Public understanding of science is critical as society faces social-ecological challenges that are growing in intensity and number, including the broad-reaching effects of climate change. The integration of environmental science with arts and humanities (eSAH) can appeal to diverse publics by catalyzing emotional responses to environmental issues, which can prime learning and impact attitude shifts and pro-environmental behavior. But there are epistemological and practical challenges to eSAH collaborations. Boundary objects (Star & Griesemer, 1989) – information or objects used by different communities in different ways – can help overcome these challenges by promoting collaboration between artists, humanities scholars, and scientists. They provide a shared focus for co-creation and a context to unpack different approaches to inquiry.
In a Time of Change (ITOC), an eSAH incubator associated with the Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program in interior Alaska, uses place as a boundary object to bridge relationships between artists, writers, and scientists. Participants co-investigate a place-based environmental theme, e.g. the role of microbes in changing Northern ecosystems, over the course of a year, then present their work at a public exhibit. At these exhibits, the art and writing themselves become boundary objects around which broader publics gather to engage with ideas and landscapes. Since its establishment in 2008, the ITOC model has evolved in response to our research on audience and participant impacts, moving toward a relationship-centered program focused on process rather than product, to facilitate informal learning and connections at every stage of the collaborative experience.
In this article, we describe the ITOC program and the broader ecosystem of eSAH work in which it is nested, including the U.S. National Science Foundation’s LTER network, where most sites host some kind of eSAH inquiry, and a larger trend of eSAH work across venues, contexts, and purposes. We then use the case study of a recent ITOC project, Microbial Worlds, to demonstrate the ways relationships between artists, writers, and scientists are transmitted to audiences through eSAH collaborative exhibits, resulting in impacts to audience knowledge and attitudes about the natural world and broad support for eSAH approaches to environmental problem solving.
BackgroundIn a Time of Change (ITOC), established by the Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research program in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2008, is an eSAH program that facilitates collaborative relationships and produces exhibits, performances, and public events focused on social-ecological themes such as climate change, wildfire, predator control, microorganisms, and other dimensions of Northern ecosystems. The most recent project, Microbial Worlds, focused on the many roles microbes play in human and environmental health, including functions that positively and negatively impact society and the environment. Artists and writers highlighted the fact that while some microbes cause disease and contribute to climate change by releasing the greenhouse gas methane from thawing permafrost, others are responsible for maintaining healthy ecosystems through decomposition, nutrient cycling, and removal of toxic pollutants from the environment. Microbes can also promote plant, animal, and human health through symbiotic or commensal relationships occurring in the human gut microbiome and in mycorrhizal fungal partnerships with boreal forest trees. The Microbial Worlds collaborative arts-humanities-science exhibit drew large audiences at its Fairbanks premiere and subsequent touring exhibitions across Alaska as well as in Oklahoma, Oregon, and Finland (Fig. 1). Audience survey data demonstrated that the exhibit contributed to increased knowledge about the roles of microbes in ecosystems and the effects of human activities on ecosystems. Participants also demonstrated an increased motivation to learn more about microbes and an increased appreciation of science more broadly.
The Nested EcosystemITOC is nested within a larger ecosystem of place-based arts and humanities activities in the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network (Fig. 2) and a broader trend of eSAH initiatives hosted by natural resources agencies, nonprofits, universities, and creative retreat centers.
The LTER network currently includes 28 sites across different biomes that focus on interdisciplinary investigation of ecological processes, both in the ecosystems at individual sites as well as across sites, through the investigation of shared themes. Most LTER sites (21 of 24 sites in 2013) feature some kind of engagement with arts and humanities, including artists’ and writers’ residencies and outreach and education programs (Goralnik et al., 2015, 2017; Ecological Reflections). These LTER eSAH activities are situated within a broader national and even global groundswell of eSAH initiatives across a wide array of venues, including universities, nonprofits, and federal agencies (Curtis et al., 2012; Leigh et al., 2021; Swanson, 2015). While eSAH programs and activities vary, scholars argue that this type of deep interdisciplinary collaboration can facilitate emotional engagement with and care for the natural world (Demaray, 2014; Kimmerer, 2016; Root-Bernstein, 2003), though most of this work is anecdotal or theoretical. Our work with the ITOC program specifically, and in the LTER network broadly, uses empirical methods to contribute to this conversation by exploring collaborative dynamics and the impacts of relationship-focused arts and humanities integration for audience learning, engagement, and care (Goralnik et al., 2015, 2017).
