EcoVenus by Michelle Rogers
By Kyle Frischkorn, guest contributor
Each morning last winter (excluding Sundays and University holidays) Michelle Rogers queued up for a shuttle bus in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan to make a lurching, 40-minute trek uptown, across the Hudson River, and north through New Jersey. The shuttle’s destination is just past the sign that welcomes you back to the Empire State: Columbia University’s sprawling, sylvan laboratory for environmental science, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Unlike the researchers who file out of the shuttle with her, Rogers doesn’t trek to Lamont to do things like model the ebb and flow of glaciers in deep time or track the migratory patterns of songbirds. Instead, she’s at the Earth Observatory to re-envision Boticelli’s Birth of Venus.
On the farthest edge of Lamont’s campus on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River is Monell Hall, the headquarters of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) and, for the duration of Rogers’ tenure there, a makeshift art studio where she hopes the scientists will inspire her environmentally focused update of a Renaissance classic.
The atrium in Monell Hall has a cathedral-like silence, broken only by wind off the Hudson which gently rattles the roof shingles and sounds like a constant rain shower even when it's sunny. The professors, climate modelers, and postdoctoral researchers swish by on a well worn path through the atrium from offices to seminar rooms and back, a path that now includes Rogers and her eight by ten foot painting in progress, EcoVenus.
The incomplete painting is an arresting sight in a building whose walls are otherwise adorned with posters from academic conferences and video monitors that display the swirling rainbow outputs of the climate models. Passing scientists were frequently stopped behind Rogers and her painting, transfixed as though they’d come across an elephant in the room, or rather, an artist in a laboratory. Francesco Fiondella, the Director of Communications at the IRI, was quick to step in and goad the shy onlookers to interrupt Rogers. Part of the goal of Roger’s atrium studio was to be a pleasant interruption, for her to pick the brains of passing researchers and vice versa. Scientists often need a bit of a push to step off that well-worn path and strike up a conversation, and that’s where Fiondella comes in.
Part of Fiondella’s role as director of communications is to translate the research conducted at the IRI for the broader public. It’s no easy task. “I think like a scientist,” Fiondella says. “We try and hit people in the head…we use data, and argument, and logic to say this [research] is important.” Scientists at the IRI forecast droughts that influence agriculture, natural disasters, and the global climate, all of which have a direct impact on every single inhabitant of planet earth. Despite this, Fiondella noticed a disconnect with the public— scientific figures, graphs and trends that forecasted dire changes weren’t striking a chord in the same way a photograph or painting could.
Fiondella planned his own experiment to bridge the gap between artists and scientists. He enlisted IRI researchers to be docents for an International Center for Photography (ICP) exhibit of Sebastião Salgado, an artist whose work depicts people in developing countries most affected by climate change. “People in art try and hit people here,” says Fiondella pointing to his heart. “Their goal is to evoke emotion.” His hope was that as docents, climate scientists could communicate their research with the emotional pull of the photographs, and create a lasting impression on visitors. “That’s where I see the biggest potential—reframing some of the great work that happens [at the IRI], to bring that knowledge forward,” he says.
During the exhibit Fiondella overheard a question asked by a visitor: “Are we going to lose the planet because the people with the most knowledge are the worst communicators of that knowledge?” It was Rogers, overwhelmed by the realization that there were far too few opportunities for scientists to strike a resonant chord with people outside the laboratory.
“The world that I found when I went to the ICP conference is not information that’s known to the public,” Rogers says of what she learned of IRI scientists’ research at the exhibit. “I felt that this information is locked away from the public…you’re going to have to work out a better way of communicating with them—a simpler and much more emotional way,” Rogers says. “The one thing I do know about my tribe—artists, creative people, musicians, dancers—is that’s what they’re good at. They can communicate through the heart to people.”
