Communicating Science through Art

Over the last few blogs it has become apparent how SEI has been using art, in its various forms, as a tool for communication and engagement including the use of infographics (e.g. Wordle), films and animations to convey often difficult concepts and issues. Sarah’s previous stick person blog is a great example of this.

When SEI produced  the “first” map of global ecosystem sensitivity to acidic deposition ( ‘acid rain’ really) in the late 90s we decided that in addition to academic papers and policy briefs we would make the map into a poster, an ideal way to reach out to different audiences. So we offered them for free via the internet, which was relatively new and slow then, and by far the biggest take up of these were from children wanting them for their school classrooms.

SEI Map of Global Ecosystem Sensitivity to Acidic Deposition

SEI Map of Global Ecosystem Sensitivity to Acidic Deposition

In other mapping projects we have looked at how we can present information in a more visual, yet, meaningful way. For example, we have used cartograms to illustrate different global variables such as the distribution of carbon footprints see http://www.britishcouncil.org/co2map.pdf.  A cartogram is a map where the thematic  variable e.g. carbon footprint is substituted for land area or distance [wiki].  The geometry or space of the map is distorted in order to convey the information of this alternate variable in a more meaningful way.

Cartogram showing global tonnes of CO2 per capita. Produced for British Council northern Irleand

Cartogram showing global tonnes of CO2 per capita. Produced for British Council northern Irleand

We must however be clear that whilst the representation of physical and quantifiable data in novels ways intended to stir people’s interest in particular issues, the maps still need to have reputable science underpinning them.

Another technique that we have used is in our participatory mapping work where we ask participants to draw pictures of their local area.  In one such project we asked adults and children to draw their perceptions about greenspace they use in York and to depict what was important to them and what they didn’t like .

Two maps are contrasted here:

Map of Greenspace in York - Knavesmire depicted as area used for exercise

Map of Greenspace in York – Knavesmire depicted as area used for exercise

Map of Greenspace in York - Drawing of Rowntree's Park highlighting problem of duck muck.

Map of Greenspace in York – Drawing of Rowntree’s Park highlighting problem of duck muck.

The map on the left highlights the Knavesmire  as space someone uses for exercise whilst the one on the right highlights “duck muck” in Rowntrees Park as a detrimental factor.

Neither of these are cartographically accurate, however, as visual depictions they offer researchers  a wealth of valuable, qualitative insight which they might not have become aware of using other traditional techniques such as face-to-face interviews.

Artwork has featured in other projects as a means of engagement and learning – at the Joseph Rowntree school’s Rio Earth summit in 2012 [video] children made art out of recycled products. This was just one many activities held to increase their understanding of environmental issues. Working together with professional graphic designer Ned Hoste, the children designed their own logo for the event. They also made films and music and held a fashion show using recycled clothes.

Artwork produced by students from Jospeh Rowntree School during the JoRios Event 2012

Artwork using recycled materials produced by students from Jospeh Rowntree School during the JoRios Event 2012

The co-creation of knowledge and co-production of artwork for communication.

It is clearly becoming necessary for scientists, artists and communicators to work collaboratively in order to produce a range of outputs targeted at different audiences. Many of us with a science background are not trained as artists, film makers etc. and therefore we can benefit from learning from other disciplines.

The use of artists within science departments has also been recognised by funding bodies. The Leverhulme Trust (http://leverhulme.ac.uk/funding/AIR/AIR.cfm)  is offering funding of up to £15,000 to bring artists into research and study environments For example this could be a poet hosted by a physics department or a composer in a geography department. How about a living statue in the new Environment building?

Sonification of data

Another way SEI is trying to link artists to the science community is through sonification. Sonification is concerned with displaying data in sonic form so that listeners (experts and/or non-experts) can perceive and engage with the structures and the properties of the data set and their meaning.

Sound can be a particularly effective way of displaying and exploring big data, monitoring processes and represent complex information in creative and engaging ways. Sound, an inherently time-based display, is particularly well suited to represent time-based data (for example, the evolution of an environmental phenomenon in time) as well as data gathered in real-time (for example, a muscle performing an action can be sonified as an auditory feedback).

A recent SEI project used satellite data obtained from NASA  to determine harmful concentrations of ground-level ozone [watch video ]. This data is then taken by musicians, manipulated and used to create music compositions. Projected visuals to accompany the sonification were played in different settings: in an immersive audio-visual setting (3sixty) and as part of music tour featuring  SpaceF!ght [watch video].

SEI is helping to organise a conference at the University of York on the sonification of health and environmental datasets [follow link] on September 12th 2014 . This is in collaboration for the Department of Theatre, Film and TV and funded by C2D2.  Tickets for the event are free and open to anyone.

Sonification of Health and Environmental Data - Conference Sept 12th 2014

SoniHED – Sonification of Health and Environmental Data – Conference Sept 12th 2014

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