In new exhibition, Dario Robleto explores history of the human heart and cosmic boundaries of perception

Northwestern’s Block Museum and McCormick School of Engineering jointly present The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto (January 26 – July 9, 2023)

• Exhibition result of multi-year collaboration between Northwestern Engineering and Block Museum

• Artist’s exhibition culmination of ten years of work – the result of exchange and dialogue with Northwestern faculty research in synthetic biology, bioethics, medicine, and astrophysics

• Central inspiration drawn from the story of the Voyager “Golden Record” – the exhibition is a gift to “the only woman whose heart has left the solar system”

Dario Robleto, Elegies of Proxima b, 2019. 
Various cut and polished seashells, urchin spines, green tusks, squilla claws, butterfly wings, cut paper, colored powder pigments, colored plastic beads, acrylic domes, brass rod, colored and mirrored Plexiglas, glue, acrylic on wood. 48″ x 18″ x 18″ overall with base and vitrine. Image courtesy of the artist. 

From understanding the pulses and brainwaves of the human body to receiving the faintest glimmers from the edge of the observable universe, it is the project of groundbreaking science to push the limits of perception.  

For American artist Dario Robleto (b. 1972), artists and scientists share a common aspiration: to increase the sensitivity of their observations.  This idea has guided Robleto throughout his five-year engagement as Artist-at Large between The Block Museum of Art and the McCormick School of Engineering.  This unique position offered the artist an open “hall pass” to learn from, collaborate with, and even question scientists, engineers, and experts from across Northwestern.  The enterprise has led to surprising connections, as Robleto’s expanding conversations around ethics and empathy in scientific fields have come to impact faculty and student understandings of their work [See “Dario is our Socrates: McCormick Artist in Residence”].

In culmination of this longtime collaboration, The Block Museum of Art and McCormick School of Engineering jointly present The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto (January 26 – July 9, 2023)

Dario Robleto visits Synthetic Biology Lab, 2018

The Scientist and the Artist – Robleto’s Northwestern Residency

Northwestern Engineering’s ongoing Artist-at-Large program works with the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art to embed an artist within the McCormick School of Engineering. It is part of the continuing Art + Engineering initiative and a part of the whole-brain engineering philosophy at Northwestern Engineering.

“On the surface, the world of the scientist and the world of the artist seem to be polar opposites. One of the goals of science, as of art, is to peer into the unknown, linking observations that may make little sense at first. To understand the unknown, scientists must first use creativity to imagine new ways of how such pieces fit together and then use the tools of the scientific method to prove or disprove their models of how the world works. Without creativity and imagination, there is no new science,” notes Julius B. Lucks, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern University.

Lucks valued Robleto’s engagement with Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology, which brings together interdisciplinary researchers focused on innovative ways to reprogram cells to take on new, specialized purposes, with applications ranging from creating sustainable chemicals to next-generation materials to targeted therapeutics. A member of the center, Lucks is using cell-free synthetic biology and molecular engineering to develop ROSALIND, a low-cost, easy-to-use, hand-held device that quickly detects contaminants in water.

While ROSALIND holds promise in helping address current problems related to clean water, Robleto challenged Lucks and his research team to reflect more deeply on the social and ethical implications of the technology they were creating. If anyone could test the health of their water, for example, how might that impact trust in their local governments? What if they have no choice but to drink the water they now know is contaminated?

“Robleto has enabled us to journey outside our research expertise to imagine how our technologies may interface with and impact society,” Lucks said.

Northwestern Engineering Dean Julio M. Ottino and Director of the Block Museum Lisa Corrin Photographs by Sally Ryan.

Lisa Corrin, the  Ellen Philips Katz Executive Director of The Block Museum of Art and Julio Mario Ottino, Dean, of McCormick School of Engineering reflect on the possibilities of this unconventional partnership.  “Here, a university’s school of engineering and its art museum come together in the shared belief that transformative innovation can happen at the intersections of usually distinct academic disciplines and modes of creativity and inquiry. We had faith that something meaningful would emerge organically if we merely provided structures in which informal interactions might take place,” notes Corrin.

