Climate Data and Art, Part 2— World Without Ice and Daniel Bird Tobin

This episode of Warm Regards, the second of two that explore climate data as art, looks at more immersive and embodied experiences of climate data. First, an exploration of the multimedia installation World Without Ice, from producer Justin Schell, and then a conversation between Jacquelyn and Daniel Bird Tobin, who evocatively utilizes theater to help people imagine sea level rise in their own immediate communities. If you haven’t listened to our first episode climate data as art, which featured conversations with Jill Pelto and the founders of the Tempestry Project, you can find it in our podcast feed or at our website.

Show Notes

You can visit the website for the World Without Ice installation, read the book by Dr. Henry Pollack that inspired it, and check out the websites and works of the composers and artists who helped create its sonic and visual dimensions: Michael Gould, Stephen Rush, and Marion Tränkle.

For much more detail on the dataset used by Rush for the composition, visit the GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP), visit its site on the Godard Institute for Space Studies website.

Note, the values used in the story to calculate the musical notes are from the meteorological year (December-November), rather than the calendar year (January-December). Calendar year calculations artificially split the coldest months of the year into different seasons, which can result in slightly skewed data.

You can learn much more about John Cage at this site run by the John Cage Trust. If you want to start with one of Cage’s books, go with Silence.

Here are links to the other ice-based art projects mentioned in the story:

Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch
Luftwerk’s Requiem: A White Wanderer
Matthew Burtner’s Glacier Music

You can find out more about Daniel Bird Tobin and his work, including Flooding the Beach, at his website. Tobin works at the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech. You can see the work of Peter Sforza at his website. Finally, Daniel Bird Tobin wanted to make sure he thanked Patty Raun and Carrie Kroehler for their leadership of the Center.

Please consider becoming a patron to help us pay our producer, Justin Schell, our transcriber, Joe Stormer, and our social media coordinator, Katherine Peinhardt, who are all working as volunteers. Your support helps us not only to stay sustainable, but also to grow.

www.patreon.com/warmregards

Find Warm Regards on the web and on social media:
Web: www.WarmRegardsPodcast.com
Twitter: @ourwarmregards
Facebook: www.facebook.com/WarmRegardsPodcast

The full transcript of this episode can be found below.

Jacquelyn Gill
I’m an ice age ecologist, which means I’ve never seen many of the species I research in the wild. That’s because the ecosystems I study vanished long ago, during a period when climate change and people were fundamentally altering the world in tandem — a sort of prelude for what would come ten thousand years later. In the absence of a time machine, the only we have into that long-lost world is forensic evidence — tiny pollen grains, bones, the chemistry of mud and ice, bits of charcoal from ancient fires, or even dung. We use these tools in my lab to tell stories about climate change, people, plants, and animals. Stories that we hope may help guide us through the turmoil we’re causing on the only planet we’ve ever called home.

Two years ago, my research on wooly mammoths and other ice age beasts brought me to the remote wilderness of Siberia, my first time north of the Arctic Circle. My journey took twenty-six hours in a plane, four hours by boat, and an hour of hiking across slippery, sucking mud and precarious log bridges over crumbling riverbanks. I climbed over a hill to check out a big slump in the permafrost, trying to catch my breath. The larch trees and willows were a bright golden color all around me, and the sky was a brilliant blue. After days of drizzle and fog, the colors took my breath away. I was so taken in by the view that I wasn’t actually paying much attention to the reason we were there–to check out a mammoth skeleton that had been exposed by thawing permafrost. As I was scanning the vista, I was thinking about just how far away this place was from the small town in Maine where I’d started days before. It was such a long way that I didn’t realize I was also about to travel even further — back in time.

My eyes came to rest on what at first looked like a stump rooted in the ground. But then the image shifted, like one of those Magic Eye paintings when suddenly everything comes together; not a stump, a foot. A woolly mammoth’s foot, perfectly intact: skin, fur, even toes. I had to wipe the tears off of my face to get a better look before I realized I had been crying. I’ve held countless mammoth bones, teeth and tusks. I’ve spent the last fifteen years researching mammoth ecology and reconstructing the ecosystems the lived in, and left behind. But it wasn’t until that moment that mammoths became real to me. That foot belonged not to a species, but to an individual. It had a heart that beat like mine, and lungs that breathed like mine. It would have felt fear, in its last terrible moments, aware of its own mortality, trapped in the same mud I’d struggled through minutes before.

In that moment, I felt a powerful sense of responsibility. I knew that I had to do right by this animal: to tell the stories of our lost cousins on the Tree of Life. But I was also struck by the fact that it took this moment — a perfectly preserved foot under a brilliant blue sky — for me to truly see what I’d spent so much time trying to reconstruct. No graph or fossil could ever do what that one moment did, bridge a gulf 40,000 years wide. I think about this moment often, as I think about the barriers we face as scientists in making abstract ideas resonate with our audiences. And I’m not talking about ways to cut down on jargon, or using images or analogies to simplify a complex idea. The struggle is often not about information. It’s about meaning.

This can be especially difficult when we talk about climate change. We know from survey data that a majority of Americans still think of climate change as something abstract — it affects people somewhere else, maybe, or in some distant future. And that poses a real challenge when it comes to conveying the realities of climate change and how it will affect our communities — the places we live, work, and play. Statistics about future temperatures or sea level rise can be hard to wrap our brains around, and they’re so often about places most of us will never see — remote mountain glaciers, Antarctica, or the vast expanse of Siberian permafrost. So how do we get people to connect to the data in a meaningful way? Knowing isn’t enough — we need action, and sometimes, that takes something more than a graph.

