On the wall or in the ear, climate science comes alive as art
Jonathan Perl, an audio technology professor at City College of New York, looks over the artwork prior to a public opening of Polarseeds, a collaborative effort trying to make climate science as beautiful and accessible as art. Photo by Shelley DuBois.
Feb. 1, 2013
A collaborative effort pulls video gamers, music professors, multimedia designers and polar researchers together in a bid to make climate science approachable.By Shelley DuBoisThe Daily Climate
NEW YORK – Art may follow life, generally, but at a new exhibit, art follows science.
You must try to give something as close as possible to the data, but provide some kind of aesthetic.
- Marco Tedesco,City College of New York
At the entrance of the gallery, crystal-clear photographs of cracking ice pop in polar blues and whites. Along the back wall, infographics in blocky text and blue-green images fill in the facts behind stark photos of a changing Arctic landscape.
A video, projected on the left wall, shows two blocks of ice – one blue, one black – under a heat lamp. The black one, though bigger, disappears faster than the other: This simple science experiment demonstrates how Arctic ice sullied with soot melts faster. A loop of ambient noise pulses throughout the gallery – the instruments softly but ominously intensify. It's music that might play at a high-end fusion restaurant. Except it’s from melting ice – or rather, clips of cumulative totals of Arctic ice loss – put to sound.
The exhibit, which runs through Feb. 14 and has a public reception tonight, is an effort by City College of New York professors and students to make climate science more accessible and compelling.
Approachable scienceThey failed utterly with the exhibit title – Communicating Polar Climate Change Through Data Visualization and Sonification. But inside the gallery science and art become approachable. The space is warmly lit and welcoming, a contrast to the cold-colored art. On the wall next to the melting ice video is another projection, this one of a computer game. Viewers can play it on a laptop set up in the middle of the room. The objective is to slow coastal flooding by blocking the sun's radiation with cloud cover. You can slow it down, but you can't prevent it completely.
The collaborators for the project, dubbed Polarseeds, adhered strictly to scientific data to guide their creations. Putting daily melt data to music produces random gibberish. But add the cumulative melt, and you can hear the dips and swells of melting ice, all moving on one big trend line. Polarseeds is the brainchild of Marco Tedesco. He is an associate professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at CCNY, but he feels at home in the artistic world. "I grew up in Italy, so art is in the history there," he said. He claims this project was the most fun he's had in his life. Still, he's an empirical guy: "You must try to give something as close as possible to the data, but provide some kind of aesthetic."
Different disciplinesTedesco realized his research lent itself to this project when CCNY president Lisa Coico called for grant proposals in 2011 to bring together experts from different disciplines. Tedesco's project ultimately used the combined brainpower of electric design and multimedia program director Ina Saltz, game design expert Ethan Ham and audio technology professor Jonathan Perl. The professors, in turn, hired seven current and former CCNY students.
"I see this as a microcosm for the projects we could do here," Saltz said. CCNY is known as a school that focuses on science, technology and math, she added, and those are fields that desperately need help reaching the public. Departments all over the school produce fascinating data, work fastidiously displayed on research posters in the halls, "But they're inaccessible," Saltz said.
One of her students made a simple graphic showing the complicated forces that form the ephemeral lakes atop glaciers. The information looks clean, even elegant – "inevitable" as Saltz describes it. "But a lot of decision-making goes into something this beautiful," she said. That's where artists can help scientists represent their ideas.
Many scientists already convert their data to sound to better understand their results, Perl said. But they don't necessarily make it musically interesting. Yet producing musically interesting information can reveal new insights, he added.
For example, Perl said, putting daily melting patterns to music produces random-sounding gibberish. "There's too much variation," he said. Only when Perl looked at cumulative melting – or the daily melt data on top of the amount of melt since the beginning of the year – did music-worthy sound emerge. Then you can hear the dips and swells of melting ice, all moving on one big trend line, culminating in a crescendo.
'You went deep'The final sound product took a tremendous amount of work – manipulating volume, pitch and intensity to convey trends including the albedo effect, melt rates and air temperature. "I was a little geeky. I was so immersed in the process," Perl admitted. "You went deep," Saltz agreed.
But all of the geeky work behind the scenes comes together in simple visualizations and sounds. There isn't a strong political message. It really is nerd art; it sticks to the numbers, which is what makes the exhibit feel cohesive.
And the one message to come home every time, whether converted into an audio loop, splashed on simple graphics with blocky text, coded into a game or posted on the wall as pictures of ice, is that the Earth is warming slowly, over time.
When it comes to climate change, the data speak for themselves.
Communicating Polar Climate Change Through Data Visualization And Sonification will be on view through February 14 in the Compton-Goethals Art Gallery, Room 134, Compton-Goethals Hall, on the CCNY campus. A public reception for the exhibit will be held 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, February 1.
Inset photo: CCNY electric design and multimedia program director Ina Saltz talking with audio technology professor Jonathan Perl in the exhibit's gallery.
Text and photos © Shelley DuBois, 2013. All rights reserved.
Shelley DuBois is a reporter for Fortune Magazine in New York. Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering climate change. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at] DailyClimate.org
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