China Blue: Painting with brain waves, sculpting with sound, and recording Saturns rings

China Blue’s work involves making the intangibile manifest. It’s no sleight of hand either. To various degrees she somehow allows her audience to experience an unseen world that surrounds us every moment of our lives. Her work is contemplative as much as it is interactive. Your mind churns on its own, eliciting activity from her work, then leaves you in fascinated wonder at what you just saw. It’s a strange combination but the tension between the two states bears undeniable fruit.

China Blue set aside some time to discuss her work with SCINQ.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: How did science and art come together for you?

CHINA BLUE: That is a funny story. In my early education, I did not have an affinity for science. I was completely focused on art from the beginning and it continued throughout High School. Later, I married a neuroscientist and realized that I did not have much of an idea of what he was engaged in. His language was foreign to me. Time went by and I started having questions about the functioning of the brain. I became engrossed by questions like how does consciousness evolve on the neuronal level and what happens to an Alzheimer’s brain. These two questions spawned the interactive works Imagining Blue and MindDraw and the painting series Memory Networks.

SCINQ: Much of your work concerns unseen forces, first sound then later brain waves. Let’s start with sound. As a composer, you actively manipulate sound, sometimes in order to recreate an event and sometimes to transform solid state structures into a sonic experience. Can you discuss how/why you started working with sound?

CB: I came from an artistic household. My training in art began as early as I can remember and continued throughout my high school and then college years. At a young age, I was dedicated to being an artist. So by the time I graduated from the Master’s program at Hunter College, CUNY in New York City, I had explored ceramics, Western-style painting, Japanese sumié painting and traditional and kinetic sculpture. As a formally established artist, I felt that I should focus on something and upon reflection I concluded I was interested in the physicality of architectural space and how sound fills spaces. Later, I learned that there is an actual field for this called Architectural Acoustics. It’s the study of how sound is distributed throughout a space or building. The normal application is for the construction of concert halls or acoustically sensitive facilities. Yet, I saw and continue to see this as a sculptural concern: the room is a volume and the sound is the material which fills the volume in socially dynamic time-based ways.

The first piece I created was called “Mikey vs Fabio.” This work was produced by placing a microphone in the middle of a ping-pong table and recording the game between Mikey and Fabio. The result was a beautiful sound piece of the ping-pong bouncing off the table and moving from left to right and back again as the players struck it, combined with their commentaries. When placing the recording in a long narrow room of my exhibition in Dijon, the “viewer” standing in the middle was positioned in the acoustic center of the table. There they could hear the ball whizzing overhead and hitting the walls at the end of the hallway which were transformed into the player’s paddles. Sound waves bounce off hard surfaces like windows and walls. So the sound waves mimicked the game as they hit the walls and bounced off of them to fill the space. This became a beautiful living sculpture.

This focus was the beginning of a more than two decade dedication to sound. As I worked I realized that like working with the unseen-sound, I was fascinated by discovering unheard voices. Looking for something not seen or known would seem strange but there are actually sounds above or below our hearing range that we do not have access to, like the sound of the Eiffel Tower.

When I was walking down a Parisian street looking at La Tour Eiffel, I mused that it might be interesting to record the monument. As ideas like that go they are usually flights of fancy but I then wondered if it would actually be possible. This was the beginning of a saga that resulted in discovering that the Eiffel Tower has a voice. By recording from the actual iron struts, my team and I discovered that they contain whispers of people walking by combined with the wind and the clickety-clack sounds of the elevators as they move the visitors up and down the structure. It is a real-time capsule of life’s events. The goal was not to transform a structure into an experience but to discover an unheard world to share with others by showing that sound can exist in places we do not realize. From these recordings, I composed an album called “Under Voices: Les Voix de la Tour Eiffel”. There social events operating in conjunction with the acoustic structural elements created a complex and dynamic sonic ecology that helped extend our knowledge of how we perceive our sonic world.

Sample of China Blue’s Eiffel Tower recording

SCINQ: What are you trying to explore in your sound based projects?

CB: Exploration is a key factor of my work. I find my sonic work fascinating because it leads me to investigate areas that are unheard and unknown. I am driven more by questions than results. That motivates me to explore and pursue new ideas. I suspect I am a bit like a scientist in that regard, I follow the ideas.