For this episode, we’re talking with artists who create data experiences for audiences, using sound, theater, and interactive installations to make climate data not just something you know, but something you feel. These tools are so powerful because they invite us to experience, in a visceral way, the realities of a warming world. First up, our producer Justin Schell talks with some of the creators of World Without Ice, a multimedia experience that makes melting glaciers and ice sheets come alive. Then, I’ve got a conversation with Daniel Bird Tobin, who uses the tools of theater to make us an active part of the story of climate change. And don’t worry, my co-host Ramesh will be back for our next episode.

[music]

Justin Schell
Artists working in a variety of media have used ice — and its disappearance — as the basis for thoughtful and sometimes provocative statements about the effects of global warming and climate change.

Sometimes the art consists of literal ice, as in Ice Watch, where O-lafur Elee-a-son arranged 12 massive hunks of ice in a clock pattern outside the United Nations’ 2015 COP 21 meeting in Paris. Attendees could touch the always-melting ice as the meetings progressed, a visible reminder of just one of the things at stake at that particular climate meeting (the meeting from which emerged the Paris Climate Agreement).

Or there’s Requiem: A White Wanderer, a sound art project from the group Luftwerk that transforms seismic data from the collapse of the Larsen-C ice shelf into sound and uses that as the basis for a multi-sensory experience.

And composer Matthew Burtner created an album of works entitled Glacier Music, which combines field recordings from Alaskan glaciers (with microphones placed both on the surface and deep within them) as well as sonified data about those particular glaciers.

I’ve been following these kinds of projects for a while, fascinated by how they combine art, science, data, and activism. And that’s why I was excited to learn about World Without Ice, a multimedia art installation at the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since that’s close to where I live, I could see and experience it for myself.

When I visited the installation in January, I was struck by how it felt at once overwhelming and intimate. Massive projected images of icebergs and glaciers towered over me, while a soundtrack of melting ice, piano, percussion, and wind sounds created a mood of not only contemplation about global warming, but also a pointed exploration of this particular consequence of it.

After experiencing the installation, I sat down with three of the four people involved in the work’s creation, climate scientist Henry Pollack, composer Stephen Rush, and composer Michael Gould, to talk about how the project came together, the different elements that make it up, and what it was like to explore climate data and climate change through art.

[music fades]

Henry Pollack
I’m Henry Pollack. I’m a Professor of Earth Sciences in the department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, long retired. And most of my research in the last several decades has been in climatology, in particular reconstructing past climates.

Schell
Dr. Pollack’s career in climate science spans nearly six decades, and among many other achievements he shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore and the IPCC. The installation is based on Dr. Pollack’s 2009 book of the same name. In the book, Pollack leads the reader through a wide-ranging exploration of ice and its role on the planet. From how ice grows from the smallest of crystals to massive glaciers, to its crucial role in the geophysical dynamics of the earth. He discusses ice’s role in the planet’s past (as Ice Ages came and went over tens of thousand of years) to its role today as one of the most visible and disastrous consequences of anthropogenic climate change: the loss of land and sea ice around the world that can lead to devastating sea level rise. He writes in the book, “Ice everywhere is talking to us. Not politically or emotionally or conventionally — but in a language that we must understand and heed.”

A few years after he published the book, Pollack met Stephen Rush, one of the two composers on the project, while they were both guests in a University of Michigan course on “Creativity in the Arts and Sciences.”

Stephen Rush
I’m Stephen Rush. I’m a professor of a lot of things, in a bunch of different departments and teach composition and jazz and music technology and music theory and dance. I’m a jazz pianist and also, I don’t identify as a singer often while I’m in the States, but usually when I’m in India I do. So I am an Indian singer as well. So when Henry talked to me about, “Hey man, should we do a thing?” And I said, yeah, let me talk to my friend Michael.

Michael Gould
I’m Michael Gould. I am a Professor of Music in the School of Music, Theater and Dance in the Jazz department. And I am the director of the Center for World Performance Studies. kind of came on a little later, to the project. And of course anytime Steve asks me to do something, I jump at the chance.

Schell
Gould and Rush have worked together before, including projects utilizing water and ice. They collaborated on Water Blue, which had amplified water as one of its instruments alongside visual art and dance. Another work by Gould featured him freezing water into the shape of marimba blocks. World Without Ice offered a way to further expand their explorations with water and ice.

And while the project has gone through a few iterations since their initial idea, the core components have stayed the same: a film projected on a large screen, a piece of music accompanying the film that incorporates a variety of musical improvisations as well as sonified climate data, and large blocks of ice suspended above drums, resulting in percussive drips as they melt throughout the day.

Pollack
One of the nice things about the way the installation has evolved is that it has a genuine touch of reality in that there’s imagery from the Arctic and the Antarctic. That is the visual background. It has a composition by Steve that is in part drawn from real climate data. And then it has the natural world in it, real ice melting randomly, dripping. So every performance, every experience at the installation is different hour by hour, day by day because the drips are never the same.

Schell
It’s worth taking a closer look at each of these elements and how they combine to form an immersive experience for those visiting the installation. The visual dimension of the project was created by Amsterdam-based filmmaker Marion Tränkle. It’s probably the first thing you’d notice when you walk into the installation, two images projected side by side on a massive screen, each image slowly dissolving into the next. Gould and Pollack talked about where the images came from and what kind of narratives they were meant to evoke.

Gould
The film, it took about one to two or 300 different photographs that we had from Henry’s, archives from the Arctic and the Antarctic. I think she was able to craft the narrative in the film and also encapsulate the sense of scale or lack of scale.

Schell
Pollack found this lack of scale to be one of the most important features of the installation’s visual dimension.

Pollack
You don’t have any scale to it. Throughout the entire visual part of the presentation, there’s nothing human in it. Absolutely nothing human. And we toyed with the idea of having occasional text or animals or something, but we eschewed that because we wanted the scale to be unknown.

