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Our guest today is Luca Forcucci.
Luca Forcucci is a scientist and an artist at the same time. He holds a PhD in Music, Technology and Innovation from De Montfort University in the United Kingdom. In his research, he investigated how the human brain perceives sounds and space, and how our memories influence the images that we create while listening to the sounds.
Nowadays he is based in Berlin, but he prefers to call himself a “nomad” since he presents his artworks and conducts the research all over the globe.
In this interview with Jo Havemann, Luca reflects on the fundamental differences between arts and science, what it means to be the only artist in the lab, and how the two disciplines mutually enrich each other.
We are here today with Luca Forcucci from Switzerland and he’s an artist and also a scientist. In this episode he will tell you more about how he became an artist as a scientist. Welcome Luca!
Hi my name is Luca Forcucci and I am very happy to be here by the river Spree with a nice sun in front of us. I have a PhD in music, technology and innovation also known as Sonic Arts. There’s a comma between music and technology by the way.
I became involved in this research after a Master in Sonic Arts, studying mainly in Belfast is the UK and in Leicester; I got my PhD from De Montfort University. Before that I studied architecture so I have a diploma in architecture and I have practiced for 20 years but I have always been involved in music meaning I had a record contract very early and I played concerts for many years in Switzerland. I am used to production and research of artists, but I also have been involved in what is called Electroacoustic Music. Meaning neo-music or new music.
When I started my PhD right after my master studies I got a grant from the Swiss government. That grant was part of a program called the Swiss artists in labs that would put artists into scientific labs in Switzerland for 9 months. Then the idea was to see what kind of outcome can come from this research and interactions.
I was in the laboratory of cognitive neuroscience in Switzerland which is part of the Brain Mind Institute. I was working with Professor Olaf Blanke. His main research back then was about out-of-body experiences. The idea was to see how we can handle prosthetics, so various issues and so on. Most of the research is conducted to have virtual imagery, meaning the integration of this in the brain is multimodal so the idea was to see what’s the role of the sound so we conducted research on that part. Right after that program, I started my PhD which was directed into the arts, Sonic Arts.
With this idea of how we perceive sounds, what’s the role of embodiment into sound and personally I was interested in mental imagery: What kind of mental imagery there would be in the mind of a person when this person will listen to a particular sound or particular composition or particular sound installation.
Obviously, everyone has a personal historical background and memory of course but it was interesting to see if particular space or architectural space would be represented by the brain and if we can find patterns.
What kind of sounds are you using for your studies?
I used mostly sounds from my expedition e.g the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. I stayed there for two weeks with indigenous peoples, rainforest sounds, sounds from cities like Shanghai but also sounds from the body and how they interact between each other.
And then to observe how people react to these sounds?
Exactly and for this I had to train people because there’s a big difference between hearing a sound and listening to a sound. It was pointed out by the philosopher Roland Barthes. Hearing is a physiological act whereas listening is a psychological act. I had to train people to listen and to have a dedicative listening in order to see those images and ask them what kind of architecture spaces we were seeing and then try to find if there were patterns.
Did you have a hypothesis in the beginning that you could prove right or wrong what the finding of the study would be?
Well I am not a neuroscientist but I’m working with them. What I perceived is the space that I found among those participants which was 30 people for each piece so it means 180 people in total. The pattern I saw was a very small space, my hypothesis is that space that they perceive is their own body.
So that was for the work during your PhD and what happened after the PhD? What was the subsequent plan after that?
The research was practice-based research mainly. I did my PhD part time so it means it was six years because I wanted to keep my artistic career so it means many art tendencies and many commissions which sometimes became part of the research or not.
Basically I was already working mainly and I worked before I had my own architecture office, I was entrepreneur, researcher, artist I was self-founded, self-dedicated, self-research but published in a high impact factor journals but also exhibition and so on.
So after the PhD it didn’t make any difference I was still doing what I was doing during, before and after the PhD.
I am still collaborating with the researcher from that period at the brain mind institute meaning that’s I take their research, in french there is a word called “scientisme” I don’t know how to translate it in German or english.
