Artful Quantification: Environmental Graphiti

In an age where data seems to dictate many aspects of our culture, it is nice to see the artful interpretations of Alisa Singer, who transforms quantitative scientific analysis on climate change into colorful and expressive works of art.

Previously, I discussed the work of Nancy Graves, who blurred the line between abstract and representational paintings with her series of works that commented on satellite imagery and mapping technology. Graves’ imagery showed the ways that maps can be a form of both objective and subjective information.

Like Graves, Alisa Singer utilizes the evocative nature of art in order to bring awareness to the way civilizations rely heavily on data and infographics, while not always forming a personal and meaningful relationship to the information. Big data is daunting, and unless you have a background studying it, charts and graphs feel largely removed from the lived experience. In her series of digital paintings called Environmental Graphiti, Singer analyzes charts and graphs from world climate reports, in order to re-present them in a way that stirs emotional responses and aims to get viewers to make deeper connections to climate change. The title of the series incorporates a playful rewording of the art style graffiti to describe the fusion of quantitative data and emotive art. It is an apt name for Singer’s contemporary and hip artworks that resemble the aesthetic and conceptual nature of painterly public art, while spreading scientific awareness.

The elements of art such as color, line and shape have symbolic properties that communicate and make associations to mood, memory and archetypal signifiers. In Singer’s work, these elements are incorporated along with principals of design such as balance, unity and contrast, in order to create compositions that effectively symbolize causes, effects and actions related to addressing climate change.

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Alisa Singer, Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rise, Digital Art on Metal 30″ W X 40″ H. Courtesy of the artist.

 

The Environmental Graphiti paintings are categorized into three identifying topics:

  • WHY is our climate changing? → Gallery A
  • HOW is climate change affecting our world? → Gallery B
  • WHO is at risk? → Gallery C
  • WHAT can we do to address climate change? → Gallery

One example of the ‘WHY’ is Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rise, a semi-abstract digital painting inspired by a graph from the Third National Climate Assessment, Climate Change Impacts in the United States, USGCRP (2014). Singer uses warm and cool colors in a manner that symbolizes the temperature changes due to greenhouse gas emissions. In ‘HOW,’ paintings like Wildfires expressively portray how climate change is affecting natural disasters by changing the conditions of soil and moisture. The result is an increase in drier conditions that provide ample kindling for devastating wildfires.

 

‘WHO’ is at risk? Every living being on the planet is affected due to a myriad of factors such as disease, caused by rising temperatures, displacement of water sources caused by agriculture and industry. The painting Vector-Borne Diseases resembles the form of a mosquito filled in with a palette of vibrant colors, gesturally blended together. The mosquito is actually composed of text (see sketch above) related to vector-borne diseases such as Dengue Fever, Malaria and Zika. The enduring question of ‘WHAT’ we can do to address climate change, is presented through works such as Climate Change Mitigation and U.N. Sustainability Goals. In this digital artwork, Singer illuminates the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which was adopted in 2015. The original chart that the painting was based on, shows the correlation between sustainable development that protects the environment, and social development such as poverty eradication and reducing inequalities. The painting translates the U.N.’s graph into  glittering bands of color, as if to symbolize the hope and perseverance for reversing negative cultural and environmental trends.

75c. Climate Change and UN Sustainability Goals

Alisa Singer, Climate Change Mitigation and U.N. Sustainability Goals, Digital Art on Metal 30″ W X 35.4″ H. Courtesy of the artist.

Singer’s combination of art and science helps make data more appealing and compelling because it transforms big data into a visual narrative that can be described, analyzed, and valued using both concrete and abstract thought. We are able to assign feelings to the quantitative information due to the elements of art and design at play in these compositions. This adds a component of compassion and enables us to make connections between statistics and our daily life experiences.

While data is a great way for scientists and policy makers to organize and keep track of their research and facts, it isn’t always the best determiner for learning. Not everyone in the populace thinks along analytical mindsets (see: Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences). Learning is experiential; based on a combination of observation, socialization and the connections we make between ourselves and the world around us. These elements cannot often be neatly charted or mapped out. The work of artists like Singer and Graves, eloquently express how a painting can be worth ‘a thousand words,’ or in the case of the Environmental Graphiti series, sets of raw climate data.