Gould
So she starts with ice crystals and again, you can’t really tell immediately what it is and then going into kind of closeups of snow and ice and glaciers, icebergs and then eventually introducing water at a certain point. And you, again, there are times where you can’t tell what the scale of it is. And then eventually you see the scale and open water. And so there, there is a storyline that goes through there and that I think she’s done a great job of kind of detailing our kind of collective vision of the piece.

Schell
This vision — the defamiliarizing of a viewer’s presence against these massive landscapes of ice, the manipulation of nature via fossil fuel burning and the consequences wrought by that manipulation, specifically the melting of the glaciers represented by the film’s final images of open water — is even more strongly evident in the music created by Gould and Rush. Much of the music was improvised as they watched the film created by Tränkle. They combine sounds that are both “natural” and “manipulated” (using both of those words in quotes) throughout the piece: vocals that are digitally processed, wind sounds produced by a synthesizer, and sonified climate data performed on a piano.

The piece starts out with wind sounds created by Rush’s Moog synthesizer that sweep high and low, as a subtle, almost subterranean, pulse plays underneath.

[audio from installation]

And while they sound like a field recording at first, you soon notice they don’t quite sound like any wind you’d hear out in the natural world.

[audio from installation]

Soon, these sounds are joined by ethereal bowed vibraphone tones, followed by more improvised percussion sounds from Gould.

[audio from installation]

Next, Rush’s vocals come in, his voice digitally doubled, giving it an almost humpback whale-like quality.

[audio from installation]

At one point the wind sounds speed up, sounding to my ear more like a drill that helps take arctic ice core samples. Paleoecologists like our own Jacquelyn Gill use these cores to understand the climates of ecosystems thousands and even hundreds of thousands of years ago.

[audio from installation]

Differing combinations of these sounds continue until two piano notes come in. This is the start of the data sonification by Rush.

[audio of piano piece]

The composition is based on the Godard Institute for Space Studies Surface Temperature Analysis dataset, or GISTEMP for short. You can dig into the history and details of this dataset for yourself from a link in our show notes, but for our purposes, the most important thing to know about the dataset is that it shows how much warmer or cooler a given year is from its average in degrees Celsius. For instance, 1881 was .08 degrees colder than normal. In contrast, 1981, a hundred years later, was .31 degrees warmer than normal. And 2019, the most recent year in the dataset, was nearly a full degree (.98) warmer than normal.

With that in mind, here’s how the sonification process works. And just a warning, I’m going to get into the weeds a bit with music terminology, so bear with me.

Each year’s difference from normal is usually represented by a two-decimal point value. As I mentioned earlier, 1881 was .08 degrees Celsius colder than normal. The next year, 1882, was .07 degrees colder than normal, and 1883 was .18 degrees colder than normal. Rush took the value in the hundredths column of each year’s measurement — 8 for 1881, 7 for 1882, and 8 for 1883 — and then counted the number of half steps, or keys on a piano, for each of those values from a base note of C. For those three years, then, you get Ab (which is 8 half-steps from C), G (7 half-steps from C), and Ab again (8 half-steps from C). That’s only part of the process, though, since it only gives the notes to be played, it doesn’t tell you where they should be played on the piano.

The other part of the sonification process utilizes the tenths column in each value. If there is a change in the tenths column (increasing or decreasing), that determines the octave the note should be played in. An octave is a set of 12 half steps where you start at one note, C, and then return to that same note again 12 half steps higher.

Let’s look a little later in the dataset for a clearer example of how this works. 1978 was .06 degrees warmer than normal, while 1979 was .13 degrees warmer. Using the values in the hundredths column of those two years, we get the notes F# (6 half steps from C) and Eb (3 half steps from C). However, because the value in the tenths column increases from zero to one in 1979, that Eb would be in the next octave up on the keyboard. So instead of what I played earlier, it would sound like this.

Now if you’re particularly data and music savvy, you might be able to pick out some of these relationships in Rush’s piece. However, his composition isn’t a direct representation of the dataset. It’s more like they become the raw material by which Rush structures the composition. In fact, that initial approach wouldn’t even be possible on a piano, let alone most other instruments: using the process I outlined earlier, you would need 14 octaves to represent the entire dataset; most standard pianos only have 7. And not only would the most recent years be far off the end of the instrument, you might not even be able to hear those notes at all.

[audio of piano piece]

While the visuals and the music play on a preset and pre-recorded loop, the other sonic element to the piece, the ice blocks dripping onto drums, is unique each day. This aspect of the project began with Gould asking a different kind of sonification question.

Gould
How can we sonify ice, you know, it’s very quiet. So again, I rummaged through my kitchen and I froze a big bowl of ice and put it outside. The only way I could figure out how to mount it was I found this perforated pizza pan. And I took my shoe laces off and I used a cymbal stand to put this pizza pan on a cymbal stand and put the ice on there. And waited a long time for it to start to drip. And then when it started to drip, I moved a drum underneath it. And then I think Steve came over at this point and we put a microphone underneath the drum. And so that, that turned into us kind of jamming with the ice.

Schell
Eventually, they worked out a consistent mold for the ice and how it’s used as part of the installation. Seven blocks of ice are frozen each day and then positioned above seven tom tom drums. The rate at which they melt and drip onto the drums is determined by a variety of factors, including the internal temperature of the room, the amount of water frozen into the block, and the number of people who visit the installation (along with their respective body heat, of course.) This complex multitude of factors serves as an approximation of the many dynamics that go into weather and climate, but one thing that’s clear is that the more people visit the installation on a particular day, the faster the ice melts. You can hear how the drips mix in with the pre-composed music in this recording from an earlier installation of the project:

[audio from installation]

Schell
The inspiration for this element, and to some extent the data sonification, comes from at first glance a surprising source, as Rush explains.

Rush
And this really has more to do with Michael and I having a deep affection for John Cage.

