Behind the scenes: 20Hz

The film 20hz claimed the Quantum Shorts top prize in 2014. A visualisation of data captured during a geomagnetic storm in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, the film was created by UK artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, otherwise known as Semiconductor. The judges said "20Hz is a beautiful and mesmerising film" and called it "spooky, evocative and revealing." We go behind the scenes with the artists in this Q&A. 

Watch the film first...

How did you become interested in working at the intersection of art and science?

We came into this field with no scientific training but found ourselves increasingly working with the limits of our perception and senses, researching the tools and language of the unknown and materiality of nature itself. It is as much a coincidence that these area of knowledge and exploration are called science. In many ways, we have more in common with the pre-science era called Natural Philosophy, which was more concerned with how we understand the natural world.

The film you contributed to Quantum Shorts in 2014, which won the main prize, was a direct collaboration with scientists. How did this come about?

After making some previous works using VLF radio data as the driving narrative in our animations, we were approached by the scientist Andy Kale from the University of Alberta Canada who had some magnetometer data he thought we would find interesting. He already had converted his data recording of the Earth's magnetosphere into audio and knew the beauty of listening to these as an experience outside of scientific function.

Many of your works use raw scientific data. What are some of the challenges of working with real data?

For us we like to find data, often waveform data, that experienced in its raw form has a profound feeling of material nature of its source. For example when listening to seismic data you can actually hear the sound of the earth cracking and groaning. On the other hand processed non raw data, turned into sound by a process usually called Sonification, turns data into a musical metaphor and we very often find that we could just be listening to a recording of any old data. This more raw experience is where we create our experiences of nature and the challenge for us is finding these types of data.

What did you want to achieve with the imagery in 20Hz? How did the ideas of particles, waves and interference of quantum physics shape the visualisation?

In 20Hz we wanted to explore how the solar wind and particles striking the Earth were causing effects on many levels and scales. The waves also being particles that were both microscopic and whole landscapes simultaneously. As the waves created by the sound rippled across the landscape they would interact and interfere with other passing waves.

What tools did you use (or build) to make the film?

We tend to work with standard 3D software packages but create our own custom coded interactions between audio and events within them.

What advice can you offer for other artists or film-makers who are interested in taking inspiration from science?

There is a great deal of scientific data available for free on the web and very often scientists will help you learn to access and process this data.

Did winning Quantum Shorts have any impact for you?

After winning the Quantum Shorts, we shortly after won the most prestigious residency in the art science world, to spend time at CERN , the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. We're sure that this award helped towards that. We are now entering a long period of quantum research and hope to have figured it all out soon.

The tumblr about your residency at CERN is tantalising. Will there be more to come?

We are only just beginning to research artworks from this residency and will spend the next year re-immersing ourselves in the quantum realm.

Are there some highlights of your work since that you would like to share with the Quantum Shorts audience?

Cosmos is a two metre spherical wooden sculpture that has been formed from scientific data made tangible: http://semiconductorfilms.com/art/cosmos/