The Science of Art and Art of Science: In Depth with Semiconductor
Semiconductor—the husband-and-wife duo of Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt—have quietly grown over quarter of a century to become one of the most important artistic innovators around. Their art concerns digital and natural processes, from the tectonic plates of the earth to the formation of the universe—but though scientific in inspiration, their output is undeniably visceral in impact.
They easily straddle boundaries between art and science, and high and low culture, able to work as easily with NASA and CERN as with the radical club musician Eartheater. Their early history in Brighton on the English south coast—where they still live—includes working with noise and techno acts, stencil graffiti artists, and an early vinyl album release split with Disastronaut (full disclosure: this Sound of Life writer was one half of Disastronaut at the time!)
We caught up with Jarman—just as the pair were in the process of revamping their website to showcase the entirety of their career—and asked her to look back over their decades of work and a CV which can definitely be described as stellar (quite literally, in fact, as they did make a film of the surface of the sun after all).
What was the first thing you made together?
The earliest work we have on our website is Retropolis—we made it in 1998 and called these early works “sound films” as they didn’t have a clear home at the time. We were bringing together our explorations in sound and image and interests in landscapes and the built environment, looking beyond the human scale and our limited perceptions. In Retropolis we built a mini paper scene of London which we explored through stop-motion animation, using old industrial electronics to create the soundtrack which suggested you were listening to the innards of the architecture, the electromagnetic domain and the deep rumbles of our earthly foundations.
Can you tell us a bit about the musical and artistic milieu that you did your early work in? Who of your peers were the most helpful or inspiring?
In the late nineties, post art school, we were experimenting with various types of sound and image-making. A lot of our early experiments and collaborations were supported through sound and music labels and producers. Looking back, it was a really important foundation for us to be part of such a vibrant eclectic community of people making and carving their own paths. It meant that there was always exchange of some sort, we didn’t overthink things too much, we just got on and fervently experimented. Being in Brighton gave us the space to think independently and we could live cheaply and find our own way.
Was there a plan from the start? In those early days of filming cut-out shapes and using Pentium PCs to edit, how much sense did you have of how big your work would get?
We always had ambitions for large scale artworks, but in the early days we didn’t have the space, technology or opportunities to do this. The emergence of modern domestic computers at the time enabled us to work on landscape scale projects within the computer, virtual landscapes and environments, like Linear and Inaudible Cities. Animation afforded us to play with space and time which we couldn’t in the real world. It was a while before we realised we were making animations. For us the draw was the ability to play with space and time rather than thinking we wanted to be animators, per se.
Did you have manifestos early on, in terms of affecting the way people think about the subjects you built your work around? Have your aims in that sense changed as your work developed?
It was after a few years of making that we stood back and tried to get an understanding of what we were doing. Our early experiments delved both into the material nature of the digital, what was it and how we could forge our own language with it as an artistic tool; such as Puffed Rice where the zeros and ones of sound are quite literally translated into image.
As our practice gradually evolved, these methods have integrated and evolved to include the technology and scientific languages which mediate how we experience landscapes and events which occur beyond human experiences, in projects such as Halo and Earthworks. This shift was made possible as our practice and profile grew and opportunities became available, but the desire to work in this way was there from the beginning.
The name Semiconductor came in about 2000: we realised we were in this struggle with the computer as a tool, where it would always be trying to impose its identity on the work we made, so we decided to acknowledge its role in the process, half-conducting the artwork. There were some works like Inaudible Cities where we gave it some choices like the colours used. The name isn’t as relevant now, but we feel like we’ve come too far to shed it!
You've had some amazing partnerships with institutions over the years. Which was the most exciting and why?
We’re really lucky that we have had some great opportunities to spend time in renowned science laboratories and commissions for large scale projects over the years. They’ve given us great insight into scientific human endeavor and incredible freedom to develop our work.
Our first international fellowship at the NASA Space Sciences Laboratory at UC Berkeley where we were genuinely naïve. We presented to rooms full of rocket scientists and interviewed Nobel Prize scientists. We made it up as we went along with the underlying fear that we would be sent off to this incredible untouchable world of NASA, and return uninspired. We went on to make the works Brilliant Noise and Magnetic Movie.
We learnt to put our experience into practice on future opportunities at the Mineral Science Laboratories at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., and the CERN European Laboratory of Particle Physics in Geneva, Switzerland. We have learnt to really enjoy the process now, diving into the unknown, stretching our capabilities, growing very fond of the alliances we make and the culture we become part of.
It feels like the lines of communication between science and art have opened up a lot in the 25 years you've been working. How have you noticed the landscape around you changing on that front? Do you feel like people and institutions get what you're about more now?
There’s been a real turnaround when it comes to artists engaging with science in their practice. There are more scientists asking artists to come into their labs, or ongoing residency programs. There’s still a lot of work to do when highlighting the role of an artist in a lab. As artists we have our own agenda which is to bring [a sense of] unlearning or unknowing—we are very clear that we are not going to explain their science.
There’s also been continued technological developments in terms of animation tools. Some processes are a lot easier now. Some people might animate a black hole but it just ends up being an illustration—what the scientists would call an artist's impression—which isn’t so interesting to us. There’s always this stage with new technology where some people just use it for its intended purpose, all you're seeing is the language of that software, not the hand of the artist.
What has been your favourite artwork in terms of the process of creating it?
Our making processes are always very thorough. It normally starts with a period of protracted research and development of the tools and technique we are using; we try to really push the tools and the language we develop and they are normally really time-intensive processes. You get to a point where you know you’ve got the quality and technique pinned and then you can start making. As with any art, it takes a while to stand back from the finished piece and appreciate what you have achieved. We enjoy the hard graft and the personal nature of what comes with forming your own language using the tools.
What are your biggest ambitions now?
Our biggest ambition at the moment is to carve out some focused time in the studio, developing smaller-scale works, laying to paper the many ideas we have but don’t often have the time to work on and reading and researching new avenues of thought. Of course, we’re always looking sideways for the next challenge and opportunity to keep us on our toes.
Cover Credit: Hugh Fox
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.
March 26 2022
I am working with Nature and Art in the (their) networks, sounds, and energy all as vibrations in a landscape realm. I’m considering completing my PhD started 22 years ago in Berlin, but instead of Eco-cities as an Urban Designer, using my Landscape Architecture background with lichen, moss, fungi in the forest. It was a terrific find to come across your work and this newsletter. Kudos!