plant with a particularly rapid metabolism of carbon dioxide, Niemeyer and Chafe say that if the chamber were entirely sealed, one human could deplete the chamber's oxygen supply within 12 hours.

The humid white capsule, which resembles a small greenhouse, can hold approximately two visitors at a time. Inside, people stand on a metal walkway - with green bamboo stalks surrounding them and tomato plants below - to experience changes in carbon monoxide levels triggered by their own breathing. As the levels fluctuate, computer-simulated flute music inside the structure also changes.

Chafe and Niemeyer say they hope people walk away from the capsule with increased consciousness about air and air quality, about breathing and living and survival.

Their original "Oxygen Flute" was commissioned in 2000 for the San Jose Museum of Art and was displayed there last year.

Since then, Niemeyer and Chafe have deepened some of the flute sounds and planted the tomatoes inside. The new plants symbolize the crates of tomatoes the Chinese immigrants were hiding behind in the container. The fruit had been picked to ripen during shipping, burning oxygen and releasing "an enormous amount" of carbon dioxide inside the container, Niemeyer says.

"It's like an ongoing experiment," he says of the capsule, "with the viewers being the human subjects involved. The piece only exists as a performance; it only exists if you go inside."

The installation is equipped with computers, speakers, fluorescent lights, a computer and a carbon dioxide gas sensing system. A sensor dispatches information to an Intel Linux computer about the carbon dioxide in the air, measured in parts per million. The average measurement in Berkeley is about 300 parts per million, Niemeyer says, and people entering the small chamber can temporarily elevate the carbon dioxide level to over 20,000 parts per million.

Visitors' breathing patterns change the carbon dioxide levels. Data about those levels trigger a computerized music program, driving one pair of flute sound synthesis models in two different ways to stretch the length of the flute note and vary the pitch of the sound. This creates an ever-changing and complex musical environment inside the capsule.

The sounds are based on a physical modeling and simulation of 9,000-year-old bone flutes excavated from the Jiahu site in China's Henan province. The computerized simulations of the flutes with their unusually-placed tone holes produce what Niemeyer calls "slightly dissonant, very old sounds."

A percussive, popcorn-like sound continuously filling the background is actually the sound of thousands of shrimp, about one centimeter in size, snapping with their large claws. It was recorded by a hydrophone at Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey Bay.

The installation - funded by an Intel Corporation art and technology grant - relied on 3-D modeling software, sound system programming and simulation of the entire system with computer graphic animation movies before construction. Its walls of stretched sheets of silicone rubber shimmer and stir the air inside, causing the bamboo to slightly tremble.

An official opening ceremony for Oxygen Flute 2.0 is set for 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 4.

It will feature a special concert presentation of "Ping," a collaboration by Niemeyer and Chafe that makes audible the time lag that takes place when moving information between networked computers. There also will be a jazz saxophone/Oxygen Flute 2.0 duet featuring Bay Area musician Anton Schwartz, and a talk about the project by Dana Plautz, director of research communications at Intel Corp.

Oxygen Flute 2.0 is hosted by UC Berkeley's Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology and curated by Constance Lewallen of the Berkeley Art Museum.



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