Providing a voice for the voiceless: China Blue; Photograph copyright Bruce Strong.
Growing up, every child needs a hero, someone they can look up to and try to emulate. I was a part of the last generation that grew up on spaceflight and moon walks and that worshipped at the sacred alter of such legendary NASA astronauts as Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Neil Armstrong and James Lovell. I knew with the power of childlike earnestness that if I drank my Tang (The drink of NASA astronauts; accept no substitutes), ate my Wheaties and studied real hard that I too might one day be a card-carrying member of our nation’s space program. As the years went on though, I traded in my Major Matt Mason action figures for a cheap Underwood typewriter and my dreams of working with Betty Love for another dream of writing for a living. But there’s a funny thing about fanciful first loves; they sometimes reappear for a nostalgic re-entry into our personal atmosphere long enough to reignite those golden hued dreams of Outer Space walks with the crew of the Apollo 11.
When I learned that I would be interviewing visual artist with a twist China Blue and that she was responsible for the discovery for NASA of the sounds hidden in Saturn’s rings, I was instantly on board. My excitement grew even more after I listened to her remarkable cd Cassini’s Dreams (which also features the work of her collaborators Lance T. Massey and Seth S. Horowitz) which expounded upon Ms. Blue’s original NASA work by creating an eleven track algorithmic based album that incorporates the many unheard sounds that she has uncovered while investigating Saturn. China Blue gives a voice to the formerly voiceless and the end result is as close as magic and as immediate as a kid growing up wanting to fly the first manned spacecraft to Mars.
Ryan Vandergriff: Congratulations on the album.
China Blue: Thank you.
RV: It has a very interesting backstory. Can you give us the secret origin of this brilliant album and how it came to be?
CB: From time to time I get invited to do work for NASA; it’s because I’m interested in sound and somehow or another I’ve been able to convince them that sound is an important topic for their scientific research. I recommended to them, based on the work that the Cassini satellite was doing around Saturn that maybe they should let me look for and see if I could discover the sounds in Saturn’s rings. And they said, “Sure.” (Laughs) So I actually discovered with my collaborator Seth Horowitz the sounds in Saturn’s rings. That’s the super-short version!
RV: Breaking this down to the layperson who might read this, how did you even begin to suspect that there might be sound to look for at all in Saturn’s rings? Was that very much a working scientific hypothesis to begin with?
CB: It was, as they say, an educated guess. It required a lot of research and investigation to see if there was any sound there. I’ve done a lot of work for NASA and I’ve done a lot of work discovering sounds: I discovered the sounds hidden in the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I believe they were relying on the fact that I knew something that they weren’t privy to, so they just went for it and said, “Sure. See what you can find.” Often times when they’re dealing with scientists it’s as much research to see what is there as there is to actually discover things. Discovery is not a guarantee.
RV: What has your working experience with NASA been like over the years?
CB: NASA is a massive agency, so it depends on what segment you’re working in. I can only speak to the people that I work with which is the Rhode Island branch of NASA. My relationship with them is a very direct one-to-one relationship to the director of that facility. Over the years we’ve developed this relationship and every once in a while I’ll call him up and ask something like, “Have you ever thought about…” (Laughs) And a little aside: The thing that really inspired me to propose this is that when Cassini was downloading the images that it was capturing as it was spending it’s twenty years flying around Saturn and doing its research, I looked from the northern most pole of Saturn, and that image when you look down from the top, when you look at the rings, it looks like an LP! (Laughs) It really looks like a record album so you begin to think that perhaps it isn’t too much of a leap of faith to assume there might be sound there.
RV: (Laughs) Maybe Saturn has a little vinyl in its makeup, right?
CB: (Laughs) That would be a massive, massive LP to make, much less play! What kind of needle would that require?
RV: You do realize that you’re fulfilling the childhood dreams of millions of us that drank our Tang and dreamed of working for NASA? I think you have the coolest job ever.
CB: It’s always exciting and always awe-inspiring and always challenging…One of the projects that I did for NASA was when I first visited one of their facilities in California at the Ames Research Laboratory. They have this machine called the Vertical Gun. It is literally a gun with a barrel that is one meter, which is a little bit over three feet long. It shoots into a big container – a big dome-like, steel enclosed container – and it shoots various kinds of projectiles; everything from plastic to glass to metal at everything between Mach 10 and Mach 15.
RV: That’s pretty fast.
