Inge Panneels on ‘Ocean ARTic’, ecoart, and big data

How can we understand and experience changes in the arctic oceans caused by climate breakdown? Dr. Inge Panneels, artist and research fellow at Edinburgh Napier University/Creative Informatics initiative, reflects on Ocean ARTic – of artists and climate scientists collaborating and focused by the Glasgow Climate Talks (COP26). The project was developed by the Marine Association for Science and Technology Scotland (MASTS) in collaboration with Creative Informatics and took place over 2021 during various phases of lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic. Both artists have commented that this led to exploring digital directions in the works, Eve Mosher to using a chatbot for the first time, and Michael Begg to collaborating remotely with all the associated challenges. To find out more about the Arctic context check out the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s report in the ‘Still Only One Earth’ series.

The purpose of art, then, is not to communicate science but to investigate its conditions of possibility

Tim Ingold (2017)

A serendipitous conversation with Professor Colin Moffat, then Chief Science Advisor (Marine) to the Scottish Government, about the role of art in amplifying the stark warnings found in climate science data, led to the collaboration of MASTS and the Creative Informatics initiative to bring creatives and marine climate scientists together to explore innovative ways to tell climate stories, including the links between changes in the Arctic and the consequences and responses in Scotland. Funded by Creative Scotland with further contributions from project partners, the Ocean ARTic project was led by MASTS and its People Ocean Planet initiative, in collaboration with Creative Informatics and the ‘Blue Action’ project [1], with additional support from ecoartscotland and Marine Scotland. The project was established in a pivotal year for climate change negotiations at CoP26, and the start of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). CoP26 in particular triggered a whole ream of cultural and creative activity centred on climate change, and by implication climate science. Ocean ARTic was thus one of many climate-related art projects that took place in the lead up to and during CoP26, importantly also continuing post-CoP26 to keep the issue at the forefront of our minds. It is what Cuban artist Tania Bruguera defines as ‘political timing specific’. It is a work method in which a piece is linked to, and depends on, the political circumstances existing in the moment it is made or exhibited. Therefore, once the political moment goes by, the piece loses its potential political impact and tends to become a document of a specific political time. ‘The political moment informs the piece making it a structure that must adapt to the evolution of the political events and their interpretations’ (Bruguera, 2016). Although Ocean ARTic was conceived as such by virtue of its timing, the resulting artworks are not necessarily time specific.  

The Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland (MASTS) was founded in 2009 to bring multiple marine research organisations and government agencies together under one umbrella, with strong links to marine industries and central government. Now with eighteen member institutions, MASTS seeks to coordinate and stimulate collaborative activity across and beyond its membership. Its People Ocean Planet (POP) initiative was formed in 2020 to better leverage insights from the social sciences, revealing the human dimensions to delivering ocean and climate solutions, with arts-based engagement one of the tools available. Creative Informatics is a four-year Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) supported research programme that supports data driven innovation of the creative industries in the Edinburgh region. It does this through funded R&D development opportunities and getting creatives engaged with what data is and could be in a creative practice. The collaboration between these two partners thus brought climate science data together with creatives. David Buckland, who established Cape Farewell in 2001 from his collaboration with climate modellers at the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change and Sciences, observed the capability of climate data to project into the future. He argued that humanity had never before had such a tool and that in the past ‘it was the role of artists and visionaries to map futures, but with no sense of logic or probability’. Here the future unfolds instead in climate data, and it is not a pretty picture. Ocean ARTic engages with climate data as the foundation stone for environmental artworks. Data, as Michael Begg noted, can be the ‘common language between artists and scientists’.

Contemporary Art that engages at a fundamental level with environmental issues, beyond landscape painting, has in more than five decades focussed not on the depiction of nature itself, but in making visible the relational and the systematic. It is a movement frequently associated with North American art practices, but has roots in Europe and Asia too. ‘Ecoart’ means art for the future of humanity and the planet; it means a new approach to aesthetics and the role of art in our lives (Moyer and Harper, 2011). Art critic Brian Wallis noted the importance of the Land Art movement in the USA in the 1960s that coincided with ‘the fundamental reordering of critical and representational practices conceived at that time’ (Kastner and Wallis 1998, p. 23). The emergence of ‘spatial practices’ was not only exemplified in the ‘expanded field’ as observed by Rosalind Krauss (1979) but in the physical dematerialisation of the art object itself towards simply ideas or concepts (later Conceptual Art). This ‘decentering’ that emerged in the Land Art movement united politics and art in a new visual form of communication that encompassed not just theory, but aesthetics, performance and activism. The environmentalist Jonathan Carpenter observed the re-emergence of the socially aware artist as embodied in the practice of the American artist Alan Sonfist, whose Time Landscape (1965) was emblematic of a new art practice that, he argued, redefined what sculpture is. It questioned who the artist is and what role the artist has in relation to society and how art itself should function for the public.[2] As artist Robert Smithson wrote in 1972,

