Episode 24: Collaborations on Ice

How can scientific data be made more tangible, visceral, and experiential? Collaboration! Over the course of a four-year project, Arctic Ice: A Visual Archive, artist Cy Keener, landscape researcher Justine Holzman, climatologist Ignatius Rigor, and scientist John Woods integrated field data, remote satellite imagery, scientific analysis, and art to create visual representations of disappearing Arctic ice. Being deeply embedded in each other’s processes helped the artists and scientists foster new ideas and unexpected outcomes.

On this episode, host JD Talasek is joined by Keener and Rigor to discuss how to build successful collaborations across different disciplines and how creative practices can contribute to scientific research and communication.

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JD Talasek: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast fromIssues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University.

How do you create a portrait of an iceberg? How do you draw sea ice? This artistic endeavor is more difficult than you might think and can teach us about how creative practices can contribute to scientific research and communication.

I’m JD Talasek, director of Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Sciences. The National Academy of Sciences is hosting an art and science exhibition in Washington, DC, entitled Arctic Ice: A Visual Archive, ending on February 15, 2023. The work in the exhibition is a result of four years of discussions, curiosity, and collaboration between four people: artist Cy Keener, landscape researcher Justine Holzman, climatologist Ignatius Rigor, and scientist John Woods. This exhibition not only illuminates the intersection between art and science, it represents a process of collaboration in a way that goes far beyond what appears on the surface. On this episode, we have two of the collaborators to discuss the many layers of this work: Cy Keener, who is an interdisciplinary artist and professor at the University of Maryland, and Ignatius Rigor, who is a research scientist at the University of Washington and the coordinator for the International Arctic Buoy Programme. Cy, Ignatius, welcome. Glad you’re here.

Cy Keener: Thanks, JD. Thanks for having us.

Ignatius Rigor: Thanks for having us.

JD Talasek: Good, wonderful. Hey, Cy, let’s start with you. To help us sort of set the stage and to understand the nature of this collaboration, can you describe the work in the exhibit? If one were to visit the gallery at the NAS, what would they experience?

Cy Keener: Sure. So the gallery or the exhibition is in this upstairs area, so you kind of walk up these stairs. And then I think of the show as being in two parts. About a third of the exhibit are these things that we’re calling Iceberg Portraits. With that, we have four of these fairly large portraits that try to tell the story of the lifespan of an iceberg as Ignatius and I had documented those icebergs in Greenland in 2021.

And then the other half of the show are all of these things that I think of as digital ice cores. So it’s basically a wall with about 70 of these different slices, these kind of digital slices of color and temperature through sea ice. And then those have been gathered over about four years of data from different places. So that’s called the Sea Ice Daily Drawings. The idea with those is you get to kind of see the way that the sea ice changes over time and these different thicknesses appear. And then the whole show is titled Arctic Ice: An Archive. So, the idea is that with this show, we are trying to preserve and record and visually present a bunch of daily conditions and then changes through time that have to do with ice that’s in the Arctic Ocean. And there’s about 30,000 data points in the whole show that kind of generate the visuals.

JD Talasek: Cy, would it be fair to say that, in a sense, you’re trying to translate the experience of this remote location to the visitors in the gallery?

Cy Keener: Yeah, I think that’s a great way to think about it. As an artist, I’ve been super lucky to accompany Ignatius with the operations of what we call the IABP, or let your listeners know, is the Arctic Buoy Programme. And that program is basically responsible for coordinating and placing a bunch of the weather and climate sensors into the Arctic Ocean and around the Arctic Ocean. I’ve just had this really amazing experience of being able to go out into the field with Ignatius and to be able to see all of these things firsthand. And then my role as an artist is to try to bring that back to an audience or try to create a version of what I’ve seen out there in the field, and then my niche as an artist is to try to use the data to do that. So instead of trying to give a general impression or use photography or sketching or painting or drawing, my job is to record these things with sensors and then mostly visualize that information.

JD Talasek: This sounds like it’s just such a fantastic and unusual type of relationship. Ignatius, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how you and Cy met?

