February 3, 2012

FADEout is on display through February 3, 2012, in the third floor atrium of the Gordon Center for Integrative Science.

A child and an adult stand in front of a motion-sensing camera. As they gesticulate, the camera sees their gestures, and a projection in front of them moves and morphs. The child is just playing with the words. She makes them bigger, then smaller, and then she flicks them across the screen and laughs. The text becomes her dancing partner. To the adult, however, this display is not a toy, and so he doesn’t really want to play with it. What he wants is to win it.

This is one component of FADEout, an installation that combines the work of artist Granite Amit and computer scientist Yali Amit, Chair of the Department of Statistics and Professor of Statistics and Computational Science. Under the auspices of the University of Chicago’s Arts | Science Initiative, the pair have come together to craft an experience that neither of them could or would have created alone—a case of art driving science, and science elevating art.

For her part, Granite Amit presents a brief, dense, wandering text about the inevitability of loss, and then layers that text onto translucent screens, breaks it apart digitally in a pre-recorded video and, as described above, presents it as a locus of interaction for the viewer. The viewer’s role is not merely to interpret the work but also to activate it. The work’s approach to meaning is not only aesthetic, but also ludic and social.

Poetic yet mechanical

Where Granite Amit’s aspirations are poetic, Yali Amit’s are mechanical. If we are going to break a piece of text down into its component parts, he asks, then just how far can we break it down? How small can these component parts be, and what do they look like in isolation?

Yali Amit’s research focuses on interpretation, synthesis, and “machine vision.” We know that the brain interprets letters by breaking them down into shapes, but we do not know what shapes. We know that characters can be reduced to a sort of subatomic level, but we’ve yet to find the linguistic quark--or even, really, the linguistic atom. So in FADEout, the phrases and words and letters break down into shapes that represent Yali Amit’s best guess at what words look like on a molecular level.

It is this strange experience—this game about breaking things down, this entropy simulator—that the child approaches as toy, and that the adult wants to conquer. And once the child has wandered off, he does conquer it, or at least complete it. Here is how he does it.

How it works

On the screen before him, he sees the phrase “always falls and doesn’t rise,” and he takes word “doesn’t” in hand. He drags it to the edge of the screen, and it disappears. He then repeats this process with “falls” and “always” and “and.” This makes the one remaining word break into individual letters: “Rise” becomes R-I-S-E, and he drags away the R and the S and the E, which makes the I break down even further, into an array of jagged, irregular, pixilated shapes. Once he has dragged these shapes away, the screen is blank for a moment, and then a new and equally destructible phrase pops up.

Which means he’s won, or at least that he feels accomplished as he walks off and lets someone else have a turn—two adults, as it happens, who think that they can break the phrase all the way down much faster with teamwork. It’s not as though they’re missing some grim joke by racing to destroy the phrases on the screen. It’s just that FADEout is meditative in its tone. Its motions are languid, subdued, and inviting.

The viewer doesn’t rip and tear the text apart, but simply slides the words around, reducing them to their component parts purely by rearranging them. This isn’t the sort of cruel or violent entropy that exists in nature. Rather, this is the organized reduction through which humans make things smaller and smaller in order to understand them better and better. It’s an attention to detail that the arts and the sciences share in common, it’s the heart of FADEout – and, by extension, it’s the heart of the Arts | Science Initiative.

FADEout is on display through February 3, 2012, in the third floor atrium of the Gordon Center for Integrative Science. The exhibition is made possible by the Arts | Science Initiative, established in partnership with the Office of the Provost and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, and with the support of the Divisions of the Biological and Physical Sciences, Humanities, and the Office of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories.

By Drew Messinger-Michaels, AM'10

Two adults try to break down a phrase in FADEout, an exhibit on display through February 3, 2012, at the Gordon Center for Integrative Science.