Schell
John Cage was a composer, philosopher, and, among other things, amateur mycologist. One theme throughout Cage’s wide-ranging work is his use of the I Ching, a Chinese text from the 9th century BCE that’s usually translated as the “Book of Changes.” He used this in an attempt to remove his own compositional intention from his works. Instead, his compositions were often the result of a combination of random number generation and other chance elements derived from the I Ching.

Rush
Well and I think that’s what we both took from Cage is the idea of chance procedures or whatever you wanna call it. The idea of giving up the possibilities to nature. There are things outside us that are probably more significant and we should just get out of the way of them.

Schell
There’s a deeper element at work here, though. It’s not just a version of incorporating randomness or chance procedures into a work of art, “leaving it up to nature” as it were. And it’s more than improvisation as a form of “leaving things up to nature,” if we take improvisation as an alternative to composition defined as writing something down and performing what’s on the page. I want to hear this as also about how certain people have interacted with and manipulated the natural world, attempting to control it for their own ends and purposes.

Global warming is often referred to as an unprecedented experiment by some parts of humanity on the natural systems of the world. We’re seeing the wide-ranging and sometimes catastrophic results of this experiment now, and those least responsible will suffer the worst consequences.

It reminds me of one of the most striking lines from the original World Without Ice book. “Nature,” Pollack writes, “long the conductor of the climate orchestra, has been displaced.”

[audio from installation]

The different elements of the installation take ideas of what’s natural, unnatural, and what’s been made unnatural and makes them much more visceral. The visuals of melting glaciers and icebergs show one of the many effects of global warming, reinforced by the literal and complexly melting ice in front of the viewer. The sonified climate data represents both scientific knowledge of global warming but at the same time, knowledge of what needs to be done can arise from that data. Of course, as we’ve talked about throughout this season, just showing people data has not been enough to inspire action, which is why alternative and experiential forms of communication, such as World Without Ice, are so important in the overall climate change conversation.

So what’s it like to immersively experience all of these different elements in person? Upon walking into the darkened room that housed the installation at the Hands-On Museum, it took me a while to get my bearings as to what I was seeing and hearing, trying to both focus on the individual elements of the piece as well as how they worked together as a whole.

The huge projection screen dominates the space, with a pair of images, one left, one right, dissolving into new images at different rates, a nice visual metaphor for the melting ice the film depicts. The ice blocks and drums were arranged in a half circle in front of the screen, each one with its own soft blue light that gave them an ethereal, almost bioluminescent glow. This not only drew my eye to the drums, but I could also actually see the water drops hitting the drum head. I visited the Museum in the afternoon, and by that time the blocks were melted to the point that there were occasional streams of water spilling onto the drums, creating a very different kind of drum roll.

As I sat and took everything in, there were some unintended elements added to the installation. Given that the majority of the Hands-On Museum’s content is meant to be interactive (suggested by the name), kids were reaching over or climbing under the boundary ropes in front of the drums to make their own contributions to the piece, hitting the drums and splashing the water. Much to the docent’s dismay, of course. I could also hear bird sounds drift in from an adjacent exhibit, another sonic indicator of climate change. Different birds can now be heard in different times and places as temperatures change within a given region.

Despite these unintended (but not necessarily off-putting) elements, the majority of my experience was one of contemplation and meditation, thinking about questions of scales large and small, and how this installation might move people to become more involved in climate action.

My experience seems to resonate with what the creators of the project have observed as well. While the ice blocks melt throughout the day, the visuals and music last just over 20 minutes. And since the piece isn’t “timed” in a way where everyone sees it from beginning to end at the same time like a movie, it can be a bit disorienting when you first walk in, as Gould told me.

Gould
You can see people just, when they first sit down, they get a little fidgety, and then if they’re willing to sit through it, you know, they settle down and they get into the whole, you know, the kind of the meditative qualities of the piece.

Rush
But it’s, I think it’s brutal in a certain sense too. It’s demanding in the sense that you have to, you do have to stop. And you have to sit and you see the fidgeting and then there’ll be certain people that will just go, okay, well, I’m going to hang here for four hours. So they’re going to kind of submit to the process and that creates a meditation on the problem.

Schell
The project also points to a tension in creating art with scientific data (climate or otherwise): how do you stay true to the data while also incorporating it into your overall aesthetic as an artist?

Gould
That’s a thing that we are constantly struggling with, are pushing against is that yes, it’s great to use data, but it’s also great to put our imprint over the top of that, over the top of that artwork in order to give like an overall aesthetic sense and leave enough, leave enough room for people to come up with their own kind of narrative.

Rush
“Oh here’s some data I made some sounds to it. I hope you feel bad.” That to me sounds like you confronting somebody with science and like I wouldn’t want to do that with music either.

Gould
It lets the viewer, listener come up with their own message and answer, or at least come up with some kind of inner dialogue about what’s happening.

Schell
Some people have contacted the creators directly after experiencing the installation, generating new conversations and dialogues as a result of the piece.

Gould
And the thing that’s been really interesting is when people leave is when the conversation starts. And we’ve had these amazing emails and communiques about the effect it has been on their own thought processes about climate change. We’ve had people write poems and it has been a really quite satisfying result of using, you know, thinking about climate change and art making and data to kind of get this dialogue going after the fact.

Schell
For Pollack, working on this installation was both a confirmation of how he’s approached communicating climate science, but also a way to expand it into a new medium.

Pollack
I’ve learned that if you want to move someone along in their thought process, you don’t start out by saying, “listen, stupid.” Oh, you, you, you know, kind of embrace them and try and talk a different language if the language of sciences, you know, not moving them in any good way. So I have long recognized that you have to reach different people in different ways. And I’ve never done it in an artistic fashion, before I met these guys, but, I can appreciate and, and of course now my eye and ear is ever present as other uses of, of climatological data are now appearing, that is in music and in other forms.