The Artist must come out of the isolation of galleries and museums and provide concrete consciousness for the present as it really exists, and not simply present abstractions or Utopias

(Smithson in: Kastner and Wallis, 1998, p. 32).

Wallis (Kastner and Wallis, 1998) argued that the emergence of Land Art presaged the abrupt shift from Modernism to Postmodernism in the 1980s. He noted that both the political developments and the Land Art of the 1960s proved pivotal and influential on a new generation of artists emerging in the late 20th century. Casey noted that this new passion for ‘environmental art is sensitive not just to the natural world as such but also to its cultivation and conservation’ (Casey, 2005, p. xiv). As Lucy Lippard notes, the monumental earthworks from the 1960s and 70s would not be considered environmental art in today’s context but did change the discourse on how nature was represented. Whilst those earlier works often resulted in urban audiences travelling long distances to view these work in-situ, the new generation of environmental artists are changing that direction and bring rural and agricultural sites to an (often) urban audience, reminding them of the hidden, forgotten or neglected ecosystems. This dynamic is particularly pronounced for issues occurring in the ‘out-of-sight’ marine environment, and for issues of climate that seem distant in space and time but are, in fact, both here and now. The altered perception of an environmental artwork’s location as a site to one of place has opened up a discourse around history and ecosystems and morphed from sculptural objects and institutions to ideas and actions, leading to interventions in the inhabited landscape (Lippard in: Moyer and Harper: 2011). HighWaterLine (2007) by internationally renowned American environmental artist Eve Mosher is such an intervention in the inhabited landscape and inherits the traditions of the walking practices deployed by the Situationists and the Land Art movement but, engages with climate change in a very direct and accessible manner. Mosher was struck by the inactivity and active editing of climate change science by the Bush administration (2006) and her understanding of the need for a compelling visual narrative (HighWaterLine: 2018). The parallels to the Trump administration are clear (Milman, 2016) and the importance of storytelling in communicating climate change can thus be considered ‘political’ in aspiration.[3] Yet Mosher understood the power of a visual story: she drew a contour line around the edge of the Brooklyn borough in New York City, drawn ten feet above sea level. The line was based on scientific modelling of predicted rising sea levels due to climate change, causing increased flood risk. By walking and drawing the line, Mosher hoped to engender dialogue.

I wanted to leave this visually interesting mark, to open up space for conversation.

(Mosher quoted in: Kolbert, 2012)

Mosher subsequently turned this project into a toolkit and has been employed in sites around the world such as Miami (2013), Philadelphia (2014), including Bristol (2014) in the UK, presented by arts organisation Invisible Dust. Not only did this project make the high-water line very visible and tangible in the cityscape, but also made it very human. Ocean ARTic commissioned Eve Mosher and award-winning composer Michael Begg as the two artists to engage with marine scientists on climate change, including some emphasis on changes occurring in the Arctic, the consequences it is having closer to home and the emerging responses from science and communities. The opportunity attracted well over twenty applications (including international ones) and the two artists were selected from the shortlist of six. The two selected artists had a proven track record of engaging with climate science data, albeit each in very different ways. Mosher introduced her chatbot Ossian in Holding the Ocean (Fig. 1). The conditions of pandemic encouraged a new direction, of using technology to engage with communities remotely.

Figure 1: Ossian, Eve Mosher, 2021 – chatbot, screenshot

In this piece she continues her interrogation of how climate change impacts communities and works with them on emotional and intellectual connections to climate change, as notably explored in her HighWaterLine project. The chatbot helps the listener explore the stories of climate scientists and coastal communities most intimately connected to the issue, weaving their lived experience with the research and data. Eve said,

Art can create a personal, even emotional connection to the data. Sharing people’s lived experience of climate change creates a level of understanding which motivates shifts in attitudes and actions in response to the challenges the world faces.

