University unveils creative projects communicating climate emergency

An interdisciplinary project that brings together science and art to create innovative methods of communicating research has unveiled its 2021 ‘collection’ focused on the climate emergency.

From an Ocean Organ that provides a visual representation of ocean acidification to a help guide on restoring oak woodland, the pieces are all part of the Creative Associates programme at the University of Plymouth.

Orchestrated by the Sustainable Earth Institute, and now in its third year, Creative Associates has been responsible for some imaginative approaches to communicating scientific issues, including putting a mobile phone in a blender to reveal the rare materials contained within – a video that was viewed by millions of people around the world.

"With the COP26 conference underway, the climate emergency is dominating the news agenda,” 

says Dr Paul Hardman, Manager of the Sustainable Earth Institute. 

“But not everyone engages with the mainstream media, so it’s vital that we find alternative channels through which we can communicate and conceptualise key issues such as carbon in our atmosphere, sustainable cities and biodiversity. The Creative Associates seek to do this, whether through stunning photography, film, or interactive resources, reaching out to people and often presenting positive solutions.”

One of the projects – Visualising Climate: Young People’s Responses to the Climate Emergency – was even invited to hold an event in the Green Zone at COP26, showcasing the work undertaken by Professor of Sociology, Alison Anderson, artist Carey Marks and film-maker James Ellwood. Together they ran a series of co-created workshops with young people aged 16–18 in schools in Devon to find out how they engage with climate change and their views about how the issues are being covered in the media. An interactive game using illustrated visual icons created by Carey's company Scarlet DESIGN provided a visually exciting means to encourage the young people to open up.

Their findings produced a number of insights, including that young people tend to have better knowledge of the impacts than the causes of climate change. Also, they recalled seeing climate change content most regularly on social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. They tend to identify with and distinguish between specific social media platforms more than they do with the original sources of content posted to these platforms. Young people also preferred the topic to be framed visually, showing local impacts and everyday contexts. A film capturing the voices of a selection of the young people has been produced by James Ellwood of Fotonow.

Alison said: 

“The message from the workshops was clear: young people do respond to climate change communication, but there is an opportunity to do so much more, particularly within schools and colleges where they would like to see climate discussion included in a broader range of curriculum areas. Exploring climate themes within the arts has particular potential. There is a high level of eco-anxiety among young people but if we can engage them through creative activities we can spark their imagination and sense of agency.”

For the Ocean Organ, renowned ocean acidification scientist, Professor Jason Hall Spencer, worked with artist and fellow marine biologist Dr Kate Crawfurd to create an instrument that would demonstrate the process of carbon dioxide dissolving in our seas.

Using long tubes sourced from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the National Marine Aquarium, Kate created a colour-coded ‘organ’ that depicts different climate states from the past and the future.

“Everyone knows that carbon dioxide is warming the atmosphere, making storms worse and more unpredictable – but people don’t tend to realise it’s changing the chemistry of the sea as well,” 

says Jason. 

“It’s like every person throwing a bowling ball of carbon into the sea each day. And this project has found a very visual way of representing that – of showing the pH levels and of carbon dioxide bubbling up through the seabed.”

The absorption of carbon dioxide was also the focus of a very different project, Trees for Climate, which has produced an ‘emergency help guide’ that distils research on upland oak woodland establishment for public consumption. Dr Thomas Murphy collaborated with creative agency Just Enough Brave to create a dedicated microsite, a downloadable white paper, an animated video and a set of infographics for land managers, policymakers and organisations supporting native woodland creation.

“It’s about communicating the benefits of trees and offering a help guide for people to take action,”

said Thomas.

“We know we have a climate emergency on our hands, so this is about empowering members of the public so that they can get involved in tree planting initiatives. It also offers landowners, who might have woodlands, the opportunity to get help and support with management guidance based on our research.”

The other Creative Associates for 2021 are:

  • ‘Sustaining the Civic, an immersive 360-degree documentary short that tells the story of the iconic Civic Centre in Plymouth. Created by Professor Igea Troiani and Soundview Media, the project used drone footage and 8K cameras to create a new perspective on its past – and its future civic potential.
  • ‘Marking Change: Making Sense of Climate Change at Key Stage 2’, in which postgraduate architecture and architectural design students worked with educational charity Millfields Inspired and University staff to produce a set of films that were used by Year 5 children at schools in Stonehouse as part of their ‘widening horizons’ programme.
  • ‘The Other Side of Now’, a short film poem by artists Kayla Parker and Stuart Moore in collaboration with the writer and academic, Dr David Sergeant. Using a vintage Bolex clockwork camera and Kodak 16mm Ektachrome film, the video was shot at reclaimed sites around Plymouth and meditates upon the need for a more positive vision of the future.
  • ‘Just Add Water’, a video created by investigative artist Simon Ryder on the ongoing CobBauge project that is using science to create a new version of cob that meets modern thermal regulation standards. Using photogrammetry – reconstructing objects from a series of different photographic views – the video is an audio/visual representation of the process of analysing the basic natural materials used to make the optimised cob.
  • The Pollenize Bee Trail, an interactive augmented reality trail, joining up bee hives across the city, designed by Pollenize CIC and Professor Katharine Willis. Members of the public and researchers can use their phones to understand where bees are foraging in Plymouth and gain an insight into the health status of each hive.
  • ‘Ghost Nets and Phantom Islands: Mapping the Anthropocene’, in which Ben Smith, a now former Lecturer in Creative Writing, worked with artist and archaeologist Rose Ferraby. Drawing on a wide-ranging tradition of maps and travelogues, from aboriginal ‘dreamings’ to geological surveys and explorers’ accounts of ‘phantom islands’, the pair created a series of maps that reflect the uncertainty around our climate.