How artists interpret ag data

Art can take many forms. So can agricultural research. Would collaboration between the two prove useful?

That was a core question posed in a project involving Agriculture Canada researchers and talented artists in a project organized through the University of Lethbridge.

The answer? Science can inform art and art can inform science. Proof of that was captured in a documentary film that premiered Oct. 26 at the U of L.

Co-directed by U of L new media professor Leanne Elias and Output Media owner Bryn Hewko, the film showed the collaboration between Agriculture Canada researchers Andre Laroche and Jamie Larson and six artists tasked with interpreting scientific data in their own unique ways.

“There was, I think, an extraordinary outcome because of the variety of expression starting from a given data set and then people went different ways,” said Laroche, who is studying potential for genetic modification of wheat so it is resistant to stripe rust. He provided reams of genetic data to the artists, as did Larson, who is researching the potential of perennial wheat.

“The first step is surely that exploration between different disciplines but at the end too, it provided a different alternative way to consider your data, that you reflect on and you have a new appreciation perhaps about what you see, how you see your data. It has an impact on the next step, I think,” Laroche said.

The six artists, Jackson 2Bears, Tori Foster, Mary-Anne McTrowe, Robyn Moody, Adrien Segal, and Michelle Sylvestre, developed art works ranging from audio and three-dimensional presentations to fabric, sculpture and paint.

The works were exhibited at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in February 2017, the products of an 18-month process that Elias deemed a success.

“The world is a mushy place. There’s lots of crossover between disciplines and in fact what we’ve discovered … is just how much richer your own discipline can be when you are working with other disciplines,” she said during the premiere of the documentary.

“The aim of this endeavor is to investigate the effect of intensive collaboration; how artists can use scientific process to guide their art and how scientists can use artistic ways of knowing to approach their data in new ways.”

This is not the first foray between agricultural research scientists and artists organized through the U of L. Initial efforts took place several years ago, said Agriculture Canada researcher Rose De Clerck-Floate, whom Elias credited with launching the interdisciplinary project.

“I was the first test scientist handing over my data to the students. I was so impressed with the students and what impressed me more than anything was how they owned the data and the science after awhile,” she said.

Art works from that first collaboration were impressive, De Clerck-Floate added.

“A lot of the exhibits were interactive and it amazed me how brilliant they were. And some were just true artistic expressions too.

“It’s more than just depicting our science in a different way. It’s a two way because it helps us see our data in a different way. I think if you bring the artists and scientists together during the formative stages of project development, there might be new ways that we haven’t even thought of in which we can help each other. Artists help you envision new possibilities, so if you bring them in at the formative stage of science, you may be able to see different ways to conduct an experiment or investigation.”

The documentary involving Laroche, Larson and the artists shows how the researchers explained their work, presented their data and also took the artists into wheat fields and test plots for on-the-ground study.

The artists and the scientists met every three weeks. Though initially the artists were engaging with only datasets, which were substantial, the project really took shape after they visited the research centre in Lethbridge.

“It changed the concept of the data in their minds; they understood it and could ask questions about it because it was all visual,” Elias said in a news release about the documentary. “Those visuals worked their way into the art and design work. From there, Denton (Fredrickson, Elias’ colleague in the art faculty) and I knew that it was a key element in this interdisciplinary formula. It wasn’t enough to bring science to art. We had to take the art into the science as well.”

De Clerck-Floate said she continues to promote the interdisciplinary project to her colleagues at Agriculture Canada. Part of it stems from her desire to share agricultural research with the public.

“Much in the way that the artists express their art so differently and their response to the same data set, scientists are no different. Even what we develop in testing something comes from who we are,” she said.

“I think it’s a good lesson in how to reach people, the public too. As government scientists, we have an important task and I think we need to express our science to a broader audience.”

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