A conversation with Tega Brain and Simon David Hirsbrunner
"Models Produce Spaces of Possibility"
At New Nature, participants explored synergies and tensions between art and science. Building on these conversations, we spoke to artist/engineer Tega Brain and researcher Simon David Hirsbrunner about climate impact modelling, perceptions of science, and infrastructures beyond the human agenda.
By Janna Frenzel
Tega, you are trained as an environmental engineer and are now working as an independent artist. In your view, what do the engineering and artistic perspectives bring to the table when it comes to the environment and climate change, and what are their potential synergies and respective limits?
Tega Brain: These two perspectives provide radically different ways of engaging with these issues, but my experience working as an engineer in industry has deeply informed my art practice. The way that a lot of science and engineering is taught frames engineering as a problem-solving practice. Yet it often struggles to adequately grapple with the social context in which technologies are actually being deployed, and how they become complex political actors.
While I was building stormwater infrastructure in the form of wetlands, rain gardens and other water quality systems, I found that the larger context of this work, where these stormwater systems were being built to support new housing developments, wasn’t adequately considered. And there wasn’t a lot of questioning of this end-of-pipe approach where we build these monstrous houses over habitat and gorgeous forested areas, and then we stick a wetland on the end of them and call the whole thing “environmentally sensitive”. I wanted to work in a space where I could question the fundamental assumptions that exist in a lot of technology-related practices.
For me, art is a convenient context for interdisciplinary work where I can build systems based on thought experiments—with a freedom you don’t get if you are building infrastructure that is to be rolled out at scale. As an artist, I can build prototype systems that model experimental ways of thinking and that suggest ways to structure different relations with the biosphere.
Scenarios of future worldsSimon, your research investigates how climate impact scenarios are mobilized and popularized through digital data and technologies. What was it that first brought you to engage with these questions, and how do you view the relationship between data-based accounts of climate change and other forms of representation?
Simon David Hirsbrunner: It’s always hard to say where it all begins or comes from, but I first got involved with climate change while working as an environmental policy consultant in Berlin. Then I decided to go back to academia and to look at these issues from the perspective of Media Studies and Science and Technology Studies.
I really identify with the urge to get away from the technical and the scientific side of climate change and look at it as a social and cultural phenomenon. However, in my own work, I specifically look at climate impact research and its reliance on computer models to create scenarios of future worlds. One of the transformations that I have investigated in my PhD, which is an ethnographic study of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, is an attentive shift away from all-encompassing, global climate models to small-scale applications and risk scenarios with everyday relevance.
In your view, what are the implications of different types of modelling for the social meaning that data takes on?
Tega: Modelling is really the primary perspective we have of climate change and we wouldn’t understand its mechanics of it at all without these tools. They are profound in shaping our perspective of that particular challenge but there are a lot of tensions and contradictions in modelling: low resolution of data, much is left out. And models are underpinned by certain assumptions of how societies will respond to them.
I think we are in this really interesting moment where we’ve had the perspective of global models for 3 or 4 decades now, since the Limits to Growth work of the 1970s, and now we’re turning towards something else, as Simon mentioned. There is this profound turn towards the local, which I think has been reinforced by the COVID-19 pandemic. So how do we act on the scale of a neighbourhood or a few city blocks? In my neighbourhood in Brooklyn, the pandemic has catalyzed all sorts of organizing and politics, basically with whoever is in walking distance to your apartment. So there is this huge shift in attention towards local action and organizing.
But even prior to the pandemic, this trend was already there because we need to address climate issues on two scales - the very local as well as at an infrastructural level. And that means we need data sets and models that are relevant to both.
Simon: I think the distributed aspect of climate change impacts is a very important point. Of course, it is impossible to think about climate change without considering its spatial and temporal distributedness. However, the distributed character also includes the ways we talk about, organize, and act on climate change. In my opinion, Fridays for Future is so effective because they manage to use digital media platforms to mobilize and connect on both a local and global scale. Today, the environment and digitality are intimately connected.
Science is a practiceSince you mentioned Fridays for Future, what is your view on the “Listen to the science” claim brought forward by the movement? Do you think it is strategically effective for bringing about change?
Simon: The movement only sees itself as the messenger that brings scientific facts to the public and political decision makers. Fridays for Future is amazing, and so many things that we as participants in the climate debate were hoping for are now materializing with this movement. Yet, I’m somewhat sceptical of how their “Listen to the science” claim implicitly portrays science as a sort of truth machine and climate scenarios as non-negotiable reality. But this is of course a long-standing debate between social scientists, humanities scholars and climate researchers from the natural sciences.
Tega: If science is perceived as a truth-telling machine, I think there is a danger it can easily be weaponized when the models are wrong—which inevitably they always are. We’ve seen this happen when industry lobbyists and deniers use the uncertainty that is inherent in science, to cast doubt over the entire field of climate science.
Science is a practice, and it is important to communicate how it works. But it can require a lot of nuance to talk about what science is, especially in the US where public education has been undermined for so many decades. And a lot of debates around climate change are also about politics, class and other struggles for equality. So simply saying, “I believe in the science” is troubling because it is using the same language of belief that one might use when talking about religion.