Ignatius Rigor: Yeah. Cy and I met through John Woods. John was at NOAA at the time, NOAA’s National Ice Center. I guess it’s a joint Navy, NOAA, Coast Guard National Ice Center. And I think Cy reached out to John through LinkedIn?

Cy Keener: This is true.

Ignatius Rigor: And then there’s another project that John and I were—we’ve always worked with adventurers and artists and lots of different people basically to reach out to the public and share our science. And one of the ways we do it is through these adventurers who want to go to the Pole. They get a lot of exposure. And in turn, them deploying our instruments helps us get instruments out there, but it also helps them fund their adventures. So there’s this guy, Martin Hartley, who was part of this old ice expedition, and he’d been talking to John, and John’s been talking to Cy, and John’s been talking to me. And John’s like, “I need to get everybody together.” So that’s how we connected back in 2018. Yeah, and God, it’s just four years ago, but it seems like I’ve known Cy forever now.

Cy Keener: And I’d just like to add that it’s great that I was lumped into the category of adventurer. I’m not sure Ignatius meant to do that, but as an artist, I like this idea that we’re also adventurers.

Ignatius Rigor: As a scientist, I think of your typical scientist as this guy locked in his lab, staring at his computer, playing with test tubes or something. And getting out to the field is my favorite part. So in a sense, whether you’re an artist, a scientist, or a real adventurer, I think adventure is one of the things I love about my job.

Cy Keener: Ignatius mentioned this Martin Hartley guy, who’s this British explorer and adventurer, and he’s trying to do this very romantic journey of trying to document and photograph some of the last of these large chunks of sea ice that may or may not be hugging the northernmost areas of Canada. And I just thought that that mission, it was super amazing. So I initially kind of started in the support role of trying to create some custom hardware for Martin’s journey, and then it sort of evolved from there.

JD Talasek: This is sort of a classic interaction that I see over and over again when people from different disciplines as diverse as art and science, is that they really come together over new technologies. It’s like, “Well, I could do this with it, or I could do this with it, and this would serve art, and this would further the research.” So it doesn’t surprise me. That’s how I assumed, but I think it’s interesting to point that out, is that that’s sort of the conduit that gets the conversation going. But obviously, this is, at least to me and hopefully we can convey this to the listeners, this is kind of a remarkable ongoing conversation. Ignatius, I wonder if we could go back to you and hear a little bit more about your work with ABP and maybe also how your work has been influenced by working with artists like Cy Keener and Justine.

Ignatius Rigor: Yeah, so the Arctic Buoy Programme, it’s been around since 1979. It’s a project that I inherited from Roger Colony and Norbert Untersteiner, who first got it going. It was actually recommended by the National Academy of Sciences to build this network in the Arctic of weather stations. The basic goal of the program is to maintain a network of ocean and meteorological buoys on Arctic sea ice. And then this data is shared with the National Weather Service in the US but also globally through the World Meteorological Organization’s weather network. So working with Cy, we’ve always had a pretty large outreach component, whether it’s reaching out to schools in Seattle, giving talks in K–12 classes, and going into museums. Yeah, and so through the museums, we get to meet a lot of artists. So we’ve been doing that for quite a while.

But working with Cy just takes it to a different level because we’re actually collaborating and building instruments with the artists, rather than the artists taking pictures we use and making watercolors. So it’s more collaborative and—I’m trying to think of the word. Circuitous is not quite it. But it’s an ongoing collaboration, where we have all these ideas bouncing off of each other, and we’re constantly building on these ideas for research but also for these exhibits.

Cy Keener: I’d like to throw in there that I feel like there’s a fair bit of serendipity that took place beforehand, because I’m a little bit of a strange duck as an artist. But I got my MFA, which is the sort of terminal degree in art, from Stanford from 2014 to 2016. And then while I was there, I took oceanography and atmospheric science, and then I learned electronics and coding. So I came in with a sculpture and architecture and construction background, but then I came out with a super rudimentary understanding of the different atmospheric and oceanic processes and then with some understanding of the code and electronics, kind of helped along by this community around Arduino or around these different ways to be able to create things that scientists consider data loggers, but I think of as little microprocessors or Arduinos.

