Arts, Science, Oceans

“This was one of the most enlightening and inclusive academic forums I’ve experienced. It showed that, given a shared goal like the health of the reef, finding a common language across the sciences, humanities, creative arts and social sciences is not as difficult as many of us imagine it to be.”


On August 12, SEI, the Sydney Environment Institute hosted a one-day workshop on the topic of Arts, Science, Oceans. The day’s speakers were from the visual arts, the sciences, and the humanities and included colleagues from the University of Sydney and Vanderbilt University. They were charged with explaining their research into oceans, and with emphasising coral ecology.

As Iain McCalman, Co-Director of SEI, said in his Introduction, the workshop was an opportunity for people working in similar areas, who had not met before, to connect. The assembly included researchers from wide-ranging fields including art practice, art history, literature, coral reef geomorphology, marine biology, history, and the history of science. The informal and collegial atmosphere of the workshop format opened up conversations often inhibited by discipline borders.

All who attended the workshop found common ground in sharing ideas, knowledge and information about one of the gravest issues facing the world today: the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and the environmental degradation of the world’s oceans through climate change and anthropogenic impact. Laura Fisher, Post Doctoral Fellow at Sydney College of the Arts, is an art historian and sociologist whose research encompasses the creative responses of artists Lucas Ihlein, Ian Milliss and Kim Williams to the environmental problem of chemical run-off from sugar cane farming on the health of the Great Barrier Reef. After the workshop Laura commented: “This was one of the most enlightening and inclusive academic forums I’ve experienced. It showed that, given a shared goal like the health of the reef, finding a common language across the sciences, humanities, creative arts and social sciences is not as difficult as many of us imagine it to be. I sensed how new approaches to proactive research might swiftly emerge from such collaborative thinking.”

Artist Janet Laurence was the Guest Speaker. In 2016 Janet is Artist in Residence at the Australian Museum and spoke about the background to her recent work Deep Breathing (Resuscitation for the Reef) 2015, an installation created for the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris. She has worked for 30 years with themes that include fragility and transience in nature, the meeting of art and science, and cultural memory. A raft of questions followed Janet’s presentation including the effectiveness of environmental art to bring about political and social change. Following the colloquium Janet reflected on the day and recalled thewonderful weaving of personal interactions into the scientific, and the interesting broad spectrum of involvements in coral life from the literary and historical to the geological and to the current crisis”. 

Janet Laurence is no stranger to working with scientists. But is it more common for an artist to approach a scientist for expertise than it is for a scientist to approach an artist? The conversation suggested that this is the case. Tracey Clement, the second artist to speak at the workshop, has similarly sought out the expertise of a scientist. Her series of maps titled Critical Cartographies charts the impact of rising sea levels on the world’s coastal areas and cities. Tracey, who is also a PhD candidate at SCA, and an art critic, was especially energized by the workshop and later commented: “In the current cultural climate, in which art in Australia feels undervalued and under siege, it was such a pleasure to spend the day in dialogue with researchers from a variety of disciplines who seemed to value my expertise as an artist. The colloquium was a great initiative and a really valuable opportunity to share ideas and insights across disciplines, especially between art and science, which are often still seen as being diametrically opposed. It was revealing to find so much common ground.”

One conversation that dominated the day concerned the potential for much greater interdisciplinary practice among arts, humanities, and sciences researchers in relation to oceans, yet the ongoing difficulties of making interdisciplinary practice happen due to barriers such as the terms of funding schemes. Scientists including Maria Byrne, Steve Doo, Stephanie Duce, Renata Ferrari Legorreta, Will Figueria, Jody Webster, and Ana Vila-Concejo shared fascinating stories of their research including at One Tree Island research station in the Capricorn group of the Great Barrier Reef. Their underwater photographs, showing science in progress, were surprising for those of us unfamiliar with the daily work of marine scientists. The four humanities colleagues from Vanderbilt were Jonathan Lamb, Killian Quigley, Alistair Sponsel and J’Nese Williams. They were in Sydney only briefly. After the workshop they travelled to One Tree Island to immerse themselves in the coral reef environment. As members of the Underwater Realms Project, comprising humanities and science colleagues at the Universities of Sydney, Stanford and Vanderbilt, they had visited One Tree Island before in 2014 and were interested to compare the state of the Reef today with their last visit. They will undertake fieldwork as part of Vanderbilt-University of Sydney project on ‘Coral Reefs: From Threatening to Threatened’.

At the conclusion of the workshop all agreed to grow and extend the networks that were formed on the day by undertaking a series of events including exhibitions and conferences with the aim of establishing sustainable, interdisciplinary research projects.



Images by Manuela Lopez Manan