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Living Data:

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"Few will doubt that humankind has created a planet-sized problem for itself.
No one wished it so, but we are the first species to become a geophysical force,
altering Earth's climate, a role previously reserved for tectonics, sun flares, and glacial cycles."
E. O. Wilson, 1998. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
p. 277-278

Data Choreography: Bringing scientific data to life

Tuesday 7th February, 2017
Workshop at Manly Art Gallery & Museum
with William Gladstone(Bill) and Lisa Roberts

How do we make visible what we know from scientific data, and make known how we feel about the environment whose changes we measure? Scientists, artists, and people from other fields, gather to find some answers.


I'm Tara. I have a background in graphic design. I'm also a mixed media artist. I work currently with printmaking, collage and photography. I'm particularly interested in responding to that sense of place, so where I tend to collect. I'm always picking up things. I make art based on my finds. So when I set out I don't have an intention. But then something arrives because of the things I've collected. So my recording those landscapes and bringing these back to my studio, and responding to those images, particularly patterns, and mark making from things in the natural world.

I have a science degree in maths. I've done quite a bit of painting. I've always been interested in the arts. I'm interested in choreography. I have a daughter who is a ballet dancer. So I was interested to know how about the science and art crossovers.

I'm a social scientist. I come from a psychoanalytic background. I am passionately interested in the emotional response to climate change. I am fascinated by the power of art to not only explain the statistics, but it's power to change our response. Art talks to the heart. My reason to be here is to explore [how this works].

I'm an installation artist. I am currently working with static electricity. Through art I try to make people sense, through material, through sound. I'm here to see how art and science come together.

. Really interesting stories... I'm an artist and mostly use digital media and spend many hours in Photo shop to create surreal landscapes. I like to see art as a way to change the world, the way people view the world, in order to connect to each other, with all the dramas and tragedies around the world at the moment. I've also got a Masters in Information Architecture, so I work a lot with data. And I'm very very interested in how to visualize data. There's so much information in the world and I'm really interested in how to present that information so that it makes sense.

. Lisa and I have known each other for a long time. I studied calligraphy in Japan for 11 years. (Pointing to the data projection on the painting) At times some dots will appear. Lisa and I went into the Motion Capture Lab (at UTS) and did the post-Neolithic character for Ocean. At that point I had no interest in any of this [art-science interaction], I was very immersed in my post Neolithic Chinese characters, and practice of calligraphy. [The dots] appear in the water as well [as on the painting]. Seeing them in this context, seeing them floating with some fish, and with Bill's photography as well, I was very moved. I think it's quite extraordinary that a writing system from 1200 BC finds expression in a context and at a time like this. (To Tara) I'm also interested in mark making. Also mark making in terms of what kind of mark we want to leave in the environment, as well as the marks we make through our communication system. So I think this collaboration is very intriguing. Working with Lisa on this motion capture project, and then seeing it here, I think those ancient peoples who were very very closely connected to the natural environment, I think they would be very happy.

. Beautiful. Thanks. So Lisa and I thought we might just spend a couple of minutes, before we get onto the activities, talking about each of the pieces here, in the installation, and how we how we created them. And as Lisa said, it's very much a collaborative process and I think one of the temptations of an art and science collaboration, if the outcome is an exhibition, that it will be driven by the artist, who's familiar with exhibiting art works in a space, whereas I, as a scientist, I'm not. I'm used to writing, presenting papers and things, so this is a very different environment for me. So we worked together. We met weekly. We had the opening on the 9th December and the project began 12 months before that, in terms of when we first decided to collaborate, we had a week together with other artists and scientists at Currawong, Pittwater. We just experienced the landscape and got to know each other, and our responses to that. And then Lisa and I met every week. For an hour, first thing Monday morning. So that's the very first thing in my diary on Monday morning.

Who decided this? To meet once a week?

Lisa & Bill
We did.

I should explain also that (to Christine) I also went to Antarctica, and that stimulated my passion to work with scientists. As you know, there's a closeness in the experience of being with scientists on a ship, and you're in the environment, and you're well aware of what's going on, and what they are looking at - the key indicators of climate change, and it's a very moving experience, an emotional experience.

Vaughan and Victoria arrive.

We're just talking about how Lisa and I collaborated to produce the art works in this installation.