So there’s just this—all that stuff has become way more accessible at the same time that I was learning it. And having that background allowed Ignatius and I to immediately engage in conversations, where we had just enough shared language to try to get those conversations going, which was super fun.

Ignatius Rigor: Yeah. When John first sent that email connecting us with Martin Hartley and trying to get that project rolling, my first instinct was like, “Who’s this Cy Keener guy?” And so I’m googling, stalking Cy. And I see his Agulhas Drifter and I’m like, “Oh, hey, this looks beautiful,” the pictures he had up on his website. It was like, “OK, this is off the charts.” That was 2018. And a few months later, we’re writing our National Science Foundation renewal proposal, and I’m like, OK. We’ve always had a pretty strong outreach, broader-impacts component to our research, but this just put us way over the top.

Cy Keener: Yeah, there’s some great background info there that I’m sure your audience is familiar with, JD, but the National Science Foundation, they kind of judge or score the different proposals based on the intellectual merit and then the broader impacts. So I think that what’s fairly unusual about Ignatius and my collaboration is that I really try to be able to contribute to both sides, which I think is kind of unusual. But I think Ignatius is happy just having me contribute to the broader-impact side. But I think as an artist, it’s a really fun challenge for me to see if my data and the instruments that I make can actually make it into Ignatius’s data repository and actually serve some usefulness with the weather and climate-related stuff.

JD Talasek: This seems like a really important part because, Ignatius, you’re talking about the obvious entry point here is that the artists come in as a way of broader impact, meaning communication of your science. You create the science, and then the artist helps communicate it. And this is one of those interesting areas where, as you said, it’s off the chart. It becomes communication and something else. And I would really like to hear you both talk a little bit more about this sort of circular conversation that occurs.

Ignatius Rigor: One of the things I was just thinking about was, so Cy has this Light Ice Mass Balance Buoy—light in that it’s easy to carry and small, but also it measures light. But I find myself at meetings a couple weeks ago, I was at this Pacific Arctic Group meeting, which is a bunch of biologists mostly who go out on icebreakers and take all kinds of measurements to understand the biological changes in the Arctic climate system. But they talk about harmful algae blooms and basically red tide and trying to map where it is. And I was looking back at the data from Cy’s Ice Mass Balance Buoy. We saw a period of redness at the bottom of the ice. So I’ve been meaning to go back to the data and see where this was to maybe see how the full extent of this algae bloom and whether we caught it on our data.

Cy Keener: Ignatius, you can go to the National Academy of Sciences and you can see it on the wall. (I’m just teasing.) But the red bloom actually ended up in the exhibit, so it’s kind of fun that you could go see it. I know you’re talking about where it occurred in GPS terms, but it’s also kind of fun that that red bloom’s on the wall.

Ignatius Rigor: Yeah, it’s one of those things. So we see it in the instrument that Cy built, and I’m thinking, OK, I need to go back to the data to see where this was in space over the Chukchi Sea and where the buoy was and see if it lines up or shows that maybe the extent of this harmful algae bloom was broader than the biologists saw in their data. And then can we build a better string? Can we build better sensors to better measure these harmful algae blooms? I mean, the Light Ice Mass Balance Buoy, one of the nice things about it, the electronics are relatively cheaper than most of our other electronics. So we could potentially deploy quite a few of these to help understand the extent of this algae bloom. Now, originally we were thinking in terms of measuring heat and the transmission of energy into the Arctic sea ice and ocean, but this is just another possible use of the instruments that we’re building.

Cy Keener: Yeah, I think that’s great. And just to clarify for the listeners, the instrument Ignatius is talking about is the one that is the field instrument that was used to create all of the data for the Sea Ice Daily Drawings. So each one of these thin color panels on the wall at the NAS is based on a noontime reading from this instrument. And I think that what Ignatius said gets us to this bigger issue, which I think is kind of fun. But JD, I see my role as the artist as somebody that can just take a few more risks and kind of experiment with different technologies, where Ignatius really has to keep this record that, like he said, has been in place for 43 years, and he has to make sure that the data has good quality and is calibrated and all these different things.