Schell
For the creators of World Without Ice, the pandemic has put a hold on future installations, but they hope to install it in different places beyond Michigan as well as in Europe, in the hopes of continuing these conversations in the future. You can find out more about World Without Ice as well as see images and video of the installation at the project’s website, WorldWithoutIceInstallation.com.

[music]

Schell
Our data story for this episode comes from Sean Bowles, an eighth grade science teacher from just outside of Boston, and how he facilitates his students not just learning about the problem of sea level rise, but also designing real world solutions for it.

Sean Bowles
Hi, my name is Sean Bowles. I teach eighth grade science at Dedham Middle School in Dedham, Massachusetts. I used to just tell students about the problems the world faces like rising global temperature averages, dramatic increases in carbon dioxide and methane output and all of these extreme weather events tied to climate change. I focused on this data because I wanted students to be well-informed. But at the end of the unit, most felt hopeless, not empowered.

Three years ago, though, I began looking at how I teach climate change differently. I instead began asking students to develop the solutions to climate change that could actually be implemented in the real world. I began posing the question: how can a coastal city like Boston be redesigned to lessen the impact of bigger storms and rising sea levels. Without being exposed to information and data ahead of time, students were asked to make concept maps to develop their ideas. They then questioned each other’s concept maps and helped change and even enhance the ideas presented. Once those ideas were fully developed, they’re asked to draw out their designs to show what it would look like and how it would work. Only after all of this work or data and real world solutions to sea level rise introduced.

The beginning stages of this project gave students the chance to use their imagination and life experiences to create designs that were naturally intuitive to them. They were provided with interactive maps, showing predictions for sea level rise in the best and worst case scenarios. Based on this data, some students began focusing their attention on Florida, Louisiana and other Southern states. They were also introduced to solutions around the world that have already been implemented for flooding and sea level rise and coastal communities. Students were given the option to incorporate ideas from these solutions into their designs. The last step was to build working models of their designs. Students were given the option to build by hand or a 3D modeling program called Tinkercad, which was then 3D-printed. These models had to be functioning in order to prove their effective effectiveness to an audience.

The end result of all this development was that students actually presented their designs to a professional audience and received their feedback. These professionals came from all sorts of backgrounds, college professors, a state representative, MIT grad students from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and even a chief engineer from a local casino built along the coastline. Their insights and real world experience shed so much light on students’ designs and gave students a true glimpse into all the work already being done to save close to communities from sea level rise.

Schell
Inspired by Sean’s data story and want to share yours with us? You can leave us a voicemail by calling 586–930–5286 or record yourself and email it to us at OurWarmRegards@gmail.com.

[music]

Jacquelyn Gill
Sea levels have risen about 8 or 9 inches since 1880. Half of that has happened just in my lifetime. Nearly 40% of the population of the United States lives in coastal areas threatened by sea level rise. 8 out of the world’s 10 largest cities are near a coastline. And depending on our actions in the coming decades, we can expect anywhere between one and five feet of sea level rise by the end of this century.

If you have a hard time wrapping your brain around what those numbers actually mean, you’re not alone. I only live about twenty miles from the ocean as the crow flies, but I didn’t actually know exactly how close I was until I looked it up for this episode. I don’t have an intuitive sense of what sea level rise means for my family, and I work in a climate research center. If this is hard for me, what about people who don’t think about climate change all the time? How do we convey a sense of urgency about something as complex as sea level rise, before the catastrophic flooding happens?

That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to talk to our next guest. Daniel Bird Tobin is a theater director, performer, and instructor at Virginia Tech, but he’s also a science communicator, using the tools of theater to create immersive climate change experiences for his audience. I had actually done a lot of theater myself from middle school through college, acting in plays and musicals, and later as a director. Live performances have a special magic to them — there’s a sort of alchemy that allows us to tell gripping stories even with minimal props or costumes. Suspending our disbelief is a fundamentally human process: we actively encourage our imaginations to transport us into the story. And what if that story wasn’t about star-crossed lovers or murderous old spinsters? What if it was something as simple as a day at the seashore?

Daniel Bird Tobin
I’d like you to close your eyes for a moment. Please imagine that you’re standing on a beach, facing the ocean, but about five yards from the water’s edge. The beautiful, soft, dry sand between your toes. The sun shining gently on your body. Don’t worry. You’ve put on plenty of sunscreen, so you’re safe from UV light.

Maybe there’s a light breeze blowing in your face as you stay in there with your eyes closed, enjoying the sound of the waves, the smell of the salt.

Now, still with your eyes closed, I’d like you to imagine walking down to the water’s edge. The sand changing from dry to wet as you approach the water. You step into the water and walk until it is at your ankles, at your knees. Maybe a wave or two hits a touch higher, but the water feels refreshing and invigorating.

Jacquelyn
In the beginning of his performance, titled Flooding the Beach, Daniel takes us through a tranquil, familiar experience of the ocean. And then…things change. He invites us to shift our surroundings to the Virginia Tech campus where he works, imagining those warm, inviting ocean waters in a totally new way.

Daniel
A few more steps until you are in the water to your waist. Now, while still keeping your eyes closed and while maintaining the water around your waist, I’d like you to let the beach go. Hold onto the water and its movement, but that the beach and sun and sand go. Instead, imagine yourself in the center of the drill field on Tech campus, still with water at your waist. Or in the University Bookstore, still with the water. Or in the Graduate Life Center, still with the water. Maintain that water around your waist with your eyes closed as I tell you this next detail. Peter Sforza and the Center for Geospatial Information Technology did an analysis of the Virginia Tech campus’s susceptibility to flooding and found that in a hundred year flood scenario, that spot, the drill field, the bookstore, the GLC would be that deep in water. It potentially could be at your waist. Feel that for a moment. And now let that go and open your eyes.

