Let It Breathe

Can wacky, waving, inflatable tubes help explain climate science?

Colorful waving tubes glow with color in Aaron Dysart’s art installation.
Aaron Dysart’s “Latitude” installation at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

By Tim Gihring

Aaron Dysart has long admired scientists — the way they see the world, and how they explain it. “I adore science,” says the Minneapolis artist. “Artists and scientists are both trained observers, we just go about it really differently with really different outcomes.”

Years ago, Dysart was introduced to John Schade, an ecologist who at the time was teaching at St. Olaf College. They became friends, talking for hours about the relationship between art and science, and were sometimes invited to have these conversations in public, joint lecturing at various colleges and events. At some point, Schade mentioned his view of the planet “breathing.”

Aaron Dysart

“It really struck me, this notion of respiration,” Dysart recalls. “It’s a process we can all understand — we breathe to stay alive — but breath is also an aspect of meditation and mindfulness. It’s automatic but also something we can control. And as we draw the outside into our bodies, it’s this connection with the world around us. I never thought about the planet doing that.”

Schade was referring to the Earth’s carbon cycle, how the planet both absorbs and releases carbon, a natural process that varies from one location to another depending on the time of day, the season, and other factors — increasingly, of course, human activity. Dysart came to learn about eddy covariance flux towers, which essentially measure this respiration. Scientists have been installing them for decades, taking readings of the ever-changing concentration of water vapor and gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, in the atmosphere. There are now hundreds of these towers, from one pole to the other, and hundreds more that are no longer active.

“I looked at the data they collect and how they measure it,” says Dysart, “and I started to think about how to talk about those things in a visual, locative sense, in an art installation.” Dysart refined his ideas with Schade for years, as the ecologist moved on from St. Olaf to the National Science Foundation and ultimately to Woodwell Climate Research Center, in Massachusetts. Then, last spring, Schade died of cancer.

Dysart continued working with other scientists, including Schade’s partner, Sue Natali, and this winter he installed Latitude at Mia, manifesting the planet’s respiration in light. The installation is one half of his two-work “Passage” show, part of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program at Mia, and occupies an entire room with a series of inflatable tubes. They resemble, in material and movement, the wildly gyrating figures most often seen outside car dealerships, also known as sky dancers, floppy balloon guys, and, on Family Guy at least, “wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men.”

A tower measuring carbon in the atmosphere stands in the Harvard Forest.
An eddy flux tower, operated by Harvard University. Installed in 1989, the tower provides the world’s longest continuous record of its kind, measuring carbon dioxide exchange, evaporation, and energy flux in the Harvard Forest.

A computer in the gallery is loaded with 10 years of carbon dioxide data from seven eddy flux towers across the planet. Dysart worked with a programmer to ascribe a color gradient to the numbers, from cool blues to purples to warm pinks. Three seconds of light equals one day of carbon data, and after three hours the whole show repeats.

From a distance, without any context, the show is mesmerizing. Even after reading about it — and feeling a little hot under the collar, perhaps, when the tubes turn from blue to pink — it’s hard to walk away, as people sometimes do when the subject turns to climate change. “We love shiny things: mirror balls and dancing socks, colorful lights and fog machines,” says Dysart. “When I see them, I’m happy. What I love is trying to apply that visual language to something that does matter.”

For Natali, who studies the changing Arctic environment for Woodwell, blending art and science to engage people is professionally satisfying: “If the research I do just sits in an academic journal, that’s not a good endpoint for me.” People tune out climate change and other data-driven stories, she feels, because they’re not connecting with them. Science can seem to emanate from someplace unfamiliar, with its own unfamiliar means and ends. “But the whole world is science,” she says. “Scientists live in the world and observe the world, just like everyone else.”

It’s also a matter of conscience, something Natali was essentially trained to ignore. At grad school, she says, “they valued science for science’s sake, more so than for management or advocacy.” Woodwell is different. It’s mission-driven, conducting science for decision-making, and Natali believes scientists are increasingly comfortable in a more public role, sharing their work with policymakers or managers — people in a position to do something about it. “It’s not advocacy so much as responsibility,” she says. “If I were a mechanic and I saw that your brakes were broken, I would tell you. That’s not advocacy, that’s the mechanic doing her job. If I observe something, I should share that knowledge.”

For Dysart, who admits to occasionally feeling overwhelmed by the climate crisis, an increasingly common complaint, art seems well-positioned to help us look at it, to sit with it for a while. “We can go into utter fear about the changing climate,” he says, “and when you talk to people, they already know everything, supposedly. So we need a new way in, a new way to think about this. Let’s start looking at the data again. Let’s look at the science.”

Aaron Dysart’s “Passage,” part of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, is on view in the U.S. Bank Gallery at Mia through February 27.

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