SciArt The confluence of art and science in conveying the uncertainties of climate change
The idea of an artist and a scientist working together in a hybrid laboratory/studio may seem initially surprising. Their vocational separation, grounded in educational and societal norms, encourages us to think they would make curious and difficult bedfellows. However, interdisciplinary projects that seek to bring together the two enterprises of art and science are becoming familiar these days. Cooperative projects, often receiving support from organisations such as the Wellcome Trust and The Royal Society, aim to break down the traditional academic boundaries and work instead through collaboration in order to generate new knowledge and ways of thinking. Both fields of enquiry are founded essentially on curiosity, but the challenge and the difficulty reside in the reality of bringing together contrasting methodologies that frequently use very different written and visual languages.
This article deals with some of the initial thoughts on interdisciplinary collaboration between art and science raised in conversation between Julian Ruddock, a visual artist, Mark Macklin, a physical geographer and John Harvey, an art historian and art practitioner. The aim is to establish the groundwork on a project to bring the two disciplines together around the subject of climate change and its potential environmental and societal impacts. The first part of the text examines the imagery around the subject and explores the potential of art to mediate and communicate some of the uncertainties of this complex issue. In the second part, the visual work emerging from the project is discussed. In attempting to frame the collaboration, the concern here is to explore common perspectives and to discern differences that may provide useful and productive points of future enquiry.
The site: The River Dyfi
Climate is arguably the most significant driver of environmental change and one of the meta-narratives of our times. Rather than attempting to address such a complex and problematic subject in terms of a generalised, global phenomena, a local site was selected as a focus of research; a project on the Dyfi catchment and estuary in Mid Wales, working in collaboration with physical geographers from The Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences (IGES) at Aberystwyth University and oceanographers at the School of Oceanographic Sciences, University of Bangor. One of the principal aims of this three-year NERC funded study is to examine the impact of climate change on flooding in tidally-influenced rivers. The work is in part examining the river/estuary transition zone (RETZ), the point at which the river meets tidal waters. Through research into this significant location and interface, climate impacts on both this river’s, and rivers globally, may be ascertained. The work is also investigating the river’s evolution over the last 10,000 years or so, factors such as land use change and metal mining activities that change the source and rate of sediment and pollutant delivery, and how such information can be used to improve environmental management and flood risk assessment. The intention of the art/science collaboration within this project stemmed from a shared interest in landscape evolution and, moreover, recognition of the need to communicate the research to a wider audience.
Art and uncertainty
The term ‘uncertainty’ pervades climate change discourse today. In terms of public confidence in the science, the waters have been mudded in recent years by the unfortunate controversies surrounding the ‘Climate-gate’ debacle from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia and, more widely, from climate change sceptics the world over. Uncertainties within the debate centre largely on the difficulty of accurately predicting how quickly and in what way the climate will change, especially at a local level. This is particularly the case in relation to the impacts on river and coastal flooding in Britain. (Lewin,J. and Macklin,M.G., 2010) The uncertainty around climate change discourse today is further aggravated by definitional problems and ambiguities of contexts and agendas. (Brace, C. and Geoghegan, H., 2010.) Given this indefinite situation, the attempt to recruit art in the communication of the science may contribute a fresh and alternative approach. It seems that in the sciences generally there is a demand for effective communication of contemporary science. Writers such as Diana Liverman argue in support of artists within the climate change debate, pointing to the historical function of art within societies to relate significant human narratives, question received knowledge and generate visions of the future. (Liverman, D. M., 2010.) Art thrives on ambiguity and the spaces ‘in-between’ language and experience. Through images, artists are able to communicate aspects of both individual and collective experience that are culturally, socially, and politically problematic. Artists can subtly interrogate and voice concerns that otherwise remain elusive and undisclosed. The opportunity then, is to enrol art in the mediation of the uncertainties and ambiguities science generates.
