Stewart Smith
Autumn Path

Autumn at Yale University’s Quantum Institute

I’ve just returned from an absolutely gorgeous “peak autumn” journey by rail up to New Haven, Connecticut as a recently-minted Artist in Residence at Yale University’s Quantum Institute.

Over this present academic year I’ll be collaborating with Yale students, faculty, and researchers associated with the Yale Quantum Institute (YQI) to create quantum-inspired artworks. This program is organized by YQI manager (and official rocket scientist!), Florian Carle, who created the artist residency role. I’ve impossible shoes to fill, with past residents such as Martha W Lewis and Spencer Topel. An exciting adventure to set forth on, to be sure.

Florian made it easy for me to accept the residency invitation, assuring me that my duties could be performed on a flexible schedule and not impede my commitments to Unity Technologies, where I’ve recently transitioned roles from Head of Consumer Augmented Reality to leading the Design Innovations Team. (My new role continues to include virtual and augmented reality—as well as supporting nascent product teams, and collaborating on longterm business strategies across organizations and disciplines in concert with senior executives. Bit of a dream come true, really.)

I’ve visited YQI previously, delivering a small talk at the tail end of last June, and a more recent visit for some perfunctory kickoff chats, but this trip felt like the first proper one; where I had a bit of time to look and ponder. (Or “Dawdle and Gape”—the phrase my fellow Yale graphic design graduates of 2008 might recognize.) So although it wasn’t my first journey to YQI, in some ways I was only truly seeing it for the first time. And what a backdrop for ideating how exactly we plan to collaborate on some quantum-inspired artworks over the next few months!

The conversations, ideas, and barest of sketches; this is such early days. I’m going to hold these delicate, misshapen, and abstract things close to the vest for a while as they gestate. But the more peripheral bits of the experience I am happy to share here.

Left: Standing on Hillhouse Avenue outside the building that now houses the Yale Quantum Institute . Right: View from the window of my fourth-floor office at YQI.

Left: Standing on Hillhouse Avenue outside the building that now houses the Yale Quantum Institute. Right: View from the window of my fourth-floor office at YQI.

The campus building that stands at 17 Hillhouse Avenue did not always house the Yale Quantum Institute. The structure was built in the early 1970s as Yale’s student health center, and then decades later converted into classrooms during the early 2010s. So during my time in New Haven from 2006 to 2008 it was still effectively a mini-hospital—and the only location where I have ever fainted during a blood draw. It was my own fault; I had been practicing the terribly “hip” (read “stupid”) lifestyle of subsisting on a diet of mostly black coffee and cigarettes, with very little sleep. My body was not prepared to lose whatever scant amount of glucose or nutrients it had accidentally acquired. I must have looked particularly pale that morning as the vial drew from my arm and the nurse suggested I take a beat on a chair out in the lobby. I do remember planting myself in that seat, holding a paper cup of water up to my lips, and feeling a bit woozy. Then it all went dark.

I woke up on the floor of the hallway between examination rooms; they must have dragged me from the more public lobby into this slightly more private area inside. One nurse was literally on top of me—holding me down as I’d been convulsing, apparently. And then there was one on either side of me trying to revive me. How embarrassing. At first I could barely pull together words or sentences, but ever the charmer and people pleaser I did manage to raise my small audience: They explained that I was on the floor of the student health center, I had fainted after a blood draw, introduced their names to me, and asked if I knew who and where I was. I processed this for a moment and then effusively marveled over how I was waking up to three wonderful ladies named Jamie, Jennifer, and Jessica—and what beautiful alliteration this was! (I was then politely, but firmly told to go home.)

I’ve been terribly squeamish about bloodwork ever since. I contend that I’ve paid more mind to health and diet since my early 20s (despite appearances), and that I’m more resilient as a result. But it did give me a brief shudder this past June (these many years later) when I first arrived at the building now containing YQI; rather unprepared to realize that I was revisiting the location of that minor trauma from roughly half my life ago. I was so excited to be there—the guest of Florian and the YQI family—but also mildly woozy at that building entrance. Were a trio of J-names lurking just inside?

While visiting Yale’s campus security office to pick up an access badge, I was tickled to discover they had my old student photo on file—and that unless I cared to take a new photograph, the standard procedure was simply to print my badge using whatever ancient JPEG that happened to be in the system. I look nothing like the person captured in this 16-year-old portrait, but I couldn’t resist this invitation to time travel. (More odd still, I didn’t truly look like this at 24 either. I recall even then, friends commenting that some warp of the lens had caused me to look unlike myself. No matter. A nostalgic badging experience, nonetheless.)

Perhaps the deepest nostalgic turn was taking Metro-North’s New Haven line homeward. This train and its stations have been a recurring backdrop in my life. I have heartfelt anecdotes for the majority of local stops north of Stamford—many from my late 1990s adolescence as I held various summer jobs along the route, and also first learned to navigate from the suburbs down to new friends in Manhattan and Brooklyn in an era of paper subway maps and quarters for pay phones. (Shout out to those lovely ladies of Bensonhurst known as the Poor Children.)

I’d watch the passing power lines dip up and down to albums like Radiohead’s “Ok Computer”, or R.E.M.’s “Up” on my Sony Discman. I’ve always wanted to make a music video inspired by this visual mechanic; the climbs and dips of individual power cables in concert with the instruments of a strongly emotive track. A few years later I discovered that Michel Gondry had come close to this with his music video for the Chemical Brother’s “Star Guitar”—but the Chemical Brothers’ music is naturally very gridded and percussive in a specifically staccato way. I argue that there’s yet room in this video genre for swooning passenger-viewed power lines; a mechanic well suited to stringed instruments, bendy guitar solos, and soaring vocals.

More to come.