Climate change as art

Tasmanian artist Melissa Smith describes the scientific inspiration behind a series of her artworks on display around Australia.

Holding my breath, I gazed down the microscope to experience my first view of a collection of pteropod shells. They had been gathered in silk nets dragged through the Southern Ocean. They were so much smaller than I had anticipated. This was a pivotal moment for me, sitting in Dr Donna Roberts’s office at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre in Hobart. Suddenly the reality of these creatures and their existence and in contrast, their potential demise, was driven home.

I first read about the pteropod, more commonly known as the sea butterfly, in an article co-authored by my artist friend Dr Lisa Roberts, and scientist Dr Steve Nicol (formerly of the Australian Antarctic Division). Lisa and I often share interesting snippets about our research, investigations or artistic explorations. This particular article resonated with me in its reference to the pteropod (Limacina helicina antarctica). It appeared as this romantic creature fluttering amongst the ocean currents. However, the fantasy was short lived, as the impact of ocean acidification on its future existence was clearly stated.

At the time, in early 2012, I was exploring the use of new technology in combination with more traditional print making practices I have used in the production of my artwork. The opportunity to utilize the pteropod and its plight as a theme for this work seemed obvious. As I searched the net looking for local sources of information, Donna Roberts’s name surfaced. When her enthusiastic response to my first email came via the Aurora Australis, on a return trip from Antarctica, I was hooked. This was a world I had no previous experience of. My artwork has always referenced the terrestrial landscape and the fact it is shifting out of balance as a consequence of climate change. The impact on the oceans and their life was a new dimension to me.

Meeting Donna inspired me to learn more about the pteropod. Through her research she introduced me to other scientists in Canberra. Dr Jodie Bradby and Professor Tim Senden were instrumental in providing electronic data of the pteropod shell that I could transform into 3D prints as part of my first Dissolve exhibition. The exchange of data, information and, as a consequence, a greater understanding of the science associated with ocean acidification, has allowed me to project a more informed voice through my work.

My collaborations with these two scientists continue and I have since connected with scientists overseas — Dr Nina Bednaršek and Dr Richard Feely in Seattle. My recent Dissolve II exhibition included an image of a dissolving pteropod shell. It was hand printed onto organza and rice paper from a CNC (computer numeric controlled) routered MDF (medium density fibreboard). Nina provided the image, taken with a scanning electron microscope.

I also used new media to communicate my concern for the pteropod, by generating prints of QR codes (Quick Response codes) as part of the Dissolve series. Using their smart devices, viewers can scan the code and link to sites that provide information about the pteropod and ocean acidification. These artistic options provide alternative entry points for a new audience to issues of climate change.

My most recent work, which epitomizes collaboration between artists and scientists, is titled Dispel. It consists of an animation by Professor Tim Senden and a soundtrack by emerging composer Hannah Wolfhagen; creatively directed by myself. This work is emotively charged both visually and aurally. The cascading image of an X-Ray microCT scanned pteropod shell, rotates and reveals its beauty before falling away to its demise. The soundtrack extends the viewer’s perception of the visual to evoke an even deeper sense of loss.

The production of my work for Dissolve and Dissolve II is a consequence of a greater awareness for me as an artist reflecting on global issues. My subsequent connection with sites such as Living Data, which represents climate science through art,has introduced me to a like-minded network of fellow artists working with a similar vision.

The opportunity to work as an artist, with scientists researching ocean acidification, has allowed me to share data, knowledge, images and a greater understanding of the impact on the Southern Ocean; to inspire and enable action for change. It is a meeting of minds — where the combination of scientific effort and of artworks, recognised as products of practice-based research, can communicate, in unison, the impact of climate change on our natural world. I am inspired as a consequence to create, to educate and to conserve.

‘In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.’ (Baber Dioum — Senegalese conservationist, 1968).

Melissa Smith
Roving Curator, Arts Tasmania and Program Officer, Public Art — arts@work