I work with the Breathing City group in the UK; the group is a science-art collaborative exploring the intersections of working methods derived from meteorological research, data visualisation, three dimensional design, sound composition, and video. The Breathing City Group comprises Holger Zschenderlein and Patrick Letschka (University of Brighton, UK) Christopher Rose (Rhode Island School of Design, USA) and Dr. Janet Barlow (University of Reading, UK).
Following an invitation by The Royal Society of Science, The Breathing City exhibited ‘Ice-Traffic’ as one of the key installations for the Society’s 350th Anniversary Festival of Science in 2010, which attracted more than 30,000 visitors through the Festival Hall venue on London’s south bank. The project received support by the University of Brighton, The Royal Society, the University of Reading, Lighthouse Brighton, and Zschenderlein obtained additional sponsorship from IBM, Halcrow, The Met Office, QED Productions, Genelec UK, Apple UK and The Southbank Centre for its realization.
The installation was created as a result of the group’s interest in how to create a meaningful and evocative encounter space informed by scientific data stemming from complex dynamic systems within urban climate research and its wider context.
This led to experimentations with unusual combinations of material such as ice and processed audio-visual media influenced by interacting scientific data sets. The oldest long-range temperature record (Central England Temperature, CET; 239 years from 1772) supplied by The Meteorological Office, interacted with a live feed of current airflow turbulence and temperature from instruments mounted on the BT Tower in the City of London. This was supplied by Dr. Janet Barlow, who researches aspects of Boundary-Layer Meteorology at the University of Reading.
The installation dynamically combines moving images of urban traffic flow projected into a two-ton block of ice surrounded by a multi-channel soundscape, all influenced by the data. Computer coding responds to interactions between the data sources to control the moving images and soundscapes in real time. Data sources contained ‘longer’ and ‘shorter’ timescales and sound sources contained ‘larger’ and ‘smaller’ sound spaces.
Imbalances within the data sets trigger disturbances or ‘tipping’ points from one state to another, both in the visual displays and in the surrounding soundscape, reflecting the unpredictable and dynamic nature of interacting climate systems.
Bombarded with both the light of fast-moving time-lapsed urban traffic and the body-heat of the observers, the ice mass begins its slow and inevitable meltdown. A tangible paradox confronts the viewer; the heavy weight and physical presence of the ice is nonetheless perceived as ephemeral and illusory. Its solidity is mysteriously accommodating of the complex changes in light; yet for only a limited time.
Ice-Traffic invites the observer to witness and question what is known, what can be calculated and what remains seemingly unpredictable. New perceptions and new questions arise in this space, prompting further thinking around the language of scientific processes and the interfacing of arts, sciences and design, and how these can be explored through dialogue across disciplines.
A note on the ‘Interaction of Sensory and Rational’ diagram.
- We seek the ‘rational’ explanation of patterns we perceive in data, yet the concept of ‘rational’ is located partly in relation to the ‘irrational’ and partly in relation to ‘aspiration’.
- We look for a ‘good plot’ (a graphical plot of selected data) — which involves a gut reaction, or an aesthetic as well as an analytical assessment. Rather than regarding ‘aesthetic’ as merely subjective, we can see it as another avenue to perceiving complexity.
- Naieve questioning is important — it helps to locate ‘what is expert’ and can assist with clarity and dispense with jargon.
It is the journeying between these conditions that creates insight.