A blog about collaborations between art, science, nature and technology

US Forest Service Scientist Says Writers Help Gather “Cultural Data” on our Relationship With the Natural World

Today, there is a great interview out with Fred Swanson in the current issue of Terrain.org. 

Cathedral Grove

Who is Fred Swanson you ask? Yes he is a retired U.S. Forest Service scientist and yes he is a Forest Ecology Professor at Oregon State University (OSU), but he is also a key figure in the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word. This is a program I have been following since 2006 and greatly admire for their commitment to bring together "the practical wisdom of the environmental sciences, the clarity of philosophical analysis, and the creative, expressive power of the written word, to find new ways to understand and re-imagine our relation to the natural world."

In April of 2012, I went to OSU to interview the Director of the Spring Creek Project, Charles Goodrich. I wanted to know how to fund such a long-term interdisciplinary project. Charles talked a lot about Fred Swanson and his enthusiasm for having writers as part of the inquiry process and about Swanson's personal commitment to writing the arts into scientific funding proposals for his work at the H.J. Andrew Experimental Forest. We also talked about what Swanson calls "pre-relevant" research - looking at the whole now (rather than just the specific) because it may become relevant one day in the future.

In the Terrain.org interview Swanson notes:

"Another thread of inspiration came from working in the ecosystem team at Andrews Forest in the 1970s as we did our irrelevant (actually pre-relevant) studies in old growth, which became hyper-relevant more than a decade later in the convulsive changes in federal land forestry. So, just as we built capacity in science, community, and storytelling about native forests in the 1970s, we may be building capacity in the form of an expanded community whose members are inquiring about the natural world, a capacity that may become exceedingly relevant if and when society again re-imagines its relationship with federal forest lands."

Terrain interviewer Andrew Gottlieb will moderate a panel "Artists in the Old-Growth" with Alison Hawthorne Deming, Fred Swanson, Charles Goodrich and Spring Creek Project Founder, Kathleen Dean Moore at the upcoming AWP conference in Seattle on February 27, 2014. If you are in Seattle for this - go see it!

Living Data: Art from Climate Science

An interview with artist, animator and curator Lisa Roberts

Photo:  Jane Ion (@yion)   Lisa Roberts speaking with guests at the Sidney Ultimo Science Festival in September 2013      

Photo:  Jane Ion (@yion)

Lisa Roberts speaking with guests at the Sidney Ultimo Science Festival in September 2013     

I recently stumbled on the Living Data project and Lisa Roberts’ work when I saw her video interview by Dr. Simon Pockley at the 2013 Ultimo Science Festival, in Sydney, Australia  September 2013. She said many of the same things I have experienced in my work with passionate environmental scientists - the language is impenetrable and the passion is lost when the research is published in academic texts. So what is to be done? As Lisa says, in making the animation Life! Death after speaking to the scientists and reading the research paper five times, she decided to go with the emotion of the research: devastation.


My interview with Lisa Roberts - October 7, 2013

AP: As an artist, how do you approach collaborations with the scientific community? I.e. How do you get scientists to trust that the work that is produced is part of a shift towards collective knowledge production?

LR: I have developed trust over years of working with particular scientists at the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) in Tasmania and at the Climate Change Cluster (C3) at the University of Technology, Sydney. Embarking on the PhD was part of gaining that trust. As you may recall from your Masters study, academic research opens hearts and minds to fellow researchers.

Part of developing the trust of scientists was to first read their papers and listen to them deeply and pass by them any art, animation and writing I did in response. Only later was I trusted enough to share my skills to make sense of their observations, such as the first observation of the mating dance of krill. 

AP: Do you have any stories / anecdotes of how the scientific (or public) has responded to your work on issues of climate change? Do you get a sense people see the bigger picture?

LR: I get a strong sense that most scientists see the bigger picture, despite their necessary focus on particulars, and that artists who have not worked with them mostly misunderstand science as a fragmented, uncreative practice.

Last year at the Sentinel Science meeting in Hobart I presented the animation Oceanic Living DataScientists recognized the animation as connecting climate changes happening in Antarctica to global climate change. The scientists then invited me to present the animation at the ATCM (Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting) the following week, to help convince international policy makers to continue legislation to protect the Antarctic environment.

Some artists visiting the recent Living data presentations in Sydney expressed their view that scientists are narrow and uncreative. For me the Hobart experience contradicts those claims.

AP: Living Data links with Lynchpin - can you say something about how these projects came to fruition? (was it after your 2002 trip to Antarctica?)

LR: It was only after working in Antarctica (in 2002) that I became aware of the urgent need for action on climate change. Living Data grew directly from my PhD, Antarctic Animation.
Living Data is evolving to reveal the nature of collaborations between scientists and artists, that result in new understandings of our identity as part of the world's evolution. I first heard of Lynchpin last year when it's co-ordinator, Sue Anderson, was directed to me by scientists I knew in Hobart. We discovered that we share a similar vision, to expand scientific understanding through the arts. Since early last year Sue and I have supported each other and our programs to engage people with climate change science.

AP: An Artist's work is often a response or an investigation into an issue, but with art-science collaborations, how do you approach / what is your experience with the collaboration as a truly two-way cultural production?

LR: Two-way knowledge production across disciplines happens when people know and trust each other. The big challenge is to find time and space for that to grow. I first found the space and time in Antarctica. I guess it's like finding a good relationship: Do what you value and you'll find someone else who shares your passion.