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Posts tagged ‘Arctic’

Performance, theatre and science

A woman lying face down with video projection in background

Curious Directive, Your Last Breath, 2012

Last week, I went to Curious Directive’s show Your Last Breath. Curious Directive create devised theatre works incorporating scientific ideas, and this piece tells the story of an extreme skiing accident that led to the discovery of suspended animation, a story interwoven with three others, taking place at different times over 150 years, and told through spoken word, movement, music and video.

I thought the piece was very strong and it made me think about science in theatre, and Arts Catalyst’s involvement in theatre and performance over the years. Setting up Arts Catalyst 18 years ago, I wanted to explore and develop new types of engagement between artists and scientists to see if it was possible to create more symbiotic relationships between the two fields. I was also interested in seeking out artists whose work might express both the form and content of an interdisciplinary engagement. Some of our early work (around 1994-96) included theatre workshops and commissions. I didn’t consciously move away from theatre, but the playwright Diane Samuels, who attended our 1997 Eye of the Storm art and science conference at the Royal Institution, noted that the speakers were mainly visual artists (as well as scientists), and not theatre practitioners, and it led her to wonder: “Is there a playwright who has truly collaborated with a scientist rather than used scientific material to feed their work? Is such a thing possible?

It was a question that Samuels went on to explore in her playwriting, while the Arts Catalyst has continued to work with artists across a broad spectrum of visual arts and contemporary performance practices. We have worked with artists who would describe themselves as live artists, sound artists, musicians, video artists, media artists, choreographers, dancers, bioartists, sculptors, writers, painters, conceptual designers, and others, so we tend just to use the terms “contemporary art” and “artists”.

Our curatorial vision has been to enable experimental and critical artistic engagements with contemporary science. Over the years, we have experimented with many forms of engagement, including multidisciplinary labs and field trips, research clusters, etc. While much of our commissioned work is shown in galleries, we tend towards a process-based, performative approach, and we often present work in experiential or event-based forms. We’ve commissioned works from several live artists, including Laurie Anderson, Marcel.li Antunez Roca, Aaron Williamson, Anne Bean, Ansuman Biswas, and Kira O’Reilly, as well as Critical Art Ensemble’s “participatory theatre”, which I wrote about in an essay ‘Performative Science: The case of Critical Art Ensemble’ for ‘Interfaces of Performance’, a publication exploring contemporary performance incorporating state-of-the-art technologies. So I’d say our curatorial door is certainly open to theatre practitioners, and we have included several writers, performance artists and theatre makers in our various workshops and field trips. But we’ve not been involved in the scripted form of theatre for many years.

Actors on a circular stage seen from above (black and white)

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen at the National Theatre, 1998

Of course, there have been great plays that interweave themes of science in their stories – Bertolt Brecht’s marvellous The Life of Galileo (1937), Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists (1961), and George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), which – unsurprisingly, given its contemporary relevance – is about to have a re-staging at the National Theatre. There have also been successful mainstream plays that experimented with weaving science into the dramatic form of the play, such as Michael Frayn’s skillful Copenhagen (1998), and Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood (1988).

Lately, just as there is an explosion of visual artists engaging with science, there seems to be a huge increase in theatre shows that incorporate scientific ideas. Of course, no one goes to the theatre or to an art gallery to find out about science. At least, I don’t think so – there are surely better ways to find out about science. They go for an experience that will be social, transformative, uplifting, challenging, entertaining. So the issue is always: is the work good? Does it uplift, unsettle, move, provoke or fascinate?

After being unmoved by a succession of plays engaging with scientific ideas, in 2010 the US theatre critic Alexis Soloski asked: “Why does theatre plus science equal poor plays?” In the UK last year, critics were generally unimpressed by the National Theatre’s multi-authored climate change play Greenland, Paul Callan in the Express calling it “two solid … hours of hectoring and statistics”. Were these indicators of the danger of becoming so enthralled by the science that the playwright/artist neglects the art? Or were they just unsuccessful plays that happened to have science in them? Any play can fail.

Increasingly, I’ve become aware (certainly in the UK) that there is some exciting stuff around by contemporary theatre makers, who are intrigued by science and its cultural and societal implications, and incorporating it into their work; many of whom are also experimental in their processes and form. Curious DirectiveThird Angel, Unlimited, and Reckless Sleepers have been brought to my attention. The arts journalist Honour Bayes wrote in the Guardian last year that (far from “poor”) the results of the engagement between theatre and science were “exciting, explosive and unexpected”.

