Since Oscar and I had our first video call last week, I’ve been reflecting on some of the parallels in our thinking and processes.
1. The Work is Shaped by Constraints:
When I first started incorporating climate data into my art practice, I felt self-conscious about how I let constraints shape some of my decisions. I originally chose this NOAA database, in part, because it was data I could easily access and understand without needing a scientist to interpret it or any specialized software to download it. My engagement with the data then led me to a still-unfolding series of questions that guides which dataset(s) I select for a given artwork—for example questions about how the data has been aggregated, what data is and is not included, relationships between places & datasets
I learned in our conversation that the work of Oscar and his team of researchers is shaped, partially, by its own set of constraints. As one example, the specific lakes he studied were constrained geographically/physically since they need to be within a few days travel to the lab where the data could be analyzed.
How can we make sure to work consciously within these constraints? How might we break through them? Or, how can we work with data in a way that points to what is missing and acknowledges the complex systems in which it was produced?
2. It’s All About Relationships:
Oscar studies the browning of lakes. This browning has many causes linked to anthropogenic climate change: rising temperatures, acidification, changes in precipitation, etc. When he began this research, he quickly learned that in order to understand what is happening in the lakes, one has to understand what is happening outside of them. He spoke of this in the context of planetary health, that everything is connected and the health of one being is dependent on the wellbeing of an ecosystem. Even human health does not mean the absence of sickness, but rather is dependent on social and ecological health.
Our discussion of interconnectedness and planetary health reminded me of some of the research I did while conceptualizing Bound.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists the ways climate change harms human health. Inversely, Health Care Without Harm demonstrates how the global health care sector contributes to climate change.
This emphasis on relationships resonated deeply with me. Those in power within the enmeshed structures of patriarchal capitalism and settler colonialism attempt to obscure and sever many kinds of relationships. Seeking out and re-weaving relationships feels like some of the most important work one can do these days.
As we move forward in this collaboration, I am excited to think through how our work can reveal relationships and the importance of those relationships (rather than individual datasets), while also finding ways to acknowledges and work beyond our usual constraints.
Since 1443, the priests living at the shore of Lake Suwa (Japan) have been recording the date in which a ridge appears on the lake ice as the Shinto Gods walk over it. These dates describe the Gods’ behaviour, and mark the dates to celebrate their rituals. Years later, researchers found more stories in this data, and used it to track long-term climate-driven changes in lake freeze-thaw.
Since 2014, we have been studying the connection between changes in lake color (lake browning) and algal blooms in northern latitudes. Data of lake physical and chemical characteristics, algae, and crustaceans helped us test our predictions regarding the causes and consequences of lake browning.
Data serves to answer a question (what is called ‘deductive reasoning’, like the ice records of lake Suwa) or test a hypothesis (in ‘inductive reasoning’, like the datasets that research lake browning). However, “data doesn’t exist, data is a way that we, human beings, design to record our reality, but it's never the real thing, it's always the placeholder for something else” (Georgia Luppi, The Room of Change). Not only data is an incomplete or imperfect reality, but it is also very personal, “knowledge is socially situated and [that] the perspectives of oppressed groups including women, minorities and others are systematically excluded from “general” knowledge” (Catherine D'Ignazio, Civic Media).
Tali and I talked about how we gather, treat, explore, and represent data. I have been thinking about the limitations of our lake browning data since we had this conversation, which stories does it fails to tell? and which other narratives could our data tell (as is) if we looked at it from a different perspective? Could our lake browning data be explored in a different manner (the same way that scientists used the Lake Suwa data collected by priests) to generate new work?