The box set sitting under glass at Holly Johnson Gallery isn’t your standard rock compilation. And while its contents resemble CDs in their size and shape, they are actually custom 5-inch vinyl records — little palm-sized things, complete with sleeves, album art and liner notes. Housed inside their grooves is a poetically detailed history of human heartbeats, told through sound.
This is “The Pulse Armed With a Pen (An Unknown History of the Human Heartbeat),” Houston artist Dario Robleto’s analog tribute to human connection; a reminder that through times of war, disease and civic unrest, there were those who sought to understand each other — and in turn, to be understood.
This box set is a collection of their stories, and as one of only 15 created it’s equal parts rare and beautiful.
Seeking decryption of another’s heart is our most human trait. We search for it as an announcement in utero. We lay our heads on chests to discover it in our mates. And in final moments, we attempt to stretch its beats for as long as they can be sustained and cherished.
Robleto’s seven-record set runs on a timeline of old to new, with each record containing its own track. But it is album number six that inspired the work’s creation.
In 1977, we shot a heartbeat into the sky. Bursting with newly discovered love, it was pressed onto twin Golden Records, which were cased in aluminum, and designed to serve as a time capsule for our existence. Mounted aboard two Voyager spacecraft, the albums were filled with a sampling of moments, sounds and photos that unite us all.
This particular heartbeat hitched a ride, making it a lesser-known song on humanity’s greatest hits. It’s a liner note. A declaration of love, printed in binary code.
It began when 27-year-old Ann Druyan was Creative Director of the Golden Record project, tasked with sending this note in a bottle out into the solar system, in hopes that it may be discovered and understood by intelligent life.
During the album’s cultivation, she and Carl Sagan fell deeply in love. Their romance was the stuff of constellations. After admitting their feelings aloud, Druyan’s pulse raced. Just days later, she had her heartbeat and brainwaves captured for inclusion on the Golden Record, making it a sonic love letter to the universe.
Nearly 40 years later, Voyager has outlasted its predicted timeline. For dreamers, it’s a symbol of love’s endurance.
When Voyager 1 moved outside of our solar system in 2013, artist Dario Robleto was touched. He reflected on its inherent poetry, calling it “a human mind and heartbeat in love, lunging toward ‘an afterlife’ in a region of space and time that no art or religion had ever accounted for.”
He’s included the sounds here, and titled the track “First Human Heartbeats & Brainwaves Exiting Solar System (In Love).”
This is hope.
Much of “The Pulse Armed With a Pen” is a combined effort between Robleto (who in addition to being the 2016 Texas Artist Laureate in the 3-D category, is also currently an artist-in-residence for SETI) and media historian Patrick Feaster. It’s a journey through art and science’s long history of collisions, where ingenuity and design intertwined to produce a better understanding of human connection.
The piece was first used as part of an even more detailed collection in the artist’s 2014 solo exhibition, Dario Robleto: The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed, at Houston’s Menil Collection. It exists here in Dallas as part of the group show It’s Official, which gallery owner Holly Johnson organized to celebrate Texas’ four visual artist laureates of the last two years.
Included in this box set are seven different tales including Druyan’s, each focused on its own momentous heartbeat.
The first sound clip is of the earliest recorded instance of a person seeing his partner’s pulse. It’s the story of German physiologist Karl Vierordt, who built a structural stunner of an apparatus known as a sphygmograph, or “pulse writer.” Vierordt’s device was so fragile, so sensitive, that when he took his wife, Pauline's hand at 3 o'clock, on September 20, 1854, he couldn’t utilize traditional writing tools. Instead, he attached a human hair in place of a pencil, and had it etch his wife’s radial rhythms into candle soot.
The project’s media historian Patrick Feaster took the artifacts from that intimate moment more than 160 years ago and converted them to sound waves so you can eavesdrop. A copy of the original soot etching is repurposed as album art within the box set.
This is romance.
Track number four is the first documented proof that our emotions can register an increase in pulsation, which before 1882 was a bold idea. Titled “Human Cerebral Pulse (Reflecting On Love),” it looks at the story of Italian physiologist Angelo Mosso and his quest to find something really big: ephemeral evidence of the human soul.
He got it while he was recording the heartbeats of a construction worker named Luigi Cane, asking him to work through some banal mathematical problems. Then, Mosso slipped in some questionable comments about Cane’s wife. The construction worker remained outwardly calm, but his pulse leapt. The increased blood flow, sparked by thought, gave evidence of what Mosso called the “cerebral pulse.”
This is passion.
Much of the beauty of this collection rests in the delicate nature of the tools used to detect the desired information. When track number five, “Earliest Fetal Heartbeat,” was first documented in 1908, it was thanks to German physiologist Otto Weiss and his specially developed “phonoscope.”
The contraption carried the unborn child’s sound waves through a funnel to affect the vibration of a waiting soap bubble. The bubble’s membrane was crossed with a glass thread, thinner than a human hair.
The phonoscope allowed targeted light to enter, project off the glass thread’s reverberations and create a photograph. The tender image, drawn from a bubble, is retold here as gentle sound.
This is compassion.
Nerdy achievements aside, what one can’t help but meditate on when exploring Robleto’s work are its many lessons. Its seven documented moments serve as reminders of the lengths we’ve gone to in order to better understand another’s heart. We’ve built rockets and records, danced light off of soap bubbles and etched its vibrations in soot.
Not only are we capable of human connection, it’s what propels us forward. And in the dark times, we join together over candlelight to find it. So while “The Heart Armed With a Pen” is a piece of artwork, free of politics, it’s also an inspiration.
It’s a nudge forward to discover our own stories. An invitation to reach a little further than feels possible. And a reminder to keep trying to understand another’s heart, because that inherent desire to decrypt a beat is our species’ unifying trait.
This is love.
It’s Official, Texas State Artists for 2015 & 2016, runs through August 13, 2016, at Holly Johnson Gallery (1845 Levee St., No. 100). Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, or by appointment. Visit hollyjonsongallery.com for more information.