01.01.2012 | About the artist Andrea Polli

Man at the centre of the climate

Among artists working with science, those who deal with the climate have gained particular relevance recently. In Andrea Polli’s works, her art, in which nature meets digital culture and technology, is capable of putting man back in the centre of the environment, stimulating direct involvement, both intellectual and physical. By Gaia Bindi.

New experimental creativity

Starting from the 1980s, and with an accelerating trend in the early years of this century, numerous artworks have been created not in ateliers but in laboratories, where the artists tackle cultural, philosophical and social questions, linking them to top-flight research in the scientific and technological fields. Although Leonardo da Vinci was of course the artist-scientist par excellence, emblem of an age when art and science were considered cognitive strategies of equal value, many of today’s men of science are successfully redefining themselves as artists. Only to quote a few names for this phenomenon: Carsten Höller and Marc Dion are biologists; Tony Cragg and Sissel Tolaas are chemists; Christoph Keller and Tobias Putrih are physicists; Viet Ngo and Steven Pippin are engineers. The work of the new artist-scientist lies at the crossroads between very diverse disciplines: microbiology, the physical sciences, information technology, biology and living systems, kinetics and robotics, eugenics, climate science, virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

A step back in the history, from Leonardo to Beuys

If we again take a step back in time we may find it easier to understand this hybrid and experimental creativity. At the start of the fifteenth century, artists entrusted to the mathematical sciences the fundamental role of raising art from pure mechanical fact to expression of knowledge, thereby creating the foundations for a radical renewal also in the field of science. The most significant fallout from this “happy marriage” was the invention of perspective: artists codified the rules of drawing, of pictorial composition, for the optical control of proportions and colours; cosmographs assimilated the artists’ rules to explain Ptolemy’s methods of projection and to perfect the techniques of cartography; mathematicians took inspiration from it to study problems of plane and solid geometry; while astronomers exploited it in the delicate passage from mathematical astronomy to visual astronomy. Even the extraordinary descriptive quality of Renaissance art originated as both consequence and cause of scientific progress – anatomical studies, in particular the incomparable ones by Leonardo, helped to develop the discipline made famous by Andrea Vesalio in 1543 with his De humani corporis fabrica; and its communicative ability was thereby enhanced. It is not by chance that, for Joseph Beuys “Leonardo was the right key that opened a new concept in science […] that found its equilibrium in art and in man” [1]. The series of drawings that the German artist produced in autumn 1974 as a reflection on the parchments of Leonardo’s Madrid Codices I and II – which contain studies in applied mechanics, water and hydraulic installations, with a theoretical part on the stability of materials, on problems relating to gravity and on the powers of energy that develop from matter – originates as a tribute to this miscellany that addresses the entire cosmogony of the sciences and the arts, instituting an equilibrium that helps to create a new vision of man.

Art and science as twin activities

The question of the relations and correlations between art and science criss-crosses through the whole of their history. Both are recognised as formal instruments aimed at acquiring knowledge, but in recent centuries the ways in which they investigate reality have been viewed as antithetic, and this standpoint has tended to crystallise. The cultural stereotype still today considers the former as being more closely tied to the system of invention, the latter to that of discovery. But more recently, the polarity deriving from the concept of science as knowledge and art as imagination has become largely obsolete. The two spheres have come together again, and are increasingly considered as “twin activities, procedures to regain the world semantically” [2] . Cultural historians such as Linda Dalrymple Henderson have not, for example, failed to stress the parallel changes in the notions of space and time in the figurative arts and in the physical sciences of the twentieth century.
In today’s world, art and science are also united to face the same threats: the dominant cultural attractors, economic parameters and those of industrial development, on which depends the updating of the technology in use, are capable of having a strong influence on all types of research. Thus, while at the start of the twentieth century Albert Einstein could happily state that every “theory is […] a free creation of the human mind”, in recent years physicist Jean-Marc Lévy Leblond with the essay La science en mal de culture (2004) pointed out that the increasing difficulties and contradictions of science can only be overcome “by turning to the experiences laid down over the centuries by writers, artists and philosophers: to that cultural tradition from which it has too long remained detached”.
This is the territory on which interesting interactive experiments have arisen. In 2003 the American National Academy of Sciences published a report under the title Beyond Productivity: Information, Technology, Innovation, and Creativity, which concluded a study on the effects of a possible alliance between art and science, a union recognised as the indispensable vector of social and economic growth. The many collaborations between artists and scientists are based on the hypothesis that the former can enrich research methods. Indeed, some institutional subjects – for example the European Union and UNESCO – give specific financial support to combined projects. In this light, new university institutes have been set up, as well as research centres, museums, festivals, travelling exhibitions, specialised journals and websites.

