Dario Robleto

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

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.” ◀

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