Climate? Art? Research? – “ClimateArtResearch”!
There is no doubt, in Victor Smetacek’s opinion, that science can learn from artists, particularly with respect to climate change. In 2009 the Professor for Biological Oceanography at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven launched a research project called LOHAFEX, which not only he thinks possesses artistic-conceptual qualities.
In LOHAFEX researchers fertilized an area of 300 square kilometers in the southern Arctic Ocean with 20 tons of dissolved ferrous sulfate so as to observe the change in CO2 absorption capacity of marine flora: a geo-engineering experiment that should, according to Smetacek, generate in the researchers a “sense of water” and its inhabitants.
A sense of water, a feeling for air
For Smetacek, the pure analysis of data is not enough to understand the complex interplay between ocean and climate; researchers also need new, aesthetic and intuitive ideas – for example, imagining the fundamentally different perception of the copepods lured by LOHAFEX: “You would have to be covered with sensory bristles and emerged in a swimming pool full of honey, which someone then stirs.” To help researchers along to the right empathy, they would need a kind of science-oriented performance.
What such an extension of the researcher’s perspective by artistic intuition could look like is illustrated by the installation The Yellow Cell by Jan-Peter E.R. Sonntag. In an artificial climate chamber of 40 degrees Celsius and a humidity of 90 per cent, the visitor, together with sweat-wicking owl butterflies, is exposed to an endless yellow light that drives up his serotonin. In this way, anyone can experience first-hand the consequences of altered environmental parameters in an experimental arrangement with clearly fixed constants.
Smetacek’s report and Sonntag’s yellow heat cell may be found in the lavishly illustrated volume Klimakunstforschung (ClimateArtResearch), which Merve Publishers in Berlin brought out in 2011. On approximately 220 pages of text and based on 16 works, the book gives an example of the extent to which artists all over the world carry out climate research, apply scientific methods, and use their artistic resources to reflect upon the phenomenon of climate change at the ecological, aesthetic and social levels – mainly via the interface of open-ended, creatively composed experiments. The documented projects are accompanied by interviews with renowned historians of science, researchers and art historians, whose theoretical reflections feed into the question of the possible “scientificness” of art works.
Some of the artists come themselves from the sciences. But invariably they transform scientific knowledge through the artistic process.
On the uses of beauty
This is the case with Susanne Lorenz from Berlin, who has integrated research on the cleansing power of water plants into the land art project Line of Beauty – The 5th Sewage Work: in a curving S-shaped canal surrounded by a river landscape in the Ruhr area, Lorenz combines the ecological-pragmatic idea of a botanical sewage work with William Hogarth’s eighteenth century theory of a naturally beautiful ideal line.
And so too with the Greenhouse Converter (Venus V) of the artist and professor at the Weimar Bauhaus University Ursula Damm, which is based on the “endosymbiotic theory” of the biologist Lynn Margulis and with which anyone can “produce” an ecological equilibrium between algae and water fleas in an aquarium.
Using a sluggish crank, one can pump CO2-saturated water from a fountain into an aquarium so as to accelerate the growth of algae, the food source of water fleas. If the relation between plant growth and animal population is right, the small crustaceans can keep an LED light indicator clean. Then the lettering “beloved” shines easily legible in blue light. If the lettering is not legible, then this indicates that man has failed.
Climate research and acoustic experiment
For Ursula Damm the Greenhouse Converter (Venus V) should put man’s wish “to use technology to control a nature that has lost its balance” within his grasp. It is also part of her intention that the results of this aesthetic experiment should reverberate in research: an aspect shared by many of the works collected in Klimakunstforschung.
Wasser – kann man Wolken hören? (Water – Can You Hear Clouds?), which seeks to make climate data gathered from the atmosphere on water and ice masses, air pressure, temperature and dew point evaluable not only in the scientifically standard form of graphs, but also directly and sensuously through sound scores. For the project’s co-initiator Thomas Koop, this is a clear scientific gain, because human beings can analyze “acoustic signals with great precision”.
Third category: Gyro Gearloose
Despite these obvious and intelligently chosen examples, Klimakunstforschung fortunately never falls into the error of blurring the borders between two completely different systems. As science, notably in experiments, has always incorporated creativity and intuition, so art at least since the Renaissance has sought to make use of scientific knowledge, as this book makes clear, especially in the interview with the historian of science Lorraine Daston. There have always been mutual appropriations, but the epistemological differences remain evident also today.
In conversation, the sociologist Harald Welzer, himself formerly the operator of an art gallery, and now working on the research focus Climate and Culture at the Cultural Studies Institute (KWI) in Essen, especially insists on the distinction between the Kantian “disinterestedness” of aesthetic-artistic activity and the use-oriented knowledge interest of scientific-objectifying activity: “The form of knowledge generated by art is systematically and substantially different from that generated by science”.
And Welzer gives short shrift to the artistic-conceptual claims of geo-engineering projects such as Victor Smetacek’s LOHAFEX: “For me, at any rate, that isn’t science. And also not art. It belongs rather to a third category: Gyro Gearloose”.
is head of an editorial bureau and works as a literary critic and cultural and science journalist (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, NZZ am Sonntag, Westdeutscher Rundfunk). He is based in Cologne.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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