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The art of science communication: can the creative arts bring a new dimension to your research?

Artists often work with researchers to communicate their findings; but is it possible for artists to join interdisciplinary teams to come up with new knowledge and insights about the world around us? After all, for many artists, their goal is to make us look differently at the world, to stumble upon new insights and think differently. And these goals are shared by many researchers in their quest to generate new knowledge.

So why is it that although it is now common to see social and natural scientists working together (and even collaborations between the physical sciences and the arts and humanities), it is rare to see artists working as equals alongside researchers in interdisciplinary teams? There has been a frame-shift for many natural scientists in recent years, who no longer see social scientists as an “add-on” to help them communicate their research, but now genuinely value the new insights that social science can bring, and work with social scientists as equals. The creative arts however, are still seen by many researchers as an “add-on”, whose only role is to help communicate the “real” research done by the social and natural scientists.

Sculpture by Helen Denerly

So, is it possible to integrate creative practitioners into interdisciplinary teams? Can we value their methods and knowledge equally alongside those of researchers to co-generate new knowledge and insights together? I’ve not managed to do this yet, but I’ve had some tantalising glimpses of what might be possible, and have started integrating artists into many of the funding proposals I’m now writing. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had similar glimpses, or if you can share stories of genuinely interdisciplinary collaborations with artists that we could all learn from?

My first real experience of working with creative practitioners was during a residency at the Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability earlier this year. Huw Warren, a jazz pianist and contemporary composer, was one of the people we were working with. We met at the studio of sculptor, Helen Denerly, one of the other artists in residence, in the Cairngorms National Park.

My conversation with Huw started beside a stream in the valley that Helen Denerly’s studio is built in. For years, a heron had visited that particular spot in the river, and after it had stopped returning, Helen sculpted an iron arch over the place it used to stand, with a tone poem about the heron, by the Orkadian poet, George Mackay Brown, inscribed in runes along its edge. On one side of the river was improved pasture, on the other side, rough grazing, turning to moor and forest. The arch was located at the intersection between a whole series of different land uses, and the river seemed to connect them all. I wondered to Huw if it might be possible to capture through music, this intersection of uses and the layers of differing values that lead to so many different benefits and to so many conflicts. I had no idea how that might be possible through music, but felt there was something structural about this layering of uses and meanings, which he might perhaps be able to use?

So in the piece that Huw wrote, “Never Let Me Go”, there is a tonal arch that repeats, at its core – small arches that go up and down, each slightly different, all building into one great over-arching tonal ark that forms through the whole piece. As I was listening to him play, I found myself standing by the river with him again. I could see the light reflecting from the river on the underside of Helen’s arch, creating a thousand overlapping arches dancing within arches – my eye was tracing the arch itself from one side of the river to the other, and I was slowly becoming aware of the ark of sky over my head.

An arch is a self-supporting structure, but as we all know, if you take out any single stone, the whole structure collapses. Of course, this is very much like the self-supporting structures that exist in the natural world, and the structures within structures that occur naturally all around us – populations of species, co-existing within habitats, which in turn are part of a wider ecosystem. Take out the “key-stone”, or any stone for that matter, and the whole structure collapses.

But what I as an environmental researcher might see as an assemblage of species and habitats, my wife is likely to see as a spectacular view (I have a nasty habit of missing the view for looking at the roadside plants); my children are more likely to see it as a place to collect what they call “beasties” (insects to the rest of us); the farmer is going to see what we’re looking at as their livelihood. Perhaps my children’s children will have a far greater appreciation of the carbon locked up in the vegetation and soil that makes up this landscape – especially if they are grappling with the consequences of letting that carbon return to the atmosphere. We all see a slightly different arch when we look at this landscape: each of these arches is a human, cultural construct – including conservation. And each of these constructions can, under certain circumstances, be vulnerable to collapse.

So do we try and build our conservation arch stronger, replacing stones with solid iron, as Helen Denerly did? Or do we stop and look harder, and notice the many other arches we had previously overlooked – and perhaps go further, and spend some time sitting under one of those arches, reading the runes, absorbing what it is to be a farmer, to be a child of our children?

And this brings me to the key thing I’ve learned from both Huw and Helen’s work: empathy. Empathy is simply being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. My dictionary defines it as the power of being able to enter someone else’s personality and imaginatively experience his or her experiences. I believe empathy is a skill we all need as researchers, and it is something we can learn and always get better at. But for many of us, this is a fundamental challenge though: to practice empathy we have to accept that we might not always be right; that whether we agree with the basis of their arguments or not, other people have different and often deeply cherished perspectives; we need to learn how to respect these as valid opinions, so we can truly engage with and learn from each other. This means accepting that there may not be one objective truth that we can reveal through science, but that there are multiple, competing ways of explaining the world and our place in it. The sooner we can accept this more messy, multi-layered way of looking at the world, the sooner I believe we will be able to start really doing research hand-in-hand with the people who depend on the species and habitats we are trying to protect. This will mean compromise, but I believe in the long-run, it will also mean that we can achieve goals that we all share, far more effectively and with far less conflict.

Since my conversation with Huw at Helen’s studio, I’ve worked with the 20:20 Vision photography collective and singer-songwriters, Stephen and Ilse Ogston, to develop a music video, and worked with a story-teller and illustrator to produce a children’s story book about our research on peat bogs. These initiatives have been more about communicating existing knowledge than they’ve been about co-generating new knowledge together, but each collaboration has re-awakened the wonder that originally inspired me to become an environmental researcher. As researchers we are all of course in the business of communicating our findings in peer-reviewed journal articles – the Sustainable Uplands team has produced over 50 of them now. But when we’re dealing with issues as complex and value-laden as those surrounding the environment, then I personally believe there is a need to communicate in ways that engage people’s hearts as well as their minds; that get people to interrogate their assumptions at the level of their values and beliefs. And what better way to do that than through the arts?

But is it possible to go further than this, to actually work alongside artists to come up with new insights that we couldn’t otherwise have generated? I feel as though I’ve had glimpses of this that I want to explore in future research project, but I’m not sure I’ve proven this point yet. What do you think? I’d love to hear your stories…

Download an mp3 of “Never Let Me Go”:

Watch Huw Warren playing “Never Let Me Go”


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