The climate, an emerging art theme

Among artists working with science, those who deal with the climate have gained particular relevance recently: in the words of Annick Bureaud in the text L’art, le climat et son changement, published on the Leonardo/Olats website, “we may undoubtedly speak of an emerging theme”. Artistic interventions addressing this argument have grown exponentially, in particular since global warming, once only the subject of debate among specialists, has come to interest all levels of society. In 2003, science sociologist Bruno Latour ironically said that we have left behind us the era of science to enter into that of global experimentation, which is generating a universal laboratory: “The only way – he wrote in Atmosphère, atmosphère, on the Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project exhibition catalogue (Tate Publishing 2003, p.32) – to discover whether global warming is undoubtedly due to man’s activities is to see what happens if we attempt to eliminate harmful emissions. This is certainly an experiment in which we are all involved ”. Every person is thus involved, and in first place the artists feel themselves to be the promoters of a movement that will lead to a sustainable society. But theirs can only be a group undertaking, open to a not-always-easy process of exchange: “scientists look for sustainable solutions, climate scientists collate data and build models, environmental politicians promote measures to protect the planet, while artists want to translate political and scientific questions using the aesthetics of form” [3].
In an original way, art succeeds in making accessible what are often remote meanings, involving our senses and emotions, so that physical perception becomes environmental conscience. The spectrum of artistic interventions on the climate is thus a wide and varied one, stimulating knowledge and empathy, reflecting on arguments such as air and water quality, rising temperatures or rising sea levels, wind direction or the composition of the atmosphere. The artworks may have very different registers, approaches and results: they range from emulating natural phenomena (the synthetic sun of Olafur Eliasson in The Weather Project, Tate Modern, 2003) to classification (the 57 forms of cloud detected by Douglas Bagnall in Cloud Shape Classifier, 2006); to play (soap bubbles that capture climate data by Drew Hemment, Carlo Buontempo and Alfie Dennen in Climate Bubbles, 2009) to sensitisation (the audio-visual motifs created by Steve Heimbecker’s wind detectors in Wind Array Cascade Machine, 2003); to denunciation (public readings of the Kyoto Protocol by Amy Balkin, in the project Reading the IPCC Report, 2008-2011) to activism (founding Climate Refugee Camps by Hermann Josef Hack, 2007-2011); to interactive communication (information on urban pollution carried by pigeons in PigeonBlog, by Beatriz da Costa, Cina Hazegh and Kevin Ponto, 2009) and to sharing through Web 2.0 (the game to save the climate launched on Facebook by The People Speak: Planetary Pledge Pyramid, 2009).

A different perspective on the scientific data, Andrea Polli

All works that start from the assumption of objective scientific data, but that manage to offer a different interpretation of it, following a perspective that is not limited to the here and now, but that extends and distances the horizon, decisively pointing to the community and to the future. As regards Andrea Polli’s vision, the fact that she has a different viewpoint from that of the scientist within one and the same field of view, is quite clear in a short autobiographical account, published on the occasion of the exhibition Undercurrents. Experimental Ecosystems in Recent Art, set up in 2010 by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York’s open spaces. The catalogue relates a small episode that occurred during her residency in the Antarctic between 2007 and 2008 – part of a National Science Foundation programme for artists – which stresses the closure of the scientific world. Having already noticed how limited were relations of collaboration between scientists of different nationalities, the story tells of her amazement on seeing that a few skiers – by chance camped out in a tent close to the American station at the South Pole, at the end of an expedition that had lasted months – by regulation could not even enter inside the base. Conversely, one may say that communication, as the intent and driving force underlying the work, lies consciously at the base of her creativity, where the digital medium is used to create an interface that can make tangible entire ranges of scientific data (often monitoring air quality), giving palpable emphasis to that which in general appears abstract and abstruse. The artist began to experiment with data translation techniques in 1991, using the Lorenz Attractor to create algorithmic compositions modelling chaos. Her works are part of the vital link between themes of the environment, science and technology, through a close collaboration among different profession fields, so as to create feedback processes including in the scientific community.

The process of sonification

In this way, she produces works using the process of “sonification” – a practise that already boasts a recognised history in art (a historical outline is reconstructed in Andrea Polli’s article Modelling storms in sound: the Atmospherics/Weather project in Organized Sounds, published in August 2004) – to illustrate natural phenomena, representing complex information through cleverly-chosen, associated and diffuse sound effects. The best known of these works is perhaps the project Atmospheric/Weather Works (2001-2011) that, in the form of a multi-channel sound installation, converts data relating to two storms that occurred in the sky above New York: “President Day Snowstorm” on February 18th 1979, and “Hurricane Bob” of August 16th 1991. The choice of events, made in collaboration with meteorologists from MESO (Mesoscale Environmental Simulations and Operations), fell on two important events that were very different in structure, not least to attempt a different decoding of their nature through sound. From the MESO models, the work retrieves the data describing the behaviour of the storm at five different elevations (sea level; 8,500 feet; 18,000 ft.; 35,000 ft.; 60,000 ft., i.e. the top of the atmosphere), measured every three minutes over the 24 hours of greatest activity, through six variables (atmospheric pressure, water vapour, relative humidity, condensation point, temperature, and wind speed) which are used in the final composition in association with sounds of various types: vocal, instrumental, environmental, natural (including insect noises). In the composition, the highest sounds indicate the wind speed, so as to clarify the greatest storm activity at different heights, with a dramatic spatial sound effect; the atmospheric pressure, conversely, is translated into very low-frequency sound, which rejects any possible melodic line in favour of a visceral effect of physical involvement.

