Background & Bio

 I fell in a caldron the way (in a popular French comic strip) Obelix fell into the magic caldron. The caldron I fell into was Art. My mother was the sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, my father, Harry Mathews, is a novelist and poet.

 I was born in the US; both my parents grew up in New York. When I was a baby they moved to Paris, where they first settled before traveling around Europe visiting museums and cathedrals, as I recall. We lived for a couple of years in Majorca in the artistic community informally gathered around the English writer Robert Graves. That’s where my brother was born. We moved on to Italy and then settled in the Vercors mountains in southeastern France. Resettling in Paris when my parents divorced, my father looked after my brother and me. My mother started her public artistic career with her shooting paintings. She married the kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely. My meeting place with her was at her gallery, which I kind of my made my home turf. There I got to meet elder artists that really impressed me such as Max Ernst, Lucio Fontana, and Victor Brauner. At 15 my first paid job was working for Marcel Duchamp at Henri Matisse’s granddaughter’s home. At that time I was passionate about cinema and wanted to become a director. Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard were my core inspirations.

Education: oral tradition and life-long learning

 I dropped out of school in 68. In those revolutionary days a tall red-haired billionaire, dressed in black leather, was distributing her money in the Coupole restaurant to anyone who asked. People were hitchhiking all the way from Copenhagen to see her, filmmakers were funded, as well as all kinds of other people. Thanks to her I resumed my childhood’s nomadic life style and got caught up in the migration towards the East that was happening at the time.

A passage to India

A passage to more than India

O secrets of the moon and stars

A passage to you

                        Walt Whitman

I returned from the East with a family. We lived for 18 months in Bali where my daughter was born. I had met her father, whom I knew from Paris, in Morocco. These were experiences of cultural immersion. Those years of discoveries have left me with an attachment to the oral traditions of spiritual transmission and learning that is mine to this day.

 I returned to France in the spring of 1972 with my husband and daughter. I did some modeling with my daughter. It led to my getting the part of Queen Guinevere in Robert Bresson’s film Lancelot du Lac. I did two other feature films, one in Italy and one directed by my mother. I played in a number of shorts and in a video series that Bob Wilson created for the Georges Pompidou Center. At the same time I started to work in the domain of arts and crafts. I maintained this professional activity for decades. I also made costumes for the theater, dance, art performances, and film.

 On a parallel track, after 1975-76, I was pursuing an artistic-spiritual quest. It was triggered by my involvement in the Dune film project led by Alejandro Jodorowsky. He had gathered a phenomenal graphics team. Some of them went on to work on Alien after the project collapsed. Moebius (Jean Giraud) drew the storyboard and became a life long friend. Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson, stars in my firmament, were supposed to be in the cast. I got a martial arts training as part of the pre-production. Jodorowsky’s idea of contemporary sacred art opened two fields of exploration for me. The latter in part related to the failed film project.

How could art become socially relevant without loosing its creative integrity and power?

And how could it respond effectively to fundamentalism and militarism?

In 1989 it all came into focus unexpectedly through a series of events.

1) It began with my having an argument with a well-known French biologist who is part of my extended family. I started out saying: “You scientists don’t communicate, and you are to blame for the fundamentalists and reactionaries!” I was really upset with him but we were in an environment where it was not appropriate to be upfront about one’s concerns, and that’s what came up, out of the blue. It led to a profound conversation and life-changing insight: artists were potential mediators of scientific knowledge. That possibility was real and thoroughly unexpected news to me.

2) The first installment of an international scientific TV series (The Miracle Planet) of twelve one-hour long episodes was focused on the formation of the solar system. It was the first time I saw CGI. I learned a great deal in a very short time.

3) TV again! A beautifully designed program featured an interview with the Astrophysicist Michel Cassé*. At one point he said “This is a golden age of knowledge” and, thanks to him, I understood. I became completely passionate about astrophysics, cosmology, and physics.