ITOC’s Evolving Collaborative Environment
For each ITOC project, competitively selected and invited artists and writers engage in facilitated interactions with scientists and then develop and present original, science-informed works focused on the core theme at public exhibits, literary readings, panel discussions, and/or live performances. We have been evaluating the ITOC program since 2013 to explore audience impacts related to knowledge, attitudes, and engagement. In past shows we have investigated whether audience members: (a) experience a change in knowledge or attitudes related to Northern landscapes, climate change, science, or scientists; or (b) develop an increased interest in or connection to Far North landscapes. We have also explored audience perceptions of the role and impact of eSAH integration on environmental problem solving and the general audience experience, including what they appreciated or enjoyed about the exhibit. This research demonstrated that audience members learned some, and felt a lot, and what they most enjoyed were the social and interactive elements of the experience, including learning about the artist and scientist interactions, having conversations with artists at the exhibit, and discussing the work with other audience members during the exhibit. We found that relationships at every stage of the collaborative process were important to interpersonal, cognitive, and creative outcomes. As a result we have shifted the ITOC eSAH integration model to create more opportunities for authentic exchange between artists, writers, scientists, and the public, including longer time periods for artists and teams to interact and develop their artwork, from 6 months in 2007-08 to 16 months during Microbial Worlds in 2015-17. Our observations suggest that extending opportunities for relationship-building has led to stronger collaborations between artists and scientists, greater depth in terms of the scientific concepts integrated into the creative works, and the emergence of new collaborations between artists and/or writers in the cohorts. Our research questions have also shifted to reflect the role of relationships in the collaborative dynamic. In addition to the previous questions about eSAH audience impacts, we also investigate: What are the best practices to facilitate relationship-centered interdisciplinary collaborations rooted in place? How do relationship-centered collaborations impact participant collaborative capacity? To what extent do relationship-focused collaborations and exhibits create spaces of inclusion and belongingness for broad audiences? To what extent do relationship-building activities in the exhibit space facilitate engagement, curiosity, and a sense of community for audiences?
ITOC’s first two projects featured a single-day trip to Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest, with follow-up cohort gatherings geared toward the production of live performances (2008 and 2010) and an accompanying art exhibit (2010), Envisioning the Future. The next iteration, The Art of Fire, included multiple field trips with wildfire scientists and managers, expanding participants’ exposure to collaborators and subject area content. Studio tours and artist talks that accompanied the exhibit highlighted the creative process and sparked discussions between artists and scientists on similarities in their artistic and scientific approaches to inquiry. The fourth ITOC project, Trophic Cascades, incorporated a three-day field trip with overnight stays in Denali National Park and Preserve. Interviews with participants following this program revealed that the long bus rides and unscripted time during the field trip fostered important informal relationship building that participants found rewarding both for their learning and creative processes (Goralnik et al., 2017).
The goal of increasing the frequency and the depth of interaction between the artist and writers with the scientists is twofold: (1) to destabilize knowledge hierarchies and promote honest exchange by supporting bidirectional, rather than unidirectional, relationships (e.g. co-sharing, rather than science informing art); and (2) to increase the depth of artists’ and writers’ learning about science and natural systems, thereby potentially increasing the public’s exposure to these ideas, too, as the deeper understanding of social-ecological systems will inform the artists’ and writers’ creative processes, the ways they describe their interactions with the scientists and place, and the ways they discuss their work. This evolution of the collaborative model is still in process.Microbial Worlds, ITOC’s fifth major program, was designed with these goals and lessons learned from previous projects in mind. ITOC artists, writers, and scientists embarked on single- and multi-day field trips to research sites, and gathered monthly for lectures, lab activities, and discussions over a 16-month period (Fig. 3). On a 5-day field trip to the remote Toolik Field Station (Arctic LTER), participants traveled, lived, worked, and socialized together. Field activities focused on dismantling the common art-science dynamic of knowers (scientists) explaining phenomena to novices (artists). For example, in addition to scientists sharing about landscape processes and field methods, the artists and writers also gave short presentations on their craft and creative process. This sharing empowered the creative participants and facilitated new awareness for the scientists. The artists and writers had opportunities to assist with scientific research, as well as free access to scientific tools (microscopes, etc.) for their own exploration. Unstructured time for inquiry provided opportunities to generate and honor wonder, play, and curiosity as tools of discovery. Extended time on bus rides and hikes also allowed artists to form relationships with each other that led to new collaborations, such as the spontaneous collaboration that emerged between visual artist Ree Nancarrow and writer Debbie Moderow (Fig. 4).