It’s a kind of science but pseudoscience you proclaim you make science, I don’t want to do that.
The idea is that I ask them their expertise, I’m making research, I work on very precise case and then develop from them into my artistic work.
The idea it’s not to vulgarize science with art but to possibly ask new questions because I think this friction between art and science can be very beneficial.
This is accepted as well, Europe for example with the H2020 has released a wish to go toward that direction of course they want to develop, they have other ideas, like markets and scientist. The artists are there to bring creativity. Creativity is still naive and has to be defined.
The friction between scientists and artists can be useful to change the angle not of research but to bring new ideas in both ways actually. In the sense that the scientific research influence my work and vice versa.
Basically I’m continuing with my career as an artist and I might join a research lab at some point more like a traditional academic, a postdoc or a program research. Sometimes you need to be in a one or two years program to really dive into a certain research.
Actually you don’t stop really, when I graduated I gave my thesis, I went to San Francisco I was invited by Leonardo Journal and Djerassi foundation and I spent one month with 14 artists and scientists and we didn’t make research we were just living together, each one conducting his own ideas, exploring his own ideas.
We would have ideas around the coffee machine or during a meal.
Going back to the time during your PhD, were there people that come to mind that inspired you to pursue your passion or topics you’re passionate about or experiences you had where you thought this is quite a challenge and where you found yourself struggling and got yourself out of that struggle again?
I met many people, a lot because I was not stuck in the university where I studied I was there maybe five weeks a year, maximum. I will go to the university and discussed with my supervisor. Because of today possibilities I was communicating more through Skype so I didn’t have to be there. Meanwhile I was conducting my research in a residency like in Shanghai, Paris or here in Berlin.
So I met a lot of people during this period of research, also different cultures in research in German university, Swiss university, French university, Chinese University, Brazilian universities. I had a very bright and large perspective on research in my field, in the arts and the struggle encounters by my peers, of course money wise but also supervisors wise. All the problem that PhD can encounter, that you can imagine. I saw most of them.
I was able to find my path and discuss many things. Then of course it was a lot of inspiring people I was lucky enough to be in great university like EPFL in Switzerland, the brain mind institute in Berlin, the major lab in the world for cognitive science, in particular Olaf Blanke’s lab. The interesting thing is that he comes from a family of artists as he’s the only one that made it to Neuroscience.
He was even teaching me Art, we were discussing for example this artist called Bruce Norman and he was using this artist that was working on alternative way to look at your body, Olaf Blanke was using this artworks from Bruce Norman to design his experiments.
It was amazing because I was in a scientific environment, I had to be accepted and I have to learn the vocabulary of course because it’s super precise but on the other hand I was someone that was totally sympathetic to my research.
The director of the Brain Mind Institute Pierre Magistretti was interested in opera and he had side project where he asked opera singer to sing opera with a certain mindset like sing a part of the opera sad, sing it with a positive image.
It was great I was very lucky to be one year in such environment, it was like going to the Star trek’s spaceship everyday
On the other hand I was really inspired by women I have to say because electroacoustic music emerge from a very white middle class western tradition and I always complained that there was not enough women and cultural diversity as well in the labs.
I was lucky enough to meet a lot of women, composer that have to struggle like Pauline Oliveros, she’s an icon just like John Cage which is a major figure in his field. I was able to meet her, she is a really generous person. I think there is less competition between women than man. She was a really amazing person and she really open my mind on many aspects about research and life.
Also Ashilow Madre, she was my professor when I was doing my master in Belfast and she is great.
Bonnild Ferrari which was the widow of Luke Ferrari major composer.
Evelyne Gayou part of the GRM, the GRM is the “groupe de recherche musical” at radio France in Paris, so many people.
What did you learn from them, in particular from the women?
Generosity, creativity, less competition and more ideas
Given that you have so much experience and had the chance to get insights into different cultures and their academic worlds literally spread around the world, is there a universal advise you could give to current PhD students?
What you saw, what to be aware of?
