Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

  • 18 July 2017

An artistic interpretation of data: partnering ECI with Modern Art Oxford

The Environmental Change Institute partnered with the arts community and the University of the Arts, London at Modern Art Oxford on May 24th in a Data Studio workshop led by artist Lucy Kimbell.

Visualising data

The workshop aimed to visualise datasets relating to environmental change in an experimental space. Participants were asked to create art pieces to represent their scientific data for a particular research problem in a way that non-academics could understand the key issues around the research. The final result could be design, intended to convey a specific message, or could be art, which is open to interpretation and contingent on peoples own inspiration.

The workshop was a first for many of the five researchers who attended, and who rarely – if ever - get the opportunity to take their work into the arts sphere. Talking about the experience, Dr Matthew Ives, Infrastructure modeller with the MISTRAL project, commented “To begin with I was wondering why I was there, as I felt out of my comfort zone, but by the end I didn’t want to leave.'

He described it as 'a really fun exercise. The process really got me thinking about who the audience is for my research. Traditionally I think of the audience as being broadly within policy or academic circles, but the audience here was the informed and – critically – the uninformed person in the street. What surprised me the most, was that the key message for this group was not the usual key message that I’m used to conveying.'

'The research I chose to bring to the Data Studio was around the modelling of long-term water supply in the UK. It essentially involves a mathematical model about the complex interactions between different actors; government, utilities, engineers etc. On one level, the public don’t really need to get involved in solving this problem, because they can leave it to governments, companies and regulators to solve. These are the actors that decide where to build new reservoirs and desalination plants and make decisions to move water from areas that have more to areas in shortage. But the key message I felt the public needed to hear is that this problem would be much less complex and much less expensive if everyone did get involved and did their bit to conserve water. So that is the message we were trying to convey through this artwork.'

Photo: Modern Art Oxford.

Reflecting on the workshop Ives said: 'I got a huge amount out of listening to the artists’ interpretations of our work - looking at our work in ways I’d never thought of before. They understood it, but were describing it in completely new terms. That was fascinating. In the past I’ve found it difficult to write for broader audience as I generally get too bogged down in the many little nuances and caveats that always exist in any complex systems modelling exercise. This process will certainly help me when I’m writing up my work - to synthesis my findings for a wider audience and extract key messages from my research.'

In another space, Dr Monika Zurek and her team created an art-piece to represent their work on the EU SUSFANS project to propose metrics for assessing whether the EU food system is delivering sustainable food and adequate nutrition.

'Through the workshop we were trying to get across that there is a balancing act across policy goals with differing priorities. We used the concept of balance in our model, involving four items and a piece of string. The items represented: balanced nutrition for EU citizens; reducing environmental impacts; competitive agri-food businesses; and equitable outcomes for EU citizens. We were trying to convey how difficult it is to actually hold things in balance, as different actors are all pushing in different directions and few are actually attempting to hold it all together. It is only by holding it together that we can minimise the trade-offs and unintended consequence which ultimately shift things out of balance.'

Photo: Modern Art Oxford.

The partnership for this event developed from collaboration for the Oxford Futures Forum 2017 which took place in June at the Said Business School. The Oxford Futures event, also involving Lucy Kimbell, gathered scholars and practitioners to explore ways of engaging and articulating climate change scenarios.

"I’m used to working with visuals and graphs to convey my research, but very rarely do I get the chance within my work-life to play with Lego, art equipment, and undertake the kinds of activities usually reserved for those with children."

Dr Monika Zurek




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