Envisioning Climate Change

November 4, 2013
by Eric Magrane

You live in a coastal city. One day you notice a line painted on the sidewalks and streets of the city representing projected sea level rise in the next century.  If you’re on the wrong side of the line, your home will be under water.

You walk into an art exhibit and see on the wall an atlas of the world. As you look at it, the familiar shapes of the continents are distorted in a visualization of temperature changing throughout the next century.

In the same space, “glacier seeds”—little pieces of ice collected from Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Everest, Mount Rainier, and the Antarctic—are preserved as if in a seed bank, specimens of glacier DNA for when the glaciers have fully melted.

These are just a few examples of the ways that artists are engaging with the issue of climate change, taking complicated and nuanced data and models and turning them into embodied representations and visualizations.

The question is: what does climate change look like?  How are artists, scientists, and designers grappling with representation and visualization of a warming planet? I recently sat down with Angus Forbes, director of the University of Arizona’s Creative Coding Lab; Jeremy Weiss, Geosciences research scientist who works on geospatial environmental modeling; and Kim Daly, Institute of the Environment’s senior graphic designer, to discuss these questions.

Very quickly, we ended up talking about getting specific.

Forbes, whose piece Turbulent World is the shifting atlas described above (currently being exhibited in Brave New World, a show curated by San Francisco’s OFF Space), said, “Climate change is obviously a very complicated topic involving researchers from lots of different fields. The temperatures are rising, sea levels are rising, and life will get worse for our children and grandchildren. It’s too big an issue to be summarized. Part of what artists and data visualization designers are trying to do is to capture and illustrate little pieces that can provide a window into this complex system.”

Map of Seal Level Rise: Jeremy WeissWeiss, whose research includes mapping areas projected to be affected by sea level rise, put capturing those little pieces this way: “What is the explicit message that you’re trying to convey?  It’s a very complicated issue taken in its entirety so you really have to narrow down to something relatively explicit or specific.”

Of course, knowing where to get explicit is largely dependent upon who is addressed. “The greatest challenge in communicating climate change is understanding your audience,” Daly said. “Envisioning climate change is a daunting task to say the least. There are so many unknowns and the only thing that is certain is that it will not be pleasant.”

Communication is one thing and visualization is another. Weiss described the difference this way: “Communication is the more static object put in front of someone and visualization is an entity in which a user can go in and explore the data and draw their own conclusions or find their own information through some process that’s going on in their own head.”

Forbes got at this distinction when talking about information visualization. “You’re not trying to tell a direct story, you’re trying to give people a chance to explore the data so that they can make their own stories.” Bringing the audience in as an interactive part of the work shows a certain respect for the audience. “I try to present data and then maybe add something provocative and compelling. But I don’t try to force a narrative on anyone,” Forbes said.

still from Turbulent World: Angus ForbesIn speaking specifically about Turbulent World, Forbes continued, “The piece presents a world map with the projected temperatures of the earth changing over time. The map itself gets more and more distorted according to predictions of how much the temperature will change.”

That data, which Forbes got from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is itself a product of collaborative science. Drawing on an average of models of warming over the next 100 years, Forbes was clear about the importance of using accurate data in his visualization. “I want my art to be metaphorical and aesthetically compelling, but it also needs to be faithful to the raw data source I’m pulling from.”

Artists, in one sense, have more freedom than scientists in how they can interpret data in their work. Without disciplinarily having to fit into a veneer of true objectivity, they can make speculative juxtapositions that do not have to follow a linear or rational trajectory of causality. When involving large amounts of data this is double-edged, as it could also lead to work that lacks rigor and is removed from the actualities of what is happening on the ground.

However, representation itself runs this risk whether it is conceived in the artistic or scientific realm. Weiss, when discussing one of the most challenging things about his work, spoke of the difficulty in representing uncertainty, or error, in spatial data. “Maps are a great medium to communicate or envision climate issues, as many of them are spatial in nature and people like maps (they’ve been around a long time), but it is very easy to take them at face value, or as ‘truth,’ and depending on the data, that could be misleading.”

Questions of accuracy and efficacy arise. Can an artistic piece get at a deep accuracy of a certain subject in a way that accuracy to data could not? The “glacier seeds” mentioned above, for example, by Alan S. Hopkins, aren’t literal seeds that can be planted, and work in a different field than accuracy of data.  However, they register in an evocative and provocative way that may have just as much or more resonance than a piece of art that is faithfully attached to data.

In short, the role of narrative helps to provide a human element and connection to intricate understandings of how the world works. It helps us order the world and make some kind of sense of it.  

And making sense of the world happens—literally—through one’s senses, through one’s body. I’ve found that embodiment is never far from the surface of any discussion that I’ve had on art and environment.

Weiss spoke about an artist he met at an Interactive Visioning session at a University of California, Santa Barbara Sea Level Rise conference in early 2013. The artist, Bruce Caron, had designed a public art project called Light Blue Line, which involved painting a line representing a seven-meter sea level rise throughout Santa Barbara. “You easily can imagine the impacts if you have a light blue line painted across town. Do you want to buy a piece of property on that side of the line? Or do you want to buy a piece of property on the other side?” Weiss said.  “So, the city, and anyone who was interested in real estate values, said ‘no thank you to having the line.’”

Very quickly we move from questions of science and art to political economy, government, and social organization. Climate change is far from just a scientific issue, and art helps to make this clear. The light blue line, in this example, became a political actor, instigating complicated responses to a complicated issue.

The roster of artists and arts groups taking up the issue of climate change is long and getting longer, with organizations such as Cape Farewell  and Tipping Point, and websites such as Artists and Climate Change, involved.

And then there are projects such as A Song of Our Warming Planet, in which a cellist plays a haunting rendition of the global temperature rise from 1880 through the early 2000s, and you hear the pitch get higher and higher.  At the end of the score, the screen says that predicted temperature rise in the coming century will produce notes “beyond the range of human hearing.”

Embodiment indeed.



Image credits
Map of Seal Level Rise: Jeremy Weiss
still from Turbulent World: Angus Forbes