- Lisa Roberts and Martina Doblin are combining science and animation to tell the story of climate change
- Oceanic Living Data will be presented during Ultimo Science Festival – 16 to 26 August
Lisa Roberts is an artist and a Visiting Fellow in the faculties of Science and Design, Architecture and Building (DAB). She’s working with scientists and other artists to design animations around understanding climate change. Senior Research Fellow Martina Doblin from UTS’s Plant Functional Biology Climate Change Cluster (C3) is contributing to Lisa’s research project Living Data, combining scientific understandings with sensory expressions of connection to the environment.
I had an epiphany in Antarctica that changed my life. I arrived on the icebreaker Aurora Australis as an artist in 2002, as part of the Australian Antarctic Division, and knew little about climate change science. I soon saw evidence of human impact on the planet. If you drill deep down you find changes in the chemistry of air trapped in the glacial ice. These appeared when trees were first cleared for agriculture and building and when the industrial revolution began. From that very moment I declared I had to do something as an artist.
As a scientist, Martina thinks through drawings and patterns, in much the same way I do as an animator. I initially sought Martina out due to her involvement with C3. In our first meeting she was describing the big picture of climate change and started to draw. She’s particularly concerned with understanding how Neptune’s Necklace, a beaded algae we all have memories of squishing our toes amongst in the sand, will respond to climate change and variability. She looked at my Neptune’s Necklace animation and said, ‘How about using the patterns in the music to guide the movement of the baby algae, so there’s a relationship between their changes in numbers and activity?’ So I did that, and it just sang.
The aim of the Living Data project is to bring scientists and artists together to have conversations, to connect scientific and sensory knowledge. One of the challenges of practice-based research is how to articulate aesthetic understandings using academic language. Martina helps me understand some of the really important ways we need to describe science and the complexity of climate change. By combining stories, hypothesis, data and iconography, we can link what scientists are discovering to how people experience the world. You can then get a sense of being part of a whole interconnected system.
Martina and I are truly working in a trans-disciplinary way. This means we have conversations and share knowledge across disciplines and something evolves from the space between us that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. What’s evolved between us is an aesthetic expression of Martina’s knowledge of the responses of algae to increasing variability and temperatures. To say it like that sounds quite dry, but working together with animation and sound gives it life. Martina just gets what I do; she’s fabulous.
Although I have a PhD, my background is most certainly not academic. I’m coming from a fresh perspective and I’m always questioning academics, especially scientists. I completely respect and enjoy the academic research process; it allows for clear communication between disciplines. It's an egalitarian mode of expression. I’m excited to be at UTS at the moment because the tacit knowledge we share through our senses, in all research fields, is becoming more and more recognised as important for understanding and communicating how the world works. The animation Martina and I made became part of the installation Oceanic Living Data, presented in Tasmania at the Sentinel Science Meeting, the Imagine Nature II conference and the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. People seem to understand what we’re doing, which is great.
Living Data really is driven by Lisa and her enthusiasm. I met Lisa because she had an interest in communicating climate change by combining scientific and artistic perspectives. We’re both really comfortable working in that space where designers and scientists talk to each other. For climate change to be genuinely communicated, it has to be based on objective science. A lot of the lack of climate change progress is because people are sceptical about the science.
We’re both comfortable in the technology world, but we also like the bespoke, or the handmade. Lisa uses digitisation tools to animate so she’s quite digitally savvy. On the other hand she’s also fond of using traditional methods, so she writes in pencil and leaves me little notes – which I love because it speaks to what I do as well. Because I’m quite visually orientated and enthusiastic about the project, she’s continued to engage with me and give new meaning to what we’re doing in C3.
I’m teaching Lisa how it all works in our research-orientated world. We’ve written a couple of proposals for funding that haven’t been successful, but we’ll just continue our work and keep trying. When you have something externally funded it’s recognised as having legitimacy in a university environment; it’s not just that we’re talking to people and making things. By being involved with a climate change group and having someone there to give an objective view on what the data means, you’re creating genuine communication and adding a sense of value to it.
I’d describe Lisa as a passionate, energetic, ‘stuff the rules’ kind of gal. She ruffles peoples’ feathers, but with good intent; she recognises the urgency. She has her own children – what are they going to inherit from our ways in the world? There’s a particular sense of, ‘I’ve really got to do something about this,’ but in a different way to me as a scientist, collecting data to reveal change in an objective way. As someone to work with, she’s a rule bender, and that’s often the best way to progress things. Lisa’s just so interested in science, and it’s hard not to like someone who thinks you and your work are interesting!
Young people are going to inherit all our bad decisions if we don’t act. I’m really motivated to empower Lisa with my data and my understanding of the world because animation is a good way to highlight the sensitivity of the environment to change. Lisa’s animations are a light-hearted take on a serious subject, done in a very non-confronting and clever way. We’re trying to reach out to people’s values and emotions, not just convey information. I’ve presented a bit of Lisa’s work to a scientific conference – an animation about algal reproduction in stressful habitats – and people thought it was fun. It’s all about drawing people in to focus on the research and encourage them to seek out the science.
Oceanic Living Data: Animated hypotheses, stories, data and iconography will be presented during Ultimo Science Festival, 16 to 26 August. Visit ultimosciencefestival.com
For more information about the Living Data project, visit LivingData.net.au