Data Soliloquies book review on Furtherfield by Pau Waelder

Book review by Pau Waelder – 03/02/2010

Data Soliloquies is a book about the extraordinary cultural fluidity of scientific data

Data Soliloquies
Richard Hamblyn and Martin John Callanan
London: Slade Press, 2009
112 pages
ISBN 978-0903305044

Although much has been said about C.P. Snow’s concept of a “third culture”, we haven’t actually reached an understanding between the spheres of science and humanities. This is caused in part by the high degree of specialisation in each field, which usually prevents researchers from considering different perspectives, as well as the controversies that have arisen between academics, exemplified by publications such as Intellectual Impostures (1998) in which physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont criticise the “abuse” of scientific terminology by sociologists and philosophers. Yet there is a growing mutual dependency of both fields of knowledge, as the one hand our society is facing new problems and questions for which the sciences have adequate answers and on the other scientific research can no longer remain isolated from society. Some scientists, such as the astronomer Roger Frank Malina, have even argued that a “better science” will result from the interaction between art, science and technology. Malina presents as an example the “success of the artist in residence and art-science collaboration programs currently being established” [1], and considers the possibility of a “scientist in residence” program in art labs.

Data Soliloquies

Our relationship with the environment is certainly one of the main problems we are going to face during this century and it is also a subject that brings up the necessary communication between science and society. The UCL Environment Institute [2] was established in 2003 to promote an interdisciplinary approach to environmental research and make it available to a wider audience. While being representative of almost every discipline in the University College London, it lacked an interaction with the arts and humanities. This gap has been bridged by establishing an artist and writer residency program in collaboration with the Slade School of Fine Arts and the English Department. Among 100 applications, writer Richard Hamblyn and artist Martin John Callanan were chosen for the 2008-2009 academic year: Data Soliloquies is the result of their work.

Despite “belonging” to the field of art and humanities, neither Hamblyn nor Callanan are strangers to science and technology. Richard Hamblyn is an environmental writer and historian who has developed a particular interest in clouds, and Martin John Callanan is an artist whose remarkably conceptual work merges art and different types of media. This may be the cause that Data Soliloquies is by no means a shy penetration into a foreign field of knowledge but a solid discourse which presents a richly documented critique of the apparently ineffective ways in which scientists have made society aware of such a crucial problem as that of climate change. The title of the book has been borrowed for a term that Jon Adams, researcher at the London School of Economics, coined to refer to Michael Crichton’s novels, who uses “scientific” facts to give his imaginative plots an aura of credibility. With this reference, the authors state that the way scientific data is presented actually constitutes a narrative, an uncontested monologue: “…scientific graphs and images have powerful stories to tell, carrying much in the way of overt and implied narrative content (…) these stories are rarely interrupted or interrogated.”[3]

As the amount of data regularly stored in all sorts of digital supports increases exponentially, and new forms of data visualisation are developed, these “data monologues” become ubiquitous, while remaining unquestioned. In his text, Hamblyn exposes the inexactitude in some popular visualisations of scientific data, which have set aside accuracy in favour of providing a more eloquent image of what the gathered evidences are supposed to tell. On the one hand, Charles D. Keeling’s upward trending graph of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, which according to Hamblyn is “probably the most important data set in environmental science, and has become something of a freestanding scientific icon”[4], or Michael Mann’s controversial “Hockey Stick” graph are illustrative examples of the way in which information displays have developed their own narratives. On the other, the manipulation of data in order to obtain a more visually effective presentation, such as NASA’s exaggeration of scale in their images of the landscape of Venus or the use of false colours in the reproductions of satellite images, call for a questioning of the supposed objectivity in the information provided by scientific institutions.

