Monday, September 11, 2017

Art That Raises Awareness of Forest Ecology Issues

LaynaJoy Rivas and Eva Reiska’s “Sysimets√§”, a memorial
for those affected by the fires that destroyed Lake County, as
well as for a beloved art space by the name of
Ravens Landing back in 2015.
1. Trees (and/or forests) are iconic symbols in virtually every culture;
2. Western US forests are in crisis.

Combining or juxtaposing previously unrelated ideas is how humans create new knowledge, whether with art or science. So, how are artists combining these two ideas at Burning Man, one of the country's most controversial art events?

"Ursa Mator," by Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson: a gorgeous
sculpture covered in shimmering, edge-wise pennies takes 
on additional meaning as the Man burns in the background. 
Large wildfire destroys forest ecosystems, including 
iconic wildlife.
Black Rock City--the temporary Nevada city of 70,000 people (including an airport with 800 flights per day!)--displayed numerous tree &/or forest issue themed artworks in 2017.

The most significant of these conceptual artworks was undoubtedly The Temple. Each year, a Temple is constructed as a locus of communal and personal release. People post photos, stories, keepsakes, mementos and messages relating to loved ones they have lost, or issues they are struggling with. The entire Temple is then burned to the ground on the last evening of the weeklong event in a solemn, silent ritual of cleansing and renewal that counters the rowdy, Saturnalian burning of the Man structure on the previous evening.

This year, the Temple architects chose to highlight western forest health problems by using lumber milled from dead salvage logs. This forest health theme is aligned nicely with the purpose and function of both the Temple, and the entire Burning Man ethos, which aims to alter attitudes of citizens in order to address systemic dysfunction in western culture.

More info about the Temple philosophy this year.

* * *

Burning Man is not the only group of artists working on forest issues, of course. Some artists are actively trying to change social policy.

Saving The West (STW) is a UC Santa Cruz-based, artist-led group working to create a new kind of timber industry that can use the small, torchy material that needs to come off of dry western forests in order to restore ecological function and resiliency. Without industry, there is no way to pay for the work that everyone, including loggers and environmentalists, now knows needs to be done. Meanwhile, our precious forests will continue to die off and/or burn. The current timber industry has retracted so far, and is still so focused on large trees--and lucrative salvage logging of the standing dead--that it is not useful at all in addressing this problem. Unfortunately, it's good business to let the forests continue to die.

STW recently received a grant from the US Forest Service to start a bi-state Wood Utilization Team working in California and Nevada in the Central Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Saving the West: A Whole Systems Proposal in Brief from Helen and Newton Harrison on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

First Poet in Residence at CCI

"The Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) is a unique collaboration between the University of Cambridge and leading internationally-focused biodiversity conservation organisations clustered in and around Cambridge, UK.  
CCI seeks to transform the global understanding and conservation of biodiversity and the natural capital it represents and, through this, secure a sustainable future for all life on Earth. The CCI partners together combine and integrate research, education, policy and practice to create innovative solutions for society and to foster conservation learning and leadership."

Matt Howard from RSPB on sabbatical at CCI as our first Poet in Residence.

Matt works in Fundraising for the RSPB Eastern England team. He will be spending his month of sabbatical time at CCI as our first poet in residence, starting on Monday 14 August.

Part of Matt’s role with RSPB is to explore engagement with the arts and he is the lead on the RSPB / The Rialto Nature and Place poetry competition which now additionally partners with CCI and BirdLife.

Matt’s poetry has been published in leading international magazines and journals such as The Poetry Review, New Statesman and The Dark Horse. His debut pamphlet, The Organ Box, was published in 2014.

Throughout his sabbatical, Matt will be based in the Artist in Residence studio (floor 2M of the East Tower). He will break his time up into one week a month, and he will also be at CCI some Fridays over the next few months.