The artists and writers appreciated the deeper and more consistent interactions with the scientists in this program; the impacts were also apparent in the scientific depth of their creative work. One artist in particular, Stephanie Rae Dixon, a multimedia artist and costumer based in Brooklyn, New York, went deeper still when she joined an Alaska-based microbiology research team for three two-week field research expeditions to Kevo Subarctic Research Station in Northern Finland. This residency experience generated deeply integrated artwork in which multiple scientific concepts and methodologies were incorporated into the creation of the multimedia art installation (Fig. 5). As an artist in residence, Dixon assisted with all aspects of the scientific field research in Finland, giving her a deep understanding of the scientific methods and research questions being investigated. The scientific research on leaf litter decomposition involved burying bags of leaves and retrieving them for analysis annually over the course of two years. Dixon integrated these concepts into her artwork as she designed and constructed dresses made with natural plant fiber, recruited scientists to help adorn them with local vegetation, then took photos and videos of the scientists wearing the dresses while performing Dixon’s choreography based on the morphology and cultural history of birch trees. She then buried the dresses at the research site and allowed them to undergo decomposition in parallel with the scientific experiments, then retrieved them and performed repeat photography and videography of scientists in the decomposed dresses over the three-year project. Dixon then created a multimedia installation that included three dresses at various stages of decomposition embedded in resin accompanied by a collection of film photographs of the science team wearing them. At the center of the installation was a box of live forest understory plants, in which a dancer performed during opening receptions, wearing one of the dresses. Video of the science team dancing in the field in the dresses was projected onto her – and later onto the dress lying on top of the plants for the remainder of the exhibit. An added layer of science integration was incorporated when the collaborative team performed DNA analysis on a fragment of decomposed dress and created an infographic for the installation that revealed the identity of the microbes and other organisms that had colonized and helped decompose the dress. The DNA analysis was conducted in real-time using a handheld next-generation DNA analysis instrument (MinION, Oxford Nanopore Technologies) at the opening exhibit reception. We attribute this high level of integration of scientific and artistic elements to the extended time spent in the field as a resident, in which the artist was actively involved in the science and the scientists were involved in the artwork. We plan to draw from her experience in future ITOC programs by incorporating residencies for artists and writers with scientific research teams in addition to offering our traditional ITOC cohort-level activities.
Impacts and InnovationIn the face of grand social-ecological challenges, including the expansive impacts of climate change, there is an urgent need for inclusive science dialogue. People need to both know about the issues and care about the landscapes and communities that are being impacted. eSAH can invite broad audiences into potentially challenging conversations by catalyzing emotions, making the familiar unfamiliar (or vice versa), and moving from the abstract to the concrete by telling stories that are personally relevant. The art becomes a boundary object around which diverse groups can gather, a gentler teacher than an expert voice, and a more inviting setting than a scientific lecture hall. Audience survey data from recent ITOC exhibits demonstrate moderate self-reported impacts to knowledge and attitudes; more than half of participants report learning about the exhibit’s ecological theme during the show. More interestingly, participants report deep emotional impacts of the exhibit and relationship-building during the exhibit experience (Goralnik et al., 2017).
While we have strong data from audiences across several ITOC programs, and ongoing data collection about the artist and writer experience during the collaborative process, we have only a big-picture understanding about the impacts of these collaborations for scientists. The current literature offers little here as well. What we do know is that LTER scientists value this work. In our 2013 survey of LTER Principal Investigators (PIs), 19 of the 21 PIs from sites that hosted eSAH activities agreed or strongly agreed that eSAH inquiry was both relevant for and important to LTER sites (Goralnik et al., 2015). They identified outcomes of this work that include its ability to foster outreach and public engagement, inspire creative thinking, provide opportunities for education, and broaden our understanding of the natural world. A number also labeled the work as good in and of itself.