CB: Yes, it’s super-fast and it’s super-dangerous. The scientists that I work with at Ames researches meteorite impacts, so the whole idea is to shoot this projectile into the chamber, look at what its result is and analyze it and figure out new things you can learn about impacts. So I was looking at that whole process and – a little about my backstory is first of all that I am not a scientist…
RV: Really? That surprises me because you have such an obvious grasp on all of this.
CB: I’m an artist. I’m a visual artist (Laughs). Which is another anomaly!
RV: Did not having that label as being a scientist make it more difficult to sell yourself to NASA, so to speak?
CB: What happened was I was working with the same guy and this is what began our relationship was that I said to him – and I think this is the strength of artists and what they bring to the table, which most scientific environments don’t recognize – the strength of the artist is that they can see things from a different vantage point. Scientists are driven by data and research and the science that they’ve studied for years, whereas artists don’t have that in their backgrounds but they have other visual and relational aspects of their particular history of learning how to make art that they can bring to the table. So I looked at that and because I had been doing a lot of sound work for the past twenty years as my primary arch production, I looked at that and I asked, “Have you ever thought about the sound that occurs in that environment?” I shocked him. He looked at me with stunned eyes and said, “In the fifty years that this facility has been in existence, no one has ever thought about the sound.” (Laughs)
RV: Because it’s so obvious in hindsight, right? When you say it out loud, when you mention the sound aspect, it seems like the most obvious thing and you just assume that someone would have investigated it long, long ago.
CB: Right. But every discipline becomes myopic. You have this massive thing created to protect everyone around it and not to just protect them physically but also to protect them from the sound, the sonic boom that occurs. And so that began our relationship because I saw something that nobody else had seen. So that’s how I was able to get over that big hurdle of having no scientific background whatsoever.
RV: Reading your bio, I was really struck by the thought of how you provide a voice for the things that we usually take for granted as being voiceless: The sounds of Saturn’s rings, the hidden voice of the Eiffel Tower, the sounds in the Venitian waters. Do you see yourself as this provider for the unheard?
CB: Yes, absolutely. I’ve recently been reflecting back on my body of work and I sort of stumbled into this and when I looked backwards I realized that, ‘Oh, I listen for the unheard.’ It wasn’t planned. I think it partially has to do with being a woman and how, in my experience, my particular voice and my work and my activities in life have pretty much gone unheard. I come from a generation where women were primarily arm-candy and baby creators and house workers. So if a woman has something they want to do with their lives, to make a contribution, to be productive in life, the struggle is pretty arduous.
RV: Do you find that at times you have to work harder than a male contemporary in order to get your thoughts and ideas across?
CB: It is assumed that you have to work harder. All women know that you have to work five times harder than a man and you have to have more education just to be on par. I’ve met so many women that have multiple degrees and that are exceedingly accomplished. And even if you do all of that it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will become recognized. Sometimes what happens is that you get backlash because you become “a challenge.”
RV: With the advent of the Me Too movement do you feel that dynamic shifting at all?
CB: I know what you’re saying and I know where you’re headed with that question. In some ways, a lot has changed for women in terms of the Me Too movement and in terms of how it’s actually impacting corporations and CEO’s who are being asked to leave because of their history in relation to women. And yes, those are big changes that are important and good. People are slowly coming around to realizing that women do need to be acknowledged and recognized for their contributions and a lot of women have seen more opportunity coming their way; that hasn’t really impacted my world.
RV: Who has inspired you in your personal and professional lives?
CB: I would have to say that the most important person that falls in that category is my collaborator, who also happens to be my husband. We started collaborating about fifteen years ago when we got to know each other and quickly also got married around the same time.
RV: I love that, a whirlwind romance!
CB: Yes, it was a very short courtship…He’s a scientist and he’s a scientist who studies how the brain processes sound. Always our conversations are around sound and how sound impacts the human existence, the human body as well as how it impacts our world. I would have to say that he is oftentimes my insight into the scientific realm to get feedback on if something works scientifically…He was a rare person for me to discover and I am happy to have found him.
RV: You’ve been referred to as “the Queen of the Unusual.” First of all, what does that mean and is that a fair tag for you?
CB: It’s a tag that is sort of about listening for the unheard. I guess that’s off the beaten track, right? (Laughs) I am considered a visual artist because that is my history: I was educated to be a sculptor and a painter, but a major portion of my work is sound based and that’s unusual in the art world. Not too many people, much less women, operate with sound. Sound is so ephemeral and it’s something that you don’t see. It’s completely antithetical to sculpture, for example. Sculpture is working with something physical and creating a reality out of your imagination with things like clay or steel or whatever materials you’re working with. When you’re working with sound, you’re creating an environment that is only about the acoustics which is pretty much the opposite of what sculpture is. I think of sound from a sculptor’s vantage point as a material that actually physically fills and articulates a space.
