A Science-Art Collaboration

By Dannie Dinh

Closeup of EcoVenus, by Michelle Rogers

This fall, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) welcomes a special guest, artist Michelle Rogers, to its offices at Columbia University’s Lamont campus. Rogers will complete a work-in-progress while just a stone’s throw away from hundreds of research scientists and other staff who study climate, geology, oceanography and other earth sciences. Her painting, Eco Venus — an 8x10ft ‘ecological interpretation’ of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus — will include more than 100 ocean species that the International Union for Conservation of Nature recognizes as endangered. Rogers plans to exhibit the painting alongside some of her other works during the 2017 Venice Biennale, a contemporary visual art exhibition held every other year in the Italian city.

Timelapse of IRI staff helping Rogers set up her EcoVenus painting.

As an artist and an environmentalist, Rogers has drawn inspiration from events of international significance. For example, she attended the launch of the Laudato si’ by Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2015 and was invited by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to sketch during the signing of the Paris Climate agreement in New York earlier this year.

Rogers first had the idea of a science-art collaboration in 2014, when she attended a panel on “Visualizing Climate Change“, organized by the International Center for Photography in collaboration with IRI and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. There, she met IRI communications director Francesco Fiondella, and Rebecca Fowler, who at the time was a science writer for LDEO. Fiondella and Fowler had partnered with ICP to organize a series of science talks and gallery tours for ICP’s exhibit of Sebastiao Salgado’s Genesis.

As one of the few attendees who were not part of the research community, Rogers sensed a large gap between the scientific and cultural worlds.

“The scientific data felt locked away from our daily culture, our general public,” she says. “Is it possible that the people with the most information about our climate need more help in reaching as many others as possible about what the future will bring?”

Two years later, Rogers is painting at IRI, talking to researchers, finding connections in their work and sharing her perspectives.

Visual art has the power to spark conversations, to envision ideas and concepts, to make the intangible tangible, to inject the issues into our mainstream culture. The science community is trained to find answers and solutions in numbers and figures, but it also faces the challenging task of communicating and relaying scientific findings to policy makers, stakeholders, voters and other nonscientific communities who can pursue policies and actions based on the information. This art-science collaboration comes at a crucial time, when many parts of the world are already feeling the impacts of climate variability and change, yet many are still unable to connect to the problem at hand, much less derive solutions to address it.

During her time at IRI, Rogers hopes to work with scientists at IRI and LDEO to help get scientific messages out in creative and engaging ways. It is no coincidence that her training and artistic visions are rooted in Italian Renaissance, a grand period of scientific and artistic collaborations. She believes we could use some of that inspiration to bring us forward in facing the climate-related challenges confronting humanity.

Columbia’s Lamont community is just as curious and enthusiastic to engage with the visiting artist. During the first few days of her stay, the sight of the large painting and the artist at work caught the attention of many researchers, sparking a number of conversations and ideas. Joaquim Goes, a Lamont Research Professor in the Department of Marine Biology and Paleoenvironment, was one of the first to invite Rogers to tour his lab and learn about his team’s research, particularly on the rise of green Noctiluca scintillans. Toxic blooms of this unusual dinoflagellate are linked to massive fish and marine invertebrate die-offs. Goes expressed his excitement to interact with an artist and find the many similarities between scientists and artists — particularly in the capacity to see beyond the obvious — as well as the difference in their approach to creativity or communicating ideas.

Columbia University scientist Joaquim Goes discusses his work with artist Michelle Rogers. Photo Dannie Dinh/IRI

Lamont’s Joaquim Goes discusses his work with artist Michelle Rogers. Photo by Dannie Dinh/IRI.

Rogers says her visit to the marine biology lab gave her many ideas, which she plans to incorporate into the Eco Venus painting and her other works. And it seemed she was not the only one teeming with new ideas. “After [our] meeting, I pondered on what Michelle said, that she saw parallels between Noctiluca and our planet — something that I had not even thought about. So you see, the inspiration traveled both ways,” says Goes.

Although the artist’s visit is a new experience for IRI, Fiondella hopes it will be the first of many such collaborations in the future between the art and science communities. “The pursuit of science and art has led to profound understanding and appreciation for both the natural world and the human condition,” he says. “It makes sense that we encourage active collaboration between these two groups in communicating the risks that climate poses, which cross borders and cultures and span generations.”

Dannie Dinh is the Special Assistant to the Director of IRI and Communications Officer for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)’s flagship on climate risk management. She believes that art and design can be powerful ways to help make complex scientific concepts like climate change more personal and tangible. Dannie is a contributor to The Chromatic Watch art blog and a volunteer for the Civic Art Lab summer workshop series.