Art and Science trajectories
To gain a wider context for the project on the Dyfi, the interface between the arts and the sciences historically requires a brief overview. During the Renaissance, individuals naturally worked across disciplines, as exemplified by the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Post-Enlightenment enquiry saw the bifurcation of the fields in their approach to knowledge acquisition, which by the twentieth century had become the segregated ‘two cultures,’ of science and humanities famously described by C.P. Snow (1905-1980). Perhaps as a consequence of the polarisation of the disciplines, the arts during this modern period often provided a critique of scientific endeavour, expressing a cultural ambivalence towards the promise that science offered. Within literature the divide was crossed by science fiction writers, such as J.G.Ballard (1930-2009) who, in The Drowned World (1962) and The Drought (1965), forecast discerningly what was becoming increasingly apparent: the impact of industrialisation on the environment. Today, such texts seem remarkably prescient as the consequences of climate change and its interrelation with wider environmental imperatives regarding water, biodiversity, population and the limits on our resources become increasingly pressing. Faced with these contemporary concerns, a rapprochement between the disciplines seems timely. How, then, might art and science collaborate effectively?
Same landscape, different perceptions?
Perhaps part of the answer may lie in the cross-fertilisation of knowledge, methodology and visualisation of the environment. Although different in terms of outcomes, art and science share some similar approaches such as experimentation, calibration and of course observation. (Kemp, M., 2001) Enquiry in both fields often begins with observation and consequently it is interesting to consider the way scientists, particularly physical geographers, ‘see’ landscape and how their knowledge affects their experience of place. How might this differ from the visual artist? Although for both the experience is initially a visual one, their subsequent responses are shaped by their different bodies of knowledge. The geographer’s understanding of deep-time and the forces that affect geomorphology clearly underpin the perception of landscapes, resulting in impressions that are rich and informed in terms of processes and timescales. In a sense, the visual artist draws on more intuitive, subjective, responses to place, affected by aesthetic and conceptual decisions. Scientific development is not divorced from such factors, but there is clearly a different emphasis on the subjectivity of their experiences. The phenomenological psychologist Erwin Strauss (1891-1975) contrasts geography and landscape in terms of the distinction between perception and sensation. (Strauss in Grosz, E., 2008.) The map is the result of the abstraction of a location from its ’lived qualities’, whereas landscape comes into being when ‘revealed by sensation’. As the geographers’ knowledge shapes their experience and interpretation of the environment, (Macklin, M.G. and Lewin, J., 2008.) for the visual artist it is an understanding of the history of painting that underpins and informs. As a visual tradition it has developed to satisfy both a utilitarian need for topographical accuracy and a desire for emotional expression in response to the environments we encounter. As well as investigating the physical structure of the land, artists pay particular attention to more ephemeral forces such as light and, crucially, the weather. Although the processes of measurement and recording differ in terms of intention and visual appearance, in both art and science they generate valuable knowledge and insights that if brought together could have innovative, mutual benefits.
The Art/Sci laboratory
In recent years the attempt to establish effective collaboration between artists and scientists has seen the emergence of a number of Sci-Art projects and organisations. Founded in 1993, the London based group Arts Catalyst has promoted science informed art events and funded residencies that aim to bring artists, scientists and the general public together to discuss the role and impact of science in society. Similarly SymbioticA at the Centre for Excellence in the Biological Arts, University of Western Australia, artists and scientists are working collaboratively on the ‘wet practices’ of the biological sciences. Such projects are providing ambitious, innovative explorations that are successfully generating new knowledge and engagement with audiences. The practice takes the active form of art/science research in a location that is a hybrid of the conventional spaces of studio/laboratory/gallery. This model suggests that the merging of conventionally separated working environments might have some importance in relation to potential climate change communication to the public. How, then, do artists work with science to address the subject of climate change and what issues arise in terms of pictorial representation.
Glaciers, polar bears and image saturation.
Regularly, images in the media that address climate change resort to the all too familiar, generic photographs of melting glaciers, drowned cities and stranded polar bears. (Lester, L. and Cottle, S., 2009.) Clearly these have been important as emotive icons, rallying calls to action from environmental campaigners urging us towards sustainability and awareness of the fragility of our environment. However, it is possible that such images are now so familiar to us that they may cause ‘image fatigue’, a term used to describe the disengagement with the subject that can occur through saturation, (for example images of Africa’s starving poor, some argue, not only normalise negative perceptions of non-western peoples but also mask political, economic and human realities.) More importantly they show a sanitised and overly romantic view that softens the message that our society needs to act and adapt now. To generate action do we need more hard-hitting images, shocking photographs of bloated animal and human corpses floating in flood- water?