RV: You’ve worked in sculptures and installations using interactive media. For a layperson, what does that mean exactly? Give me the whole enchilada on this.
CB: (Laughs) Well, it’s not limited to a meal, okay? An artist can work with lots of different kinds of materials and methods. If you’re not familiar with the concept of “installations” it is exactly what it sounds like: To install something, right? Installations are a visual art form where it sort of expands on the idea of sculpture and it takes over a whole room or a whole corner. That’s the simplest version of it. It sits on the floor, it sits on the wall or it hangs from the ceiling. It basically takes over a space and uses the space as a canvas for the work. So that’s what an installation is…I think of my sound work in terms of it filling a room or a space with the acoustics that I’ve been able to capture. My approach to it is to think of it from an architectural vantage point. Architects when they’re designing a cathedral for example, they have to think about the acoustics of the cathedral for the symphony hall. So they have all of this science that’s really well-built to analyze spaces for how sound moves in that space. If the sound goes from the stage to every single audience member, they have to project all of that because otherwise it’s going to be a wasted effort. So they have to study that and it’s been well analyzed since the Greco-Roman times with the amphitheaters. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the amphitheaters, but these are open air theaters where people would stand on the stage and they had no microphone and they would be able to speak to every single person in the audience. That’s an acoustic analysis to be able to figure out how to build that. What these space analysis people do is they figure out how sound travels through air and how it actually reflects off of surfaces where there are human beings or walls or carpeting and all this kind of stuff and they analyze how it moves through space. That’s what I take into consideration when I build my installations. I think about how the sound travels through a room and how it fills a room, whether it’s coming through from a speaker in the corner or coming from the voice of a person and then I shape it to fill a room like a sculptor.
RV: Even when it’s broken down into scientific terms, there’s a part of my brain that still sees all of this as quite magical. Do you still experience a sort of childlike wonder when you’re working with and discovering new sounds?
CB: Oh, it always is magical to me, yes. I think it’s always a surprise that captures us unexpectedly because we walk through our world and we usually know what to expect. When you walk down the street, you know what the sounds are of that street or when you’re walking under an eave how the sounds get more distinct or when you walk in a field and the sounds are very different. You can’t yell as far or get somebody’s attention unless they’re pretty close in that field. We’re aware of these because we live on Earth, right? We’ve lived and experienced it. If you’re walking into an arena and you hear something that you normally don’t hear then yes, it is astonishing.
RV: You wear a lot of different hats in your life and I have to ask you – enviously – where do you find all of this time to work on so many different and compelling projects?
CB: (Laughs) I’m not quite sure! I was just thinking about that today: ‘I should really get better at organizing my time.’ My goal as an artist is to work through an idea and develop and present something. So that is sort of the overarching concept. Like anyone who is making anything, you have a goal. You have to make whatever your goal is happen and in order to make it happen you have to take all of these steps. I guess I’m just a dreamer and I believe that if I have an ideal then I need to make it real, to realize it and I move the earth to do it every single time. When I look back I think, ‘I am so crazy. Look at what I have to do; I have to do all of these things.’ I had to learn about acoustics, I had to learn about the science of acoustics. I had to learn and I had to figure out how to apply it to the visual art realm. I had to figure out how to make it into a listenable cd, something that’s really beautiful and captivating and compelling. For the Cassini’s Dreams cd in order to take the sounds of Saturn’s rings I realized in order to make a cd it would have to be something that people would be interested in listening to and be compelled and intrigued by. So I was taking these raw sounds and thinking, ‘Okay, I have them, I’ve made this discovery, but why would anybody want to listen to more than half a second on a cd?’ So what I did was, I turned to another frequent collaborator of mine Lance Massey who is the guy who created the T-Mobile ring tone and I said, “Lance, this is what I’m working with. It might be crazy as hell, but would you be interested in working with me on this?” And he said, “Dude, why do you even have to ask?” (Laughs)
RV: The cd Cassini’s Dream is a beautiful work. It really feels like it’s a case of Art meeting Science and creating an altogether striking hybrid. Is this fair to say?