The individual centrality

To what extent the individual is at the centre of this hyper-technological creativity may particularly be grasped in environments of extreme solitude like the two Poles. Not only physical solitude – due to the low human density, most of those present being base scientists – but also cultural solitude, given the lack of interest that the whole of humanity shows for these areas that are indispensible to our survival. “The Poles are in the front line of climate change” writes the artist, “through a series of interviews with climate scientists in the Antarctic I discovered that the politicisation of the question of global warming, combined with the difficulty of communicating the complexity of climate science to the lay public, have contributed to a gap in the public’s understanding of climate change” [4]. Both the audio-video installation N. (2006) and the video Ground Truth (2008) – both on show Breathless at Parco Arte Vivente in Turin – try to fill this gap. The former is a work created in collaboration with sound artist Joe Gilmore and scientist Patrick Market, that uses images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic research program: a co-ordinated operation of visualisation-sonification, in which the diaphanous sonority that arises from the computations of a weather station close to the North Pole “is an accomplice in generating images of empty and completely uninhabited spaces […] in displaying a desolate appeal, that appears to be inspired by ongoing climate changes and by possible ecological catastrophes” [5]. Conversely, the video Ground Truth intersects images taken outdoors at the Antarctic’s Dry Valley with interviews held inside the McMurdo weather station with the scientific staff on duty to study the climate (pioneers of research known as “ground truthing”), to discover the personal motives and goals of acommitment carried out in such remote and uncomfortable places.

Developing action and behaviour

In Andrea Polli’s works, her art, in which nature meets technology, is capable of putting man back in the centre of the environment, stimulating direct involvement, both intellectual and physical. Both spheres – the rational and the sensory – are considered indispensable: this is demonstrated by the works that are developed as actions or behaviour – including the “soundwalks”, collective walks aimed at listening to unexpected sounds in the urban panorama – and also Polli’s habit of making much of her production interactive. Among the work at present exhibited at Parco Arte Vivente, for example, both Hello Weather! (2008-2011) and Particle Falls (2010-2011) are “acted” by the spectators: the first is a web station that provides demystifying interaction with data developed by five weather stations that the artist has situated throughout the world; the second presents as a waterfall of light that changes its “physiognomy” based on measurements of pollution by particulate matter (in particular by PM 2.5, one of the most recent to be monitored) and by effect of the occasional smoker. The cars in Breather (2011) and Cloud Car (2011), which seem to breathe in and breathe out smog, are also animated only by human presence.

Poetry as a practical direction

Between technology and invention, present and future are poetically and unexpectedly placed face-to-face in these works. For Martin Heidegger’s Bemerkungen zu Kunst – Plastik – Raum (1964) “all art is, in the way proper to it, Poetry” in the sense that it takes the absolutely practical action of transporting (poìesis in Ancient Greek means “to bring-out-of”) from the hidden to the non-hidden (preserving both). An art that brings the climate from the geographical scale to the carnal scale succeeds in revealing hidden truths, uncovering dimensions and forms, rhythms and forces, preserving them for tomorrow. In the presence of today’s climate crisis, there is no point losing oneself in a Romantic sentiment of the sublime; rather we must take culture by the hand and lead it back onto the path from science to humanity.


[1] Antonio d’Avossa, Arte e scienza: Joseph Beuys come Leonardo da Vinci, in A. d’Avossa, Joseph Beuys. Difesa della natura, Skira, Milano 2001, p. 41.
[2] Ignazio Licata, Osservando la resistenza del mondo. Scienza ed arte come giochi cognitivi tra metafore e modelli, in Connessioni inattese. Crossing tra arte e scienza, Giancarlo Politi Editore, Milano 2009, p. 14.
[3] Zvjezdana Cimerman, Mediating and designing environments – Art and natural science, in Transdiscourse 1. Mediated Environments, edited by Andrea Gleininger – Angelika Hilbeck – Jill Scott, Springer-Verlag, Wien 2011, p.24.
[4] Andrea Polli, Airspace [Focus: McMurdo Station, Antartica], in Jane Marshing – Andrea Polli, Far Field: Digital Culture, Climate Change and the Poles, Intellect Books, 2011 (in press).
[5] Aurelio Cianciotta, Polli & Joe Gilmore – N., dated 1.11.2008, in http://www.neural.it/sound_it/2008/11/_andrea_polli_joe_gilmore_n.phtml.

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