Chris Jordan. In Katrina’s Wake Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster.
Perhaps the HIV/Aids publicity of the 1980s or the Christian Aid adverts from 2008 may provide useful models for imagery that might prove more productive in changing the hearts and minds of politicians and public alike and provoke action rather than indifference or a feeling of hopelessness.
Christian Aid ‘Climate changed’ advertisement (2008)
Images of Apocalypse
Examination of the possible origins of, and influences on, contemporary language and visualisation around climate change is revealing. Much of it such as flood/droughts, believers/deniers/agnostics, doubt/faith seems to emerge from the biblically inspired apocalyptic narratives and fin de siècle anxieties. As Hulme suggests in The conquering of climate: Discourses of fear and their dissolution, climate has been perceived in terms of the judgement of God in many religious texts and in numerous historical and cultural contexts. (Hulme, M., 2008) He sites, as example, sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, where the limited scientific knowledge of the causes of extreme weather events led to explanation in terms of either blessing or damnation from a higher power. Clearly our deep-seated cultural histories and relationship with nature and climate as ‘other’, to be feared, continues to inform and frame our present attitudes towards climate. This is not helpful for environmental scientists, particularly those involved in risk management and in developing an informed dialogue with the public who are left bemused by seemingly conflicting information concerning the causes and probable local effects of climate change.
In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, calamity on a global scale is not the result of either human negligence or indifferent natural processes; rather, it proceeds from a divine determination. Disasters of this proportion are the objectification of God’s judgment against sin. The visualization of environmental catastrophe on this account has an established iconography in western European art. For example, The Deluge (1840), by the nineteenth-century Romantic painter Francis Danby (1793¬–1861), represents the universal and utter inundation by Noah’s flood (Genesis 6–9), returning the earth to its primordial condition as a watery sphere (Genesis 1.2). (To a western sensibility, tutored by the story and imagings of the bible, the photographs and film of the earthquake and tsunami in Tōhoku, Japan in 2011 connote unavoidable associations with Noah’s flood. The dark and relentless wave submerged or unmoored everything in its path and turned formerly ordered towns and villages into something that looked like a landfill site – a localised apocalypse.) Another act of uncreation, described, this time, in the last book of the bible, is illustrated by Danby’s contemporary, John Martin (1798¬–1854), in The Great Day of His Wrath (c. 1853). (Myrone, M. 2011)
John Martin (1798¬–1854), The Great Day of His Wrath (c. 1853).
The painting focuses upon a cataclysmic upheaval of geology – the natural world’s response to the impenitents’ plea for ‘the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb’ (Revelation 6.16). The predominantly Christian and fundamentalist consensus of the artists’ day believed that these events (the one from biblical history the other from biblical prophecy) were not mythic but actual. Moreover, the disasters were profoundly meaningful – visited upon the earth to warn those who live in the period between those two great disasters to repent and order their lives before God. Thus, in contrast to the perceived response to today’s climatic jeopardy, the call was for a moral and spiritual, rather than an ecological or environmental, reformation.
Danby’s, Martin’s and the tsunami’s décollage of civilisation appear curiously amalgamated by sculptor and installation artist David Mach’s (b. 1956), in his exhibition Precious Light (2011). Mach explores themes and the legacy of the Authorised (King James) Bible in its 400th year on a scale commensurate with the paintings of his nineteenth century predecessors. He re-engages the naturalised religious terror and the visual tradition of biblical, apocalyptic images in photographic collages that show a world flying apart and landscapes comprising debris. The works are extrapolative envisioning of bleak possibilities in the light of our present predicament. In contrast to Martin’s proposition, Mach’s vision does not proceed from a fundamentalist anticipation that these things shall surely come to pass. Instead, like biblical visions of impending judgement (described in many of the prophetic books of the Old Testament (or Torah)), the outcomes can be averted if the people amend their ways. As such, his images embody the principle of uncertainty: they allude to a crisis of choice leading to alternative scenarios.