Data Soliloquies

In the field of climate science, the stories that graphs and other visualisations can tell have become of great importance, as human activity has a direct impact on global warming, but this relation of cause and effect cannot be easily determined. As Hamblyn states: “climate change is the first major environmental crisis in which the experts appear more alarmed than the public” [5]. The catastrophism with which environmental issues are presented to the public generate a feeling of impotence, and thus any action that an individual can undertake seems ineffective. The quick and resolute reaction of both the population and the governments in the case of the “ozone hole” in 1985 points in the direction of finding a clear and compelling image of the effects of climate change. As Hamblyn underscores, this is not only a subject for engineers: “the reality of ongoing climate change has yet to be embraced as a stimulus to creativity –in the arts as well as the sciences– or as a permanent and inescapable part of human societal development” [6].

Data Soliloquies

Martin John Callanan took upon himself to develop a creative response to this issue, and has done so, not simply by creating images or objects but by depicting processes. He states: “I’m more interested in systems –systems that define how we live our lives” [6]. A quick look at his previous work [7] will show how appropriate this statement is: he has visited each and every station of the London underground, collected every command of the Photoshop application in his computer, officially changed his name (to the same he already had), gathered the front page of hundreds of newspapers from around the world and engaged himself in many other activities that are as systematic and mechanical as ironic, poetic or simply nihilistic. During his residency, Callanan created to main projects. The first one, Planetary Order, is a globe in which the patterns of the clouds on a particular date (February 6th, 2009) have been sculpted. The artist composed the readings of NASA’s cloud monitoring satellites in a virtual 3D computer model, which was then laser melted on a compacted nylon powder sphere at the Digital Manufacturing Centre at the UCL Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. The resulting object is a sculpture, an artwork more than any sort of model in the sense that it develops a discourse beyond the actual presentation of data. An impeccable white sphere textured by its subtle protuberances, the globe evokes the perfection of an ancient marble sculpture while presenting us with an uncommon view of the Earth, covered with clouds. The clouds, which are usually erased in the depictions of our planet in order to let us see the shapes of the continents (the land which is our dominion), become an icon of climate change and the image of an order which is, in all senses, above us. Callanan freezes the planetary order of clouds in an impossible map, a metaphorical object which appears to us as a faultless, yet fragile and inscrutable machine.

The second of Callanan’s artistic projects is the series Text Trends. Using Google data, the artist has collected the number of searches for selected terms related to climate change in a time range of several years (from 2004 to 2007-2008). With this data, he has generated a series of minimalistic graphs in which two jagged lines, one red and the other blue, cross the page describing the frequency of searches (or popularity) for two competing terms. The result resembles an electrocardiogram in which we can see the “life” of a particular word, as opposed to another, in a simple but eloquent dialogue of abstract forms. Callanan has chosen to confront terms in pairs such as “summer vs. winter”, “climate change vs. war on terror” or “global warming”. Simple as they may seem, the graphs are telling and constitute and visual summary of the book whilst suggesting many other reflections. The final conclusion is presented in the last graph, in which the perception of climate change is expressively described by the image of a vibrant line for the word “now”, much higher in the chart than the flat line for the word “later”.

Pau Waelder

[1] Roger Frank Malina, “Leonardo Timeshift“, Ars Electronica Catalog Archive.

[2] UCL Environment Institute.
[3] R. Hamblyn and M.J.Callanan. Data Soliloquies, 14.
[4] R. Hamblyn and M.J.Callanan. Data Soliloquies, 25.
[5] R. Hamblyn and M.J.Callanan. Data Soliloquies, 47.
[6] R. Hamblyn and M.J.Callanan. Data Soliloquies, 66.
[7] Martin John Callanan’s personal website. http://greyisgood.eu/

Review originally published on FurtherField

Why scientists should care about art

Johanna Kieniewicz on Plogs

Last week, I attended an environmental science conference with an evening reception that featured a short talk on art/science collaborations in the context of environmental science. The talk was followed by a musical performance – inspired by the fragility of peatbog environments – after which I overheard a scientist mutter “What was that? That better not have had research council funding.” He was not the only one; I heard similar sentiments expressed by several others as I walked to dinner.

