NEWS RELEASE, 04/16/98
On the anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, online art project is a poetic reminder
BERKELEY -- Californians who tend to forget they live in earthquake country now have an effective reminder at their fingertips: a Web site called "Memento Mori" that displays a slow-moving trace of seismic activity on the state's most dangerous rift, the Hayward Fault.
The site was created at the University of California, Berkeley, by Ken Goldberg, associate professor of industrial engineering and operations research, and Wojciech Matusik, a computer science student. The streaming earthquake data, displayed with a Java applet that resembles the rhythmic lifeline of a heart monitor, offers a "web interface to the Earth."
Memento Mori displays the fault's constant low-level activity - "microseismic noise from breaking waves on distant beaches or the vibrations generated by moving weather fronts," said Barbara Romanowicz, Director of UC Berkeley's Seismological Laboratory, which collaborated on the project.
"This is the first time seismic data has been displayed in such a poetic fashion," said Romanowicz, a professor of geology and geophysics at UC Berkeley.
Each white trace moves from left to right, fading slowly into a black background until it is overwritten by a new trace.
"We wanted to strip down the interface to the bare bones, so that viewers would stop and think about what this data means," said Goldberg.
"Memento Mori" - Latin for "reminder of death" - is an art historical motif from the Middle Ages characterized by symbols of death and burial that serve as a warning against vanity.
"In the context of today's information deluge, Memento Mori can also be a reminder to slow down and smell the roses," said Goldberg.
Memento Mori was selected to be part of an internet-based art exhibition, Beyond Interface , launched last week on the World Wide Web.
"We have all seen a seismograph before. Many times," writes Steve Dietz, Director of New Media Initiatives at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and a member of the jury for the exhibit. "And yet, it is hard not to watch the phospherent, fading trace climb and fall across the interface without pangs of one's own mortality."
The seismic data are recorded at the Byerly Vault in Strawberry Canyon several hundred yards east of the Hayward Fault, which runs directly under the UC Berkeley campus. The fault also undercuts a metropolitan area of about three million people, including the cities of Oakland and Berkeley. A 1990 analysis estimated a one-in-four chance of a magnitude 7 quake or greater on the Hayward Fault.
Captured by a Streckeisen STS-1 seismometer that measures vertical ground velocity, the data are collected at the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and relayed to a computer in Goldberg's Alpha Lab. Seismologist Lind Gee and Doug Neuhauser, who manages computer resources at the laboratory, worked with Goldberg and Matusik to route the data between computers.
Goldberg's first project in network telerobotics was the Mercury Project in 1994, which allowed WWW visitors to remotely dig in a sandbox. At the time he was at the University of Southern California. He then worked with a team of students and artists to create The Telegarden, an internet site attached to a robot arm that lets people water a garden and even plant seeds. Since his move to UC Berkeley in 1995 he has created several other art projects, including the ShadowServer.
Goldberg's interest in telerobotics is partly practical - as an engineer he develops geometric algorithms for the control of industrial robots - and partly artistic. Goldberg helped to establish Berkeley's Art, Technology and Culture Symposium - a campus-wide series of lectures and discussions dealing with the intersection of art and technology.
"I'm interested in how we know what is real, a question that has been with us since Galileo first saw the moons of Jupiter through a telescope. What are we actually seeing?"
Goldberg currently is editing a book called "The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology on the Net," due out next year from MIT Press.
As for Memento Mori, Goldberg said he remembers being surprised when he first moved to California and found that the topic of earthquakes rarely comes up.
"We develop a collective amnesia on this subject," he said.
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