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Critical change through Art & Science

Screenshot of art and science installation at Kersnikova Institute in Ljubljana

As part of Ecsite's Environmental Emergency Action supporting member organisations in their environmental sustainability efforts, we encouraged speakers from #Ecsite2023 who discussed the biodiversity and climate emergency to share the lasting impact of their sessions with both Conference participants and Ecsite members.

Session convenor Mairéad Hurley wrote a wonderful summary of their session on "Critical change through Art & Science" with one of the aims being to bring unique perspectives from those working at the fringe or outside of traditional science engagement and communication (take a look at the session page, including speakers' details). The session slideshows & references are linked in the text, as well as right after the summary.

Mairéad has added her personal take to this and other sessions on the topic, so be sure to read the text till the end.

Critical change through Art & Science

Immediately following the opening ceremony of the 2023 Ecsite Conference, we found ourselves in a room full to capacity as we navigated the inevitable technical challenges of bringing a speaker from Hong Kong into conversation with our in-person contributors in the historical Mediterranean Convention Centre. Eventually smoothed out, the session that followed brought forth real-world examples of practitioners working at the nexus of science and the arts to engage audiences with the critical issues facing our generation.

We were treated to an emotive journey through space and time, as Andrew Newman read aloud his evocative essay which put the contemporary extreme weather events happening around the globe into dialogue with Mary Shelley's 1818 creation of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus - the original canary in the coal mine for the potential dangers of unchecked scientific progress.

Artist Kat Austen shared examples from her pioneering practice which integrates chemistry, sound art, and sculpture. Through her work, "Stranger to the Trees", Kat represents one of those rare boundary spanners whose name simultaneously graces exhibition halls and scientific journal articles.

Miruna Amza shared examples of how architecture, design and artificial intelligence shape her practice across the science centre and cultural sectors. Miruna, along with an AI recreation of John Lennon, encouraged us to "imagine futures as means to prompt radical revolution"

Finally, Petra Vanic of Kersnikova Institute in Ljubljana brought us on a journey of art and science from historical times to the recent efforts of her organisation to bring the work of contemporary artists to their audiences through engaging and critical programming at the intersection of the arts, science, and technology. This effort is not limited to traditional arts audiences but also reaches young people through their innovative educational programming. As the Kersnikova Institute will host the Ecsite Conference in 2024, I'm excited to see the art-science programme that they will put on for us next June.

This session was never intended to promote the notion of art & science as a handy tool to deal with the climate crisis. Instead, it was supposed to open hearts and minds to the possibilities that emerge when space is created at the intersection of these disciplines and to give some examples of the myriad ways people are working and having an impact in these kinds of spaces. Science centres and museums are not only host venues for the end point of arts-science collaborations, but can themselves play key roles as the instigators, participants, and facilitators of such ventures. I hope that our session played some small part in sparking imagination towards the emerging possibilities for radical and critical change.

I participated in two other sessions at the 2023 Ecsite Conference, as a speaker in Cultural collaboration on the Planetary Emergency, and as a community member at the community meet-up "Is the climate crisis a crisis of imagination?". I also played a part in programming the Conference as a member of the Annual Conference Programme Committee, and was delighted that we were able to secure the amazing Rob Hopkins as one of this year's keynote speakers.

All of these sessions align with my own research and practice, and views on what is urgent in communicating, teaching, and learning science in these times of planetary-scale emergencies. They created space for hope, joy, and anxiety in equal measures. They foregrounded complexity and the need for systems thinking. They considered the necessity of disciplinary scientific expertise, while also holding space for the wisdom of communities and the transformative potential of the arts and artists. They brought forth critical questions about the role of our institutions, and Rob Hopkins pointed us all on the path of imagination for the kind of futures thinking we need to embody in our own work and to promote with our audiences. Finally, in coming together as a community at the meet-up during the conference, we shared inspiration, worries, hopes, and dreams, and found a growing supportive network of like-minded individuals who believe we can make a difference in tackling these global-scale issues. We hope to continue to grow as a network and to meet online at least twice before Ljubljana 2024. If anyone reading this would like to join, please sign up to the mailing list and join our online meetup on 25 September 11.30 - 13.00 CEST.

For more examples of the kinds of imagination that can emerge when science centres and museums break down disciplinary boundaries and create space for open-ended collaboration between scientists, artists, activists and communities, I recommend checking out the ideas and the work that were presented in "Critical Change through Art & Science" session linked in this text and right below. And my personal addition to this list, a favourite book: All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, and the associated All We Can Save Project.

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  • science