As Artists in Residence with Ensemble, we’ve been working as part of a multi-disciplinary team examining the role of technology in supporting a new kind of environmental science, a science that is open, integrated and collaborative, and supports better understanding and communication of environmental change. The team, led by Professor Gordon Blair at Lancaster University, involves data scientists, computer scientists, earth and environmental scientists, as well as statisticians, analysts, programmers, governmental organisations and businesses.
We bring our own outlook, questions and skills into the mix. As artist researchers our work is not solely about communicating what science and data research reveals; we also play a part in developing lines of questioning and refining or shaping methodologies.
Ensemble is a five-year programme, and takes four themes as its focus: flooding, biodiversity, soil and ‘ecosystem services’. We’ve been learning a huge amount as the years have passed, and have attended workshops and conferences around these themes, picking up knowledge and questions as we go. We’ve chosen to focus our attention not on a single theme, however, but on the intersection between different elements of environmental change, and the challenge of understanding and communicating complexity and complex systems.
“The great environmental challenges facing us in the 21st century are inescapably transdisciplinary. This project combines emerging opportunities for big data analysis with insights from natural and social sciences to make possible the types of understanding that we urgently need to get better at.”
Mike Berners-Lee, Small World Consulting
We came to the Ensemble team after having worked with Professor Gordon Blair through the ‘Environmental Internet of Things’ project in the Conwy Valley (2016). It continues to be a fascinating journey for us - not just because we are being plunged into the company of scientists, data specialists and systems thinkers, whose language and methodologies are refreshingly new to us. The conversations around our shared interest in environmental change are enriched by the differences between us. Our own mindsets (you could say 'artistic' but perhaps it's more that we are untrained in scientific analysis) tend to steer us away from formulae and measurable patterns that are fundamental to structured quantitative research. What we’re most curious about are the intangibles that affect choices around data collection, pesentation and application. These include human preferences and emotions, the role of culture, stories and art in shaping human experiences and decisions, and the impact that time spent in the natural world has on a sense of connection, direction of research, and motivation for meaningful actions. In conferences and workshops we’ve introduced presentations and participatory exercises that bring the natural world into the centre of the conversation, and we explore the places where tangible and intangible meet.
Working with Ensemble has been a huge influence in the development of the Sense of Here project. This has involved a series of more than 50 interviews with people sharing different perspectives, and our use of landscape as a theatre for walking, poetry and installation art to help us consider and convey complex interplay between sciences, natural elements, and the human and digital realms. We've also developed the concept of Data of the Heart thanks to our involvement with Ensemble, and drawing on contributions from almost 250 people, have worked closely with data scientists to explore alternative visualisations of emotions, and even to challenge computers to write poetry (more on that here).
To get a flavour for the breadth of the Ensemble project, do take a stroll around the Ensemble website. Our own blogs on the Ensembel site include this blog on soil, which weaves a poem from stories of soil shared by the wider team.
We’ve also joined some of the team in co-writing papers for academic journals, and are very proud to have been part of the creation of the Windermere Accord (2018).
The work of Ensemble and subsequent grants has been funded by the UK EPSRC as part of the Senior Fellowship in the Role of Digital Technology in Understanding, Mitigating and Adapting to Environmental Change grant no: EP/P002285/1.