Scientific data turned into art.
11 June 2012
What happens when you take scientific data out of the lab and turn it into art? Artists Tom Corby, Gavin Baily and Jonathan Mackenzie, and polar scientist Nathan Cunningham asked that question, and the result was Southern Ocean Studies, a series of art installations that communicate environmental change in a completely new way.
Nathan Cunningham, former head of the Polar Data Centre at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), is a self-confessed computer geek. Data is his bread and butter, but he also has a strong personal interest in art, and explains that visualisation of data is something his team thinks about all the time.
'Information is shared easily and quickly these days - Google Earth, social media and applications like iTunes don't require people to understand complicated software. But science isn't that good at putting complex ideas into context for the layman. We're always thinking about better ways to make our data available.'
The integrity of the data is crucial - it's all genuine stuff.
What Cunningham hadn't thought about, until he met Tom Corby, was whether one good way of presenting data could be to turn it into art.
Corby is an established artist with a long-standing interest in digital art and natural systems. He and long-term collaborators, graphic designer Jonathan Mackenzie and computer programmer Gavin Baily, had already begun to explore interactive ways of communicating environmental data with works such as cyclone.soc, which mapped internet chat-room debates about climate change onto real-time weather data.
The strength of feeling surrounding the theft of emails from climate-change researchers at the University of East Anglia had convinced Corby that this kind of data had developed a cultural life of its own. He wondered if climate models could be taken out of their scientific context and used to represent environmental change in ways that made it accessible to more people.
The group pondered the potential of climate-model art over many cups of coffee.
Climate models use mathematical equations to describe how atmosphere, oceans, ice, solar energy, organisms and landmass interact to produce Earth's climate. Scientists use them to predict how some variables, like changes in greenhouse gases, will influence climate systems. Models produce complex information, and understanding the results can be difficult without some knowledge of environmental science, the maths that underpins the model, and the graphical conventions used to represent the data.
Data Landscapes, a series of watercolours based on Soviet-era climate-model outputs from the library at BAS, has been exhibited at art festivals around the world.
Even when it's undergone some level of interpretation or simplification, usual ways of presenting climate data don't give us any sense of the bigger picture and our own place in it.
Together with ex-BAS scientist Claire Tancell, the group came up with a plan for a series of large-scale projections. These would combine climate data from different sources to create a visual, dynamic representation of the information that was both an accurate piece of science and a work of art.
They tested their idea with some experimental artworks using data from the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic Circulating Current (ACC), and Southern Ocean Studies was born.
Corby explains their choice of dataset.
'The ACC is hugely important, the strongest ocean current on the planet. It bridges the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans so it regulates the ecological balance of the whole of the Earth, not just the Antarctic. Climate change is driving up temperatures in the Southern Ocean, so while the ACC buffers Antarctica's ice sheets from warm water it also carries those rising temperatures around the planet, with knock-on effects for global temperatures, weather and ecosystems.'
Cunningham and Tancell provided a mixture of live and archived data and models of the ACC, which Corby's team used to determine the character of the artworks.
The result was a series of projections, of ever-changing, circulating patterns of data, carried around the Antarctic continent on a virtual ACC. The project software generates the projections on the fly from layers of background data of ocean temperature, salinity and density, together with tides, sea level and depth, and ocean-current speeds. These are combined with other environmental and ecological datasets, for example wind speed and direction and biotic information. The viewer sees flickering constellations of tidal flow, winds and organisms.
This background could be 'seeded' with real-time data which would change the way the projection behaved, in the same way that feeding variables into a climate model would change its output.
Real-time data could be the latest weather readings from meteorological stations or information transmitted from loggers on migrating albatross. Viewers could immediately see its effect through the evolving patterns in the projection, without needing to understand how the model itself worked.
The ultimate 'seed', though, would be the viewers themselves. A further planned installation, the floor projection Coriolis Drift, introduces the human element in a dramatic way by feeding information about the audience back into the model and projecting the effects.
Coriolis Drift will use a tracker to detect how many people are standing on the projection, and where. This information triggers 'tipping points' that bring different datasets to the fore - ocean temperature, for example, or krill movements -demonstrating the knock-on effect of small changes on the whole earth system. Just by being there, the audience becomes an agent of change. It's a striking metaphor for people's impact on the environment.
At each step in the project Cunningham has ensured the presentations did not change the data in any way, so the installations were as scientific as they were artistic. 'The integrity of the data is crucial', says Cunningham. 'It's all genuine stuff.'
It's also an eloquent way of expressing complex information. Viewers don't need to understand the data to have a reaction to it. Whether or not you find them aesthetically pleasing, the projections are striking and the data are real, so people can make an artistic or a scientific interpretation, or simply enjoy the view.
Cunningham exudes enthusiasm for the project, but he got a mixed reaction from his colleagues at BAS.
'There were some raised eyebrows,' says Cunningham, 'but the whole point is to make people think. Most people were supportive in the end but some felt uncomfortable about devoting too much time to it. When you have such a genuine collaboration between different disciplines you do take a risk; in hard times this kind of thing is the first to go.'
For Cunningham, though, it didn't feel like that strange a step. 'It's no different from the way we'd approach other work we do,' he explains. 'You want to work with people who have the right expertise - in this case the right expertise is just in a different area.'
On the back of Southern Ocean Studies, Cunningham and Corby secured funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council in 2011 and Arts Council England to coordinate the Data Landscapes project. Digital artists, scientists, academics, and public and private institutions formed a network to further explore how climate data could be used in creative processes and as a medium for communication in their own right.
The projects have demonstrated the benefits of breaking down traditional barriers between art and science, not just to those two communities but to the tax-paying public. The collaborators have developed an effective way to overcome what can be a significant barrier to public understanding of environmental change - the complexity of both the science and the scientific process - by presenting both as an aesthetic experience.
Collage produced from multiple data outputs from Envisat radar imagery showing the distribution and extent of sea ice in the Southern Ocean.
The artworks are accessible to people in ways that some other science communications channels by nature cannot achieve. They don't use the scientific jargon that excludes many readers from academic journals, for example; and unlike media news stories they are not filtered by others' interpretations. Viewers can experience the complexity of the science in a way that doesn't require any interpretation at all.
One researcher in particular is convinced of the value of this approach: 'I really believe that, as a scientist, I'll find better ways of communicating complex ideas by working with the artistic community,' says Cunningham.
As for Southern Ocean Studies, after exhibitions in London and Istanbul which had positive responses from the public and scientists alike, the next step is a large-scale installation later in 2012, at the University of Westminster's Ambika P3 gallery. This vast exhibition hall will provide the backdrop for an interactive floor projection up to 50m across, made available concurrently to virtual visitors through social media.
In the longer term, Cunningham and the group hope to develop the project to include social as well as environmental science. In the meantime, interacting with data on such a large scale at P3 will give visitors an even more powerful sense of the complexity of the environmental change we are all part of.
Tom Corby is deputy director of CREAM, the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media, at the University of Westminster.
Nathan Cunningham was until recently head of BAS's Polar Data Centre. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gavin Baily is director of TraceMedia.
Dr Jonathan Mackenzie is a computer scientist and freelance developer.
P3 exhibition dates, when available: www.p3exhibitions.com
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