16 September 2008

Spectral Encoding

Spiritual Bits and Bytes
The archetype biblical artist Betzalel is said to have had the divine secret of forging combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters to create new worlds. The digital era makes this kabbalistic notion of artistic creativity through making permutations of bits of information more than a quaint legend. It is computer science rather than mysticism, physics rather than metaphysics that lets us reveal in our times this ancient wisdom. All the multitude of words, sounds and images that we can access today from the Internet, CDs, CD-ROMs, DVDs are encoded in bits strung together in groupings of eight bits called bytes. The 256 bit permutations in one byte are in turn grouped into billions of combinations that we perceive as a web site, a computer game, a text, a song, or a movie.

Hebrew letters and words have numerical values in the decimal system like electronic bits and bytes in the binary system. Gematria is a system for exploring mathematical relationships between the letters in Hebrew words to find spiritual significance. The 22 Hebrew letters can be viewed as primal forces, the raw material of Creation that can be arranged in myriad combinations and permutations. Each rearrangement creates a new blend of cosmic spiritual forces.

Just as each Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent, kabbalists have assigned colors to each letter. Using a color scheme based upon the rainbow spectrum, I created the interactive artwork Torah Spectrograph at MIT. A digital version of the first five books of the Bible in the original Hebrew was combined with a look-up table programmed to display colored bands for each letter. Each of the 56 Torah portions exhibits a unique set of patterns and color relationships.

River of Light
I collaborated with my colleagues at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies to create River of Light, a sixty-foot long water prism that ran across the entire length of Yeshiva University Museum in our LightsOROT exhibition. In Hebrew, river and light are linguistically linked. The feminine form of word for “river” nahar is a biblical word for “light” naharah used in Job 3:3. 30-inch acrylic sheets were bent into a “V” shape that was suspended with steel cables from a concrete beam in the museum ceiling. Filled with water, the sixty-foot prism weighed several tons. A bank of light projectors projected white light through the full length of the water prism to create a two-foot high spectral band that colored the length of the wall opposite the light source. The concept that white light is composed of a spectrum of different colors has kabbalistic significance. Just as white light breaks into colors, the one divine light breaks into a spectrum of thoughts and emotions descending into our every day world of action.

Genesis in the Negev Mountains
The spectrum assigned to Hebrew letters can reveal hidden patterns in Torah. I spelled out the story of the creation of the universe from Genesis in bands of wood painted in acrylic colors flowing across the desert surface in the Negev near the town of Yeroham were my son Ron lives with his wife and six children. In the code for this Genesis Spectrogram, the seven colors of the spectrum were repeated three times to corresponding to 21 of the 22 Hebrew letters. The first letter, alef, that represents the number one, unifies all the colors of the spectrum into white light displayed as a single white unit. The second letter, bet, is two red units, the third letter, gimel, is three orange units, until we come to the final letter, tav, which is a violet band 22 units long.

Digital Spectrogram
For the LightsOROT exhibition, I created a dialogic artwork, Torah Spectrograph, through which people could see spectral Torah patterns as related to their own lives. Through computer graphics, hidden patterns in the Torah are revealed. To access the Torah color patterns, a visitor enters his or her birth date into a computer from which the birth date in the Hebrew calendar is calculated. That date determines what portion of the Torah is read in synagogue each week. The Hebrew date of the visitor’s birthday calls up his or her bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah Torah portion and plays it out on the monitor in bands of color according to the spacing pattern in a Torah scroll. The Torah Spectrogram addresses each individual with a personalized biblical symphony of rainbow colors scrolling across the computer monitor.

A Psalm in Miami
I have subsequently used the same spectral schema in a wedding canopy (hupa) in the courtyard of a Miami synagogue where I encoded Psalm 146 “from generation to generation” in bands of stained glass. With the sun passing through the stained glass hupa, we see a biblical song of color flowing over the white wedding gown of the bride as the Earth rotates. Collaborating with the architect Ken Treister, we made a framework to suspend the hupa from hardwood from Suriname where my wife was born. We created from Jerusalem stone imported from Israel a round supporting wall into which a passage from Psalm 146 was engraved, the flooring, and a pond with white water lilies.

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