One thing mentioned was for example: Choose your supervisor wisely or: Challenge your supervisor. That’s what other people often advise in our podcast but apart from that what’s an advice you would give to PhD students around the world?
First of all you really need to choose your supervisor for his/her research and not only on his reputation. Reputation of course but you not necessarily have to have a star, a university star. It has to be someone that has experience but someone that you respect that is close to your preoccupation for your research. I don’t think that this start system – to just put names next to yours – is a good idea because he/she is usually super busy so you won’t see much of them. You have to make your own contribution.
I have more experience with design and art because I worked with it.
It’s a very old topic “Art and Science“, they were not differentiated back then you had Marcel Duchamps whom was inspired by Heny Poincaré. It goes back to the 12th century in Persia where researchers were also philosophers, poets, astronoms, there is nothing new.
I would say just be original… Well, it’s not really original to say that.
Just find your way, open your mind, go out of the lab as well, meet people and discuss various way, challenge everything.
The PhD was one of the best thing I did in my life.
Not per se but the adventure I went through during that period. You are already busy doing what you do but after you become even more busy and you want to have the time to experiment because there is other things coming.
Take that time to experiment, and challenge the most you can because when you are out it is totally different, you are kind of cocoon you are a bit protected during the PhD
That’s also what you miss about the PhD periods to be able to try different things, fail and succeed and fail again it’s nothing bad to fail rather than gaining experiences.
Which you have not the freedom as much later on.
That’s part of the experience to fail of course, the more you fail the better.
But after you have all the preoccupation because you have to go to the next step, it means other things maybe you want to build a lab.
When you are in a PhD you are still free to try things, you have the time to do it.
After you have to create your own time but it’s a very privileged period I guess being in a PhD.
Afterwards what’s driving you now? Is work still a source from the time as a PhD students and how the things continue since, also following up of what’s your plan for the next 3 to 5 years.
I have my lab at some point. I would like to continue to travel, it is part of my project because I work with what I call ancestral technologies. I work with people in southern Africa. And I work in Brazil since 10 years.
My question is what was the technology, what was the knowledge before the jesuite went there and destroyed all that knowledge. That knowledge is very important to me. We have a lot of technology today but that technology back then is probable very valuable.
At the moment I’m conducting this research calling ancestral technology and the perception of sounds. This include many things I won’t discuss too much here but continue to travel explore all those opportunity.
On the long term, I would like to have my lab possibly but my lab which is also my studio but sometimes I have it sometimes I don’t.
I’m really a nomade I go around, my lab, it’s my luggage and sometimes I would like to establish more my things and be more ambitious.
Anyway I’m happy with what I’m doing mainly I would like to be able to continue to do it.
At the end there is also the funding part, how you design this economical side, until where you can go, what you would accept to get funding, sometimes you get funding but ethically would you accept them? is it okay or you just don’t mind just take it and go?
That’s the main point, you can be the most brilliant person on Earth but at some point you need funding.
That is not a question of big amount but being able to work with people, build a team having a device. How you make it sustainable.
Sometimes you might have funding for one year and then the year after for thousands of reasons fundings are not available anymore.
Is private funding good? Do you only work with states fundings, what’s the difference? Until where you can go?
I guess personally I think it’s important and it’s a lot of questions
It’s either you are an entrepreneur or you are stuck in a lab and then you have the follow the “ publish or die” rule, but is it still valid today?
Today continuing on that path there is many PhD and there is not as much positions so you have to think outside of the box, in another way, your career you have to be prepared to not make an academic career with your PhD.
You might be open, your skills might be useful in the industry or in the arts in my case.
Think that those skills might be transposed in another field and not necessarily in academia. Well, you do your bachelor, your master, your PhD and that maybe 3, 4, 5, 10 postdocs and then you become a professor, assistant professor, lecturer, I saw even assistant lecturer which is a very bad condition. You are not paid that well I haven’t done it but I have colleagues that where assistant lectures not assistant professor!
So you know it might be very precarious and you might not end up with professorship. Professors positions are very few.
I am convinced that those skills are very useful and very valuable outside.