As we move toward more co-sharing and co-inquiry in the collaborative process, our hope is that individual scientists also experience worthwhile outcomes related to perspective and creativity that impact their own inquiry processes and relationships to place. This is primarily conjecture at this stage. But we recently queried our current cohort of artists, writers, and scientists about their interest in a residency model, and the opportunity for reverse residencies, whereby the scientists spend time with the artists in their studios or in the field. There was an ecstatic response from several scientists about this kind of opportunity. Their eagerness suggests that these kinds of relationships and opportunities could be transformational for scientists, and our hope is that they will contribute to broader shifts in knowledge, understanding, attitudes, and problem solving capacity, as well as teach us about effective collaborative processes, environments, and relationships.
There is little empirical work on these kinds of collaborations and their impacts, and we hope that in raising these questions, our work will catalyze inquiry from other researchers and programs in the eSAH landscape. Within that ecosystem, the ITOC program is innovative in several important ways: (1) ITOC systematically integrates arts and humanities into long-term, place-based sites of ecological inquiry traditionally dominated by science. The specific model we have created is new to the LTER network and provides a framework that can be applied elsewhere to facilitate the shift from side-by-side interdisciplinary interactions to more integrated and collaborative activities. (2) The focus on relationships in the collaborative process within the ITOC program is deliberate and evaluated. Many approaches to collaboration assess effectiveness by evaluating products; we instead focus on process as a contributor to products. This focus on relationships carries into the exhibit space with storytelling for the audience about the collaborative relationships, both between participants and with place. (3) Central to the ITOC program is the systematic evaluation of the collaborative ecology and impacts of the collaborative experience for audiences. Our empirical approach is juxtaposed with primarily anecdotal work in this area in the literature, and will hopefully inform the effectiveness of future collaborative ecosystems in the LTER network and beyond.
Artist’s statement for cover image: Impermafrost. Collage by Gail Priday. From In a Time of Change: Microbial Worlds.
Impermafrost illustrates the potential for microbes to contribute to climate change as Arctic permafrost thaws. Permafrost is a layer of soil that remains frozen for at least two years and up to tens of thousands of years or more. Yet as temperatures rise in the Arctic, permafrost is thawing. As permafrost melts, it is possible that microbes could play a part in accelerating global warming. Because permafrost is frozen, its organic matter does not break down, yet as it thaws, microbes break down the organic material. This is where the trouble begins. Arctic permafrost contains large quantities of carbon trapped in dead plants and animals. When microbes eat the organic matter trapped in the permafrost they produce carbon dioxide and sometimes methane, greenhouse gases that could cause temperatures to rise even more. This piece is my interpretation of this scenario.
- Gail Priday
Artists' statement for Figure 4, Deceptive Beauty:
We were honored to accompany Katey Walter Anthony, aquatic ecosystem ecologist, as she tended to her methane studies on a frozen lake outside of Fairbanks in October. Katey is a research professor for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Water and Environmental Research Center. Her research centers on the emission of the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide triggered by permafrost thaw. While much has been said about the role played by carbon dioxide in our warming atmosphere, the effects of natural methane production are less well known. Thawing permafrost contributes to both the warming of existing lakes and the creation of new ones. On the bottom of these lakes and ponds, in oxygen-free conditions, bacteria feed on decomposed plant matter long frozen in the permafrost, producing methane that bubbles to the surface. In winter this production of methane continues–bubbles freeze in layers as lake ice thickens. Methane is recognized as 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, molecule to molecule, as a greenhouse gas. In her methane studies, Katey seeks to better understand the origins of increased methane emissions from northern lakes and ponds and how ecosystems might respond, and in turn, impact global environmental change.
- Ree Nancarrow and Debbie Clarke Moderow
Artists' statement for Figure 5, De:composition:
Our team collaborated over the course of 3 field seasons on a decomposition study in an experimental tree garden at Kevo Subarctic Research Station in Northern Finland. Trees from around the circumpolar North, including closely related birch species with different chemistries, were planted over 30 years ago in the gardens at Kevo. This provided an opportunity to investigate how plant chemistry affects decomposition and the microbial communities involved while controlling for environmental variables.
