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Art to create empathy with the Arctic

Environmental artist Kat Austen was Cultural Institute Fellow in Arts and Science 2017–18, using her time at the University to explore the capacity of art to engender empathy with the process of climate change.

Throughout her fellowship at the University of Leeds’ Cultural Institute, she has worked with researchers and students associated with the Priestley International Centre for Climate and across the institution.

The Matter of the Soul

Artist Kat Austen taking samples of Arctic water from Baffin Island, Canadian High Arctic

The Matter of the Soul is a multi-media performance and music, sculptureand video installation that uses water from the Arctic to highlight the effects of climate change. Austen explores the changes to ocean chemistry caused by the melting of Arctic ice, using hacked lab equipment to transform them into musical instruments.

The culmination of her fellowship was the premiere performance of The Matter of the Soul as a symphony performance at Opera North’s Howard Assembly Room in Leeds. Austen “played” samples of Arctic water in a live performance of a three-part work based on field recordings from a trip to the Canadian High Arctic, accompanied by pianist Matthew Bourne and cornet player Alex Bonney.

Telling the story of changes to the waters around Baffin Island in the Canadian high Arctic, the symphony incorporated snippets from interviews with people living in the region as well as visitors to it. Austen also highlighted the role played by socio-politics and culture in the Arctic’s physical changes.

Kat Austen performing The Matter of the Soul at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Following the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report urging drastic changes to how we live in order to avoid catastrophic global warming, Austen saidː “I’m asking again the questions that inspired this work: in the face of insufficient action on climate change to date, can art prompt an emotional relationship to the environment, and can that motivate us to act differently?”

The Matter of the Soul combines music with sculpture to engender empathy with the process of dispersal and transformation in the Arctic. I wove together narratives of human migration, cultural changes and the movement of water from ice to ocean in this fragile and iconic region as a way to emotionally engage with the complexity of climate change.”

The Matter of the Soul installation at Bonhams, August 2018

The laboratory meters she adapted measure water’s acidity and saltiness. Austen visited the Nunavut region in the Canadian High Arctic to record the sounds the instruments made while taking measurements from different part of its shoreline.

The Matter of the Soul will be performed at the opening of Greenpeace’s Climate Hub in Katowice, Poland on 1 December, accompanied by two dancers with choreography by Kasia Witek.

Read more about The Matter of the Soul

The Cultural Institute’s Cultural Fellowships in Arts and Science support and develop emerging creative talent, embedding artists within the University in order to work with scientists to explore areas of science research and emerging technologies.

Kat Austen is a Berlin-based artist and Cultural Fellow in Art and Science at the University of Leeds. She is 2017–18 Artist in the Arctic for Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute, sponsored by Bonhams and OneOcean. She lectures on art and citizen science at University College London’s Art and Science BASc, and Engineering Thinking at UCL. She advises internationally on art and science, art and technology, technology in society, futures and scenarios, multiple knowledges, inter-disciplinarity, community and participatory research and design, resilience and infrastructure design. Kat holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from University College London and the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Research for The Matter of the Soul was supported as part of the Artist in the Arctic programme by Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute, One Ocean Expeditions and Bonhams. The scientific instruments were donated by the Chemistry Department of University College London, and the symphony was also supported by Ice Alive.

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