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On the Job

Art Neuro

Alan Rorie's cerebral creations challenge viewers to think of science as a process.

Photo: Toni Gauthier

BLUE SKY MIND: Rorie collaborated on the 40-foot-tall Raygun Gothic Rocketship and created the interactive kiosk—meant to evoke an interstellar bus stop—that accompanies the installation at Pier 14 in San Francisco.

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By Roberta Kwok

When most people think of the brain—if they think about it at all—they picture a squiggly gray mass. Artist Alan Rorie's vision is far livelier: In one of his collaborative creations, three knobbly metal neurons twist through a purple pentagonal observation chamber. At the push of a button, a 15,000-volt glowing electrical discharge snakes along a steel axon, representing the way electrochemical signals travel in the brain, carrying messages from one cell to the next.

Rorie's interest in neuroscience is grounded in formal training. As a doctoral student at Stanford, he investigated how brain cells process information related to decision-making. But an itch to do something more physical drew him toward kinetic art. Through his artwork, which is frequently interactive, Rorie, PhD '11, hopes to make science more approachable. "People get really intimidated when you start to talk to them about science," he says. "But you put an interesting sculpture in front of them, and they ask questions."

From his studio in Oakland, Rorie produces art under the moniker Almost Scientific, which refers to his methodical—if not fully scientific—process of experimenting with materials and techniques. While other artists experiment, Rorie is unusually meticulous, says David Shulman, a frequent collaborator. He often adheres to the scientific method of changing one variable at a time, uses engineering software to design art pieces, and programs machines to cut materials precisely. "Getting down to three significant figures is kind of a passion for me," Rorie says.

His academic background gives his art "intellectual depth," says Jennifer Bethke, curator of art at the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., which showcased some of Rorie's work as part of a 2010 exhibition. "At the same time, he's willing to treat the material lightly. He often approaches it with a sense of humor."

As a kid growing up in New York, Rorie loved playing with materials: melting wax, cutting up paper, building Lego structures. But science felt inaccessible, due in part to his dyslexia. Then, as an undergraduate studying humanities at Hofstra University, he began to wonder how the brain interprets art and started reading neuropsychology books. He realized that, far from having all the answers, the field was wide open for discovery.

Rorie transferred to NYU where he switched to neuroscience and became intrigued by electrophysiology experiments, which allow scientists to observe the activity of individual neurons, essentially "listening in to the brain." At Stanford, he studied how neurons process two types of input to guide decisions: sensory information, such as detecting an object's movement, and "value" information, or how one might be rewarded for an action. To investigate, Rorie monitored neurons in a monkey's brain as it responded to signals on a screen.

But running repetitive experiments and spending hours at the computer analyzing data began to wear on him. "I wanted to get back to working with my hands," he says. He bought welding equipment and started playing with scrap metal. Among his early artistic forays was a set of aperture windows for The Steampunk Tree House, a collaborative project now permanently installed at the Dogfish Head brewery in Milton, Del. Each circular window, the largest of which measures 14 inches in diameter, was constructed from 12 overlapping brass segments that make the opening in the center larger or smaller—much like the iris of the eye. Rorie recently revisited the design, on a larger scale and with a few upgrades, for the door of an art-car replica of the Nautilus submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Another ongoing project is an interactive installation inspired by a classic observation in psychophysics research: that people often pick up novel objects in the same ways. Rorie plans to outfit an oddly-shaped device, which he describes as "an asymmetrical distorted boomerang," with sensors and invite people to pick it up and explore the resulting data. The aim is to "get people to understand data as a phenomenon." All too often in science, Rorie says, what gets communicated to the public is the end product: the fact, the result. "And what's left unspoken is the scientific process. Data is a key part of that. That's the lifeblood of science."

Roberta Kwok, '00, is a freelance writer in the Bay Area.


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