Microbes keep the global carbon and nutrient cycles turning by decomposing billions of tons of dead plant material per year. Decomposition rates are controlled partially by the array of natural chemicals present in different plants. Chemicals that discourage animals from eating plants can slow down some decomposers but can stimulate other microbes, including some that eat toxic environmental pollutants.
At Kevo, we studied decomposition using buried litter bags, which consist of mesh bags containing a known quantity of leaves or stems that are buried and then later retrieved for analysis. We then re-weighed the contents to determine how much had decomposed after 1 and 2 years of burial. Because only 1% of microbes can be cultured in the laboratory, we used DNA analysis to identify the diverse array of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes associated with the decomposing litter.
In this collaborative project, we wove together artistic and scientific methodologies. Stephanie, a costumer and multimedia artist, assisted with all aspects of the field research and then created dresses that the scientific team collaboratively adorned with plant biomass from the garden. Following photo and video shoots of Mary Beth and postdoctoral researcher Mary-Cathrine Leewis wearing the dresses, they were buried in parallel with the litter bags. Dresses were exhumed after 1 and 2 years for repeat photo and video shoots and for microbial DNA analyses. Scientists were exhumed considerably sooner.
De:composition is a multimedia installation that attempts to recreate the environment of the experimental garden that served as an incubator for our art-science collaboration.
Collaborators: Mary-Cathrine Leewis (UAF) – art subject, postdoctoral research associate; Ellis Traver (Brooklyn, NY) – soundscape; Jessica Schoen (Brooklyn, NY) – film editor; Eric Henderson (UAF) – fabricator; Tamora Petitt (Brooklyn, NY) – dancer (opening night); Jennifer Moss, Devin Drown, Eric Collins, Ian Herriot, Eric Henderson, Benjamin Hedges and Ursel Schütte (UAF) – DNA analysis and figure.
- Stephanie Rae Dixon and Mary Beth Leigh
Artist's statement for Figure 6, Microbes are everywhere! Worship the all mighty microbe!:
Wallpaper seemed like the perfect way to express the ubiquity of microbes in our environment while also expressing their invisibility both literally and figuratively as something we, until recently, have ignored, devalued or misunderstood. For upwards of nine months, a side table in my kitchen supported a small microbiology lab where I cultivated and observed a multitude of microscopic organisms that later inspired the forms in the wallpaper design. The palette was chosen for its pleasing, visual subtlety blending into one’s surroundings while surprising the viewer at closer inspection with a variety of strange, unfamiliar forms.
Microbes occupy and thrive in every corner of the earth and outnumber human cells in our bodies 10 to 1. Human Microbiome, Microbial Cloud, and Symbiosis are terms referring to communities of microbes we now know are key to maintaining a healthy body and environment. Take away some of the microbes in the human gut and our ability to digest properly falters. Trees rely on the subterranean network of hair-like fungal filaments, known as “mycelium,” to collect nutrients from the soil and in turn provide the fungi with sugar generated via photosynthesis.
Microbes are worthy of our devotion like religious icons. With this idea in mind I created a small series of vibrantly colored, icon-like paintings visually inspired by the mushrooms and fungi surrounding my house. I took great delight for several weeks this past fall photographing, drawing and painting all the “fruiting bodies” I could find. Sitting on the ground, I studied the mushroom as one would a face, with all of its peculiar details, as well as the particularities of light on the forest floor. In the studio, these naturalistic field paintings gave way to a vibrant palette and emphasis on pattern and texture when combined with a variety of media and my interest in early Ethiopian icons. In many non-Western cultures the use of mushroom imagery in art is thought to bring good luck and health to the possessor.
My involvement in this project has greatly deepened my understanding of the role microbes play in all aspects of our lives. It has also led to interesting developments in my work as an artist. Special thanks to Robert Blanchette (University of Minnesota), Virginia Walker (Queen’s University), Gary Laursen (University of Alaska and the High Latitude Mycological Research Institute), and Mary Beth Leigh (University of Alaska Fairbanks).
- Jessie Hedden
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