A scientist goes to an art gallery and finds her place

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The AGO’s Anthropocene depicts the human signature on our planet

Written by Lindsay Potts

As I parked my bike outside of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) earlier this month, the exhibit announced itself on long banners with imposing block letters: Anthropocene.

Anthropocene is a term that I am very familiar with, having been exposed to it throughout my biology undergraduate degree, now carrying over into my own Master’s project working with an endangered fish, Pugnose Shiner. It is a term as second nature to me as global warming. However, neither of my two friends attending the exhibit with me had heard of it. The Anthropocene is what many geologists are calling the current epoch we are living in, one defined by the dramatic and disproportionately huge impact humans are having on the planet. The exhibit, a collective installation by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier, included an image of men and stray dogs sifting through a giant heap of multicoloured plastics in Nairobi (Kenya), of a massive green algal bloom alongside a phosphate mine in Florida (USA), and the barren landscape of a palm oil plantation encroaching on a lush forest in Borneo (Malaysia).

As a budding conservation biologist, I know the plastic problem is monumental, I know that the mining industry is contaminating our land and waterways, I know that deforestation is devastating wildlife populations. But it was a different feeling to walk through the gallery, to take in the visually stunning shots that depict a complicated and tainted beauty. It was troubling and it was emotional. I was overwhelmed, as I periodically become, by the truly tremendous scope of our collective destruction of the Earth. As an urban dweller, accustomed to concrete and convenience, it’s shockingly easy to excise ourselves from the natural world that we are very much a part of. But here I was, in the heart of downtown Toronto, with the bitter underside of our so-called progress reflected right back at me. It made me want to scream and cry at the same time.

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An interactive monitor asked visitors to share their reactions to Anthropocene. Here are the responses as of November 10th, 2018.

I wasn’t alone in this feeling. As I moved around the gallery, I noticed that families, friends, and kids of all ages were here. A sense of solemnity hung in the air as each of us were confronted by the weight of our collective impact. At the end of the exhibit, an interactive monitor asked visitors to describe, in one word, how what they had just seen made them feel. The most common answers were worried, sad, and angry. And I was struck by the way that art, that this art, has the power to connect to the public in a way that science, as it is currently imagined, does not.

Let me explain. As a Master’s student in biology, my science exists within a narrowly defined academic silo. In fact, as grad students, we become the global expert on our research topic simply because the focus is so specific. And the more specific our work, the less relatable it becomes to the general public and the worse we become at communicating its relevance.

I am most reminded of that distance when I talk to my family. When I talk about the hours I’ve devoted to rearing a tiny fish species or about the weekends I’ve spent in the lab measuring how much oxygen a fish is depleting in a small chamber, most of them will smile encouragingly but inevitably ask polite variations of, “That’s nice, but what’s the point?” And to be honest, I ask myself that question sometimes. I have devoted the last year to learning about one aspect of a specific fish’s physiology – who, besides maybe that fish, cares?

Here’s where I think that we might be able to learn from art, by bringing it back to the big picture. Because I am not just looking at the capacity to which Pugnose Shiner is able to adjust their physiology in response to thermal and oxygen stress, I am looking at how an endangered species is able to respond to complex and interacting threats in their environment. I am looking at how we can integrate that understanding into a more effective management strategy for that species. I am looking at how the successful recovery of this species might benefit the ecosystem as a whole. And, when I integrate the new knowledge I’ve generated with previous knowledge from other experts, the path towards freshwater conservation becomes clearer. In short, my tiny, specific research on Pugnose Shiner has given me a lens to understand how we might more effectively conserve these larger systems.

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The author stares lovingly at three Pugnose Shiner captured in the St. Lawrence River.

And by framing my own research in that way, I realized that the work that I do, along with so many other conservation biologists, is a response to what we’ve been worrying about for a long time, the same sense of worry highlighted in the Anthropocene exhibit. In fact, maybe art and science aren’t as dichotomous as we’ve been led to believe. By tapping into our emotions, art forces us to engage with our world. It challenges us and compels us to ask difficult questions of ourselves and of our fellow humans. But that’s where it leaves us: worried, sad, and angry. Here’s where science can come in. Science, with its tedious methodology and objective data, certainly doesn’t have the same capacity to connect and inspire us, but it allows us to answer some of those questions. It can offer us a path forward, meaningful solutions to the problems we care about. But first, we have to care. Science can pick up where art leaves off.

When we were leaving the exhibit, a little boy holding his mother’s hand asked, “Mommy, where do we go from here?” When his mom replied, “Well, we’ll go out these doors and down the stairs to the café…”, it immediately became apparent that he was asking the question literally. But in that brief moment when the question hung unanswered in the air, I was deeply moved by this six-year-old’s simple but intensely complicated question. Witnessing what we’ve just seen, knowing what we’ve just learned, how do we proceed? What is our common vision for the planet we share and what role will each of us have in actualising that vision? That’s a question that I’m trying to work through and I’m sure I’ll be answering for the rest of my life. But there’s no doubt that we’ve each got an important role to play, artists and scientists alike.  

Anthropocene is open until January 6th, 2019 at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). For more information, visit https://ago.ca/exhibitions/anthropocene.

4 Comments on “A scientist goes to an art gallery and finds her place

  1. Pingback: Anthropocene, the movie – Connecting Conservation

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