Jacquelyn
The performance goes from there to describe the process of research — even the failed grant funding — that inspired the piece. I was left with this sense of urgency — anxiety, even, that we know we should be doing more, but we just…aren’t. And while Flooding the Beach is about a particular place, it’s a really effective example of how the collaborative process of live theater can open us up to the physical reality of climate change — maybe even before those realities have taken place.

[music fades out]

Jacquelyn
So Daniel, thank you so much for joining us. I’m really excited to talk to you in no small part because I am a frustrated theater person myself and that my life could have taken a very different path. I basically was on track to go into theater and then ended up somehow in science and surprised all of my friends and family. So, I really empathize with you, kind of going from the theater and then feeling this pull of climate change. So to get us started, I would just love to hear from you in your own words who you are and what you do. I saw on your website you describe yourself as a “theater archeologist,” which I absolutely love. So yeah, tell us about yourself.

Daniel
Thank you for having me on. It’s wonderful to be part of this conversation. Yes, I call myself a “theater archeologist” and what I mean is that I am a theater maker and I build theatrical stories by encountering artifacts in the world around me. ‘So I’ve built a show from very traditional archeological artifacts that were these drawings from 13th century Russia. But those artifacts can also be the process of LASIK eye surgery, the artwork of Keith Haring, or occasionally data from climate change research and scientists.

Jacquelyn
I love the idea, as a scientist, we often joke that we do all this work and it ends up in a graph in a paper that no one reads. I just love the idea of it being excavated and turned into a story by someone who can see past the wiggles and dots and understand what motivates us as scientists to do this kind of work. I’m really curious from your perspective: what was it about theatre? What drew you to theater as a particular way to explore our world and tell stories?

Daniel
So I actually started in undergrad as an archeologist. I thought I was going to be an archeologist. I did a couple digs down in the southeast of the United States and really enjoyed all of the work that an archeologist does. I was working in a lab at my university. I was taking classes; I was an anthropology major. And then I realized that at times the stories that we can tell in archeology didn’t fill me as much as I wanted to and there were parts of the story that I felt were missing. I was really interested in the people — the people who were leaving these artifacts behind, leaving these amazing things behind. I was working on a particular culture called the Poverty Point culture. And they have these things called Poverty Point objects where these little balls of clay that are used in a process for cooking, so they’re heated up and dropped in the food and used as a way of cooking. But when you excavate them, because they’re very roughly formed, people’s finger indentations are right there in the object and so you’re picking up this object from five thousand years ago and literally feeling the finger prints and the hands of a person from so many years ago. This really impacted me. I’d always been doing theater along the way and felt that theater was a path where I could tell those stories and really dig into the emotional resonance that I experienced through archeology, and that was what really appealed to me about sharing those types of stories through theater. From then I got increasingly involved in theater and my career’s taken me in a lot of different directions as a performer, as a director, and as a writer of pieces. It’s been this really lovely journey that along the way archeology has sort of kept coming back. And I think many of the questions and the ways of thinking that I learned from anthropology and from the ideas behind it have always stayed with me and guide how I build and create theater. I think the emotional impact of theater is what draws me to theater, and it’s why I am drawn also to finding ways to think about and communicate science in different and interesting ways.

Jacquelyn
I’m sort of imagining you as an undergrad in the field, engaging with these artifacts and feeling drawn to the people who made them. Maybe I’m projecting here with my own experiences, but there’s always this sort of membrane that we’re sort of taught not to pass through when we’re studying the past. We’re not supposed to project too much on what people were thinking or feeling, so as a paleoecologist, I can’t help but feel this tension, because many of us are drawn to these disciplines because we like to tell the stories about the past, but we’re cautioned not to take that empathy too far — there has to be a sort of professional distancing there that I think can be really difficult. Especially if we’re drawn to these disciplines in the first place because we care about people or extinct species or glaciers, or whatever it is that, you know, brings us into the sciences in the first place.

Daniel
Yeah, I think that personal component of why people are interested in science is so essential. I’m currently at Virginia Tech and I work for the Center for Communicating Science here (as well as in the theater department) and one of the core things we do at the Center is working with scientists on how to communicate their research in ways that are evocative. One of our core tenants is this idea of bringing that personal connection to the work because that is what makes people interested and that’s what makes people lean in and want to know more about the science and about the research being done. I feel that tension from scientists when I’m working with them in that there’s this feeling you have to stay as a purely removed scientist in the process. But in thinking about how to communicate that research (all the amazing data that people are gathering from the field) it’s that personal side that allows a wider public to feel they can access what you’re doing and feel they can understand who you are and why you’re doing it. That is something that I keep reminding myself of and how I explore creating theater and making sure that I allow my own self and my own vulnerability to be part of what I’m doing.

Jacquelyn
Hearing you say that, it just makes me wonder, “Am I just a really bad scientist because I have a hard time resisting that pull?” I do meet scientists who really dislike the word “story-telling,” and they’re really rigid about keeping to the facts. I feel like there can be this tension when it comes to communicating science, where some people really want the message to be as precise or accurate as it would be in a scientific journal, and then there are other people who are maybe less concerned with the specific units of measurement or the exact sequence of methods or whatever, because those details often get in the way of telling a good story. The story, in the end, is maybe the most important thing; it may be the thing that people take away from your communication. So in terms of your work, you’re using the tools of theater to tell climate stories and really to make climate impacts real to people. So could you maybe walk us through what that might look like, in practical terms? How do you navigate this sort of tightrope between the research and the story as you design one of your shows?

