Impressions on my session at the INQUA Congress, Dublin 2019

This summer I convened a session at the 20th congress of the International Quaternary Association in Dublin. A large international conference of over 2000 delegates, the focus of the conference was the Earth and its ecosystems from 2.6 million years ago up to the present (the Quaternary period) and into the future. My session was entitled: Quaternary science and the arts, humanities and social sciences and included (as I had hoped) presentations and posters representing a diverse range of projects, united by their use of cross-disciplinary approaches and commitment to communication and engagement beyond these disciplines. Three presentations in the session stood out to me. Firstly, Suzie Richer and Ben Geary presented their argument for a need for “ecocritical palaeoecology” that is, palaeoecological research which considers the debate between realist and constructivist epistemologies, acknowledges that perception is mediated through language, understands that data are never neutral, thinks about what our narratives communicate (unintentionally), and appreciates that once we speak we are interpreted. These considerations are interesting (to me) in their own right, but they are also useful because they enable us to communicate better, more clearly and, importantly more relevantly beyond our own discipline and beyond the academy; points which Lydia and Althea also made in their presentations about the importance of integrating socially-oriented enquiry into palaeoecological research. Secondly, Blas Lorenzo Valero- Garcés presented the results of recent work by a network of scientists, artists and citizens in the Spanish Pyrenees who have not only produced palaeoenvironmental reconstructions records from Pyrenean lake sediments (in the usual way of Quaternary scientists) but also interpreted the findings as music (translating time-series lake sediment and pollen data into melodies and harmony using a specially designed code) and used the results to engage local musicians (who made the music sound beautiful) and the local community (through discussion of the music and its origin). It’s hard to explain so here is the link in case you’d like to read more and hear the result Another, possibly even more original, interpretation of these lake records were also produced, in the form of a genre-defying art form I can only describe as “dancing-painted-hands-animated-to-illustrate-landscape-reponses-to-climate-change-film”. Thirdly, Julian Ruddock and Henry Lamb presented their recent science-art project entitled, 2A earth core: the hominin project (, a collaboration between palaeoclimatologists and Ruddock, an artist, working at first in the field in Ethiopia (with scientists drilling a dry lake bed and the artist documenting the field work in photographs, film and audio) and later to produce a gallery installation with interactive elements which served as both artistic response and interpretation of the work, and communication of the science and its beauty for the general public.
These works, at the interface between art and science, made me think again about what art is, what science is and how they differ. Why, when an artist shows a picture of a sediment core (albeit enlarged and projected on to a wall and scrolled past over the course of 24 hours to an eerie sound track of slowed down drilling machine sounds) is this art, but a photograph of a core section belongs to science? Does the artistic interpretation (whether an art exhibition or a symphony) help the science to be accessible or relevant? Is this “artistic interpretation” more accessible than the way a scientist might present the same information, or less accessible (as conceptual/contemporary art is often said to be)? Perhaps it makes the audience (including the scientists) look, and see, in a way they might not otherwise and thus pay attention. If science becomes culture and culture is more open to all than science, then perhaps such engagement with artists and musicians will be a productive way forward to make our science heard, albeit one that is open to (re)interpretation by viewers and listeners. Those who presented in this presentation certainly found that it had been.

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