Engineering students bring scientific perspective to sequencing artist prints

Every time Dario Robleto installs the print portfolio The First Time, The Heart (A Portrait of Life 1854-1913), now in The Block Museum’s permanent collection, he invites collaborators to re-envision the order in which it is presented, Michael Metzger curator of The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto, told listeners at a recent gallery talk. For its installation at The Block, Robleto embraced scientific collaboration and the museum’s role as a interdisciplinary teaching space by partnering with Northwestern McCormick School of Engineering students.  

The First Time, The Heart… consists of 50 photolithographs displaying waveforms of human heart activity on hand-sooted paper, a murky and almost ethereal backdrop against which scientific measurements of human pulse waves appear in stark contrast. The series 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. Each print represents a discovery Robleto made in the archival records as he combed through dozens of 19th-century medical journals. The pulses that Robleto excavates from the record reflect “the first time” the human heart was recorded in poetic and emotional states such as: Under the influence of hiccups, 1886 or Emotion of fear from shouting of the word “snakes,” 1896

Title wall of The First Time, The Heart showing poetic titles of all 50 prints

For this presentation, Robleto and exhibition curator Michael Metzger worked with Andy Wehmeyer and Nadiah Zamri, undergraduates in the McCormick School of Engineering’s Murphy Scholars program, and Dylan Brown, a PhD candidate in Chemical and Biological Engineering, to reimagine the work. These emerging scientists at Northwestern devised groupings that reflect the duality of these prints as both quantitative data and qualitative testimony. Classifying prints according to objective physical characteristics of waves such as amplitude and frequency, these layouts nonetheless create space for subjective and playful associations. 

Dylan Brown, Andy Wehmeyer, Nadiah Zamri meet with Dario Robleto to discuss his work and the sequencing of the portfolio

A gallery tour titled “Resequencing “The First Time, The Heart…” invited listeners to hear from Robleto’s collaborators in the work’s resequencing, Andy Wehmeyer (Engineering, ‘25) and Dylan Brown (PhD, Chemical Engineering), as they discussed the thinking that went into the portfolio’s installation. In their envisioning of how the portfolio would come together in The Block’s gallery space, Brown and Wehmeyer looked for stories in the pulse waves. 

“A big thing in Dario’s work is re-humanizing a lot of this data that has been collected,” Brown said. “The heart is really representative of many more things than this physical device that pumps our bodies. It’s tied to a lot of metaphors and emotionality – really, it’s about the human condition.”  

Wehmeyer and Brown thought about the ways that the scientific recordings displayed in the portfolio encompass observations – like recordings of people of certain heights, weights, ages and afflictions – as well as more speculative recordings – like Listening to Music… – that ascribe an emotional response to what they have recorded. So to find similarity in the works’ variability, the pair took a step back and considered their own perspectives.  

“Our approach was then to look at the empirical data and try to collect these stories as scientists would,” Wehmeyer said. “And in doing this, we saw a lot of places where stories do emerge, and there’s a pattern that follows from them.”  

Also important to consider was the fact that many of the recordings were taboo, or rebellious, in a way, for their extension of medical and scientific practices to emotional documentation, said Brown.  

So he turned to a mode of thinking he adopted from a friend in the humanities, whose interview-based research led her to reconsider the urge to think about everything as data.  

“You can’t look at a graph and necessarily understand the complete realm of humanity within that,” he said.  

Focusing on the pulse waves’ capturing of not just data, but also human experience, Wehmeyer and Brown thought about each recording as a remnant of an entire life.  

“For all we know that single set of 32 up-and-down beats of her heart that were etched in the candle flame soot is the only thing that we know about that person in all of our recorded history,” Wehmeyer said.  

Though they had drawn on their own backgrounds in engineering and scientific thinking, the pair wanted their arrangement of the portfolio to reflect both the scientific and the humanist facets of the work. Its sheer scale was a part of what had attracted them to the project, but so, too, was its capacity to encompass different modes of thinking, feeling and observation.  

“Looking at how they flow through each other on the wall, maybe that leads to a more poetic story,” Wehmeyer said.  

Throughout their gallery talk, Brown and Wehmeyer also engaged with the permutability of the portfolio by asking their audience to consider the relationships the pieces in the portfolio share with one another, both within their displayed configuration and across the entire gallery.  

One listener remarked that the pair’s scientific groupings still relayed aspects of human connection in a way that underscores the challenge of characterization.  

“That was one of the larger points, I think,” said Brown in response. “As scientists we start with a hypothesis, and it was ‘can we gather that back out if we do the scientific approach?’ I think the answer that we found in doing this all is: ‘definitely.’”  

Explore the Exhibition Print Sequences

About the Speakers

Dylan Brown is a PhD student in Northwestern’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. He graduated from the University of New Mexico with a BS in chemical engineering and North Carolina State University with an MS in forest biomaterials. At Northwestern, Dylan works on developing simple biological devices for detecting environmental contaminants to create technologies that allow people to easily gain information about water quality. Throughout his educational journey, he has been interested in the interface of art and science, how philosophies from each field can be used to advance the other, and how art can be a tool to increase societal engagement with new scientific topics.

Andy Wehmeyer is a sophomore at Northwestern studying mechanical engineering. He enjoys building and flying rockets. In his free time, he attends class. Find him reading on the lakefill, climbing a tree, or flying on a rocket (someday soon).

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