It began with the sound of the ocean. Artistwas giving a sound workshop at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, UK, for six children with autism and six with severe cerebral palsy.
“I was observing how the children were affected by exposure to natural and artificial sounds,” Ware explains. “One girl in particular with cerebral palsy appeared to respond particularly well to the natural sound of the sea I’d recorded in Teignmouth, Devon, whereas she did not like the artificial sound of a music box.
“Her carers were amazed. I assumed that her condition was such that she wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I was at the beach last week, I love the sound of the sea.’ And this raised the question, is there something inherent in natural sounds that we all respond to? That question formed the beginning of the Wavelength Project.”
Almost 20 years before he launched the project in 2015, Mark suffered a stroke. It impaired the vision in his left eye, left him with lifelong movement and cognitive issues and, crucially, redirected the focus of his work to his own “altered subjective experience”. Artworks which followed included a film inspired by the diaries Mark kept in the months following his stroke; vast banners of his own photographs, digitally manipulated and printed in stereoscopic 3D to be installed in a shopping centre in Brighton, UK and under; and an interactive sound sculpture to give deaf and partially sighted children experience of audio recording and manipulation. They are works exploring the capabilities of our senses, and also their breaking points; works that seek to identify the extent to which sensory experiences are universal. And they all led to , which could one day extend its tentacles to Mars.
Inspired by his experience with the soothing waves of Teignmouth, Mark collected field samples of 50 natural and 50 unnatural sounds. Then, in collaboration with Hugo Critchley at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science in Brighton, he played these sounds back to volunteers and recorded their brain activity using an MRI scanner.
Participants were less attentive to unnatural sounds, and responded best to natural sounds with which they weren’t even familiar. “This isn’t as simple as finding the familiar presence of tweeting birds or rolling oceans comforting,” says Mark. “It suggests that there could be an intrinsic merit in natural sounds which applies even to those which the subject wouldn’t consciously classify as natural.”
Fascinated by the potential of these auditory experiments, Mark has now turned his attention to the visual. In February 2015 he began working with Nichola Street of Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent, UK. Street is investigating the origins and implications of our in-built aesthetic preferences, in particular how they affect our responses to natural and built environments.
In Reflecting Nature, a touring exhibition of digital prints and part of the Wavelength Project, Street and Ware have created 16 symmetrically patterned images. Street is using eye-tracking software to measure how volunteers react to these (pictured below), and Ware will take the results into account to create art that the pair hope will evoke particular psychological states. It’s an iterative process that sees scientific results blended directly into the artistic process.
It doesn’t stop there. Ware plans to tie these visual and auditory works together into a multimedia piece which can then be refined through experimentation. All this, Mark hopes, is leading towards the creation of “immersive environments that make people feel better, including people with neurological conditions such as stroke”. Therapeutic settings, including hospitals, are one possible application; in time, Mark’s environments may find a use in prisons, schools, even.
And that’s where Mars comes in. Oliver Angerer of the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne thinks Ware’s work might prove useful in the design of deep-space missions. “Understanding the possible beneficial effects of natural environments and their mechanisms may allow us to adapt space habitats to better suit human needs,” he explains. He hopes that the technologies being developed by the project can create environments that change just enough to stave off boredom and homesickness.
Ware and his collaborators aren’t fusing science and art so much as evolving an entirely new way of working. “If this was purely based in science, it would involve generations of work, investigations, proofs and developments,” he reflects. “As an artist, you can move faster, you can take giant leaps.” Only time will tell whether a future leap will take the Wavelength Project into orbit and beyond.
The Wavelength Project website has details of the Reflecting Nature exhibition, which is
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