But then as an artist, I feel like by going out into the field, I get to experiment with different technologies, and I don’t quite have to live up to that standard. So I think the LIMB, or this Light Ice Mass Balance Buoy, is one of them. And then I think the other fun thing that I did when we went to Greenland to tag the icebergs, which ended up in the iceberg portraits, is to do the photogrammetry. So I just had been working as an artist and collaborating with this other group of folks that do photogrammetry for archeological purposes and kind of cultural heritage purposes. So from the ship, I took a bunch of images myself from the deck of the ship, and then I worked with the drone pilots to try to capture more images of the icebergs from the air. And then this iceberg portraiture series comes from that.

But then the super exciting thing is that we were able to improve by basically an order of magnitude on the total volume calculations for the icebergs, so that the iceberg scientist that we were with on the ship is taking these height and width readings or measurements, and then with the photogrammetry we can really dial in that to a pretty high precision. So I think that that’s kind of a fun thing where, as an artist, I can just do stuff on the side. And then if it works out, then it informs the conversation. And if it doesn’t work out, then it’s a kind of lower-risk situation.

Ignatius Rigor: Coming back to the icebergs, we flew the drones around and got a lot of images and pictures of these images for the 3D photogrammetry. But since, with the tags that we put on them, we’ve been able to track these icebergs over time and actually watch how they’ve melted, which hasn’t really been done yet. So the record from this field program of tagging the icebergs is going to produce something pretty cool because, as Cy mentioned, when we’re out there tagging the icebergs, we get height, basic parameters to estimate the size of these icebergs. But being able to do the 3D photogrammetry increases our accuracy. And then following the icebergs over time, we can see from the satellites images of the area. We can find these icebergs in the satellite images and measure how these things have melted.

So this really improves our ability to understand the force balance of the ocean currents and winds on driving the drift of these icebergs. So as the iceberg changes, that force balance changes, and this data set that we’re getting is going to be wonderful. So right now, we’re trying to work on a paper to just document the force balance between the winds and ocean currents and the drift of these icebergs.

Cy Keener: And that’s a super cool little collaborative point, which I think is kind of fun. If you go look at the Iceberg Portraits then, on the left-hand side, they show these scale drawings of how the iceberg changes over time. But that’s something that there’s no way that Justine and I, as artists, would be able to do. So Ignatius has this really smart computer-scientist-oriented guy, Ben, that works for him. And then he was able to basically go through just tons and tons of different satellite images after the fact and then try to match those satellite images with the GPS reports and try to actually document all this stuff.

So Ben was drawing in Adobe Illustrator and making these beautiful little outlines of the iceberg as it melted and as it kind of changed over time, and then we were able to get that into the drawing. So I think that that’s another thing where this working relationship that Ignatius and I have and with our other collaborators kind of feeds back in on itself. These things that are useful to science sometimes have a really beautiful output from an art side or a visual side, and these things that are useful on the art side sometimes have a useful output to Ignatius in actually publishing papers and working with the data.

JD Talasek: One of the things that I enjoy whenever I’m showing the exhibit to visitors is it’s exactly what you were talking about much earlier, Cy, about conveying a feeling or a sense of place of a remote location there in the gallery, because what you have, you have these outlines of the changes of the shapes that’s in the drawing. You also have sort of a satellite image of the area and the amount of space that the icebergs move over time. It just conveys such a feeling of these sort of dynamic, moving, changing things that just can’t be conveyed in a static image. But it is very much a different way of communicating, and it’s an experimentation sort of in the gallery world as much as it is within the science community and research.

Cy Keener: Yeah, I’m thankful to hear that, and I really credit the other piece of this collaborative puzzle for that, and that’s Justine Holtzman. Justine and I have this other kind of shared language, which is both having an architecture or design background. So we actually both have degrees from the CED, this College of Environmental Design at Berkeley. So although I work as an artist now and Justine is getting her PhD in the history of science, we both have this kind of shared language of how to put drawings together at scale. And one of the architect or landscape architect, in her case, one of the basic skills is to really try to communicate space and scale.