Daniel
Yes, certainly. That audience experience of what I’m doing has shifted over the past few years as I’ve learned and grown as a performer and creator and artist. Initially I was very interested in finding that personal connection to the research and that still is a core of what I do. So an early piece that I created in this area of science communication was called “Laser”. It was about a researcher named Scott Sayers at Arizona State University who uses lasers to understand how electrons move around molecules. The piece really shared about my journey and experiencing this research and was all about forming a very embodied kinetic response to the research. So the activity that is at the core of his research (the activity of these electrons), I found ways to manifest that in my own body. That was very much about embodying the research in myself.

Now, step forward a couple of years and I became interested in ways of taking that embodiment and not only having it be for me, but also how could I let an audience into it. We know from research that people learn in many ways other than just hearing or seeing information. And when people can truly take something into their body, it changes how they learn it and it changes the way, at least some people experience it and hold on to that information. One of the most recent pieces I created was called “Flooding the Beach” and it was based on a collaboration with a group here at Virginia Tech called Coastal@VT. I was working specifically with a scientist named Peter Sforza who has a bunch of data about flooding. He has a wonderful map of flooding on the Virginia Tech campus and he was very interested in pursuing a project to look at similar flooding patterns in the coastal zone of Virginia. I was very interested in how could I take this flood data that we have (these flood models for Virginia Tech’s campus) and find a way to share them with the Virginia Tech community. Imaginatively moving the location (your own location), feeling what it’s like to be on Virginia Tech’s campus during a 100 year flood scenario which was at three various locations across campus where the water would have been waist deep, the goal was really to allow people to feel that data physically, rather than only hearing about it or seeing charts or seeing maps. Those maps are lovely and amazing and wonderful, but exploring a different way of letting people experience that data and experience that information. The goal of the piece was to say, “Hey, let’s all as a Virginia Tech community continue this work and look to ways we can also find out this data about the Virginia coastline.”

Jacquelyn
As I found myself listening to that piece, I was just kind of instantly relaxing into this really tranquil experience; iit took me out of my office and instantly onto the beach, right? And then there was this sudden sense that this was going somewhere much, much darker, and there was this sense of real danger and anxiety. It was really a double whammy, because you not only expose us to sea level rise in this really visceral way, but it’s almost insidious because we sort of get lulled into relaxing and thinking of the ocean in this particular way, and then we’re deliberately shaken out of that with the comparison of these completely two experiences of the ocean, going from this tranquil force to this more destructive, powerful thing that’s invading our territory. I can imagine that that a powerful experience for your audience to suddenly get the reality of sea level rise.

Daniel
What I love about theater is that it’s about the live presence of audience and performer together. When you’re doing that in a room with thirty, forty, fifty other people who are also going on that experience, it amplifies the impact I’ve found, and it allows people to really release into that and experience that ride a little bit more.

[music]

Jacquelyn
It sounds like what you’re doing is not translation, which is what we think of as the more traditional work of science communication, that you slot data into a machine and it comes out on the other side as an easily digestible bite of information. But this work feels very much like a collaboration between you and the scientists that you work with. I mean there’s a clear dialogue that’s happening here.

Daniel
Yeah, absolutely. I think the word collaboration is exactly right, because my work is not possible without the scientist, the researcher, the research team, whoever it is that I’m working with. Their input and their guidance and their thoughts and ideas are absolutely essential to what I’m doing. So for instance, on the “Laser” piece I talked about earlier, the whole beginning of that process of building it was I would go to Dr. Sayers’s lab and he talked through his process and showed me what he was doing in his lab and showed me all the various equipment and how it worked. That process of hearing about his work as well as experiencing it on some level allowed me in. And then whatever piece I’d create, there’s always a point where I share back what I’ve created before I have an audience or before it goes live. There’s a back and forth where we together are like, “Oh, let’s shift this language. Let’s adjust this. Let’s make sure we get the exact details right here,” because it is important that the science is correct. That when I am choosing three places where the water would be waist high for a hundred year flood scenario, that I’m picking correct places. It’s to me absolutely essential that is correct data, but the goal is not necessarily to communicate all of the data. It has to be a little selective in order to allow things to impact and allow things to resonate. So of course there’s a sort of distillation and selection process, and I try to make sure that in all of my projects that is undergone in a way where both I and the scientist/researcher team are all comfortable with the way it’s been distilled. So that collaborative mode is really absolutely essential. There’s always this amazing time at the beginning of a project where we’re sort of learning each other’s vocabularies because they don’t necessarily have all the details of how my work operates and how I create and what the language I’m using is, and I similarly am trying to catch up to all the amazing ideas and thoughts and theories and concepts that these researchers and scientists are grappling with.

Jacquelyn
I had honestly come into this conversation imagining you looking at a graph and then thinking, “Okay, how can I turn this graph into a story?” But the collaborative process you’re describing sounds so much more powerful than that; It’s sounds like your work is not just about climate data as an endpoint that needs to be communicated, but it’s also about the process: the motivations of the researchers, and their hypotheses and the the methods and all of that are part of the climate experiences you’re creating.

Daniel
I think what I’m trying to do in my work is not just communicate scientific data but communicate scientific processes as well, that there’s struggles, there’s moments where things go wrong, there’s moments of failure. That to me is also what allows people to access and to say, “I’m on board and I understand this,” that scientists aren’t just sitting by themselves doing whatever they want, creating data however they want — that they’re actually undergoing a real process, and that science isn’t a set of facts and figures. Science is actually a process and science is an activity. That’s something that we learn in theater that great plays and great pieces of theater are built on action. I think similarly, science is built on action; at least how I understand it and this being a non-scientist I’m maybe of course simplifying things. But that idea that it’s an ongoing process that is always changing and always growing.

Jacquelyn
No, not at all! I actually feel very seen right now, and I also really wish that you could come and talk with my students because this is something I feel like that they really grapple with, right? They only see the final products of science without seeing all the failure, the questioning, or the strife that come along with that process, because that process is so invisible to them. So, yeah, I would love to have you talk to students who are thinking about what it takes to be a scientist, because I feel like you actually get it.

