A Machine That Turns Earthquakes Into Art

Every time the ground in Christchurch starts to rumble, this machine catalogs it in color.

The earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city, in February of last year was devastating both in terms of the lives it claimed and the damage it inflicted. But it was only one in a series of quakes that were, and still are, shaking the region. As Christchurch and surrounding areas continue to rebuild, a team of local students have endeavored to transform the ongoing phenomena into something beautiful, building a machine that listens for local earthquake data and paints it in color on a topological canvas.


They call it the Quakescape 3D Fabricator. The rig is connected to a New Zealand-specific earthquake monitoring website and sits above a CNC routed slab depicting a section of the Christchurch landscape. When any sort of seismic activity is detected, two stepper motors position the hanging paint cartridges to the precise spot of the activity and let it flow. The color used is determined by the intensity of the episode, with grays and blues representing the lower end of the Richter Scale and the palette moving toward red as the magnitudes escalate.

As one of the designers explains, the idea came to the group–Josh Newsome-White, Brooke Bowers, George Redmond, Richie Stewart, Hannah Warren, Philippa Shipley, and James Boock–a few months after the major quake last year. “We were wanting to transform ‘dark’ data into something beautiful and interesting,” Boock says. “Making something beautiful from something terrible; there’s beauty even in the idea.”

But there’s a good deal of beauty in the way his team, all current or former students at Victoria University in Wellington, realized that idea, too. The Fabricator’s metal frame and mechanical parts contrast nicely with the paint canisters and the colorful canvas below. It’s part high-tech seismograph, part painting robot–a small, simple machine that harnesses this horrible, unknowable energy and turns it into a cheerful piece of art. That canvas may flow and drip a bit beyond the realm of practical “data viz,” but it’s aesthetically compelling all on its own.

Boock himself is from Christchurch–as are three other students who worked on the project–though as it happened he flew back to school in Wellington the night before the disaster. What he saw on the news the next morning was “surreal,” he says. And while there’s no way of knowing if another serious aftershock is waiting in the wings, in the meantime, the Quakescape Fabricator exists as an interesting–and maybe even a bit soothing–distraction.