When the first of my 14 dates sat down across from me, my stomach turned a bit. I’d never been speed dating before. What if I got 14 rejections? After all, we came from such different backgrounds!
Luckily my fears were completely unfounded. On Thursday night, PositiveFeedback, an initiative of the Earth Institute, the Center for Creative Research at NYU, and the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, brought together artists and climate scientists (or climate science writer in my case) for a round of speed dating. The goal? To help practitioners of the two disciplines find common ground and develop new (professional) relationships.
That common ground isn’t as rare as it might seem. From Galileo’s drawings of the heavens to Darwin’s sketches of finches to the recent rise of infographics, art has long helped convey complex scientific theories and data.
Lisa Phillips, co-director of PositiveFeedback, sees connections in the processes artists and scientists go through as well. “Both disciplines are essentially researching something in this world that strikes them—a phenomena, a challenge, a condition—and then formulating a response,” she said. “The essence of inquiry at its heart is incredibly similar.”
And though their outputs might look different, even they share some similarities. Whether taking a stream of numbers and making a forecast or a thought or emotion and making a painting, both scientists and artists can take something abstract and make it more visceral (of course the inverse can also be true).
So the challenge isn’t necessarily finding common ground, it’s getting the two sides to sit down and talk. “We chose a speed dating format to absolutely guarantee interaction between artists and scientists,” Phillips said. And interact we did, with scientists sitting across artists for staccato four-minute bursts of discussion before moving onto the next.
My first date was Jeremy Pickard, founder of Superhero Clubhouse. The whimsical name belies a serious endeavor by a group of theater artists to write and perform original plays inspired by the natural world.
It turned out Jeremy was no stranger to the Lamont campus, having performed an interactive play about climate change and tree rings at October’s Open House. Jeremy told me Superhero Clubhouse is currently looking to do a play about climate change and agriculture, a topic the International Research Institute for Climate and Society scientist James Hansen works extensively on as one of the leaders of the Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS) project. Who knew Superhero Clubhouse and CCAFS could be a match made in heaven?
Later in the night, installation artist Jackie Brookner took a seat across from me. She creates art near water, particularly human-made systems such as stormwater drains and river diversions. These places inspire her because of their paradox: water is essential to life yet we go through great efforts to tame it due to fear of what it can do if left to run free. One need only look at the chaos of the floods in Thailand or the Missouri River earlier this year to see examples of why those fears can be well founded.
By creating large works near water, Jackie’s told me her goal was to help ease some of those fears and create public spaces for people to engage with the water that sustains their communities. IRI as well as a number of other projects I’ve partnered with work with water infrastructure as well.
I’m happy to report that Jackie and I have already started emailing about some specific projects. We’re also planning our second “date” to talk about some of the ways Jackie could get involved in a few of these projects, which is exactly what Phillips had in mind when they planned the event. “While we don’t intend to play matchmaker per se, nor tell people what they should work on together, we want to catalyze and support these natural connections,” she said.
Don’t think it was just a one-way street, with science informing art. Jill Sigman, a performance artist who has had work exhibited internationally, told me about her ongoing Hut Project, a series of site-specific huts built of local repurposed material and refuse. Each hut has served as a piece of art itself as well as a place for performance and community discussion about issues of sustainability.
It got me thinking about IRI’s next climate forecast briefing. What if instead of having meeting in the usual auditorium, it was held in a space made of repurposed weather stations or old computers used for climate modeling? It might seem a little far-fetched to some of my colleagues but a science writer can dream, right?