One example is a recent project created for NASA. I thought that Saturn’s rings might actually have sound even though sound does not propagate in space. So I received a grant from NASA to answer the question of: “What is the Sound of Saturn’s Rings?” For this project I put together a team of a neuroscientist turned space scientist Seth S. Horowitz (my husband) and the composer of the T-Mobile ring tone Lance Massey (now a frequent collaborator) to answer the question. We applied a number of algorithms to Cassini’s data and successfully isolated the sounds of Cassini plunging through the ice crystals and dust particles as they pummeled the space craft, the charged particles that are trapped and moved with Saturn’s rotating magnetic field “spokes,” as well as the acoustic “prop wash” from the propeller moons, tumbling through the tiny particles of the rings, to name a few events we discovered. With this material we created the album “Cassini’s Dreams.” This work was first inspired by the image of Saturn and her rings as viewed from above. As I looked at her rings I thought they looked like a vinyl record album with the tracks as her rings and the gaps of the tracks as the spaces between the rings. Then I realized that to create the sounds of her rings into an actual recording would be a unique and exciting project to produce.

Listening to Saturn’s Rings from China Blue on Vimeo.

SCINQ: How does your approach differ when composing as opposed to finding sounds to record?

CB: They actually often blur together. The discovery of the sounds is the first part. Because I want to share the discoveries and the story behind it with others it often takes the form of a composed work and/or installation.

SCINQ: Do any of your sound art projects stand out from the rest in your estimation? Why?

CB: I do not have any particular favorites but one experience which was most memorable was the Eiffel Tower project. This was because it was exciting to work both with such a distinct structure but to also to realize we discovered her voice. The other is creating the sounds of Saturn’s rings. That was quite exciting because we not only created successful algorithms but also discovered a multitude of new sounds. I find this work continues to be very inspiring and as a result it has led to at least two additional projects so far.

SCINQ: How did you transition to brain waves? Why?

CB: My interest in brain waves was as a result of a gradual process of learning about the brain. When I first met the neuroscientist Seth S. Horowitz I did not know anything about neuroscience. I initially posed general questions about the nature of the brain, how it works neuronally and biochemically. He shared his knowledge with me and I absorbed it. Over time, I began to pose more specific questions like what is consciousness and how does Alzheimer’s create memory gaps. The topic of Alzheimer’s is of particular interest to me because my grandmother suffered from it. I saw first-hand how it’s destruction affects not only the patients but also their families. So understanding it thoughtfully was important to me. Then my interest shifted more specifically to brain wave functioning and how the brain waves are associated with different human behaviors.

MindDraw from China Blue on Vimeo.

SCINQ: In both Mind Draw and Imagining Blue, brain waves are converted into light and sound sculptures. How did you come up with the idea and what are you exploring?

CB: With these two projects, I was interested in creating interactive works that were triggered by the individual’s brainwaves to drive them. Both of these works do just that. Imagining Blue is a game. The idea is for the sitter to try to turn the lights on the sculpture blue with their mind. It is possible with this work to do that.

The work responds to four basic brainwave patterns. The alpha state is observed during wakeful relaxation and is seen when the LED lights turn purple. The slower theta state is achieved during meditative conditions and is visualized when the LED lights turn blue. The gamma wave state is the alert and awake condition and is considered a measure of active consciousness. This is seen as a white display. And, the beta state which is carried out during normal, non-focused activities is observed as yellow. The result is that people are able to see their every internal change reflected in the external world while they try to achieve deepest theta state and turn the lights blue. This work encourages participants to explore their own consciousness by and learning how to relax, focus and meditate.

With MindDraw I was interested in making a piece that enabled people to draw without training. The work MindDraw is a real-time, interactive work that enables people to create beautiful brain based images. By accessing their mental states of relaxation, meditation, focus or just by thinking, the participants drive the shape and speed of the imagery.

In translating and showing the brain’s activity with MindDraw, we are extracting one of nature’s most complex patterns – the epiphenomenon of mind; more than just a simple light and sound summation of brainwave frequencies, MindDraw interprets the complex patterning of consciousness in action, stepping beyond the Aristotelian concept of art as mimicry.

SCINQ: How have people reacted to your brain wave work?

CB: Fascinated and wowed. The best reaction I had was from a group of mentally challenged children who were captivated by the work. This is because adults would often speak to these kids about their brain activity but they have no way of seeing it in action. As a result, instead of imagining what the brain is doing on a biochemical basis, they were captivated by seeing their brains in action.

Imagining Blue from China Blue on Vimeo.

SCINQ: What can art offer science and vice versa?

CB: For me, science offers a refreshingly new topic to pursue for art. I feel that there is so much to work with because this area has not been trampled upon by others. As a result it is open to opportunities with few restrictions based on who has done this before. Art when applied to science provides a different viewpoint and a new perspective. In my work, this has led to a number of discoveries like finding the voice of the Eiffel Tower, the sounds of Saturn’s rings, and creating the first 3D printing of beta-amyloid proteins to name just a few examples.

SCINQ: Finally, what do you think the artist’s role is in society, if any at all?

CB: The artist’s role in society is to transform and translate what we see into something that can be understood in a new way while aspiring to reveal a fundamental truth.

For more information on China Blue and her work, visit her website at


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