Today, within contemporary culture, there seems to be numerous avenues through which these scenarios continue to be replayed; films such as 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow rehearse the apocalypse in digital form. Hollywood has seen that there is profit to be made in exploiting public anxiety about climate change and re-packaged the familiar disaster movie narrative in terms of catastrophic floods, earthquakes and tsunami. Similarly, news images of real environmental disasters, such as the footage from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, add to the ‘climate’ of growing environmental crisis that informs and frames our lives.
Contemporary art and climate change
Some of the earliest artistic responses to climate change developed through organisations such as the British Antarctic Surveys Writers and Artists Programme and Cape Farewell, committed to giving shared experience of threatened landscapes in order to foster collaboration between artists and scientists. Artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey participated in expeditions to Svalbard with the organisation and are an interesting example to consider in terms of the nature and viability of these collaborations, as their methodology is fundamentally interdisciplinary. Earlier work by the artists involved collaboration with scientists at IGER (Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research) at Aberystwyth University, who were working on crop trials and the viability of stay-green grass.
Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey Sunbathers (2000)
The artists used canvas beds, sewn with grass seeds, upon which they projected photographs, which would then grow, in effect creating living images. Significantly, as well as extending the possibilities in the field of environmentally based art practice, their work proved beneficial to the scientists working on crop production. The images opened up new techniques for the scientists to monitor pigment levels in samples, enabling non-invasive scanning processes to determine the health of the plants. Such work provides a useful exemplar of collaboration that generates mutual benefits not achievable independently. In turning their attention to the subject of climate change, and specifically the acidification of the oceans due to increased fossil fuel burning, the artists adopted a similar strategy of engagement with scientific methodology. Works such as Stranded (2005-6) were generated with the support of the Natural History Museum’s UK Cetacean Strandings Project and involved the post-mortem of a minke whale found washed up on the beach near Skegness on the East Coast of England. The artists’ adoption of the processes of a surgeon, stripping, cleaning and finally crystallising the animal, aimed, according to Dan Harvey, at the production of a momento mori for our times.
Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, Stranded (2005-6)
In recent years there have been a number of major exhibitions that have focussed on the subject of climate change with artists as mainstream as Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread and Tracy Emin contributing. The 2009 exhibition Earth: Art of a Changing World at the Royal Academy ‘included work that extends across a wide spectrum from propagandistic rhetoric to the documentary. No doubt such a range is to be expected, indeed to be desired, but in looking at these climate related artworks, what becomes clear is that much of it is somewhat detached from the rather more pertinent, local and immediate concerns. This can have the unfortunate consequence of locating climate change, in the public’s mind, in a remote, timeless and distant environment, resulting in a lack of personal responsibility. Polar Antarctic-Arctic interventions, whilst useful at gaining initial public interest, give only a very partial view of the effects of climate change in parts of the world that are largely uninhabited by humans. Re-focussing the attention on possible climate-related floods and droughts in more highly populated regions is now required, although problematic because of the uncertainties in attributing recent extreme weather events to anthropogenic causes.
The importance of the image: Effective communication
How then to communicate these uncertainties to local communities to foster alternative awareness without resorting to sensationalism? Within the geosciences themselves the visualisation of environmental impacts is currently an important area of research and is used largely to aid communication of predicted future landscape scenarios driven by climate change to policy makers and other stakeholders. Issues highlighted by researchers at the Climatic Research Unit at UEA question to what extent images prove useful in provoking change amongst the public. (Nicholson-Cole, S. A., 2005.) Overcoming lethargy and the capacity of the individual to realise the impact of their actions is a key concern, as are the specific public responses to particular types of representation. The results of the research suggests there needs to be a balance struck in communicating scientific knowledge, while avoiding sensationalism and a simplification of the science. It is possible that fine art may sit uncomfortably, perhaps necessarily so, within the nexus of these demands and may therefore provide an alternative, critical, and creative stimulus towards communication and attitudinal change.
