The research behind climate science is often conducted on a microscopic level, involving complex ecological systems and tongue-twisting jargon. Discoveries are then published in such a narrow range of academic journals that essential information is hardly ever accessed by the wider community. Artist Lisa Roberts remembers the exact moment she realised this needed to change.
In 2002, a voyage to Antarctica brought her face to face with evidence of climate change, from the giant cracks forming in the Amery Ice Shelf to the miniscule and endangered Antarctic krill.
“I felt the change intensely,” she says. “Antarctica is a place where many people have this realisation. I became completely aware of being a very small part of a very big process and I knew I had to do something.”
As an artist working in animation, Roberts now uses her skills to transform scientific data into moving demonstrations of climate change. She’s captured the swirling, hypnotic movements of water currents in our Southern Oceans and even transformed the mating sequence of the Antarctic krill into an accurate and whimsical dance-like animation.
Roberts’s initial project developed into a PhD and has continued to grow into a global conversation between artists and scientists intent on getting the climate change message out there in an engaging and accessible way.
The community of artists Roberts has cultivated over the years uses scientific data and imagery to create jewellery, sculptures, videos and site-specific installations with the goal of communicating the beauty and importance of our natural world.
Now UTS’s Climate Change Cluster (C3) has awarded Roberts their first Creative Fellowship in recognition of her work. The year-long fellowship will see Roberts collaborate with climate scientists, researchers, artists and the broader community for the Living Data exhibition starting this September at UTS.
Associate Professor Martina Doblin proposed the Creative Fellowship following successful collaborations with Roberts in the past. She says, “Awarding this Creative Fellowship says something about the confidence of C3 to affiliate themselves with people who communicate in different ways.”
Encouraging scientists to adopt a more creative and outward-looking approach when articulating their research is something Doblin and others in C3 consider more important than ever.
Marine ecologist So Kawaguchi has first-hand experience of how important an artistic perspective can be when communicating with the public. As a researcher at the Australian Antarctic Division, Kawaguchi has been collaborating with Roberts since her first voyage to Antarctica over a decade ago.
“Scientists often make quite exciting discoveries and the information is really relevant to the public but it can be hard to transmit those messages,” he says.
“Lisa is able to tease the important elements out of my work because she sees things in a different way to scientists. Combining these two different ways of thinking is how we can get to the next stage in our research.”
Roberts’s drive to communicate climate science through both scientific and artistic means has led to collaborations with artists and scientists internationally. “My passion is to engage as many people as possible with climate science. It’s such a huge issue and none of us can solve it alone.”
Associate Fellow of the School of Environment Anita Marosszeky agrees. “The Living Data exhibition is an interesting model for forging collaborations between disciplines that aren’t tied to one specific faculty. It’s more productive for us to work together and share the resources we have.”
Marosszeky and Roberts will co-curate the Living Data exhibition, showcasing works in the Tower exhibition space and the Living Data Atrium in Building 4. The artworks in both spaces are interactive – designed to evolve and change, creating an immersive and thought-provoking experience for visitors.
“The Tower exhibition will incorporate a way for people to physically write questions and responses on the surfaces of the works,” explains Roberts. “Then, every week during the exhibition, scientists and artists involved in the Living Data exhibition will meet and examine the feedback, which may in turn spark even more conversations and collaborations.”
Independent artist Leanne Thompson, a contributor to Living Data, is excited by the exhibition’s potential to evolve and have ongoing impact.
“I think the space will be a lot more fluid and interesting by the time we take it down. We’re trying to establish an area where people can interact with scientists and each other, which will then be documented and become part of the art itself.”
“That’s the whole point of Living Data,” says Roberts. “We’re putting established artists on an equal plane with people who wouldn’t consider themselves artists, who create purely to express connection to the natural world.
“We are an incredibly creative community at UTS and here’s an opportunity to reveal that spirit.”
That creative spirit is clear in Doblin’s approach to the Living Data exhibition. “I don’t see the world as partitioned into rational people versus creative people,” she says.
“Many scientists like the fact that the organisms they work on have some fundamental basis of beauty and that can be a very inspiring thing, even to the general public.”
She hopes to contribute her own art to the exhibition.
“The scientists are really keen,” says Production Manager Jason Benedek. “They have a will to create; they’re ready to engage and offer up their own art.”
Benedek, on the other hand, doesn’t have a scientific background but sees the importance of science to the planet. “Lisa shows that I can approach this and contribute from my perspective with my skill set,” he says.
“One of the great things about an artistic exhibition is we can communicate in a direct and unmediated way, where people are free to engage with the environment however they like. Hopefully we can offer visitors such a beautiful experience they lose their fear of science.”
The collaboration has provided valuable experiences to professionals from myriad fields and Roberts anticipates this is only the beginning.
“I see Living Data continuing a relationship with UTS and C3 in particular,” she says. “If we can make art that has meaning to people and contribute to changing their minds about climate science, then we’ve succeeded.”
The Living Data exhibition will be opened by Bem Le Hunte on Wednesday 3 September at 6pm, to coincide with National Science Week and the Ultimo Science Festival.
Learn more about Living Data at LivingData.net.au
Main image: Collage of video still from Oceanic Living Data by Lisa Roberts with Bill Gladstone and Jason Benedek, and scanning electron microscope image of Emiliania huxleyi Coccolithophorid by Rick van den Enden, adapted for art display by Lisa Roberts