Article categories: Scientific Serendipity
March 16th, 2010

D. V. Rogers is a Sydney-based artist who has worked across the fields of photography, performance art and machine-based installation. He was a founding member of the performance art collective, the Post-Arrivalists (1991-1996) and collaborated with machine performance artists Triclops International from 1996-2000. In 1996 Rogers ‘liberated’ a decommissioned earthquake simulator from The Earth Exchange Museum in Sydney. The simulator had been ‘retired’ from its original existence as an amusement ride where members of the public would stand on it and experience a simulated earthquake with a magnitude of 5.6, similar to that of the 1989 Newcastle earthquake. Rogers rescue saved the simulator from an otherwise inevitable journey to the scrap heap and gave it a second chance at life. Rogers arranged for the disassembly and transport of the gigantic 5.2m x 3.3m structure to the industrial workshop in Sydney, which he shared with Triclops International. The transition of the earthquake simulator from amusement ride to artwork took place over the next few years.

Rogers project has essentially been one of self-directed research aimed at returning the earthquake simulator to its original state of operation but with a modular design that would enable it to be moved around and installed in different locations. Rather than being concealed beneath a rubber floor the way it had been in the Earth Exchange Museum, Rogers wanted to display the simulator openly open in its own right as an industrial artwork. The second part of Rogers plan for the project was to design and implement a telematic real-time control system so that the simulator could be hooked up to an online database of globally monitored earthquakes and simulate earthquakes – in real-time – by means of remote data transmission.

Rogers’ task started in earnest in 1998 with a small development grant from the Australia Council which was followed by the ANAT Scientific Serendipity Residency grant in 1999. The acquisition of sophisticated engineering and software programming skills were essential to the successful completion of the project. With few prior engineering skills, the ANAT residency gave Rogers the opportunity to engage in the extensive research and development needed to develop his skill base to the level the project required. During the residency, Rogers started re-engineering the simulator and researching ways in which the earthquake simulator could be triggered by real-time globally monitored seismic data. Kevin MuCue, the Head Seismologist at Australian Geological Survey Organisation (AGSO) was an enthusiast of the project, and at the completion of the residency wrote a persuasive letter of support for Rogers’ application to the Australia Council for a grant to continue work on the real-time control for the simulator. As well as face-to-face contact with scientists at AGSO and with other researchers such as Professor Bijan Samali, Head of Structural Dynamics at University of Technology Sydney (UTS), a large amount of Rogers’ research has been self-directed. It has taken place via the Internet liaising with scientists and programmers around the world.

In January 2002, Rogers’ earthquake simulator had its first public outing in the art world exhibited under the title of Seismonitor at Artspace in Sydney.

How did the ANAT Scientific Serendipity residency assist you in realising the goals of your project?
Foremost, it gave me some small financial support towards the work, and to some degree validated that it was OK to be working away quietly in a dark corner on a massive project that in the real world would normally have a large budget and five experts working on it.

The residency planted a seed of how to approach science bodies with a view towards collaborating in the crossover between science and art. I feel the work that was undertaken during the actual residency period certainly did not realise the outlines as initially intended, however, as the project has continued and maintained a relevance to the original intention of the Scientific Serendipity Project.

What expertise did you get from AGSO? What was AGSO’s interest in your project?
I received no actual expertise form AGSO, they were supportive but also possibly confused about what I was trying to achieve. Kevin McCue, Head Seismologist was very supportive of the work but stretched by limited resources and time to help in any great way, however, he did write a letter of support for the Australia Council grant. Now that the simulator is fully operational and a new control is up and running, I would like to re-establish contact.

Interestingly, I have drawn my own conclusions from my experience with AGSO and UTS in that government-funded science institutions are supportive of most things, in a sense they are a public service. But I suspect that because of limited resources they can be protective of their research and reticent to make it publicly available. They are also very busy, and as a result, time is not always available to give to others in great detail.

What advice do you have for artists wanting to collaborate with scientists and scientific institutions?
My advice is to be clear about your goals. Be persistent, polite and develop a self-reliant approach to successfully realising the work. Without the World Wide Web my research work would not have been possible and it has allowed me to be indirectly involved with science-based activities without actually being directly involved with a science institute.

The most interesting contact I made was with a US Geological Survey (USGS) Seismologist, Andrew Michael. He is also a musician who has written, performed and recorded scores based on actual seismic recordings. He kindly gave permission for one of his scores to be performed at the opening of Seismonitor at Artspace in January. Our contact has been exclusively via email and he has also put me in the right direction towards a more direct and responsive data feed without asking too many questions.

Your project involved reengineering and reconstructing the simulator. Is there a particular machine aesthetic that attracted you to working in this area?
Reconstructing/reengineering, I guess, are facets of art practice if one wants to incorporate industrial orientated hardware and components into their work. The stuff is expensive and not that I label myself as an industrial artist, salvaging “stuff” is a must for this kind of work. The simulator was this readymade monster and all this “stuff” was available to get dirty with. I like to think I have merely ready made aided the simulator.