On some level, I was disappointed by this response, but I wasn’t really surprised. Despite great progress amongst those who are ensconced in the world of science communication to the idea of collaborations between scientists and artists, this is something that many scientists still don’t “get”. Other researchers are openly hostile, and certainly think that scientific research organisations have no business funding this type of work.

To be fair, these are not necessarily the attitudes of people who are disinterested in art — I’d be willing to bet that a fair few of those who walked away from the performance muttering about scientific research council funding being wasted on the arts also have memberships at cultural institutions. That said, whilst being consumers of culture, few scientists really see themselves as having much of a role in its creation. In an increasingly competitive funding landscape, does it really make sense to spend research money on an art project? Does engaging with the arts mean that they are less serious as scientists?

Here, I’d like to make an argument that art is good for scientists, and that there are many reasons they shouldn’t be quite so afraid of letting artists loose in their laboratories.

Data monologue or dialogue? Data Soliloquies is an interesting book, produced by a former artist in residence at UCL, looking at environmental data in a cultural context.
Understanding the Cultural Context of your Research

Hot issues, such as climate change may not be subjects of contention within the scientific community, but it seems clear that the science is not being communicated in a way that has the necessary impact. Although art cannot directly communicate science or change minds, it can create a space for dialogue around difficult issues. Few scientists are likely to deeply consider the role of narrative in their work or the visual impact of their images, but for reaching society as a whole these are vitally important.

Artists are also likely to ask questions that scientists might never think to ask (because they are, well, thinking like scientists). A recent AHRC funding call (see, scientists there is some money in this!) posits that a sophisticated understanding of cultural values, rights, religions, and systems of belief is essential for understanding some of the complex legal, ethical and regulatory policy issues raised in several emerging areas of science and technology. Scientists aren’t trained in this (and that’s ok) — but it is important to engage with people who think about these issues in a different way.

Becoming a better communicator

In my view, art inspired by science isn’t necessarily about the communication of science—it is a response to science. In leaving the scientific arena where it is all to easy to use technical jargon, working with artists can make you rethink the way that you communicate your research. How can you convey the complexity of the problem, while also making it accessible?

A scientist who participated in the Wellcome Trust’s Sciart programme, was reflected on their experience in the report on that programme, saying “Through my PhD I learned to talk in a particular way, write in a particular way. Because of that I lost a piece of myself. Through working with [X] I found the way to become the real me, rather than this slightly objective scientist that I had become. I found my voice, which I had lost because of the scientific process.”

Becoming a better researcher

Artists examine problems from different angles and engage with information in a different way from scientists. Some might see this as a deficiency, and to be fair, you wouldn’t want to conduct science in an un-scientific way. However, I would argue that particularly in the area of scientific visualisation, there is a great deal to be gained for scientists who engage with artists.

Chiara Ambrosio, Lecturer in the History of Science at UCL, argues that art offers an opportunity for dialogue and a critique of science. When scientific data sometimes seems like a monologue, art can produce a dialogue. Artists may not – indeed, probably should not – directly challenge the way that science happens or is conducted, but they can raise questions about the purpose of the science and present different ways of looking at research outcomes.

It’s fun

Clearly, engaging with artists is not something to be done if you don’t also think that it would be fun. Artists aren’t particularly interested being a part of a scientist’s ‘outreach’ box-ticking exercise, or in being relegated to a dusty corner of the lab from which to quietly observe the scientists going about their business.

I am not so naïve that I believe that having an artist in the lab is something that all scientists should do, or even most. But I do think that more scientists should have an open mind to this approach, and be encouraged to engage with them in the right context. Far from being an impediment to scientific progress, it can be a way of making your science more relevant, more impactful, and hopefully a bit more fun. In my next post, I hope to highlight a few examples of how it happens in practice when artists actively work in labs alongside scientists.

Johanna Kieniewicz on Plogs

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