So everything in Iceberg Portraits is at a specific scale. There’s the satellite map scale. There’s the scale of the photogrammetry images. There’s a top view and a side view of each iceberg, and across all four portraits, those are at the same scale, so you get this comparison that you can make between those, and then the smaller images that we were just discussing, about the iceberg changing over time. So I think those drawings I’m really happy with. And I think that that depth is kind of through Justine and I working together.

And then she actually hand-rendered another beautiful layer on top of the digital stuff. So one of the things that we talked about in making those drawings was this idea that we would leave the data-based things digital, and then the things that were unknown, which is the shape of the iceberg underneath the water or the depth of the iceberg and all those things, would be rendered by hand. So there’s this kind of speculative layer of hand drawing that she layered on top of those digital drawings, which I think really makes the whole thing work in the art context. So it’s been really great.

Justine and I have been collaborating—we actually met on a sea-level-rise competition in the Bay Area in 2017, so we kind of started working together from that. And then she helped me actually fabricate and design some of the early instruments that Ignatius and I put out in the field. So this first really beautiful LIMB buoy that I brought out (that ended up getting destroyed by polar bears) was something that Justine and I put together and she had produced up in Toronto and shipped over to us and then we deployed. So I think that that’s another big piece of that.

JD Talasek: So, Cy, are you saying that polar bears are not necessarily good collaborators?

Cy Keener: Well, I took it personally.

JD Talasek: Cy mentioned earlier that he is not the typical artist. He’s a little bit of an outlier in the way that he approaches things. And with his skillset, as you mentioned, Ignatius, is probably a little bit different. My background is in art. I went through an MFA program, and it seems to me that the entire training and conditioning was that you would eventually create artwork, you would get a gallery to sell the artwork, and hopefully, if you’re good enough, eventually end up in museum collections. And if you needed to make money, you would teach.

And I guess one of the questions that I have is why we collectively place such a limitation and such limited expectations on the artist, the role of the artist, and the role that the artist could take in different areas. Cy, I wonder if you would talk a little bit more about that? What changes might we need to think about in the pipeline as artists, as we educate artists, as we train artists? But also on the back end, is it a good idea to maybe broaden the idea of the role of the artist within our communities, within our disciplines, within our practices?

Cy Keener: Yeah. I think that’s a great set of questions, JD, and I think there are three things that I would go back to as far as how to foster these things is a little bit trickier, but I think that we can definitely talk about what makes for a good collaboration. And I think that we’re talking about serendipity right now, but I feel like that that can be part of a bigger thing that would just be matchmaking, I guess, or this idea of trying to pair people with different expertise in a way that leads to something that’s productive for both parties. I guess the—I don’t want to say rules, but the kind of things that really help a collaboration, I think, is that you have enough shared language. I used that term before, but I think that having the scientist open to understanding a little bit about art and then having the artist being able to know the basics of the science, whatever it is that they’re engaging in, I think that that’s basically essential for these things to be productive.

And then I think that the other big piece—my advisor, when I was doing the MFA, talked about how in any good collaboration, both parties have to get something out of it. So I think that I really work hard to try to contribute to Ignatius’s mission and to the IABP mission and to try to generate some of the basic research fundamental data for that, but then also do my experimentation. And then Ignatius has been super generous with bringing me along for the funding, and then that’s just been a huge game-changer for me.

Ignatius mentioned earlier that he is just coincidentally coming—jis NSF funding, which is issued in five-year increments, was coming up for renewal after we had had our first trip into the field. And then he actually pushed me to become part of that, and not just to have a little bit of money tucked away in there, but to actually become the co-PI for that proposal. And then that’s just been a career-changer for me to be able to have a little bit of money. I think that I end up with something that’s maybe 10% of what Ignatius gets. So in the big picture of the science funding, I sometimes joke that that’s like a rounding error for the NSF. But for me as an artist, it’s a game-changer. So I think that that’s really great.

And I think that that’s almost something that you could push a little bit further. The way that I’ve been told or, I believe, the rules with NSF or the criteria for evaluation is that these broader impacts are supposed to have equal weight with the intellectual merit. So then I think if that’s really part of the criteria, then it makes sense for some of that budget to go to support that. So I think that that’s another thing where it’s just kind of worked out that Ignatius has been supportive and the NSF program directors have actually been super supportive as well.