There is an image of a doctor outside academia. People might be scared of that image we have to break that and say “well look they are many other opportunities”.
I know many people that work in the industry and they’re very successful, they were very happy. A friend of mine works as physicist and he made is PhD on laser- very precise – he worked on microscopes and now he works for a big American company for medical device but he is an engineer maybe for an engineer it’s easier but what you do with a PhD in the humanities for example.
I mean obviously you become a professor but again there is not so many available position. How you can transfer and transpose those skills, that’s not discussed!
I have the impression that the professor I know think it’s agreed that you will become a professor or you will become a lecturer … they don’t prepare you to be something else, to be more flexible, it will be more and more like that.
What’s motivating you to continue to seek association with research from your own perspective so to say
Well it’s a need, I’m very interested by the brain how it works. it’s a really deep interest as music is.
So first you make art because it’s a need you might make science because it’s in need at that level it’s it’s like Formula One.
Like a passion that comes, like a driving force
it’s really a need, it has to drive you, it has to be a really deep preoccupation I don’t think that this kind of jobs is a 9 to 5 job. You go to sleep it’s there, you wake up it’s there.
That’s the main thing then.
What do you think it’s important to fuse science and arts to let them mingle to play around to take scientific questions with artistic interventions.
And in your case audios
For me it happen during my research I’ve been thrown in a neuroscience lab.
Then I study a bit this, it was my path and my interest.
It’s interesting because it gives new path and not only creativity.
Today everything is creativity, we are really at the point where we should remove it from our CV because it doesn’t mean anything anymore it’s kind of overused.
Everything is super specialized if you do a PhD you’re super specialized.
But here it opens a bit more the field and there’s nothing new as I was saying before in Persia already at the 12 century people were studying astronomy poetry and so on.
For example in China to be an intellectual you need not to be an intellectual.
There’s a tradition to be an artist, be in that intelligence I don’t like this word intelligence it puts things above and I’m more horizontal thinking but anyway.
Back then you have to study mathematics, calligraphy, poetry and music.
It’s is even older than our western thinking obviously you have Leonardo Da Vinci which I don’t want to talk too much about, during the renaissance that was funded by the medici there is Marcel Duchamps closer working with Henry Pointcarré It’s nothing new but now it’s like a trend, it’s more this idea of creativity and markets, which is a strange idea to me.
There is also something that defines human beings. We are not only the physics and biology, and on the other side humanities. Further art and prouds that are parts of our lives but parts of the human being, culture, artistics.
If you want to drive it into the top some people might argue that’s what distinguishes us from the animals some biologist might intervene because animals are capable of conducting culture but that’s a different story.
It’s part of us you can’t really separate it, isn’t it? You can’t separate art from science.
You know for certain questions yes but it’s important to have the mix as well.
At the end of the day science and art contribute to the same thing which is life.
Or certain aspects of life but let’s make it short we both studying the same aspect which is life, we have different methodology. We, the artist, look more for meaning and metaphor. It doesn’t mean that is less important.
At the end it is the same we tried to define things. It’s a question of methodology.
When you study science it’s objective, third person perspective.
What about subjectivity. First person perspective if you investigate behavior for example. What about what I feel inside me how do you study it?
I would say very very roughly that should be amplified and observed more carefully but I would say that if sciences is the study through objective lens, art would be through a subjective lens.
But it doesn’t mean that subjectivity is less important for science.
For some reason, historical reason we don’t do that. We don’t study subjectivity.
Whereas it might be interesting of course it is more complicated, what kind of methodology do you use, you can’t be inside one person.
There is phenomenology, there’s many many techniques.
We have more knowledge with neuroscience for example.
At the end it is how you make a fusion, how you combine science and art because if I investigate particular case I would need quantitative methodology but how do I mix with qualitative. How do I go to subjectivity, how do I investigate subjectivity. Both sides, art and science, it might bring new ideas new vision, new discovery.
Well thank you, thanks so much.
You’ve just listened to episode number 51 of PhD Career Stories. If you want to know more about Luca Forcucci and see and listen to his creations, check the links in the description!
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