CB: Yes, absolutely. That’s sort of the arena I operate in, hybridizing these disciplines: Art and science and music and technology. There’s always a technical component to my work that takes me out of my comfort zone. I think it’s in my nature to function like that. I was the product of two different cultures, so I blame it on that (Laughs)…Humorously! I’m half Chinese and I’m half Swiss and I was raised in the United States. So I was raised with all of these different cultural referencing points. That makes me very comfortable in dipping into worlds that I vaguely know.
RV: You are renowned as a painter, too. What can you tell me about your work with paints?
CB: Oftentimes when you ask an artist who their heroes are, they cite somebody who makes work that they admire or whose work is visually similar to theirs. In my case, I draw from a lot of different artistic styles. I would say my hero would be Leonardo da Vinci. He had the science and the art combining together. Not that I make work that is identical or similar in style; I don’t make pictorial work like he did. But because he was researching science before it became codified. He was studying waves for example. He was drawing waves over and over again to try and understand how they were formed; or flocking birds. He would go to the local market and buy up all of the pigeons and release them and start drawing their flying patterns and drawing how they flocked because he wanted to understand the phenomena of their flocking behavior as well as their shape and their form and their style and their color. I think if there was anybody that inspires me, I’m often thinking about him and how he thought. It’s more about how thinking is the beginning point as opposed to the making process as the beginning point. There’s always inspiration to do something. Usually with painters it’s just, “Oh, I want to make this painting and I want to make it these colors and this shape and to have this look.” For some reason I always start off with, “What if?” I sort of stumbled into that when I was thinking about the sounds in the Eiffel Tower, for example. It was really me literally thinking, ‘I wonder if there are sounds in the Eiffel Tower?’ That was then followed up with my questioning whether or not I could investigate that.
RV: I love that notion because it’s a question that is almost very childlike, right? When we’re younger we don’t have all of these filters that we put up as we get older and so a lot of our questions at an early age are very innocent but also unintentionally kind of revolutionary.
CB: And it was wonderful because we actually discovered that the Eiffel Tower does have its own voice and it fluctuates and changes with the weather. It’s like everything in our world; something always has an impact on something else. So we put up all of this iron, Gustave Eiffel put up all of this iron and he too was a scientist and he was always studying the weather from the top of the Eiffel Tower because that structure gave him the opportunity to do that. But what he didn’t study was the impact of the weather on his structure. And that’s what I found, that of course the wind impacts the Eifel Tower. Why wouldn’t it, right? But nobody thinks about it because everyone thinks about the visuals, they think about how stunning it is, they think about how it’s made. And so we often overlook what we already know which is that it is the wind that I caught being filtered by the iron of the Eiffel Tower that gives it its voice. I was there with my microphones in September which is a windy and rainy time and I was able to pick up the sound of the wind filtering through and the voices of people running up and down the structure and the elevators as they move up and down. All of those are vibrations, they’re all vibrations that happen in space all of the time but because we cannot see them and we cannot hear them we do not know they have it. So it’s a way of extending our human senses. That’s what I feel like I’m kind of doing is finding ways to extend our senses and to make human’s privy to realms that we’re in, but we’re not alert enough to be aware of what’s happening acoustically.
RV: What has the reaction to your Cassini’s Dreams been? How has it impacted you personally?
CB: The Cassini’s Dreams cd has been a case of one thing begets another in my world. It started out with a cd and that birthed an exhibition that’s on right now until the middle of November. It’s an installation piece at the Venice Biennale.
RV: That’s quite the honor for an artist to be shown at the Biennale.
CB: It’s an event that most artists aspire their whole lives to be a part of because it’s such an honorary role to have and it’s an honor to have your works present there. What’s up there right now is a 3-D print of Cassini projecting a laser onto an inflatable of Saturn. The laser picks up the surface of the rings and converts that into sounds. It illustrates this whole process that we’ve been talking about. From Cassini I captured her data, converted it into sound and made the cd and Cassini was picking up data from the rings as it was flying around and through the rings of Saturn. What the exhibition does is show that particular process that I was engaged in.
RV: What’s in the future for China Blue?
CB: Right now I’m in the Dreaming Land; I’m into the “What if’s?” There is something coming up: It’s a Backwards Looking exhibition that’s going to be at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City. That will be in April of 2020. It’s an exhibition of works that I made in collaboration with a group called Godzilla; it’s an Asian American network created in New York City in the 90s that I was a part of. It’s a retrospective of those activities and how that enabled Asian American artists to have a voice. So I’ll have a work in that exhibition in April.