Interactions between the arts and sciences have the potential to produce entirely new forms of visual imagery and understanding that may help us make headway through the uncertainties of climate change. The challenge is to develop and maintain new ways for artists and climate change scientists to work together. One area that has been especially successful in developing real synergies between the arts and sciences is archaeology and environmental history. (Bailey, D.W., 2005.) Such work examines the development and role of the visual arts in human evolution, tracing the transition from hunter-gatherers to farming and the creation of the first complex urban societies. (Mills, S. (ed.), 2011.) This research and long- term collaboration between artists and the archaeological sciences has gone beyond the mundane with new theory and empirical data being generated at the interface between the two disciplines. This has been made possible through long-term collaboration with artists and archaeologists devising projects together and most importantly thinking how information can be best communicated to the general public and other committed stakeholders, particularly at the local level.
PART TWO:The Practice-based Research
In starting the visual investigation into the Dyfi a range of creative disciplines and methodologies were considered and the following sections deal with the practical research into the project as well as discussion of the treatment of science images. In order to establish valid modes of enquiry it was important to consider processes that extended from the visualization technologies of the science itself. These provided the material from which the practice-based, visual research could proceed.
Climate science has relied on visualization in order to monitor environmental change, often using film and comparative photography (the regular re-photographing of the same piece of landscape at intervals) processed into 3D images, to substantiate the often-invisible effects of increased burning of fossil fuels on the planet. (Doyle, J., 2007.) The need for visual imaging satisfies both the scientific necessity of assessing the speed of change (glacier retreat is often documented through comparative photographs) and in order to provide ‘proof’ to persuade skeptical politicians and the public. Aerial photography offers the possibility of observing change in river dynamics of the Dyfi over time, particularly when linked to similar surveys that have taken place in the past. Significant surveys were conducted by the Ordnance Survey between 1944-50 and 197..? and were used by the current team of geographers as part of the initial research, further informed by ground- based photographs dating back to the 1930s and the newer technology of LiDAR imaging. The research offers the visual artist different means of perceiving the changing environment, one avenue being time-based and durational, the other, an alternative point of view.
The birds-eye view
Viewing the earth from above, elevated and released from ground-based perspectives, has long proved inspirational to artists seeking to represent their environments in new ways. Peter Lanyon (1918-1964), a St Ives artist and glider pilot, adopted this ‘birds -eye view’ in the 1950s to create unconventional images of the Cornish coastline. For Lanyon, such aerial views opened up the possibilities for abstraction, as landscape seen in this way subverts convention, lending itself instead to a flattened picture plane and concern for organization of form, space and colour. Gaining an alternative view of land also informed the work of Robert Smithson (1938-1973), an early proponent of Land Art in the 1960s, as his large-scale Earthworks were planned and executed with a concern for this elevated point of view. It has also proved valuable to both scientists and documentary photographers seeking to communicate the impact of human activity on the environment. Seeing the relentless deforestation of the Amazon rainforest through aerial images has been pivotal in changing public awareness of the extent and speed of the destruction, as well as conveying the beauty of the natural environment. The altered perspective and the high altitude bring to the viewer a different sense of scale and prospect than the traditional picturing process allows.
The historical maps and the twentieth century photographs of the Dyfi are valuable to both artists and scientists as a means of retracing the river’s meandering course over time and in gaining a generalized view of the terrain. However, what offered more potential in terms of visual art were the new digital visualizing processes employed by the team of geographers. The scientific research began with conventional practices of core sampling, followed by subsequent scanning and radio carbon dating, to determine sediment deposit over long historical timeframes. Alongside these processes the use of LiDAR (Light detection and ranging) imaging, provided by the Environment Agency was used as a base for a geomorphological map of the lower catchment. This scanning technology enables scientists to observe depressions where paleochannels, levees and terraces have existed but are no longer visible in the field. It is also useful in identifying sediment units on the river valley floor.
LiDAR image of the River Dyfi, Mid-Wales
As a resource this technology, which developed in military contexts, has in recent years been revolutionizing a range of disciplines including archeology, atmospheric research and coastline management. It is a system of optical remote sensing technology that works by measuring the distance to any given object or surface by hitting the target with light. Rather than use microwaves or radiowaves, LiDAR takes advantage of the known characteristics of light, scattering pulses of ultraviolet, visible or near-infrared light, at a speed of 150,000 pulses per second, from either airborne equipment or ground based systems. By measuring the return time of the signal a complex and highly accurate map of terrain can be established. The advantage of this system over conventional radar is the degree of accuracy that is achievable when linked to GPS information, combined with the extraordinary resolution of the images that are possible due of the amount of data generated. In terms of the current enquiry the use of LiDAR imaging is proving a useful new technology to generate predictive and investigative modeling of flood hazards and potential sea level rise on the Dyfi floodplains and in other regions of Britain. (Challis, K., 2011.)