Tega Brain - Guangzhou #1
Tega Brain - Guangzhou #2
Tega Brain - Guangzhou #3
In the communication of their research insights, scientists often show their original data to get people to understand climate impacts better. But communication via digital data is not a straightforward process. The interesting thing is the in-between, the misunderstandings and controversies and how to talk about them. There is a website, Climate Impacts Online, a map-based interface that aims to introduce insights from climate impact research to school curricula in Germany. In our analysis of people’s interactions with the platform, we noticed that this project is as much a about data literacy as about climate change. People first need to understand what they see and learn how to talk about this kind of fact presentation —to use data as a way of mediating and articulating the world.
"oh, the models are wrong!"Tega: The discussion around models and COVID-19 has also been fascinating in that regard. We’ve been on this crash course of people understanding non-linearity, exponential curves, modelling and prediction. What I’ve been most fascinated by is this whole reaction of, “oh, the models are wrong! The prediction was X and then X didn’t happen”. There’s a tendency to misread models as representing truth when really what they do is articulate spaces of possibility. I think we can learn a lot from what is happening now, and from how public narratives emerge, that is very relevant to the climate challenge and climate communication.
How do you deal with these tensions in your artistic practice? What is your process for selecting datasets to visualize a specific problem in order to make climate change tangible for an audience?
Tega: My work is about diving into these tensions and trying to animate them in different ways. I try to create spaces where issues like the limitations of models can be discussed and thought through outside of the realm of scientific white papers. Trying to make something tangible is obviously very central to artistic engagement, which has always been about the value of experience and encounter rather than more instrumental engagements like reading statistics or looking at a graph. But I don’t do data visualization work anymore because I wanted to explore tensions, failures and ambiguities, and visualization work hasn’t offered me a way where that’s easily done.
Instead, lately I’ve been building experimental systems. One of my more recent projects, Deep Swamp, involves trying to take an environment like a wetland, and building a computational system that tries to see it and manage it in a particular way, but the whole system is always a sort of failure. These works shed light on the limits of computation and the ways in which a system mis-sees or can’t interpret certain things. It’s a work that explores the space that always exists between the world and the computational interpretation of it.
Simon: At New Nature, we talked quite a bit about the difference between immersion and friction. In my opinion, we need to be careful not to throw people into seamless, smooth media spaces to make them learn about new human-environment relationships. Rather, it is in the moment of friction or experience of tension that one can learn, engage with others and negotiate things. That is the contribution that art can make to other cultures of communication.
There is this artwork, HighWaterLine by Eve Mosher. Mosher walked through New York and other coastal cities drawing lines of chalk that represent the high-water lines according to sea-level rise scenarios. The performative aspect of drawing in situ triggered a lot of discussions with local communities, which Mosher also documented. I think that is a really interesting way to treat data, because it makes it meaningful and relevant within a specific context. It fosters new ideas, maybe creates controversy. But the artist does not control the way this materialized data acts on people’s perceptions of climate change. It triggers a debate, and that I think is the way forward for creating meaningful relationships with data.
Tega, at New Nature you mentioned that you are interested in re-thinking infrastructures beyond the human agenda and instrumentalism. Could you go into more detail about what that means for you, and how it is tied to your work?
Tega: We have so much work to do in the field of engineering because so many of our systems are still based on the assumption that humans are autonomous entities that can exist without being entangled in ecologies. Most cities still build their water supply systems as linear systems, based on the assumption that the ocean can ingest infinite wastewater, and there is no assessment in regard to how the system is distributing water to other species, other ecologies and the many life forms that live in cities with us.
So there is a lot of work ahead of us to try to figure out how we might re-configure the ways we assess our technologies, so that they acknowledge the fact that our health is entangled with an ecosystem's health, and is dependent on an environment that extends way beyond of what is conventionally conceived as the human. That is a big theme in my work and I’m always trying to take “externalities”, an economic term for effects that go unaccounted for, and think about how to bring it into the system.
When it comes to instrumentality, there is this huge question around how we justify supporting a street tree or a wetland and it’s often done by saying that these living entities provide some sort of “ecosystem service.” We understand and treat these ecosystems as if they are infrastructures, giving us air filtration or flood protection for free, and we think about how to put a dollar value on that. That framing overlooks the intrinsic value of other life forms. Why do they have to have some sort of instrumental benefit to the human in order for us to be able to justify their conservation or support, or dedicate resources to them? This is what I am trying to draw attention to in my work.
Tega Brain is an Australian-born artist and environmental engineer whose work examines issues of ecology, data systems and infrastructure. She is an Assistant Professor of Integrated Digital Media, New York University. She has created wireless networks that respond to natural phenomena, systems for obfuscating fitness data, and an online smell-based dating service. Her work has recently been exhibited at the Guangzhou Triennial, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, the New Museum, NYC and the Science Gallery in Dublin. Her work has been widely discussed in the press including in the New York Times, Art in America, The Atlantic, NPR, Al Jazeera and The Guardian and in art and technology blogs like the Creators Project and Creative Applications. She has given talks and workshops at museums and festivals like EYEO, TedxSydney and the Sonar Festival.
Simon David Hirsbrunner
is a postdoctoral researcher at the Human-Centered Computing Research Group at Freie Universität Berlin and a member of the Geo.X research network. He holds a PhD in media ethnography (University of Siegen), a Master’s in European Media Studies (University of Potsdam), and a Master’s in International Relations (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies). In his current research, he is investigating the public understanding, negotiation and trust in climate risk scenarios and experiments with machine learning methods for critical social media analysis. Some insights of his scientific work are gathered in his upcoming book, A New Science for Future: Climate Impact Research and the Quest for Digital Openness.