I’m deeply interested in the construction of stories, myths and metaphors and how these influence, and are influenced by, the direction of science and technology in a society. Clearly, theatre has an important role in this.

Two people, faces covered by sheets, face each other over a table

Reckless Sleepers, Schroedinger

Extreme citizen science: rainforests, urban jungles and the arctic perspective …

A group of young Congalese men in a forest, one with a handheld device

Baka people from Mang-Kako geomap the sacred Moabi tree, 2007. Photo: Jerome Lewis

Last week I attended the London Citizen Cyberscience Summit with Lisa Haskel, Arts Catalyst’s resident research engineer, to catch up and connect with latest developments, and to present our Arctic Perspective Initiative.

Although the notion of the amateur scientist is ages old, the term “citizen science” is generally used for the systematic collection and analysis of data by networks of volunteers. The most familiar are perhaps volunteer distributed computing projects, such as SETI@home, ClimatePrediction.net, and CERN’s LHC@home, in which people sign up the spare processing capacity of their home computers. A recent wave of projects more creatively engages people in basic research: in Galaxy Zoo, for example, people classify images of galaxies, while the Evolution Megalab recruits volunteers to survey snail shell bands.

Day 1 of the summit was presented largely from the professional scientist’s perspective. There was a lot of rhetoric about citizen participation in science, but most discussion focused how to “harness” the power of many minds to help science, how to recruit and incentivise citizens to “generate high quality data” (the phrase “Pavlov’s dogs” was disconcertingly used by one contributor).With a few exceptions, such as iSpot, an online nature community, most projects neglected the value of people’s own expertise and ideas. Surely there are other ways to involve people in science using online technologies other than just crowdsourcing or crowd computing. A few of the presenters began to raise this as an issue, Francois Taddei asking the critical question: who benefits from these projects?

A man is presenting in front of a powerpoint screen

Ngoni Munyaradzi presenting the project ‘Transcription of bushman historical text’ at the London Citizen Cyberscience Summit, 2012

The afternoon introduced citizen science projects from around the globe, some of the standard data collection model, others more engaging. I particularly liked Ngoni Munyaradzi’s project to crowd source translating notebooks and art that contain Bushman culture, and the initiative by the Jane Goodall Institute which trains local people to monitor chimpanzee habitats in Tanzania and Uganda using smartphones.

Two young Tanzanian women work on a map

Monitoring ape habitats. Photo: Jane Goodall Institute

I was very excited by Jerome Lewis’ work with indigenous people in Congo and Rwanda. In 2009, Lewis developed an icon-based interface on a hand-held device that could be used by forest-dwelling people to geotag trees important to their way of life, the mapped information being communicated to logging companies and policy holders. The method has spread like wildfire, Lewis noted, because it’s so effective, allowing peaceful communication via maps. Critically, Lewis noted, the communities themselves have to decide what the benefits are to their participation in such a project. There are no payments or gimmicks to incentivise participation.

Lewis then outlined his “Hackfest” challenge: to design a new portable device, specifically requested by local people in Congo to monitor poaching, a device that can meet specific requirements, such as accurate geo-referencing under rainforest canopy, withstanding heat and humidity, able to tolerate a week without charge, and updatability. Lewis also wants to work with hackers to create sensors that can enable long-term monitoring of changes caused by mining concessions and climate change. He articulated passionately how important it is to develop accessible analytic tools for use by local people to visualise and analyse results themselves, and that this needs to include the largely excluded: rural people, semi/non-literate people, women, and the urban poor. You can watch Lewis’s presentation here.

Lewis’ UCL collaborator Muki Haklay then launched their new Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) initiative, and outlined what they meant by extreme citizen science: firstly, everyone can participate, not just educated people; secondly, extreme citizen science moves the location of citizen science from populated, wealthy parts of the planet to everywhere, and thirdly, it transforms people’s roles in projects from just data collection and entry to shaping the problem and analysing data, participating in problem definition and the entire process of science.

A group of people help to fill a red weather balloon

Lisa helps with the PLOTS balloon

The second day of the summit combined presentations with a hands-on hackday. A greater proportion of the discourse felt more in tune with my own interests in co-creation or a bottom-up approach to citizen science. The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS), for example, is an activist-led US group developing low-cost DIY open source environmental and health tools to research and monitor their own environments. PLOTS demonstrated a mapping kit using a red weather balloon, plastic bottles, and a camera hacked to take infrared digital photos, to which the noise monitoring folk also attached a device.