Fiondella and Rogers coalesced on a plan: she would set up shop at the IRI with the hope that her work would be inspired, and that the presence of an artist in a laboratory would inspire the climate researchers to communicate their pressing work to the masses. “I would hope to be able to help the people I meet think about getting their message or information across in a way that’s much more accessible” Rogers says. During her stay she planned to visit labs and sit in on research talks, to seek inspiration for the endangered species she hoped to populate EcoVenus with, and to shake things up amongst the scientists a bit.
Even without the wall-sized painting she stands in front of, Rogers stands out amongst the IRI researchers. She’s stylish with black jeans, wire-framed glasses, and an e-cigarette poking unapologetically out of her pocket. Rogers is accustomed to existing in such liminal spaces, however. She came of age in Ireland during the height of the Troubles, on the border of Northern and Southern Ireland. “I grew up in an industrial city that was on the edge of a war,” she says. “Very early in my life—unfortunately, too early in my life—I realized the darker side of human nature.” Her earliest works depicted refugees, floods, and coming storms. As she developed as an artist, it was imagery from the Irish countryside to which she escaped during the summers of her youth that began to take prominence in her work.
“I decided that I wanted to put something more positive in the world—how I’d like things to be, not how I was seeing things,” she says of this transition. She began depicting different animals and insects in her paintings; birds and butterflies that are classified as endangered or threatened. “Again, it’s going back to how I’d like to see the world, with people more integrated in nature and more aware of the beauty of it.”
EcoVenus is the culmination of this artistic transition. She describes the painting as “a celebration of life, but also paying attention to the things that we’re going to lose, or could lose, if we don’t pay attention to them.” From afar the painting is a dead ringer for The Birth of Venus, but up close it comes alive with birds, insects, corals, and even microscopic phytoplankton, all species that are threatened by rising temperatures, extreme weather, and ocean acidification—species that could be saved by raising awareness of the research conducted at the IRI.
By the time EcoVenus is finished and displayed at the Venice Biennale in spring 2017, many of the organisms she depicted could be extinct. Rogers and Fiondella feel that fostering a symbiotic relationship between artists and climate researchers is akin to how medieval religious leaders used songs and art to reach the illiterate populace. Rogers’ wants eco-conscious artists to use a similar strategy. She hopes that taking up residence in the IRI might spread the word of their research in a similar fashion. “We’re living in an entertainment age…facts don’t matter, entertainment quality matters,” Rogers says. “It’s through culture that we can change things.”
However, the symbiotic relationship between artists and scientists is as fragile as the threatened species Rogers paints. “Once I go back to my world, and my tribe, the art world…none of this exists,” Rogers says, gesturing around her makeshift studio in the Monell Hall atrium. Before she rolled up her painting and traveled back to her home in Rome, it was populated with countless species - the products of her time at the IRI and conversations with researchers having left a lasting impression. Less clear is the impression her stay will have on the scientists themselves.
Mired down by the never ending need to secure grants, threats to publish or perish, and deamnds of teaching undergraduates, many scientists won’t immediately see the benefits in fostering connections between science and art. Dr. Asher Siebert, a postdoctoral researcher at the IRI, saw the benefit of Rogers’ stay in Monell Hall clearly. “In order to get a message out to a broader audience you really need to speak to people's emotions,” he says, adding that, however, “incentive structures don’t work quite that way for the scientific community.” Translating a climate model into something easily digestible, and impactful, takes time, and it’s sadly not a priority.
“A lot of scientists would love to get more information out there…but the real question we have is how,” says Dr. Dorothy Peteet, a research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Making all that happen is outside of our mandate and our normal trajectory. It takes effort,” she says. Rogers posits that incentives have to change, and both artists and scientists should not be afraid to get a little bit uncomfortable. “I would encourage the scientific community to try and integrate with artists and step a little out of your bubble, and let artists step outside their bubble, and meet to get this information out to the public because right now they are scarily unaware.” The atrium in Monell Hall is empty again, and surely there are unused walls in other labs—scientists just have to ask artists to fill that space.