The Simons Center has always stood out at Stony Brook. It has a clean design, is full of glass panes and thin metal, contrasts sharply against the stark brick buildings that populate most of the campus. It’s a class building like many others on campus, but visually unlike so many others.
And unlike many other buildings on campus, the Simons Center is home to a different class of facilities and events. One such event was the opening of a new art exhibition called “How Thinks Work,” which is free and open to the public from now until March 1..
Last Tuesday, an eclectic mix of engineers, artists, philosophers, scientists and a few Stony Brook students gathered at the Simons Center for the event, which was a celebration of art that the exhibit’s program said explores “the human thought process as it relates to mathematics, perception, philosophy, language and nature.”
The exhibit was on display throughout the Simons Center lobby, which was crowded with white candlelit tables. One table offered guests cheese and a bartender near the lobby’s staircase served wine.
Guests wandered the lobby of the Simons Center with wine glasses in hand, alternatively grinning or grimacing as they contemplated the art, much of which was suitably abstract and open to interpretation.
One work that seemed to provoke discussion was a sculpture entitled “Blue.” The sculpture was a solid blue aluminum shape that was haphazardly dented and angled. The piece was accompanied by a musical composition consisting mostly of tribal drum beats.
Another piece, entitled “The Magic Boxes,” served as a visual representation of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s metaphor referring to peoples’ minds as boxes, each containing a different beetle. The four mechanical boxes in this piece were activated by motion sensors that detect bystanders, causing drawers on any two boxes to open. The drawers alternatively displayed either a golden beetle or an image of a geometric shape.
A half hour later an auditorium normally reserved for class lectures was opened for a presentation by Al Seckel, a scientist who specializes in studying illusions. His slide show had no shortage of optical and auditory illusions, many of which kept the audience laughing and cheering. There were impossible wooden boxes that could be passed through without breaking them, sounds that seemed to get infinitely faster and moving objects that weren’t really moving at all. There were many audible gasps and cries of disbelief, reactions the members of the audience shared, Seckel said, because illusions are so universal to us as human beings.
“It doesn’t matter how smart you are, what gender you are or what your racial background is,” Seckel said. “We all have the same basic perceptions.”
But the presentation took on a more serious tone when he related seeing illusions to holding beliefs. The way we perceive reality, he said, is based on a combination of physical limitations and personal experiences that force us to see things the way we do – which is why arguing with someone over their beliefs is so incredibly difficult.
Seckel’s presentation ended on a more optimistic note, however; he encouraged discussion of beliefs, with one caveat: “Be aware, but not cynical or unduly suspicious.”
Following Seckel’s presentation, doctoral music professors Daniel Weymouth and Margaret Schedel provided a demonstration of computer music, which is a broad term used to refer to most music created using a computer. The kind of music played for the demonstration was highly technical in terms of engineering and musicianship; both professors have extensive experience in music and computer programming.
The music pieces were abstract and avant garde; the opening performance by music student Levy Lorenzo involved a sound-producing light sensor with two teacups and a lamp. Lorenzo would lift and turn the teacups to produce various tones, producing a frantic and unusual sound that was markedly similar to some music from the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Dr. Schedel performed a piece entitled “Until Paper Becomes Fur,” in which she used an electric cello with a bow that communicated motion back to her laptop, allowing her to create ghostly sounds by gesturing with the bow.
The audience had a particularly lively reaction to “Kinetic Petals,” a piece performed using a Microsoft Kinect camera and a laptop to produce synthetic tones based on the movements of a dancer.
The final performance was a fast and frantic piece composed by Dr. Weymouth entitled “Rare Events.”
The piece, which Weymouth said was inspired by how a computer determines probability, was performed by bass clarinet player Lisa Preimesberger alongside her laptop, which was amplified by the auditorium’s P.A. system. It was extremely fast and dissonant, culminating in a shrieking high note from the laptop and a bellowing low note from the clarinet.
It was only a few minutes after the guests stepped out of the auditorium when a performance by percussionist Josh Perry took them by surprise. Perry was standing in the lobby in front of a cart equipped with a seemingly random assortment of percussion instruments and household objects: a cowbell, a crank, two knives, a jug of water, a paper bag, a mixing bowl and some dinner glasses.
He began striking the various objects and saying words that had no logical connection or structure. He struck the mixing bowl with a knife and cradled the jug of water in his arms and said, in a high-pitched and mocking voice, “Iron stigma. A tiny stream.”
Perry was performing “Songs I-IX,” a work by Stuart Saunders Smith that makes heavy use of intentionally nonsensical spoken words and household objects to express primal human emotions. Guests in the crowd around Perry were frantically flipping through their programs to find an explanation of what was going on; one audience member wondered aloud to the man next to him whether the performance was intended to be funny or not.
A woman at the front of the crowd nearly doubled over laughing towards the end of his performance but Perry did not seem offended or surprised. He smiled at her and the rest of the audience as he placed down the knives and took a bow. Several of the audience members exchanged looks of confusion during the applause.
For the last program of the night, drama professor Steve Marsh came downstairs to the lobby in character as physicist Richard Feynman for a monologue from the play “QED.” It was a monologue that was often nonchalant and comedic, inspiring a great deal of laughter from the crowd.
As Feynman’s character recalled an argument with one of his friends, an artist, about how science is at odds with art because it reduces nature “to equations,” he said something that seemed to underscore the entirety of the night’s proceedings.
“Science doesn’t ruin nature,” Feymnman said. “It’s a way of appreciating nature. Some day science is going to figure how art is done, and then you guys are in trouble.”