4) I first saw a painting called “The Birth of Time” by the painter Roberto Matta. We met at the Paris museum of science and industry. He offered to collaborate with me on a project for an Imax theater or a planetarium. He had the backing of the French ministry of research. I called this “the heavenly commission”. It changed the course of my life.

He had wanted to do this project since 1942, after working with Buckminster Fuller during the war. The project was finalized in Tokyo a few years after Matta received the Premium Imperial award in 1995. The TV company Fuji Sankei, linked to the award, created a space especially for Matta’s animated dome work. I made the presentation and introduced his ideas (and mine) to the company for which he was very happy and grateful. I never got to see it because by that time I had moved to California where I thought my ideas had a better chance of coming to fruition.

 R&D & status quo

 Here are the questions and problems I took on:

- The dome as new media: what are its specificities, advantages, and limitations?

- How to relay the coming breakthroughs happening and expected in physics and cosmology to a global audience?

- How can science literacy be promoted creatively and in a participatory and interactive manner? Put differently, how can education bring itself up to date, in its content, values and methods?

 It took me twenty-two years, but I got my answers (except for the very last one, which is still up in the air).

I completed the conceptual design of my essential project last year. It involves five full-dome movies whose themes are defined by what I call a cultural ecology model. They are intended to relay present day discoveries to a broad audience. They come with an educational component for “at-risk youths” as part of the interactive component of the design. These full-dome movies would, ideally, be complemented with exhibitions and live performances.

Presently I am in discussion with the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley about a series of interactive dome shows for their small planetarium. It would entail the participation of Emeryville’s Expression College for digital arts. If this comes about, it would provide a perfect testing ground for new ideas, possibilities, and partnerships.

Each program would give multifaceted answers to the natural questions of very young children (why is the sky blue? Why does smoke go up? Why does water flow down?).  These answers should be as lively as good animated cartoons and be at the same time scientifically precise. A science teacher explained to me that when children first come to school they are passionate about understanding nature. But they are met with a “you are too young to understand” attitude. By the time they are deemed old enough they are not interested anymore. The teacher’s rationale was “You talk to babies − that’s how they learn how to speak”. The rest of us might learn something in the process, too.

 Meeting ground

 When I came to SIGGRAPH in San Diego in 2007, I went to a talk given by Hugh Walker Bumgarner-Kirby on full-dome movies.  I came with a friend with whom I was working, Arne Wong. (He introduced Moebius’s work to the director of Tron.) As it turned out, he became the director of the movie that Hugh was working on at the time of her SIGGRAPH talk: Tales of the Mayan Skies. I was able to contribute and participate throughout the making of the film as a volunteer. That’s part of the SIGGRAPH magic, which has always been there in my experience.

 Between the times I started writing and the day of posting this text online the Higgs boson has officially been discovered! Socrates and others have said: “know thyself”! This has now been somewhat achieved at a cosmic level through our knowledge and understanding of matter. This is expected to lead to an understanding of the remaining 96% of the universe. It’s a whole and radically new horizon and vista that is opening up. One that can now be relayed and shared with the public as it is unfolding.

 What I am looking for and expecting of DAC is a full on creative immersion. I just want to dive into what is happening and discover and meet new artists and new medias. In so doing I am following my “cultural ecology” design. I am starting out in the “hunter-gatherer” mode. In a follow up phase I hope to meet artists, that are motivated, and techniques that are relevant to relaying the present scientific knowledge and upcoming discoveries to the broadest possible audience in the most creative possible way. I am coming with the intention of a long-term commitment that may lead to concrete undertakings and partnerships.


 Laura Gabriela Duke

* Michel Cassé curated an exhibition on mathematics at the Fondation Cartier in Paris this winter. David Lynch made significant contributions to the show


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Comment by Laura Gabriela Duke on July 23, 2012 at 2:03am

Yes, really looking forward to it

Comment by Jacki Morie on July 23, 2012 at 1:32am

Nice bio. Will you be at the ACM SIGGRAPH Conference in Los Angeles this August?

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