In addition to providing Matt with time to write and network at CCI, the residency has a number of ambitions, all with the aim to gain a deeper understanding of how creative writing can help provide public engagement opportunities and deliver conservation objectives. Matt will be working to:
  • Host poetry events at CCI with leading poets
  • Develop the Nature and Place competition to increase its fundraising potential
  • Work with Modern Poetry in Translation magazine on an issue of international environmental poetry
  • Facilitate opportunities for other early career poets to engage with CCI to produce new work for publication and performance.
Matt will also offer colleagues from CCI member organisations opportunities to engage with the residency. Opportunities include:
  • One to ones with people interested in developing their own writing and reading
  • Establish a workshop group for those interested in writing new poems
  • Joining a mailing list to receive a fortnightly poem from the existing canon on a nature / conservation theme, with an explanatory note by him.
Matt is contactable on, please do get in touch if you are interested in getting involved. Information on the intranet can be found here.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Art of Exoplanets

"...Hurt and Pyle, who render vibrant visualizations based on data from Spitzer and other missions, are hybrids of sorts, blending expertise in both science and art. From squiggles on charts and columns of numbers, they conjure red, blue and green worlds, with half-frozen oceans or bubbling lava...Visualizations based on data can also inform science, leading to genuine scientific insights...For Hurt, the real goal of scientific illustration is to excite the public, engage them in the science, and provide a snapshot of scientific knowledge."
"We kind of cover each other's blind spots a bit"
" is as much a historical record of our changing understanding of the universe as the textbooks we write." -- Robert Hurt, IPAC Center
Read article here.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Science Needs Story

A recent article in Medium has some good advice:
"Scientists need to tell their stories — stories about why they became scientists and what science has done and is doing for humanity. Remember, science is an abstract, intellectual process for most people. It is very hard for people to gain an emotional connection to science. That’s what narrative is for."
"Top GOP messaging strategist Frank Luntz gave this advice in his infamous 2002 memo to conservatives and team Bush about how to pretend you care about the climate while opposing serious action: 'A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.' ...scientists have been trained to depersonalize their speeches, to speak literally, not figuratively. As a result, it has been easy for the Luntz-Trump crowd to create stories in which scientists are the villains."
The article recommends this book for advice on crafting stories: Houston, We Have A Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, by marine biologist turned filmmaker, Randy Olson:
"Olson first diagnoses the problem: When scientists tell us about their work, they pile one moment and one detail atop another moment and another detail—a stultifying procession of “and, and, and.” What we need instead is an understanding of the basic elements of story, the narrative structures that our brains are all but hardwired to look for—which Olson boils down, brilliantly, to “And, But, Therefore,” or ABT. At a stroke, the ABT approach introduces momentum (“And”), conflict (“But”), and resolution (“Therefore”)—the fundamental building blocks of story."

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge

"While replicable fact is the domain of science, human perception and value are the domains of art and the humanities."

This New Republic article from 2012 is an excellent rebuttal to the "scientism," of those who argue that the arts and humanities are somehow less reliable and useful than science:
If Marx and Freud are favorite whipping boys for those worried about the [validity of the humanities], the compliment is readily returned...nineteenth-century physics and chemistry [were infested] with the proliferation of “ether theories.” No less a figure than Maxwell even characterized the ether as “the best confirmed entity in [science].
Rigorous mathematical studies of gene-cultural coevolution reveal that when natural selection combines with cultural transmission, the outcomes reached may differ from those that would have been produced by natural selection acting alone, and that the cultural processes involved can be sustained under natural selection...culture appears to be at some level autonomous and in some sense irreducible, and this is what scientism cannot grasp.
But there is still a deeper reason for the enduring importance of the humanities. Many scientists and commentators on science have been led to view the sciences as a value-free zone...Yet on a broader view, which explores the purposes and their origins, it becomes clear that judgments of the significance of particular questions profoundly affect the work done and the environments in which it is done. Behind the complex and often strikingly successful practices of contemporary science stands a history of selecting specific aspects of the world for investigation.
What we discover depends on the questions taken to be significant, and the selection of those questions, as well as the decision of which factors to set aside in seeking answers to them, presupposes judgments about what is valuable. Those are not only, or mainly, scientific judgments. In their turn, new discoveries modify the landscape in which further investigations will take place, and because what we learn affects how evidence is assessed, discovery shapes the evolution of our standards of evidence. Judgments of value thus pervade the environment in which scientific work is done. If they are made, as they should be, in light of the broadest and deepest reflections on human life and its possibilities, then good science depends on contributions from the humanities and the arts. Perhaps there is even a place for philosophy.
Healthy relationships between the sciences and the humanities should aspire to the condition of the best marriages—to a partnership in which different strengths and styles are acknowledged and appreciated, in which a fruitful division of labor constantly evolves, in which constructive criticism is given and received, in which neither party can ever make a plausible claim to absolute authority, and in which the ultimate goal is nothing less than the furtherance of the human good. 
 Read the complete article here.

