Materializing Data, Embodying Climate Change

Lead Research Organisation: University of the Arts London
Department Name: Central Saint Martin's College

Abstract

How might our engagement with climate change differ if we could walk around its data, touch it, carry it with us and experience it unhindered by digital screens, tablets and interfaces?

We know about our changing environment through the data that scientists collect. This material is highly significant as it shows how our climate is changing, but tends to be communicated to the public in technical visualisations and numeric diagrams that are highly abstract in form and difficult to understand for non-specialists. Studies have shown that people respond poorly to these information-heavy approaches, and in recent public polls climate change was mentioned by only 20% of respondents as an issue of concern. This has important implications for us all because understanding of climate change is vital to generating both required policy initiatives and personal changes in society at large.

Our research proposes that just as we experience our climate physically through immersion in landscapes and weather, our engagement with climate change might change if we similarly encountered its information and data in physical forms. As such, our project seeks to develop entirely new ways to represent climate change by taking its data (geological, atmospheric, biological) off digital screens and translate it into physical objects, artworks and environments. Research in computer science has shown that when we look at physical 3D prints of data, our ability to understand and engage with it increases. This is because when we touch or walk around real objects of dimension and scale, we involve more of our human senses. Physical representations of data not only enable better understanding of information, but also generate new kinds of insights and experiences.

We pursue our research through a unique combination of practice-based art and design enquiry in conjunction with science, public workshops and theoretical studies. Our team brings together experienced researchers from Central St. Martins, University of the Arts, the British Antarctic Survey, design studio Proboscis, and computer scientists from Birkbeck, University of London.

Using 3D printers, we translate climate data into physical structures, objects and environments, which involves writing software for data analysis, designing objects in 3D programmes, and experimenting with a range of sustainable materials (wood, resin, ceramics). Research develops in three phases exploring differences in scale, material and concept:

1) Small hand-held objects will examine how climate data can be made tactile, intimate and mobile
2) Larger component-based sculptures mirror the way that the Earth's climate is composed of interacting elements
3) Larger environmental installations develop ideas around inhabitation and shared responsibility for our climate

We aim to produce new public understandings of climate change by:

- Developing new representations and public experiences of our changing environment
- Producing new models of enquiry between art and science to communicate shared issues of concern
- Developing new physical approaches/techniques for the use of significant climate data

We will produce a substantial range of outputs including artworks, software, industry guides and publications. We expect this research to be of interest to the general public, policy groups, the creative industries and digital entrepreneurs pursuing novel applications of data. Key to our approach is that we directly engage the public in ways that enable them to feedback and input into research as it evolves. This activity takes the form of free 'maker' workshops, a festival of art and science and numerous exhibitions across the UK at significant public venues including the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (Liverpool) and the Royal Meteorological Society (Reading).

Planned Impact

Given public interest in both climate change and data as topics of contemporary concern, we posit several different kinds of impact for external stakeholders. We have confirmed impact partnerships with the Victoria and Albert Museum, Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, and the Royal Meteorological Society, and we are in active discussion with nearby organisations in the Knowledge Quarter at Kings Cross including Google and the Arts Catalyst. Specific beneficiaries and forms of impact include:

1. The public benefit from research through access to enhanced cultural experiences that re-cast the knowledge of environmental change in new forms. Rather than present climate change as abstract phenomena, our research enables people to experience it as tangible and tactile encounters towards new imaginaries of the phenomena. By grounding this work in scientific data, we also increase public access to and understanding of the science of climate change through provision of innovative expressions, renderings and experiences.

2. Art and design interest groups, individual practitioners and external research organisations (e.g. HKW Anthropocene, Platform, Furtherfield) benefit by gaining specific insights into how data can inform new cultural representations of climate change beyond current digital screen-based approaches. These groups also gain access to new skills, processes and creative methodologies that increase technical capacity in studio practice and expanded conceptual understanding of issues in design and making.

3. There is considerable interest in the research topic from organisations in the cultural and independent museum sector (Arts Catalyst, MediaLab Prado, V2 in Rotterdam) who have a remit to follow and explain emerging interdisciplinary trends in art-science and climate-related issues. Research can enhance professional practice for these stakeholders by providing new insights into how artists are questioning normatively understood relationships between natural and technological environments; negotiating different conceptions of public engagement through maker workshops; and conceiving of different ways to frame understanding of scientific climate knowledge in the public realm. Research can also produce new audiences for such organisations through production of experiences, knowledge and resources directly relevant to their missions of engendering public understanding of the intersections between environment, science, sustainability and technology.

4. Our research is pertinent to policy groups focusing on relationships between culture, the environment, scientific knowledge and technology (Environmental Change Network, Open Data Institute). By couching scientific data in tangible, culturally engaging forms, we enhance understanding of the transformational role of culture and creativity in re-shaping public narratives around environmental change. Groups advocating for the role of the arts in this field (RIDE, Royal Society of the Arts) benefit from access to high-quality arts-based research and audience engagement strategies.

5. Research also develops new skills and techniques combining digital and material products, and will be of relevance to government policy makers (DCMS, BEIS) who have an interest in research that innovates technical and methodological understanding in emerging fabrication technologies, which is also of interest for practitioners in fields such as architecture and manufacturing.

Access to research for external beneficiaries occurs via our good practice industry Maker Manuals, participation in the steering committee, the website, Climate Art Festival, public talks, exhibitions, workshops and documentation of research processes.

Publications

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