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Living Data
Responses to change

 

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Living Data:
Relationship

2017 Conversations

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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

Art and science methods reveal sex in the sea.

Listen: Bringing climate change data to life

Tuesday 26th July 2017. Radio SER, Sydney

Watch Krill sex

 

TRANSCRIPT

Reporter Nic Healey (NH) interviews Lisa Roberts (LR):

NH:

Now we all know that of course there's an enormous and continually growing body of scientific evidence revealing what you'd have to call a massive change in our climate and ecosystem, that is a result of human activity. If you're not comfortable with that while you're listening, I'm quite surprised at you, I've gotta say that.

For many of us, however, climate change data, the data itself feels too complex, too overwhelming, and sometimes too damned scary to fully comprehend. That's where our next guest comes in. Dr Lisa Roberts is an artist, interactive author, an Associate researcher of the UTS Faculty of Science and she transforms complex scientific data into stimulating forms of visual and performance art. She's the curator of the ongoing Living Data project which explores ways in which both scientists and artists respond to the shifting patterns of our natural world.

Dr Roberts, a very good morning to you.

LR:

Good morning to you.

NH:

Now look, you and I were talking very very briefly before about how in the modern world we often think of art and science as polar opposites, but it's not been that way all through history, has it?

LR:

And, no it still is combined. It's just that these days, with the way things are set up and promoted, and stories are told on media, they appear to be separate, but they're actually not. Many scientists are also artists. They're high-functioning people. They're very balanced. The very best achievers have a perfect balance of art and science.

NH:

And there's a lot in common between the two, isn't there?

LR:

Oh yes. They're both ways of investigating what's really going on in the world.

NH:

What a very interesting way of putting it. Talk to me about the Living Data project. What are you doing?

LR:

What am I doing? I'm combining scientific data and subjective responses. So I hesitate to call it 'art' and 'science'.

NH:

OK.

LR:

Data is simply information. It doesn't make any sense unless we've processed it in some form to relate to our own experience.

NH:

Right.

LR:

So Living Data essentially means data that's been expressed by individuals in ways that make sense to them, and this is the art side of our nature. We're all individual and we all process information in different ways, and we express that through what we now call the arts.

Before the whole idea of the arts was coined by Western culture, we sang, we danced, we made things, to pass on knowledge that's vital for our survival. And this is indigenous knowledge, of all cultures.

And science has simply evolved as another incredibly powerful tool - not just another tool - it's THE most amazing advance in human understanding, the scientific method. So we have the scientific method now, alongside all these ancient arts of story telling from what we understand from our observation, experience, and now, measurement instruments - an extraordinary array of instrumentation for expanding our sensorial apparatus.

NH:

And I like this. 'Cause you're acknowledging that while you also say that the subjective understanding of the data on an individual level is so important.

LR:

Absolutely. We're individuals. And scientists are individuals, despite the fact that the language has to be very consistent and as unambiguous as possible, in order for the science to be peer reviewed and written in such a way that there's consensus understanding, that's a very special way of describing the world - a bit like maths - but in order for us as individuals, whether we're scientists or artists, we respond as individuals, and we're all very different.

NH:

I know you've had a fair bit of inspiration come out of an expedition you made to Antarctica.

LR:

Yes.

NH:

Tell me about the expedition.

LR:

In 2002 I went quite by accident to Antarctica. Now that sounds terrible and I'm very embarrassed. But I met a whale observer on Flinders Island when I was working as a community artist. I'm an animator, and animation is all about story telling - bringing together different things to weave a story together. And she convinced me to go to Antarctica with her to do an art project. And so I went on a voyage around the Amery ice Shelf, which is one of the hot spots that's being studied for climate change - what changes in the water chemistry there.

I happened to be on the ship with Dr John Church. He's one of our key scientists and was at the time with the CSIRO. I think he's now with UNSW. He was leading the research into the chemical changes, and current changes and all sorts of evidence of change, and in particular, sea levels. So on the way down were were sharing our stories, our research, our purpose for being there, and I was blown away. It was my first encounter with climate change science. But the key thing that really changed my life was arriving at the Amery ice Shelf on a beautiful sunny day - we'd just been through the Southern Ocean - crazy stuff, weather - and the [sea]ice dampens things, and it was still and beautiful. And we were all out there on top of the deck shooting away with our cameras, and somebody came down from up above, with news just received by satellite phone that John Howard and George Bush refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. And that moment, it's frozen in time in my whole being. It was just unbelievable to hear this. Here were were, on [a] government - very expensive expedition - you know, it's a lot of government money that sends us down. To hear that it... that it's not a priority, it's almost like it didn't matter. And yet this is the big thing that's impacting on all of us, increasingly, daily. So I'm totally driven to continue my work, interacting with scientists. I guess what I do really is,

I tell stories in the different ways that people share their stories.

NH:

I also understand that you've become a bit of an accidental expert on krill sex. There's no other way of putting that is there?

LR:

Not really. No, it's a funny thing, isn't it. I think the est things happen by accident.

NH:

They do.

LR:

So, yes, after I came back from that trip I had become very interested in krill. I had never known that these things existed, and I brought this in to show you. It's...

NH:

I'm quite amazed by it. It's a lot bigger than I imagined krill was going to be. I've always thought of them as very tiny.

LR:

That's right. No, it's got eyes and it's about the size of my little finger, when it's stretched out. And it's cute. The girls in the office just there say, "Oh that's so cute!" So these are animals. And they have individual behaviours as well as the collective swarming behaviours. And they really do look you in the eye. I've spent a lot of time in the Krill Nursery at the [Australian] Antarctic Division. So I became an expert by accident, on krill sex. By accident, the scientists had dropped a camera down to the sea floor - they call it 'tea bagging' - to look at something else entirely. And there was a krill biologist on board, and they were sitting around watching this grungy old video and swarms of krill were teaming around in the picture and noticed something weird was happening - some movement, some swirling, circling, spiralling movement - and when they came back he contacted me and asked me if I would help them work out what was going on. Because my art form is dance and animation. It's all about drawing...

NH:

Motion and movement...

LR:

Yeah.

NH:

and representations of that.

LR:

Yeah! So that's something I'm fascinated by. That's my tool for investigation - drawing with movement. And that's what I meant by art as a tool of investigation. We've got the arts and we've got the scientific method, and together they're really powerful. So, together we worked out what is the most likely thing that's going on in this video. And I read scientific papers, and other views on how other crustaceans do it. I bought prawns from the local fish shop and played around with some of the theories about how they connect. And we wrote the paper.

NH:

I really love that.
Now just quickly, do you think there's something about climate change in particular that makes it very important for artists and scientists to collaborate on when we're talking about communicating it to the reset of the world?

LR:

Absolutely. I must absolutely emphasise that there's science communication – there's a whole industry called science communication - but before that can happen, and be believable, we must understand. So scientists and artists need to spend time listening to each other so that the artists can truly understand the science through their art, through their sensory apparatus. So that the messages they convey are believable.

NH:

Very interesting way of putting it. Dr Lisa Roberts, thank you very much. That was Dr Lisa Roberts. She's artist and Associate researcher in the UTS Faculty of Science.

Check out LivingData(dot)net(dot)au