So I think that in some ways we’re kind of in new territory there. I think that Ignatius has mentioned this, but a lot of times, the artist is the sort of after-the-fact person. Or it’s like the data has been collected; now the artist can make it pretty. But Ignatius has really brought me along, not just into the field, but also along with the funding, which then gives me a little bit of travel and R&D budget and those kind of things. I’m not sure exactly how to broaden that, but I think that that’s just been a huge benefit to me as an artist. And I also just love being on a team. I think that some artists are more like they want to stay in their studio and do their work uninterrupted, and I just really love being part of a team and having a thing that we’re trying to accomplish and getting to go on these adventures with Ignatius and John.

Ignatius Rigor: I think having Cy on the team is—we have a pretty broad team with a broad range of expertise. Most of us are engineers or physical scientists. But Cy completes, interesting, completes this picture of the team that gives us a full-steam capability. We could do science. We could build instruments very quickly with these Arduinos. So as we’re bouncing ideas off of each other, we could turn an instrument around pretty quick. Like, the slim buoy, just looking at the emails going from August, where we first just met, and then in April we’re up in the Arctic deploying something, that’s crazy fast.

And then with this iceberg tagging experiment, we’ve been playing with drones and building small tags. This iceberg tagging experiment was a culmination of a lot of different skill sets coming together. To be able to go from concept back in January to actually being in the field in August to deploy these things, similarly, that’s a crazy fast turnaround from concept to actually getting something done. And originally, we had set a goal of if we could tag 10 icebergs, we’d be pretty excited. And with being able to pull together this team, by the end of the trip, we had 52 icebergs tagged just around Disko Bay, and then there was more tagged north of Alaska and north of the Canadian Archipelago.

So it was a crazy successful year with just being able to have this team with a broad set of expertise. And so we were very capable technologically, but also in terms of the art, having Cy and Justine to complete that picture and to bring things around. It’s one thing to feed data to the National Weather Service. It’s another thing to be able to show what we’re doing in the field to the world.

JD Talasek: Cy had mentioned how important it is for the different contributors to get something out of this. But as I hear you speak, Ignatius, it makes me think about the importance of having empathy for what the other person is doing and an understanding of what that other person is getting out of this, as well as what they’re contributing in a way that wasn’t expected.

Cy Keener: I really like that you brought up empathy, and then I think that another side of the same thing is trust. I think that that was something that we just immediately established with each other, I think, in that first trip. Basically, the Arctic is this really amazing and beautiful environment, and when you go out there, then you really have to—it’s hard to get anything done. It’s a physical challenge. It’s a challenge for the electronics and all of those things. And I think that in that first trip, we just kind of established this trust. And I think that empathy is a half of that kind of creating trust. But watching someone work and seeing what they care about and watching them work really hard to accomplish this thing or do this thing that’s really hard, I think, is a big part of that.

And it’s just been great that that trust has continued. I think when I was trying to make all these custom sensors for the iceberg tagging, so these were these, I called them ice spiders, but they were these things that had ice-axe-shaped claws attached to them that you would drop off the drones. And I remember there was some moment when I was struggling with stuff. I forget if we were on the ship or where we were, but John Woods just kind of looked over, and he’s like, “Oh, well, you always come through in the end.”

JD Talasek: Well, this has been a fantastic conversation, ranging from connecting through new technologies to warding off polar bear attacks. What a dynamic and fun conversation. Thank you, Cy and Ignatius. And thank you to our listeners for joining us for this episode of The Ongoing Transformation. You can learn more about the exhibition discussed here and see a catalog of imagery for free on the Cultural Programs of the NAS website at cpnas.org. Visit cykeener.com to see more of Cy’s work. Find links to these resources and more in our show notes. Subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcasts. You can email us at [email protected] with any comments or suggestions. And if you enjoy conversations like this one, visit issues.org where you can subscribe to our magazine and find more essays. Thanks to our podcast producer, Kimberly Quach, and audio engineer, Shannon Lynch. I’m JD Talasek, director of Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences. Thanks for joining us.