Aerial photo over UCL with balloon sized coloured dots

Data gathered by noise monitoring app on PLOTS balloon

Lisa Haskel and I presented the Arctic Perspective Initiative (API), which follows a similar open source community-centred ethos. The API comprises an international group
of individuals and non-profit organisations, including Arts Catalyst. Founded by artists Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman, its goal is to promote the creation of open source communications, sensing and dissemination infrastructures for the circumpolar region. API is a collaboration with the community of Igloolik and other small settlements in Canada’s High Arctic.

A group of Inuit people gather around a portable device

Igloolik community members study aerial images, API Foxe Basin field trip. Photo: API

As Dr Michael Bravo writes in ‘Arctic Geopolitics & Autonomy‘, the API project has developed as a collaborative artistic and technological response to Igloolik’s own considerable arts and media history. Igloolik hosts a permanent population of only 1500 people, but it has for centuries been a crossroads and meeting place for Inuit peoples, traditionally known for regrouping, resting, eating, socialising. Today, it is the home of IsumaTV, an independent interactive network of Inuit and indigenous filmmakers and media workers, and ArtCirq, a community-based circus and multimedia company. Peljhan came to Igloolik with a history of having explored how autonomy can be performed through technological experiments that have traveled to different extreme environments.

One of API’s evolving projects is to build mobile, habitable living and working units to enable people to live on the land away from settlements (as many Inuit like to do), all the while remaining connected through communications technologies such as live video streaming and data connections. The units will be powered solely with renewable energy sources. Through these units a number of activities can be pursued: scientific monitoring, filmmaking and editing, sustainability hunting, environmental assessment, and technology research.

Inuit man using electronic telescope

Herve Paniaq searches for holes in the pack ice while navigating in Foxe Basin, August 2009. Photo: API

I presented the history, social context and collaborative approach of API, and Lisa Haskel discussed the sensor network that API is developing for use by local people for a variety of their own purposes, and the data gathering interface that she is working on. You can watch our presentation here and read more about Arctic Perspective Initiative on the Arts Catalyst’s website and the project’s own site.

Lisa stayed on for the practical workshops on Day 3, which I didn’t attend, but my mind was buzzing with possibilities and connections.

Two Inuit and two other men in a makeshift blue tent

Makeshift medialab, Foxe Basin field trip, August 2009. Photo: API

Arctic architecture competition: winners announced

The winners of the Arctic Perspective Initiative open architecture competition are announced.

Three architects – Richard Carbonnier (Canada), Giuseppe Mecca (Italy), and Catherine Rannou (France) – have been selected as the joint winners of the Arctic Perspective Initiative open architecture competition. The challenge of this international competition was to design a zero-footprint mobile research unit for use by local populations in the Arctic. The unit is intended to facilitate a diverse range of technological research opportunities, such as remote sensing, environmental monitoring, video editing and streaming, and communications systems.

The three winning entries, each awarded €1500, were selected by an expert jury from 103 submissions from architects and engineers in more than 30 countries. The competition was the first phase of a design process, the next phase of which will involve working with the winning submissions through a collaborative design effort with local community members from Nunavut, Canada. A prototype unit will be tested in the field next year in Igloolik, Nunavut, by local media workers, hunters, youth and elders of the community.

API is committed to the empowerment and sustainable development of Northern communities through the collaboration and combination of science, arts, engineering and culture. The unit aims to serve as a model for mobile research in the north, incorporating proven local expertise, sustainable resources, and high tech solutions, while promoting open source data sharing strategies and management. All required power will come from green sources.

The Arctic Perspective Initiative (API) is a transnational art, science, and culture work group composed of HMKV (Germany), The Arts Catalyst (UK), Projekt Atol (Slovenia), Lorna (Iceland) and C-TASC (Canada), API is the brainchild of Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman, who met and worked together for the first time as crewmembers of the Makrolab in Blair Atholl, Scotland in 2002, a project produced by The Arts Catalyst.

For more information:
Download PRESS RELEASE of full announcement of the winners

Open sourcing the Arctic

Arctic Perspective Initiative field trip to Foxe Basin, Arctic Canada

I returned last week from a week in Iceland, where I was judging the architecture competition for an Arctic mobile media-centric work and living unit, and meeting with the other partners of the Arctic Perspectives Initiative (API) – HMKV, Germany, Projekt Atol, Slovenia, The Arts Catalyst, UK, C-TASC, Canada, and Lorna, Iceland.