River Trent, Leicestershire "Flooded" lidar superimposed on air-photograph.
From Ruskin to Radiohead: ‘Truth to Nature’
As a visualization technology LiDAR is pre-eminent in its ability to render our physical environment in highly defined 3D form. Requiring huge computer capacity, the data can be processed and animated to create virtual fly-throughs of any given landscape. This digital visualization of future landscapes is currently used by geographers, risk assessment agencies and for environmental impact assessment to usefully show relevant stakeholders possible climate scenarios. Much of the United States has been mapped through LiDAR systems, with the data sets made publicly available through collaboration with other global imagining technologies such as Google Earth. The fundamental value, application and populist use of these innovative earth-surface imaging technologies or ‘virtual globes’ has been addressed in recent geomorphology literature. (Tooth, S., 2012.) The new technologies have many benefits such as the monitoring of changes in earth landforms and are implicit in creating new regional and global-scale data sets. Tooth argues that they provide an additional means of observation, one that is steadily improving in quality and regularity of image updates, and is therefore a valuable addition to the geographers ‘toolkit’, as well as increasing public involvement in the science of geomorphology, In terms of art and its potential to act as a catalyst of attitudinal change, can such advances prove as useful to the artist as much as to the scientists looking to model both geomorphology and climatic variance?
It is interesting to consider this new innovation in relation to past methodologies that have been instrumental in shaping landscape representation. The leading English art critic of the late nineteenth century, John Ruskin (1819-1900), advocated a response to nature that was to became highly influential in terms of landscape practices in the European tradition. His approach, described in Modern Painters 1 (1843), required a ‘truth to nature’ in all its variety and detail. As an advocate of the work of J.M.W.Turner (1775-1851) and the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin admired a scrutiny of the environment, in contrast to an imagined, ‘constructed’ response, practiced by many landscape artists. Through attempting naturalistic representation, achievable only through minute observation of the physical form and processes evident in our environment, Ruskin believed artists would arrive at, and therefore be able to communicate, a deeper understanding of nature. What Ruskin would have made of the advances in observation available to visualise the environment today is unimaginable.
The digital age we are now encountering is providing unparalled quantities of information from every point of observation. Our immediate physical landscape and, moreover, the entire surface of our planet can now be perceived in extraordinary detail, with observations recorded in digitalized data sets. This advance is now beginning to be recognized and explored by artists from many disciplines. Radiohead released a LiDAR generated video House of Cards 2007, with the first use of real-time 3D laser scanning, creating a virtual cityscape that can be navigated through by the viewer. In a visual art context, the symposium Data Landscapes at Arts Catalyst London 2011, presented work by artists using data models provided by climate science. The symposium aimed to investigate how these art science collaborations might visually re-present the data and disseminate the science to new audiences. In collaboration with the British Antarctic Survey, artists Tom Corby, Gavin Baily and Jonathan Mackenzie produced The Southern Oceans Studies (2011) by using climate model outputs from the Antarctic Southern Ocean that were mapped against existing ecological data sets. The significance of the location arises from the southern oceans’ action of absorption of fifteen percent of the planets carbon emissions. The images simulate and visually mesh the motion of ocean currents, carbon circulation and wind forces to generate new visualisations in real-time sequences of that climatically important environment. The artists’ investigation of climate models is a strategy that effectively exports and reconfigures the data outside of the intended science context, bringing one set of knowledge into a different location. According to the artists’ the intention is to visualise the ecological complexity, available originally as raw data, in terms of ‘pattern and felt experience’ rather than ‘quantity and measure’.
Most Blue Skies (2011) Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway.
