The sound of two hearts beat­ing

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Dario Robleto’s sound in­stal­la­tion

The sin­gu­lar pulse of a heart­beat has long cap­tured the cre­ative imag­i­na­tions of writ­ers and artists — but what about the sounds of two hearts beat­ing, to­gether and sep­a­rately, side by side? The old­est known record­ing of a hu­man heart and the star­tling sound of a cut­ting-edge ar­ti­fi­cial heart that does not beat are two as­pects of Hous­ton artist Dario Robleto’s in­stal­la­tion at SITE Santa Fe.

Dur­ing the past few years, Robleto has re­searched the history of the hu­man heart­beat and has col­lab­o­rated with sound record­ing spe­cial­ist Pa­trick Feaster. “Pa­trick is an ex­pert in the un­known world of pre-Edi­son sound record­ings,” said the artist, who was ready for the come­back: Didn’t Edi­son in­vent the phono­graph? Wasn’t he the pi­o­neer in sound record­ing? “Edi­son’s ge­nius was ask­ing, What if we play them back? Most peo­ple think the story starts with him in 1877, but Pa­trick blew the roof off of all the con­cep­tual pos­si­bil­i­ties of sound be­cause he found that a sci­en­tist made a record­ing of him­self singing ‘Au clair de la lune’ in his lab­o­ra­tory in 1860.

“Peo­ple were mak­ing sound record­ings, but the goal was just to study sound vis­ually. Record­ings were made with an ap­pa­ra­tus ei­ther by shout­ing through a mem­brane or us­ing the sound vi­bra­tions from the chest wall that would hit a lit­tle sty­lus head and make wave forms. They just wanted to be able to see it.” The tech­nol­ogy now ex­ists to trans­form those an­tique, scrawled wave im­ages back into sound for the first time.

“As an artist, I try to find peo­ple in other fields who I feel have crossed over to the arts, but they’re not artists them­selves, so they don’t have the vo­cab­u­lary to speak of it that way or it didn’t oc­cur to them to con­tex­tu­al­ize it that way,” Robleto said. “So I will ap­proach some­one and ar­gue, ‘You know, what you’ve done has tran­scended your own field, and there’s a con­ver­sa­tion that can oc­cur in the arts be­cause of the par­tic­u­lar beauty of what you’ve done.’ That’s how I ap­proached Pa­trick.”

Next, the artist wanted to ap­ply Feaster’s re­search to the early history of the quest to record the hu­man heart­beat, which Robleto dis­cov­ered pre­dates those early at­tempts to doc­u­ment the hu­man voice. “I’ve tracked down the vis­ual record of the ear­li­est heart record­ings, and us­ing a sys­tem Pa­trick de­vel­oped, we can turn these vis­ual trac­ings back into sounds.”

Peo­ple vis­it­ing the ex­hibit can lis­ten to the beat­ing of a hu­man heart that was recorded in 1854. “Think of one of the most iconic im­ages on the planet: the heart-rate mon­i­tor, the EKG ma­chine, but be­fore that year, no­body had ever thought of such a thing, con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing the heart’s move­ment as a mov­ing line on a page.”

Another layer of the Robleto piece re­lates to the work of heart-trans­plant pi­o­neer Dr. O.H. “Bud” Fra­zier, who is de­vel­op­ing a beat­less heart: the con­tin­u­ous-flow ar­ti­fi­cial heart. Fra­zier told Robleto it sounds like “an empty, windswept land­scape” rather than a beat­ing heart. “That sounds aus­tere, but when I heard it, it’s ac­tu­ally quite beau­ti­ful. It’s haunting.”

The artist is col­lab­o­rat­ing with Lance Led­bet­ter, founder of At­lanta-based Dust-to-Dig­i­tal Records, to pub­lish the sound com­po­nents pro­duced by Robleto and Feaster. “Lance has also al­lowed me to take the first box set he ever re­leased — Good­bye, Baby­lon, which is an in­cred­i­ble work of schol­ar­ship of early Amer­i­can blues and spir­i­tu­als and gospel — and es­sen­tially remix it into a sculp­tural dis­play. So this piece at SITE Santa Fe is the first recorded heart­beat and the first hu­man singing recorded — a sci­en­tist singing ‘Au clair de la lune’ just as the Civil War was be­gin­ning — as well as some of the ear­li­est Amer­i­can spir­i­tu­als and the pos­si­ble fu­ture of the beat­less heart.”

That last piece of the Robleto pre­sen­ta­tion is preg­nant with im­pli­ca­tion: What is a hu­man be­ing with­out a heart­beat? But such a thing may sim­ply be nec­es­sary. “No­body can make a de­vice that beats a bil­lion times and doesn’t break down, so Dr. Fra­zier is say­ing that maybe we need to let go of the no­tion of a beat­ing heart. His anal­ogy is that when we first tried to fly, it was about flap­ping wings, but that wasn’t go­ing to work.

“He just wants to solve the en­gi­neer­ing prob­lem. To me, what’s the poetic price of a beat­less heart? I ar­gue that artists should ini­ti­ate the con­ver­sa­tion and bring their skills to the ta­ble in a way that only an artist or poet can do. There’s a lot at stake.”

Left, Dario Robleto: The Pulse Armed With a Pen (An

Un­known History of the Hu­man Heart­beat) (de­tail), 2014, cour­tesy the artist and In­man Gallery, Hous­ton; photo by Paul Hester, The Me­nil Col­lec­tion

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