Daniel
[Laughing happily] Thank you!

Jacquelyn
I’m curious now too from an aesthetic perspective (because our season is about data), so I feel like I have to ask this: do you find data beautiful? Or do you feel like you have to take something that’s kind of raw and hard to identify with and sort of reshape it into something more human? I just wonder if you ever find yourself looking at data and thinking, “Wow, that’s really gorgeous,” or are you just like, “Ugh, this is what I have to work with?”

Daniel
I find data elegant and beautiful in the fact that I can sort of each point; each aspect of the data makes me think about the person behind that point and the enormous amount of work that went into creating that point of data. I know some people are able to sort of look at a spread of data and really see the patterns between it already; I don’t see it in that same way. I think this is where my theater archeology comes in, that I see each point of data as an artifact in a way and behind it is a whole story of how it emerged. I know that from my own times being in the field, but I also know it from all my experiences talking with scientists along the way. My brother’s partner does work with birds in the Galapagos and each of the data that she is dealing with, there’s a scar on her hand from grappling with that moment and trying to find that information. There’s stories that help evoke that data that are what I find particularly beautiful.

Jacquelyn
As someone with actual scars from my research, I really do feel like you can almost read our resumes on our bodies, so I absolutely get that; and there’s a good story behind every one of my scars. So shifting gears now, when I talk with my students about their futures I often refer to the Venn diagram where the circles are “what you love doing, what you’re good at doing, and what you can get paid to do”. If you can find the spot where all of those intersect, that’s the sweet spot. But I also feel like there’s another circle some of us feel compelled to add, which is “doing what makes a difference”. Do you feel like you’re there, in that sweet spot: being paid to do something you love, that you’re good at, that makes a difference?

Daniel
I don’t think every aspect of my day-to-day life I always feel I’m having that impact, but I certainly have those moments and they can be quite extended moments where I definitely feel it. I think when I’m able to find truly evocative ways to think about and explore scientific information (particularly in this area of climate science, which is so desperately important to our world right now) that’s when I feel impact. I feel I have a set of tools and I have a set of skills that can add a small little bit, just a touch to all the great work that’s being done by so many other people around the world.

Jacquelyn
We often talk about how the people who are contributing the most to climate change are the ones who will be least at risk and, on the flip side, those who are going to suffer the most are the ones who’ve contributed the least. We also know that for a Americans, climate change still feels like this far off or abstract threat. It’s not something that’s really here with a lot of us yet or, if it is, we feel buffered from the impacts. I think theater can bring the reality of climate change home for people in ways that print media or documentary films or even podcasts can’t. Not only in terms of convincing people of the physical reality of climate change (like you’ve done with sea level rise), but also in terms of experiences like to lose your home or become a climate refugee or grapple with health issues that were caused by climate change. It just seems like there’s so many rich opportunities for theater to really play a powerful role here.

Daniel
Absolutely. I think that as I move forward in my career, I feel drawn to ways of exploring that because while I adore all the different ways that people are communicating science (via print media, via podcasts, via the internet and movies and documentaries and works of science fiction and all those other things that are going on), I do fundamentally believe that theater has a particular way of impacting people, due to the fact that you’re in the same place as a performer and you’re seeing them and you’re feeling their energy and you’re feeling their impact quite viscerally in a different way. I think theater can sort of be part of the larger mosaic of how we think about and communicate the tremendous work that scientists are doing.

Jacquelyn
Well, you’ve certainly convinced me, though I was a pretty easy audience to begin with.

Daniel
[Laughs] Great!

Jacquelyn
I really feel like your work is a real call to action for artists in general to be using art as a way to fight the climate crisis.

Daniel
Agreed. We all have our own skills that we can bring to this crisis, and finding how we each can be part of it is absolutely essential.

Jacquelyn
I love that. I think that’s a great place to end because people often think like, “I’m in my sixties and I do X and I don’t know what to do but I wanna make a difference,” and “I don’t have a background in science.” I think what you’re really showing is that it certainly can’t hurt to have a background in science, but it’s not necessary to be part of this. We’re all just one big team, and everyone can play a part.

Daniel
Yeah.

Jacquelyn
Do you have any advice for artists interested in collaborating with scientists about climate change?

Daniel
The beginnings of any sort of collaboration between an artist and a scientist are going to be terrifying (probably for both the artist and the scientist), and so my recommendation is to just hold on to that feeling because as artists we know that that little bit of fear going into a project is a good thing. That fear comes from entering the unknown, and we should hold the unknown as artists and enjoy the unknown. Being able and willing and enthusiastic about saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Can you explain it to me again?”, and knowing that there’s gonna be moments for both you and the person you’re collaborating with, where you’re both like, “I fully don’t understand the words that you’re saying.” That’s part of the collaborative dynamic that you’re building together.

[music]

Jacquelyn
Warm Regards is produced by Justin Schell. Additional production assistance for this episode came from Holli Konrad. Jo Stormer creates our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions.

You can find a transcript of this episode, listen to previous episodes, and find links to subscribe via the podcast platform of your choice on our website, WarmRegardsPodcast.com. Also, something that really helps more people lea1rn about our show is if you could leave a quick review or rating, especially on Apple Podcasts.

You can reach us at OurWarmRegards@gmail.com our find us on Twitter at @OurWarmRegards.

This season of Warm Regards is made possible by our patrons on Patreon. Their donations help pay our great team members Justin, Jo, and Katherine for all their hard work. If you’re interested in supporting the show, you can go to patreon.com/warmregards. There’s also a link to the page in our show notes and website.

From all of us at Warm Regards, thanks for letting us into your head.

A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651

A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651