So just to clarify, Bill suggested it was a novelty for him to work towards presenting in a gallery space. For me it was also a novelty. Because I went to Antarctica 12 years ago, and it totally changed my life. I used to show work in gallery spaces, but having experienced that place and that culture of science, I thought, what am I doing? There's really important stuff happening and I have to find a way to apply my skills - in dance, animation and drawing, and help to understand, in the ways I understand through my art. So I wasn't so focused so much on having exhibitions. So in a way we entered into the art space together with fresh eyes. We had no idea how this would end up like, but we had both established, since me met in 2012, that we were as much interested in the process of creativity and developing understanding, as in the end product. And that's why the conversations became such an important part of our work life.

And a big part of it for me was understanding Lisa's creative process, and Lisa understanding my approach to science, how scientists work, to solve a problem...

and the creativity within that, which isn't often revealed. You publish a scientific paper, and there it is, all neat, and yet I hear from scientists how research is 'a messy business'. Lots of serendipitous things are involved, same as in an art practice. So that's the other thing we really like to experience and share, that creative process in art and science.

And some of that is documented in our journals over there, that we kept, of our collaboration, our ideas, and the sources we relied on.

Did you collaborate before?

We had some collaboration before. Lisa had put on some exhibitions and asked me to contribute to them with photographs. We hadn't actually worked together to create an installation.

How long did it take for you to create this [installation]?

The whole year.

And as you'll know, as artists and scientists yourselves, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There were lots of experiments - videos, animations, drawings, ideas... and workshops, like this... So, we've got an exercise.

I've got something to hand out to you and it's actually some data. Two types of scientific data. This is actually some information that Lisa and I used to inform our thinking about what might be here.

What we want to hear is your response to it, you intellectual, emotional (some people laugh)

I'm freaking out at the word 'data'


Have a think about something you can make of it. Can you see a story there, and what's your response to it? Say I was collaborating with all of you people and I was just giving you this data, saying, 'I'm a seagrass scientist. I want us to produce some artwork together. Here's the science. Go away and create some art'.

This is not actually how we work.

No it's not, but many scientists do. Many art and science collaborations are about where the scientist gives the artist some of their data and say, now go!

Bill explains the science story in the data.

I would want to know the purpose of the data.

This page is a list of all the species of fish that have been recorded in the seagrass beds in Pittwater. And Pittwater is right adjacent to the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, which is where our project was focused. So what we were interested in understanding was - the whole focus of our project was seagrass, the art and science of seagrass. And one of the important things about seagrass is the biodiversity of seagrass, which means the diversity of organisms that live in it, and how important they are. And this is some of the data generated to understand the biological importance of seagrass. And even though it's a table of names, it would take many months to compile it - going out during the day, during the night, collecting fish from the seagrass beds through winter, summer, through the seasons. And you end up with a list like that.

That table, that graph with number of fishes, is that for a set area over a time period, or per square metre, or... what sample size.

Bill (reaching for the quadrat)
I'll show you how we... I'll answer that...

Oh, so this is your sample.

This is the sampling unit.

Ok. Fine, fine, fine...

This is called a quadrat. (Ironically) It's a very high tech piece of scientific equipment that we marine biologists use. And we used something like this to generate the data there, on that graph where it says "percentage cover of seagrass". And one of the important ecological properties of that habitat, is that the more habitat there is, the more species and individuals it can accommodate.

So how do you get that line there?

So we do two things. First we have to say how much seagrass is there in the seagrass bed. The seagrass bed is, if you can imagine, like a forest. A forest has a distinct boundary. So for example if the seagrass meadow was the size of this room, I would know that in order to adequately quantify the amount of seagrass in that area, I'd have to take [samples from] ten of these [units of area]. So I would swim around, drop it like that (placing quadrat on the floor), and I could do several things. I could take a photograph of it and take that back to the lab and use software that would say that in that particular area there is approximately 60% seagrass. Then I would do that ten times [within that site and take the average from those samples.] And at the same time I would sweep back and forwards over the seagrass bed, recording the fish that I saw. I would identify that fish, what species it is, from that list, and over that time I would record how many there were. That's how I get data on that vertical axis there.

So that graph shows the relationship between the number of fish in a seagrass bed and how much seagrass there is in that bed. If you have very luxurious seagrass, where you're swimming and looking down, if might seem that all you are seeing is green seagrass swaying in the water. Just as you can imagine floating above a forest - a rich, dense forest, and all you can see is tree tops - you can say there's 100% vegetation there.