For Mosher, the brief to work with climate data mediated through data driven innovation, in this case chatbot technology, was a departure and new way of working with communities.

Figure 2: Eve Mosher, 2021, screenshot of relational mindmap for Ossian

The composer Michael Begg was the other selected artist for the Ocean ARTic commission and is no stranger to working with data. In a precursor to Ocean ARTic, Begg contributed to a Creative Informatics workshop and discussion in October 2020, examining creative responses to climate data that raised questions on the role and nature of sonification and its relationship to science and music. Lee de Mora, a marine ecosystem modeller from Plymouth Marine Laboratory introduced the UKESM1, the UK Earth System Modelling project, a gigantic data crunching project that in turn helps inform the international scientific effort that informs the IPCC reports on climate change.[4] Begg used some of UKESM1 data to build a demonstration of a climate Witness Engine to help raise discussion around how data is manipulated to make musical sense. Witness Engines is the series of software instruments which Begg developed, including with some Connected Innovator funding from Creative Informatics in 2020, that processes live, real-time data as well as archival data from open sources such as Open AQ, CopernicusEU, Open Weather Map and others to transform these into musical information. Begg reflected on the size of this big data that tells us the story of climate change in numbers but in itself has a ‘tactile weight and substance of the material manifesting in this digital realm of bytes and flickering screens’. The anticipated data from Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) is stored on cassettes, and has to be manhandled into machines, before being fed into the system and takes approximately 36 hours to download. Although the data used for this project is a fraction of the whole, the whole still needs to be in place to be queried and processed into a subset. Handling these large datasets comes with its own issues. On 8th of June, a major content delivery network (CDN) went down and brought a significant percentage of the web to its knees for an hour or so, including Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple. CDN are massive cloud-based resources that play a critical role in connecting data to end users. As Michael noted,

We remain at the mercy of the integrity of the network. Which makes it all the more prescient that today a CDN powered by Fastly had a critical error and brought down a significant portion of all web traffic – including, of course, our data transfer. And so it begins again in the morning.

(10 June 2021 (
Figure 3: Michael Begg, 2021, screenshot of data being transformed into musical sounds

The resulting commission Light Water Is Black Water, a title that relates to the fact that newly exposed areas of the Arctic Sea (due to ice melt) have two different names: Light Water, if you are an ocean scientist who imagines themselves in the water looking up, or Black Water if you are a glaciologist on land looking down into the water from above. In conversation with climate scientist Lukrecia Stulic from AWI, Begg was made aware that the Antarctic data is crowded and swoops with dramatic changes of values in the data points, the Arctic material is much more subtle,

This initially gave me pause for concern as my first reaction was to assume that there would be no drama, no immediately perceptible sense of increasing damage, chaos, entropy. But on further reflection, I must keep true to the data in some sense, and if the message is subtle, then I have to work with that. Those are the terms laid out by the readings.

(Michael Begg, 13 June 2021:

Begg was struck by the ‘harmony’ of the data, “But no. Regardless of how I calibrate the scaling to encourage more movement across 2, 3 even 4 octaves, the overall arrangement remains, somehow, balanced, in harmony, self-contained.” Until,

Then it occurred to me. Our survival is sustainable only within a tiny range of possible variables on this planet. If the balance is disturbed by only a small number of degrees across a reasonable period of time, we die. It is that simple. And, now, it is that clear. The harmony of the planet, as we can come to represent it within our system, remains true, sweet and clear. Our passing, ultimately, will mean little, and a gentle adjustment, naturally occurring here or there, subsequent to our extinction, will resolve into a new balance, barely discernible from the old one. We mean this little. We exist in the thinnest seam of matter. Yet this fragility is the one thing we never praise, worship, fear, or strive to safeguard above all other things.