“We wanted to model for young engineers the value of embracing uncertainty as part of the journey that leads to innovation and opens pathways within the imagination — as artists do. We are grateful to Dario Robleto for accepting our invitation to come to Northwestern and to enter the unknown with us. He has taught us that our shared future resides in our capacity for compassion and for empathy, the ethos at the heart of his work that holds the most promise for those at the forefront of science in the interest of humankind,” adds Ottino.

About the Exhibition: The Heart’s Knowledge

Throughout the history of scientific invention, instruments like the cardiograph and the telescope have extended the reach of perception from the tiniest stirrings of the human body to the farthest reaches of space. In his prints, sculptures, and video and sound installations, Robleto contemplates the emotional significance of these technologies, bringing us closer to the latent traces of life buried in the scientific record. 

The Hearts Knowledge brings together a decade of Robleto’s creative practice, from 2012 to 2022, a period marked by a deepening engagement with science, including astronomy, biomedical engineering, and exobiology, and by an ever-widening embrace of new materials and creative forms, from 3D- printed objects to films. The exhibition organizes the artist’s conceptually ambitious, elegantly wrought artworks as a series of multisensory encounters between art and science. Each work seeks to attune viewers to the material traces of life at scales ranging from the intimate to the universal, returning always to the question: Does empathy extend beyond the boundaries of time and space?

The Pulse Armed With a Pen (An Unknown History of the Human Heartbeat)

28 custom cut 5-inch vinyl records, audio recordings, archival digital prints (record sleeves, liner notes, labels, slides), three centuries of various human pulse and heartbeat tracings, glass slides, custom bound book, oak, silk, engraved gold mirror, brass, headphones, media players

18” x 14 ½” x 21” (box overall, open); installed in variable dimensions

“Whether he’s addressing the most minute phenomena of the body or the horizons of the known universe, Robleto binds the rigor of scientific inquiry with artistic expression. Straining at the bounds of observation, Robleto discovers unity at the limits: the common endeavor of art and science to achieve a form of knowledge that language alone cannot speak,” says exhibition curator Michael Metzger, The Block’s Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts.

The exhibition is rooted in the artist’s longstanding fascination with the clinical and cultural history of the human heart. The first section, Heartbeats,” takes inspiration from 19th-century pioneers of cardiography, whose ingenious instruments graphically measured heart activity for the first time, leaving behind poignant records of human subjectivity. In The First Time, the Heart (A Portrait of Life 1854-1913) (2017), Robleto transforms early measurements of heartbeats made by 19th-century pioneers of cardiography into exquisite photolithographs executed on paper hand-sooted with candle flames.  For the installation The Pulse Armed With a Pen (An Unknown History of the Human Heartbeat) (2014), Robleto collaborates with sound historian Patrick Feaster to digitally resurrect these heartbeats in audio form, giving visitors access to intimate pulses of life recorded before the invention of sound playback. 

Dario Robleto, The Aorta of an Archivist, 2021. 
UHD video, 5.1 surround sound installation; Running time: 53:00. Installation and video stills courtesy of the artist. 

Robleto has recently embraced digital video to create works that narrate transformational episodes in the recording and study of wave phenomena. The second exhibition section “Wavelengths,” comprises two-hour-long immersive video installations. The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed (2019) takes inspiration from one of the most famous collections of sounds and images ever assembled—the Voyager Golden Record, a gold-plated phonographic disc launched into space onboard the Voyager I and II space probes in 1977.  In The Aorta of an Archivist (2020-2021), Robleto investigates three breakthroughs in the history of recording: the first recording of a choral performance made with an Edison wax cylinder, the first heartbeat captured while listening to music, and the first effort to transcribe the brain wave activity of a dreaming subject.

In the third exhibition section, “Horizons,” Robleto evokes the stargazing spirit of the Hubble telescope and the search for extraterrestrial life, peering out at the boundaries of the observable universe. Inspired by his time as an artist-in-residence at the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and as artistic consultant to the Breakthrough Initiatives,  intricate sculptures like Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas (2018) give shape to the speculative search for intelligent life in the universe. Other works such as The Computer of Jupiter (2019) are framed as “gifts for extraterrestrials” negotiating differing views on the best way to begin a dialogue with alien intelligences.