This re-working of data is perhaps indicative of a concern for understanding from the non-scientific community towards the volume and complexity of scientifically produced information. The artists Lisa Autogena and Joshua Portway have attempted to intervene into the overwhelming quantities and inaccessible form of the ‘ocean of data’ that climate research generates in the project Most Blue Skies (2011). The work combines atmospheric research data and live environmental monitoring and sensing technologies to try and ascertain the global location of ‘the bluest sky’ at any given point in time. The development of the project involved contribution from a number of agencies such as the UK Met Office and NASA in order to access specific forms of climate data and to calculate sky colour for five million places around the world. The work relies on the new imaging possibilities of science to address both contemporary concerns in relation to the climate and the more emotionally based, optimistic and utopian response to blue skies. The concept behind the projects’ innovative use of scientific data is the attempt to bring human dimension and individual perception into a universal aspect of experience, the hope symbolised by a blue sky that has become problematised through uncertainty and fear.
As such work demonstrates, artists involved with data landscapes are critically exploring the cultural and conceptual basis of our perception of climate science and using the interactive and immersive installation possibilities of the digital age to do this. One element of this that may have possibilities in terms of communicating climate change is the potential for interactive experiences, which emerges at the interface between technology, digital art and the gaming industry. (SwanQuake The User Manual 2007)
The mediation of science images
The LiDAR images of the Dyfi provide extraordinary views of the river and its catchment and as such they are, in themselves, remarkable visualisations of landscape. How such science images are mediated and presented to audiences however raises questions, which effectively unpick differences in the intentions and modes of operation of artists and scientists. In recent decades the visualisation of the natural world has been transformed through digital imaging and scanning technologies, allowing views of our macrobiotic, terrestrial and space environments which are far beyond human visual capacity. These extraordinary images are compelling, beautiful and intriguing and seem in many ways to have the same qualities admired in art. As the drive to communicate science to the public becomes more important, and in terms of climate change urgent, the mediation of these images becomes a matter of interest and scrutiny, raising the question posed by Sian Ede in Art and Science (2005): ‘Can science images be art?’ (Ede, S., 2005.)
An example cited by Ede is the work of Felice Frankel, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who photographs microscopic forms and has written on the subject of imaging in Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image, a technical guidebook for scientists in presenting their research images. (Frankel, F., 2004.) The images produced by Frankel, favourably compared by Ede in terms of historical importance to Ernst Haeckel’s (1834-1919) Art Forms in Nature (1899-1904), negotiate the dual requirements of being both scientifically informational while also accessible to a broader public. In her analysis of Frankel’s approach, Ede raises the question concerning the degree of manipulation of the images in striking the balance between aesthetic qualities such as composition, camera angle etc, with the necessary scientific detachment and rigour. The ‘science image’, traditionally diagrammatic but now superseded by various forms of digital imaging, is first and foremost a means of conveying information in as precise and objective a manner as possible. Yet within that remit visual judgments, close to but falling short of creative subjectivity, come into play. By contrast, for the visual artist hoping to communicate science, the process of mediation and creative decision-making that occurs is conditioned more by a concern to explore the expressive, conceptual and critical potential.
An interesting illustration to help delineate between scientific imaging and art is a map produced by a geographer, Grace Coetzee, working on the channels in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, one of the largest and most pristine inland wetlands in the world. To understand the scale, age and sinuosity of the palaeo-channels that have flowed across the delta, each was accorded a different colour, resulting in a visualization that is leading the team researching the river to consider new questions that have implications for climate change modeling.
Grace Coetzee. Okavango Delta, Botswana.
As an image it is by no means intended for an art gallery, the anticipated audience is clearly other geographers working in similar areas of research. Yet it has something of the appearance of contemporary art in its careful application of graphic skill and stark colour use. Repackaged, relabeled and recontextualised, the drawing may successfully exist in a completely different location, that of the art gallery.
The archeology of painting: excavating the past
Investigating the river Dyfi through visual practices contributes to the growing body of knowledge about this unique and complex environment. Observing and recording the river through walking, drawing and photographing the landscape provides primary and experientially based information that has fed into the creative process. From these initial observations, further informed by the imaging possibilities generated by modern science, subjective nuances in response to landscape can emerge, and convey a hybrid of information (data) and felt/embodied experiences, communicated through the translational tools of art. Through the drawing process the artist ‘inhabits’ that landscape, travels through and investigates the form and sctructure of the geology of the catchment and the pattern and flow of the river that runs through it. This is drawing acting as a means of personal knowledge acquisition about a complex landscape in flux.
