- Erin Dickson
Little Earths: Stewardship, Intimacy and Community
The following text was presented to the British Antarctic Survey's Ice-Core Forum on 19th March 2021, and the UK Antarctic Science Conference 2021, hosted by University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, British Antarctic Survey and the UK Polar Network (UKPN) on 25th March 2021.
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Digitally modelled and locally crafted, Little Earths are physical artefacts derived from
climate data, representing the power and fragility of Natures environmental systems and our human relationships to it.
Inverting the normal scale relationship between humans and the planet, these personal talismans seek to engage members of the public in a durational artwork that pervades their everyday lives as an act of mindful care and reflection.
Focused around the themes of Stewardship, Intimacy and Community, we hope Little Earths will be an emotional and sensory short-cut to knowledge through playful, social and
How are people to make sense of this ocean of data about climate? To ride its swells and plumb its depths? How can we feel our way around it? How can we hold onto meaning when its ephemerality means it is constantly slipping through our grasp, like trying to pluck a handful of water? How might we enliven relations between humans and machines so that they can be mutually influential rather than unbalanced in favour of one side or the other?
We know that traditional visualisations of data such as graphs and dashboards often remain beyond the grasp of all but experts grounded in how to interpret them. But we can design ways to utilise the whole human sensorium (not just vision and hearing) for sense-making and interpretation, by making complex information tangible and appreciable in richer and more nuanced ways.
This approach departs fundamentally from normative data representations on computer screens. It means embodying information in reciprocally interactive engagements that afford us greater use of our highly developed senses what we have been calling data
manifestation to elicit empathic encounters.
Since Summer 2019, Rachel Jacobs, Erin Dickson and Giles Lane have collaborated in the
delivery of Republic of Learning, a series of public engagement workshops centred around themes of climate change.
With a focus on making and working with data and data manifestation, these workshops demonstrated that the inclusion of making alongside dialogue about challenging data allows participants to feel more comfortable, allowing them to share more freely. This discovery is feeding additional insights into how we create Little Earths.
Working with the three pre-assigned scale and conceptual catalysts Touch, Connect and
Immerse, an entry point to creating intimacy with an audience is to take an existing object with an intrinsic understanding, and embed additional meaning.
We thought about objects that are already part of our lives and in our homes, objects which require stewardship or have become part of our daily rituals. The theme Touch lead us to objects which we hold or wear on the body. Keep-sakes and sentimental objects such as photos of loved ones, jewellery and quotidian talismans such as shells or pressed flowers.
An artefact which has been used for centuries, and has been adapted to the wearer, are prayer cords, worry beads or charm bracelets. Already embedded with religious, spiritual or sentimental value, these objects also require a form of meditation from the user, with
rituals including counting beads, repeating mantras or merely admiration of a growing
Materials used include shells, gold, stone, sandalwood, seeds, pearl and human bone.
The theme Connect is also a intimate scale, however instead of thinking about the body, we thought about the home.
Our worlds are becoming more and more digital, TV's, computers, mobile phones and even watches demand our attention rather than attracting it. Instead of instilling meditation and focus these objects instead invite addiction and distraction.
However, there still exists objects which are solely dedicated to the art of focus.
Gongshi or Suseok, often mistranslated as scholars rocks, are naturally occurring stones which have been eroded by nature. The more complex the erosion, the more valuable the stone. Displayed on intricately carved, wooden stands and placed on desks or in gardens, Gongshi invite the viewer to appreciate the power of nature.
But how can these natural objects be informed by data?
Playing with digital tools, including 3D scanning, AI and 3D printing, and material processes, such as wheel thrown pottery and glass blowing, it is possible to create contemporary interpretations of the traditional Gongshi, formed by data, resulting in a bespoke group of objects befitting of our contemporary lives.
Exploring natural erosion, we were drawn to experiments in clay. Here an thrown, unfired pot is submerged in water. We can control erosion through variables such as time of submersion, water temperature and salinity, type of clay and form.
Presented with the opportunity to work in the hot shop, we experimented with the thermal properties of blown glass.
Here, the glass bell-jar appears as expected. However, fresh from the furnace, the glass remains at up to 1200 degrees. The heat of the blown glass does not translate visually, but the effect is seen in the activation of its contents.
The relationship of the bell-jar to the paper forest is a microcosmic representation of the larger subject of climate change. Here, the variables are more unruly, and is it difficult to control the temperature of the glass. What we can control are the forms within the dome, and the materials from which they are made.
Having established conceptual catalysts for the two initial themes of Touch and Connect, project collaborators helped to distinguish data sources that aligned with all three of the theme scales:
Touch//Historic weather and community records of islanders// Dr Aideen Foley,
Birkbeck, University of London
Connect//Polar ice-cores and sea level change// Dr Louise Sime, British Antarctic Survey
Immerse//AI patterns of smoke data// Prof. George Roussos and Cosmin Stamate,
Birkbeck, University of London
Exploring these data sources will help inform material and manufacturing processes that compliment the initial conceptual starting points, resulting in a group of objects and immersive artworks that convey the interrelation between humans and the earth's systems.
Dr Erin Dickson Giles Lane