Can art alleviate environmental worries?

Caitlin Foley and Misha Rabinovich, photo courtesy of the Boston Art Review

Caitlin Foley and Misha Rabinovich, photo courtesy of the Boston Art Review

Climate change affects everything from the global economy to your life expectancy to the food in your fridge. Once you start connecting all those causes and effects, the sheer amount of information challenges your ability to understand it. It can feel overwhelming and hopeless.

The artist duo of Caitlin & Misha will bring some clarity to all of that environmental data in a large-scale visualization project at the Hunt Library this spring. Caitlin & Misha is Caitlin Foley and Misha Rabinovich, two artists based in the Boston area who will be in residence rom late February to early April as part of the Libraries’ Immersive Scholar program.

The artists are planning a series of generative artworks about the human relationship to water that will appear on Hunt Library’s large-scale digital walls, which include the Art Wall, the iPearl Immersion Theater, the Commons Wall, and the Visualization Wall. Beautiful, fluid simulations will be generated from a variety of information and data that has an affect on the availability of and access to drinking water.

Caitlin & Misha will be considering data such as water levels, temperature patterns, the timeline of changes in environmental policy, incidents of water-related disasters, conflict zones, internet search keywords, and social media activity around hashtags such as #climateaction. You’ll be looking at all of this data, but you’ll see it as flowing animations across the Hunt Library video walls. The artists hope that the work will make viewers more aware of the systems—both human and ecological—involved in the contents of their water bottles.

The Libraries’ Immersive Scholars program is part of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation project grant to continue the Libraries’ pioneering work with large-scale, research visualization technologies and to support the advancement of tools and techniques for developing and sharing such visual content for research.

Artists, scholars, and creative technologists submitted project proposals for a four-to-six-week residency to use data creatively, in collaboration with librarians, to produce immersive scholarly visual content for the Hunt Library video walls.

Two previous Immersive Scholar residents have completed residencies to date. Lucas Swick turned campus food and housing insecurity data into spectacular virtual gardens, and Liss LaFleur used data about sexual harassment and assault gathered through the #MeToo hashtag to make a digital stained glass window. NC State mathematics assistant professor Radmila Sazdanović also showed tessellations that explored the interplay of art, nature, culture, and math.

The residencies are just one aspect of the Mellon project. The grant provides funding for an initial gathering of librarians, scholars, and technologists working in large-scale, library and museum-based visualization environments to set priorities and best practices for the project. A series of competitive block grants are also available to other institutions working on similar challenges in creating, disseminating, validating, and preserving digital scholarship created in and for large-scale visual environments.

The Immersive Scholar initiative will culminate in a symposium that brings together the scholars-in-residence and the block grant recipients to share and assess results, organize ways of preserving and disseminating digital products, and build on the methods, templates, and tools developed to pave the way for future projects.