The earthquake simulator recreates globally monitored earthquakes through real-time remote data transmission. How does this work?
The simulator is triggered by near-time globally monitored seismic data. It is important that I clarify that the data source is near real-time and not real-time. A delay of anything between four to 12 hours after the event actually occurred is the usual norm with the current control system. When an event is reported the simulator will run a sequence of events determined by the magnitude of the reported earthquake. The control logic for hydraulic actuation of the simulator is written in the C programming language. The best way to think of the control is to consider a reported seismic event as merely a trigger/switch for running the simulator.

How did the audience experience the work while it was exhibited at Artspace?
The odds of experiencing an earthquake during the installation were very low. For the duration of 23 days, running 24/7, only 57 seismic events were reported. When Seismonitor is not running a reported seismic event, it is breathing. A pneumatic airbag system is constantly switched approximately every 60 seconds. This represents the fact we do not live on a static planet. It also gives a constant life to the simulator akin to a ready awakening. For me what is interesting about the simulator breathing (“pneuma”, Latin for breath) is that experiencing the Seismonitor installation was more about the moments between earthquakes and not the actual global seismic events reported.

How did you develop the program that translated the real-time earthquake data into the movements of the simulator?
I was influenced by the open-source philosophy of non-proprietary operating systems and software. Hence the control has been written to run exclusively under Linux though [God forbid] it would not be too difficult to port to a Windows based environment. Conceptually and from a moral computing point of view, this was integral to the work. Choosing the Linux path involved an awful lot of research before I selected the correct hardware that had Linux driver support and some existing development under Linux for the I/O card I am using to switch hydraulic solenoids.

How did you access the software and the expertise you needed to realise the project?
Fortunately the open source community is normally very supportive in advice and giving bits and pieces away (that’s why open source works). Dr Warren Jasper, Head of Textiles Research, North Carolina State University had already developed a Linux driver for the I/O card I am using.1

Curt Wuollet a machine automation engineer in the United States also was already utilising Warren Jasper’s driver to control two CNC lathes and CCD cameras for a precision machine engineering application. Curt was happy to give me the basis of his source code to get the hardware up and running under Linux. This was a huge bonus and likely saved me hundreds of hours of work. Curt is also the main spokesperson for MatPLC – an opensource project developing a Linux based Programmable Logic Controller. MatPLC is not far away from its first binary release and I am hopeful to have the simulator running under MatPLC during the next phase of control work. 2

The main influence and co-collaborator with this work is a close colleague of mine, Des Devlin. Des put the seed into my head to go the Linux path and without his support and encouragement it is likely the work would not have come this far. Des wrote the Perl parsing script which reads updated seismic events posted by the USGS along with fine-tuning of Curt Wuollet’s source code.

What conceptual ideas were you exploring with the work?
Conceptually this work is seeking to explore theories of site and non-site. These ideas are influenced by the work and writings of Robert Smithson, particularly in his essay Entropy and the New Monuments. My work with the simulator is an investigation towards creating a machine control (automaton) arising from live representation (mirror) of a remote physical environment (earth). An installation based system (telematic) artwork mapping the terrrain of the spatio-temporality of shifting tectonics and digital information networks.

What is your opinion of the relationship between science and art? What does art offer the field of science and vice versa?
Some say that the new science of today is the art of now! This is very true; the definition of artistic practice is becoming increasingly blurred. Science has had to continually redefine its conception of the world. So has art. Artists and scientists share similar attitudes, but I still believe science today is becoming more influential on the new media art of today rather than vice versa. The most influential period art has had on science was the sci-fi writers of the mid-80s to mid-90s. It goes back further to the likes of Arthur C. Clarke in the 50s writing of satellites in orbit around the earth transmitting information between one another and reflected to receivers on the earth. It is not surprising artists and scientists share a common interest in sci-fi and it does not surprise me that sci-fi writing is influential within the open source movement also.

I guess the connection between the two might be linked to the quest of seeking out the new. Again, some say that the role of art is to question, while at the same time reflect like a mirror of representation of our times.

I would like to see more science in art without the baggage of art context. My criticism of the sci-art movement is the science is less than the art, and often models the traditional metaphors art has always strived for so hence sci-art is often cute and nice. I am guilty to an extent.

On a personal level, to transcend the traditional domain of cultural representation I believe that artists must broaden their definitions of art material and contexts. My work with the simulator addresses my curiosity about scientific and technological research while at the same time goes about acquiring the skills and knowledge that will allow my developing practice to significantly participate in this (new) world.

What are your future plans for the earthquake simulator?
The next phase of work will incorporate improving the data feed, enabling the simulator to be switched by more events with less delay.

I would consider being involved with a science-based or academic institute if the simulator could be installed for a six-month period to undertake displacement, velocity and acceleration (DVA) tests, and explore the possibility of the simulator being used for actual seismic testing of scaled objects and structures.

I would ideally like to take the simulator to Japan and/or the United States and eventually I would like the simulator to find a permanent home.


1. Reference for Linux driver for the I/O card

2. Reference for MatPLC

Full documentation of D.V. Rogers’ work can be found at:

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