Dario Robleto, Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas, 2018. 
Cut and polished nautilus shells, various cut and polished seashells, various urchin spines and teeth, mushroom coral, green and white tusks, squilla claws, butterfly wings, colored pigments and beads, colored crushed glass and glitter, dyed mica flakes, pearlescent paint, cut paper, acrylic domes, brass rods, colored mirrored Plexiglas, glue, maple. 75” x 71 1/2” x 43” 
Images courtesy of the artist. 

Inspired by a Heart Beyond the Solar System

In 1977, NASA launched Voyagers 1 and  2 to study the outer planets of the solar system. Affixed to the side of each craft was a golden audio-visual record with 90 minutes of storage and a billion-year shelf life, loaded with the sounds and images chosen to tell the story of Earth if the probes ever encountered intelligent life.

The Golden Record

Ann Druyan, the record’s creative director was tasked with producing an audio portrait of the planet, a document that included the sounds of crickets and wolves, greetings spoken in various languages, and world music. During the making of the project, Druyan became secretly engaged to American astronomer, and project director Carl Sagan.  Before the record’s release, Druyan asked Sagan a heavy and profound question: if she recorded her brain waves with an electroencephalogram (EEG) and electrocardiogram (EKG), could aliens eventually read her mind? Sagan encouraged her to try.

On a summer’s day in 1977, Druyan walked into a dark room at the NYU medical center, put on a blindfold and earplugs, and lay quietly for an hour as she had her heart and brainwave activity recorded. For most of that hour, she ran through a mental and emotional itinerary about the history of the earth and of human civilization.  Druyan also thought about stories and emotions that weren’t sanctioned as part of the official record: in particular, her euphoric, new, secret love for Sagan.  Druyan essentially “snuck love on board the Voyager.”   In August 2012, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to cross into interstellar space, and Ann Druyan became the only human whose heart has left the solar system.

Dario Robleto has framed Ann Druyan’s radical act as the central inspiration of his work – indeed he has framed the whole exhibition as a gift to Ann. “I consider it the greatest work of subversive, avant-garde art not yet given its due,” he says. “The provocative question Ann is asking is an old one: Are we in our signals? Are we literally in there in such a way that the full experience of human subjectivity can be pulled out of the body, held in this other format, and be fully decipherable at a later date?” 

Dario Robleto, The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed, 2019 [Still showing Ann Druyan]
Two-channel 4K video, color, 5.1 surround sound installation; Running time: 51:00. Installation and video stills courtesy of the artist. 

“I find this deep connection between art and the search for life in the universe so unexpected and beautiful: “We don’t know if you are out there – and if you are if you will understand – but we will search and signal for you regardless. The Golden Record and Ann’s radical act brought us all together to think about what it means to be human, to one another, and to unknown beings on other worlds.” notes the artist

Exhibition Publication

In conjunction with the exhibition, The Block Museum of Art and the McCormick School of Engineering are proud to announce the publication of The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto. (Distributed by ARTBOOK – DAP, $39.99)

Richly illustrated with images the book reflects a decade of profound creative exploration and proposes new models for understanding research-based creative practice in visual culture studies.

“Dario Robleto’s work builds on foundations of research as deep as any scholar’s, but takes the form of beautiful, intricate objects that invite sustained contemplation. Our publication similarly emphasizes the aesthetic power of his art, while also matching its historical and philosophical rigor through contributions from top scholars and key collaborators across a spectrum of disciplines,” says Michael Metzger, publication editor

The publication is edited by Michael Metzger with contributions by Robert M. Brain, Daniel K. L. Chua, Patrick Feaster, Stefan Helmreich, Elizabeth A. Kessler, Julius B. Lucks, Michael Metzger, Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, Alexander Rehding, Jennifer L. Roberts, Dario Robleto, and Claire Isabel Webb.