On Sustainability and Art: artist Hannalie Coetzee

Fire-created artwork.
ART AFRICA looks at the practice of artist Hannelie Coetzee. "Hannelie Coetzee’s artwork draws attention to our warped relationship with nature through pragmatic, solution oriented interventions."

The article also includes highlights of a fascinating discussion between the artist's associates and collaborators.

Some interesting quotes from the article:
The more intuitive approach of artists can provide a window into the complex models, calculations and simulations of the scientific world… Natural world issues require more than just a technical fix. They require systems of thinking and creativity to imagine and illustrate the best possible solutions. -- Prof. Caroline Digby from the Wits Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry
Sustainability is not primarily a scientific problem; rather, it requires us as citizens, communities and societies to rethink the way in which we live our personal lives… This requires engaging the hearts, minds and imaginations of a wide set of people across many different spheres of society. Artists have a particularly important role to play in this regard – not only in creating a space that can help bridge and connect between different actors, but in contributing and opening our minds to completely new ways of seeing the world and our place in it. -- Dr. Reinette Biggs of the Stockholm Resilience Institute and the University of Stellenbosch
How can art and science integrate into a discipline or collaboration that aids transformative understanding?

Art is the expression of creative ideas that are likely informed by prior knowledge but not restricted by natural, economic or social rules. Science is a knowledge that we have built through methodical enquiry over many generations into how nature, economics and society work. When art is introduced into science, it gives permission to seek different ways of addressing the same problem. It enables one to leapfrog or do a U-turn. As stated in New Roles for Art Are Clarified (Carney 2010), Tim Collins declares that, “while replicable fact is the domain of science, human perception and value are the domains of art and the humanities. – Philipp Kirsch, University of Queensland

How do such partnerships reach wider audiences?

I have been astounded by how much easier it is to interest people in the science when it is encompassed in an artwork. Before, I was only talking to the small community of people who were already thinking about these issues. People like the art – and they like the idea that the art has some scientifc substance behind it. Some, not all of them, want to know more details about our science questions and I am challenged to maintain their interest and expand it. – Sally Archibald, WITS
How can partnerships between artists and scientists contribute to resilient systems and change?

The data on climate change is indisputable, but how does one develop an emotional appreciation of the potential consequences? I think this must come through experience and art is a fantastic mechanism to develop emotional experiences and consider possibilities. – Caroline Lehmann, Biogeography, University of Edinburgh

How has an artist’s work influenced your work and vice versa?

Hannelie sometimes brings aspects that I think of as ‘outside’ the system, into the discussion. At its simplest, ecology is the study of the interactions between organisms and their environment and it is refreshing to have a different take on the shape and form of these interactions. – Sally Archibald

I started to write a conference paper about the potential to re-imagine mining overburden as a building material. To change the way that the industry framed everything as waste rock, waste dumps, waste piles etc. In researching this, I uncovered the genre of Land Art. These artists have given considerable thought to moving earth to make art. I strongly believe in the potential for artists to create not just new mine closure landscapes, but to also drive improved community relations when working side-by-side with the engineers and financial managers in mine planning and operations. – Phillip Kirsch

Read complete article here.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Field Notes of a Terranaut

Artist Alan MacDonald was inspired by the notebooks of DaVinci and Michelangelo to create his recent work, Field Notes of a Terranaut. MacDonald has some lucid ideas about the creative process:
"Our senses filter out vast amounts of information unessential for survival of the body-organism. Yet still, a trickle of information enters the mind experienced as intuition, a creative spark. Aha moments. Truly creative artists are in a sense mystics, 'receiving' non local information in order to co-create local objects that inspire and extend consciousness."
I would argue that this statement applies to truly creative scientists, as well: they notice things that the rest of us filter out. Perhaps we lack a term for the truly creative perception that distinguishes transformative art and science from the merely pedestrian?