Julian Ruddock LiDAR/drawing of the River Dyfi RETZ 2011
The use of LiDAR technology to the visual artist brings compelling and hitherto unseen perspectives and vantage points. The imaging can present views of landform with choice as to the level of the visible ‘layer’, such that vegetation can be stripped away, leaving contours and geology more perceptible and prominent. The LiDAR images of the Dyfi reveal its sinuous curve through the broader landscape and countless channel changes over thousands of years. North of the river, human drainage channels become visible, in contrast to the organic patterns of water flow to the south. The river’s winding tributaries exhibit the phenomenon of self-similarity, the recurring lines visible at both macro and micro levels.
Julian Ruddock. Aerial Views of the River Dyfi 2011
The idea of the modern LiDAR images being converted back into hand-drawn maps, reversing the technological evolution of cartography, is an intriguing one. Through data projection the images can be enlarged and then translated into drawings that are then mapped on a large scale. What is of interest to the visual artist is the capacity of the lens through which these landscapes are perceived which allows the past to become visible. The drawing and painting processes used to investigate the Dyfi emphasise the contours of waterway changes made visible through the scanning process, which are then amalgamated into ambiguous images, suggesting the variance of the water flow and the intermingling of channels. The original digitally mapped archeology of the river can become multilayered, overlayed and then excavated through the mutability of the drawing and painting process. Treated subjectively, allowing in irregularities and decisions made in terms of mark making, tonal range and relative scale, the images become maps that aim for the visual conflation of geological time.
So far, the visual research into the river Dyfi has comprised a two-fold enquiry: drawing and painting practices in response to the aerial perspectives as well as inroads into the manipulation of scientifically captured digital media used to record change in the environment. From these beginnings the next stage of the project is to further extend these collages of painted and data landscapes as new models are produced by the researchers investigating the Dyfi. The ambition is to develop the imagery into a body of work that conveys the river processes and geomorphology of the catchment, both historically and in imagined future climate scenarios. Through understanding and imaging the past, visualisation of of the future may be alluded to and therefore made more conceivable. A contribution to the science may lie in the alternative vision of the landscape that is presented, provoking new thinking about the examined space. The work also aims to engage with local residents and the broader public, offering the opportunity of seeing their environment in previously unimagined ways, bringing home and making visible the scientific investigation of climate change, with all its ambiguities and uncertainties.
Conclusion: The RETZ as metaphor
Recruiting digital technology to facilitate communication of future climate scenarios to the public is now taking place. As a platform for collecting and disseminating knowledge, the Dyfi valley has recently become a Virtual Observatory, a project initiated by the Natural Environment Research Council, and one of only three in the British Isles. In part, the intention is to provide an interface where the complexities of hydrological, soil and biological data sets can be sited and integrated through collaborative research. Data sets can be ‘Mashed-up’, combined in innovative ways to create new forms of knowledge. Climate change is a relational phenomenon. ref and it is best addressed through collaboration, As such the Observatory will also function as a community resource and archive of local knowledge of place and landscape. In drawing on lay knowledge and the voice of the community, the Virtual Observatory should contribute to an improved understanding of the catchment, by both inhabitants and wider audiences, enabling more flexible and local response to future climate scenarios.
Are art and science methodologies usefully compatible and able to rub together to generate that spark of new thinking that can occur out of the confluence of different strategies and processes? The project’s ambition is in part to answer this through sharing of knowledge, experience and, significantly, different methods of recording environments. Bringing the once-separated enterprises of art and science together on a project to examine the RETZ, the inter-tidal reaches of the Dyfi, seems highly appropriate, not least as metaphor. This transitional and rapidly changing environment is created where the river meets the sea, forcing water and sediment to intermingle, generating new regions that are mutually influencing and that may well prove rich and fertile waters to navigate through.
Authored by: Julian Ruddock, PhD candidate Fine Art practice, School of Art, Aberystwyth University
Professor Mark Macklin, Centre for Catchment and Coastal Research and the River Basin Dynamics and Hydrology Research Group, Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University
John Harvey, Professor of Art, School of Art, Aberystwyth University.
This article is under peer review for a special edition on Art and Science in Cultural Geographies. .
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