Montana State University

MSU professors offer collaborative ‘artscience’ exhibit at Holter Museum

October 12, 2017 -- Eliese Besemer, MSU News Service

Visitors explore the CAVE exhibit opening at the Holter Museum in Helena. The exhibit is a collaboration between Montana State University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City and immerses viewer-participants into a sensory environment that merges ancient art with scientific theory. MSU Photo by Zach Hoffman.Professors and students from Montana State University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City install the CAVE exhibit at the Holter Museum in Helena. The exhibit merges the idea of ancient cave art with current brain research. MSU Photo by Zach Hoffman.A viewer-participant experiences the CAVE exhibit at the Holter Museum in Helena. The collaborative project between Montana State University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City uses brainwave monitors, worn by the viewers, to project audio and visual information to speakers and light-emitting fiber optics to create an immersive experience. MSU Photo by Zach Hoffman.

Visitors explore the CAVE exhibit opening at the Holter Museum in Helena. The exhibit is a collaboration between Montana State University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City and immerses viewer-participants into a sensory environment that merges ancient art with scientific theory. MSU Photo by Zach Hoffman.

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BOZEMAN – Professors and students from Montana State University and the University of Missouri at Kansas City worked together recently to develop and build a new, immersive installation that merges ancient art with cutting-edge scientific theory.

Called CAVE, the exhibit is open through Dec. 31 at the Holter Museum of Art, located at 12 E. Lawrence St. in Helena.

CAVE is a collaborative project that merges the idea of 35,000-year-old cave art with state-of-the-art brain research, according to the Holter Museum’s description. The project falls under the emerging genre called “artscience,” which involves art interacting with science at some level and usually involves research, according to Jason Bolte, a music technology professor in the MSU School of Music and one of the two composers for the project.

The exhibit includes five sculptures called neuro-caves, built from light-emitting fiber optic cables, speakers and brainwave monitors, which are worn by up to five “viewer-participants,” as Bolte called them. The data from each viewer-participant — one in each neuro-cave — is immediately processed and translated into sound and light, a process called data sonification/visualization.

When the real-time analysis shows that the viewer-participants' brain activity is similar enough, the sound pulsates and the lights get brighter, according to Sara Mast, a professor in the MSU School of Art who specializes in drawing and painting and is the visual artist for CAVE. The more similar the brainwave activity is, the faster the sound pulses and the brighter the lights. 

“There is a spark of excitement when participants hear this pulsation,” said Linda Antas, an MSU music technology professor. “It is audible proof that their brainwaves are causing changes in the sound in real time and an indication that they are sharing something with other participants.” 

Antas was the other composer for the project. She worked with the sonification of data. Her colleague, Bolte, composed the ambient sound for the installation.

“The viewer-participants and any others in the darkened room can immediately see and hear how their brainwaves translate into light and sound,” Mast said. “Different colors and sounds represent different brainwaves and amplitudes being measured, which can create a fascinating display. The whole installation is a collective, as well as an individual experience, as the participants can see and hear their own brainwaves and those of the other neuro-cave dwellers.”

According to Bolte, the installation was also designed as a research instrument. Viewer-participants may choose to sign a waiver to participate in the research aspect, and those who do will not only be able to see their data displayed but also have it recorded.

The research aims to measure how the brain responds to different stimuli by observing the subjects’ brainwaves under controlled circumstances, such as directed focus to changing sights and sounds, according to John Miller, professor emeritus in the MSU Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience and the group’s neuroscientist. Research will focus on both individual responses and on group dynamics.

“It’s an interesting examination of individual response and group dynamics and coherence,” Bolte said.

The project grew from an idea Mast had after she attended a lecture on cave art and neuroscience given by Miller about eight years ago. In the lecture, Miller discussed how sensory deprivation in caves — the lack of light and sound specifically — apparently causes a common neurological reaction in humans that could explain the phenomenon of similar art designs used in ancient cave art from around the world.

Mast began exploring the idea of cave-like sensory deprivation in her own art, but she wanted to do more. About four years ago, she met with several MSU faculty members, with whom she had collaborated previously and who would become members of the NeuroCave Collaborative, to discuss a potential interdisciplinary project. The idea grew, as did the number of contributors, eventually giving rise to the CAVE project.

The NeuroCave Collaborative consists of Bolte, Antas, Mast and Miller, as well as Jessica Jellison, architect, instructor in the MSU School of Architecture; Bill Clinton, digital fabricator, instructor and facilities manager in the MSU School of Architecture; David Millman, computer scientist, professor in the MSU Gianforte School of Computing; Chris Huvaere software developer-music technologist, technology manager in the MSU Techlink Center; Barry Anderson, digital artist, professor of digital motion and department chair in the UMKC Department of Art and Art History; Brittany Fasy, computer scientist, professor of mathematics and computer science and Gianforte faculty fellow in the MSU Gianforte School of Computing; and Zach Hoffman, photographer, coordinator of partnership services with Bobcat Sports Properties at MSU. The science adviser for the group was Chris Comer, professor of neurobiology and dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences at the University of Montana.

For more information on the CAVE installation or the NeuroCave Collaborative, visit http://www.montana.edu/cave/index.html or contact Bolte at 406-994-5766 or jason.bolte@montana.edu or Mast at 406-994-3890 or smast@montana.edu.

For more information on the exhibit at the Holter Museum, visit https://www.holtermuseum.org/janda/project_detail.php?projectid=152&CatId=5 or call 406-442-6400.

Contact: Sara Mast, MSU School of Art, 406-994-3890 or smast@montana.edu