About Dario Robleto

Artist Dario Robleto at The Block

Dario Robleto was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1972 and received his BFA from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1997. He lives and works in Houston, TX. The artist has had numerous solo exhibitions since 1997, most recently at the Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, KS (2021); the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University (2019); the McNay Museum, San Antonio, TX (2018); Menil Collection, Houston, TX (2014); the Baltimore Museum of Art (2014); the New Orleans Museum of Art (2012); and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver (2011). His work has been profiled in numerous publications and media including Radiolab, Krista Tippet’s On Being, and the New York Times. In 2008 a 10-year survey exhibition, Alloy of Love, was organized by the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York. Accompanied by a major monograph, Alloy of Love traveled to the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, Washington.

Robleto has been a visiting artist and lecturer at many universities and institutions including Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA; Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI; and the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD. In 2013-14 he served as the California College of the Arts Viola Frey Distinguished Visiting Professor, Oakland, CA.

His awards have included the International Association of Art Critics Award for best exhibition in a commercial gallery at the national level (2004); the Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant (2007); the USA Rasmuson Fellowship (2009); and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Grant (2021). He has been a research fellow, artist-in-resident and visiting scholar at institutions such as the Smithsonian Museum of American History (2011); Rice University (2013-14); the Menil Collection (2014); the SETI Institute (2016-17); the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (2017); the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University (2019); and the Arts Research Center, University of Berkeley, CA (2022). From 2016-19 he was a co-organizer of the International Conference on Mobile Brain-Body Imaging and the Neuroscience of Art, Innovation, and Creativity in Cancun, Mexico and Valencia, Spain. He was co-author and editor for an accompanying publication, Mobile Brain-Body Imaging and the Neuroscience of Art, Innovation and Creativity (2019).

In 2015 he joined a distinguished team of scientists as the artistic consultant to “Breakthrough Message”—a multi-national effort that aims to encourage intellectual and technical debate about how and what to communicate if the current search for intelligent beings beyond Earth is successful. From 2017-19 he served as an Artist-in-Residence in Neuroaesthetics at the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering and is currently Artist-at-Large at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and the Block Museum of Art. In 2016 he was appointed as the Texas State Artist Laureate. He is a former board member of Artpace, San Antonio and is currently on the board of advisors at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. In 2020, he was a research consultant to the popular science television series, Cosmos: Possible Worlds, which aired on National Geographic and Fox. He is currently working on his first book, Life Signs: The Tender Science of the Pulsewave, co-authored with art historian Jennifer Roberts, the Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities at Harvard (University of Chicago Press).

Dario Robleto, Sparrows Sing to an Indifferent Sea, 2019. 
Earliest waveform recordings of inhalation and blood flowing from the heart during various auditory experiences (1876-96), rendered and 3-D printed in brass-plated stainless steel; lacquered maple, 23k gold leaf. Box (closed): 2 1/4” x 23” x 23” 
With pedestal and vitrine: 45″ x 54 1/2“ x 29”Images courtesy of the artist. 

Exhibition Credits

The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto is organized by the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, and is curated by Michael Metzger, Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts. The Block acknowledges with gratitude its partnership with Northwestern University’s Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, whose leadership support has made possible this exhibition, the associated publication, and the Artist-at-Large residency of Dario Robleto (2018-2023). The artist-at-large program has been generously supported by the Barry and Mary Ann MacLean Fund for Art and Engineering. Major support is also provided by the National Endowment for the Arts. Generous support is contributed by the Dorothy J. Speidel Fund, the Bernstein Family Contemporary Art Fund, the Illinois Arts Council Agency, and the Alumnae of Northwestern University. The exhibition publication is also made possible in part by the Sandra L. Riggs Publications Fund.

Dario Robleto, Survival Does Not Lie In The Heavens, 2012. 
Digital inkjet print mounted on Sintra, a collection of stage lights taken from the album covers of live performances of now-deceased Gospel, Blues and Jazz musicians. Triptych: 31 x 31; 46 x 46; 31 x 31 inches Images courtesy of the artist. 

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