Marko Peljhan (Projekt Atol) and Matthew Biederman (C-TASC) had made a working trip to Igloolik, Nunavuk, in the far north of Canada, during July and August, traveling with a group of Inuit elders and their families in small boats to different islands around Baffin Island and Foxe Basin, revisiting places where the elders had lived before they were moved to the settlement. The journey was being made for a film by Izuma TV, and Marko and Matthew were invited along by Paul Quassa. They reported that it was a very emotional trip for the participants. For the artists, it was a real experience of what it’s like to “live on the land”: arguments over the best routes through sea-ice, fog-bound on barren islands for days, running short of food. The artists tested communications equipment, environmental monitoring equipment and aerial photography from a UAV., which proved useful for collecting aerial images of the sea ice (pictures from the trip are below). As the artists told the story of their trip, we began to get a clear sense of what this ‘mobile media-centric unit’ might contribute to local people’s lives.

The jury selection process went well. We had a fantastic expert jury, including Johan Berte, designer of the Belgian Antarctic station, Michael Bravo from the Scott Polar Research Institute, architect Andreas Muller, and architecture curator Francesca Ferguson. We had received 103 entries from 30 countries. It was a little deflating at first to realise how little research many entrants had made into conditions in the Arctic. There were frequent assumptions about flat, smooth stable ice sheets (more appropriate to Antarctica) rather than the softening tundra and melting sea ice that characterises much of the Arctic today. But in the end we found three deserving prize-winners. Our next steps are to announce the winners to the international media, take the winning designs (and shortlist) back to Igloolik to consult with the people there, and then begin the design process in earnest.

The partners are planning a series of exhibitions and publications in 2010 to share the process – and the wider cultural, environmental and geopolitical context for the project – with a broad public audience. More at the Arts Catalyst‘s website and the Arctic Perspective Initiative website

Science diplomacy 2: From the High Arctic to central Africa

Day 2 at the Royal Society’s meeting on science democracy.

Finally, the issue of interdisciplinarity was raised by Stephen Hillier from Edinburgh University who sees multidisciplinarity projects as a priority, reflecting the current popularity of cross-department initiatives in HEIs. Director of the British Council, Martin Davidson, didn’t address interdisciplinarity explicitly, but one assumes that links exist across the BC’s arts and science activities. A question from the floor prompted a confession by Mohamed Hassan from the Academy of Sciences that it was extremely difficult to get scientists and social scientists to work together. How much more difficult then to achieve international collaboration between scientists and cultural professionals. No mention of this, of course, but I accept we’re a pretty lonely voice here, although some people in emerging technology sectors, such as nanotech and synthetic biology, are beginning to recognise the potential of incorporating thinking about design, imagination, culture and public engagement with philosophy, ethics and social dynamics as new areas of research and development emerge.

In the afternoon we had two cracking sessions covering specific examples of science diplomacy. ‘Environmental security: Poles apart?’ had a strong line up, including Howard Alper from the Science, Technology and Innovation Council, Canada, and Diana Wallis MEP, who concluded her presentation by observing that our transnational structures of governance and democracy are simply not up to the challenge of climate change in the Arctic. A little liveliness flared in the slightly pissy exchange between one of the Canadian delegation and Wallis, as he pressed her for a ‘definition’ of the Arctic (Canada is really not happy about the EU wanting a seat at the Arctic table). Fascinating and thorough, the session nuclear diplomacy included presentations by two impressive women deeply immersed in arms control and nonproliferation, diplomat Anne Harrington and scientist Arian Pregenzer. Ambassador Tibor Toth gave a riveting talk on the international network of stations set up around the globe to monitor for nuclear detonations, and gave an insight into the unfolding story of detecting theNorth Korean blast last week.

The day ended with a presentation from Rwanda’s Science Minister, Romain Murenzi, explaining Rwanda’s science policy in biodiversity, energy, climate change and telecoms. He mentioned One Laptop One Child, an idea pioneered by Nicolas Negroponte, as a central policy of his government. Such a window onto the world for the children of Rwanda could help to accelerate the cultural transformation that Rwanda is so desperately trying to affect in a region with a turbulent history of vicious colonialism and bitter civil war. This is a region where the free exchange of knowledge and ideas would surely make a huge contribution to an open, tolerant society, and where finding solutions to social, economic, political and environmental problems through international interdisciplinary collaborations may make a major contribution to achieving peace in the region.

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