(Michael Begg, 9 August 2021,

The neuroscientist Eric Kandel (2016) makes the case that the brain must engage top-down processing in order to ‘construct’ perception, based on previous experience. It is this process which, he argues, is at play when we consider abstract works of art: ‘In a sense, to see what is represented by the paint on a canvas, we have to know beforehand what sort of image we might expect to see in a painting’ (2016, p. 23). It is our familiarity with landscape that helps us to discern almost immediately the scene in the dots of the pointillist paintings by Georges Seurat, for example. It is this prior knowledge, as Merleau-Ponty (1942) had already observed, of our ability to decipher the abstract symbols on a map that enables the process of abstraction. The increased abstraction, and proliferation of data in contemporary society, makes it arguably increasingly difficult to ‘construct’ perception, when it cannot be embodied. The neuroscientist and geneticist Anthony Monaco argued that ‘big data is the measure of mankind’ (2016) and that it is therefore imperative that current and future generations of students in both technical and liberal arts subjects are equipped with a quantitative mind-set. However, a qualitative understanding of (climate) data is a particular contribution the Arts and Humanities can make, and a necessary and complimentary skill set. The positivist disciplines, which dominate climate change debate and policy values measurements of observable events, which form the foundation of rigorous climate science. But as Gus Speth, environmental advisor to the US government (1977-1981) noted,

I used to think the top environmental problem were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with thirty years of good science, we could address those problems. But I was wrong.
The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy… and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation – and we scientists don’t know how to do that.

This quote has been attributed second hand to Speth in this article by Courtney Woo (2015)

Thus the role of arts and humanities in bringing a different perspective that speaks to this different aspect of climate change, one that must draw attention to this fragility that hangs in the balance through human connection, and storytelling through the data.

Ocean ARTic offered an initial co-design workshop in April 2021 to artists and marine scientists as an opportunity to explore marine science topics and how art can interact with science and scientists to engage a broader audience. Creative Informatics also summarised case studies of environmental art, artists using data and artists using emerging digital technologies. It was clear that those present would welcome more opportunities to meet scientist informally and consider collaborative opportunities, rather than get together in response to a specific funding opportunity. The resulting two art residencies and commissions were launched at the Creative Informatics Lab#19 on the 5th of November 2021, after Bruguera, ‘political timing specific’ to coincide with CoP26 that was taking place in Glasgow at the same time. The composition by Michael Begg, commissioned by Ocean ARTic, was premiered in a live performance with the Black Glass Ensemble playing live music in InSpace and will have a public performance at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh on Saturday 4th June 2022 (rescheduled due to Covid-19. More information here). Begg has continued his work with large climate data sets from the Arctic, as also explored in his Connect Innovator work, to transform atmospheric, oceanic and weather data into pieces at the margins of classical and experimental music.

Figure 4: Michael Begg and Black Glass Ensemble, performance at In Space, Edinburgh, 5 November 2021. Credit: Michael O. Snyder,

Two very different responses to climate data were generated. Begg’s work uses data as the raw material to create the musical composition, whilst Mosher deals with the emotional and community responses evoked by climate data, and uses the chatbot to navigate and invite interaction with these responses. The impact of Covid on the collaborations was clear, where no face to contact between the artists and scientists was possible. However, as Begg reflected, in retrospect the the discipline required to be clear and concise when collaborating online was beneficial. Furthermore the inability to perform in public, resulted instead in a streamed performance captured on film and with a digital record and afterlife that ephemeral performances do not have. Digital artworks, whether chatbots or downloadable music files, are enabling access to environmental artworks hitherto not often associated with environmental arts. The accessibility of digital technology has arguably afforded greater dissemination of these environmental artworks but equally sever to some extent its immediate relationship to place, even if in this case the works clearly speak of place and its interconnectedness: the changes in the Arctic affect coastal communities here and there. The rationale of climate scientists working with artists is to communicate not simply the science but rather more; to engage with the topic of climate change at a fundamentally human level through story telling. Adapting to, and mitigating, the impacts of the climate we have created requires collaborative, interdisciplinary thinking as well as creative solutions. But it is clear to me that this work is by its very nature political.

[1] The Blue-Action project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 727852.

[2] Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1965-present) took ten years of research and negotiation with New York City to restore damaged urban soil on a corner plot in the city, plant native vegetation and re-introduce a seventeenth century, pre-colonial landscape.

[3] Climate change deniers have ascended to positions of power in the White House (Brady: 2016) and the American president Donald Trump not only withdrew from the Paris climate Change agreement, the only country in the world to do so, but also indicated he would cease funding climate research funding given to the Earth Science division of NASA as ‘a crack-down on ‘politicized science’ (The Guardian: Milman, 2016).  The emotive use of data in the context of climate change is thus a powerful and contested issue.

[4] De Mora is musically as well as scientifically trained and used some of his data to create Allegro ‘earth music system’ to both visualise and sonfiy the climate data.


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