 

 

 

 

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Artful Assessment: Depicting the Problem, Visualizing the Solutions

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Duneska Suannette, How Was School?, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Education is intrinsically an art form in practice. There is no single way to instruct, teach, or learn. As discussed in the previous post, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to the way students learn and the way educators should teach and instruct in the classroom. Traditionally, schools have focused on quantitative analysis of the student body to structure curriculums and plan lessons that will ensure students meet the educational requirements determined by a governing authority such as the state or federal government. This highly impersonal method of assessment relies on standardized tests, which treats students more like research subjects than actual human beings. “Teaching to the test” limits students’ autonomy to ask big questions and explore a wide range of relevant topics. Instead, students are subjected to repetition of pre-determined information and isolated skills, which limits their ability to think outside of the box and develop creative problem solving abilities. In short, the amount of student choice and personal relevance within the subject matter being taught is far more important than the amount of students who can pass a uniform test.

Measurable data such as the number of students from a particular socio-cultural or background is important in determining what resources might be needed in the classroom and school in order to provide an equal and equitable learning environment. For example, the number of black students living in New York City that are enrolled in Pre-K (which is free) is negatively disproportionate to the amount of Caucasian students. Another alarming quantitative statistic is that beginning in pre-school, black and hispanic students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students (almost three times more likely…). This is true even when the punishable infraction is the same. These aforementioned quantitative statistics are certainly helpful for encouraging educational activists to resolve the blatant equality and equity gap in schools and ensure that all students have the right to schools with excellent facilities and are treated the same regardless of their ethnic, racial, and economic background. However, when it comes to learning, teaching, and classroom management, it is the qualitative factors such as creativity and mindfulness that should take precedence throughout the educational environment.

Learning is most successful when it is practiced and assessed on a personal level, focused on differentiated instruction, in order for students to develop holistically and for everyone in the classroom (students AND teachers) to be passionate about learning. Of course, this qualitative form of assessment alludes the neat, cookie-cutter evaluations that standardize tests provide. However, just because something is harder to account for statistically doesn’t mean that it isn’t a better method of measuring and assessing students’ learning. When creativity and personalization are key components of teaching, students are better prepared to take on the world at large. Art-centered education provides enormous opportunities to measure students’ personal development and their ability to connect experience and education in a way that promotes life-long learning. The arts teach us to frame the world in the context of our personal and collective experiences. The arts promote empathy, positivity, diversity, and mindfulness among other progressive things. Education isn’t meant to be contained and compartmentalized just as what is considered art is entirely open ended. Creativity teaches us to embrace ambiguity and that is an essential mindset for students to carry with them throughout their lives.

An example of an artwork that combines both quantitative and qualitative assessment in a powerful, thought provoking manner, is How Was School? (2018) by Duneska Suannette. In this installation (currently on view at the JCC in Harlem in an exhibition on American education organized by Art in Flux) of an imagined elementary school classroom, we are initially confronted with the expression “tread lightly” on the door. Upon entering the classroom, the symbolism of this phrase is blatant. Suannette has constructed a both a real and surreal classroom environment for the viewer to carefully explore and engage. The word carefully is not to be taken lightly because the artist has installed bungie “trip wires” in a weblike construct several inches above the floor. This obstacle course, while reminiscent of the laser maze in Mission Impossible or Oceans Twelveis a poignant metaphor for the trials and tribulations that marginalized students (primarily students of color) experience in public schools. The installation features wallpaper made from colorful letter jumbles overlaid with black letters, which spell out stark statistics about the lack of equality and equity for students of color in the education system. While viewers are navigating through the classroom, a looped video is projected onto a wall featuring news stories and behind the scenes school board meetings discussing and debating the uneven treatment of lower-income students in schools.

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Duneska Suannette, How Was School?, 2018.

While I was taking in the poignant messages, I was greeted by the Suannette, who asked me how my day was. We engaged in a conversation about equal and equitable education and what it means to give all students a safe, positive, and creative learning environment. I then focused my attention on the many empowering elements within the installation. For example, the classroom was made up of stations such as a reading area containing a treasure trove of children’s books about intersectionality of identity and multiculturalism, a play area with black dolls, and other uplifting objects and materials that are more inclusive of a diverse student body. It is important for all students to feel represented in their schools, and examples of literature, toys, and art works that express diversity are great ways to inspire empathy, mindfulness, and positive interactions within a heterogeneous educational setting.

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Suannette also set up an interactive activity where participants are asked to fill out a response on a star relating to what they associate Empathy, Being Positive, Mindfulness, and Implicit Bias to mean. This is a powerful form of assessment that prompts our recognition of the problems marginalized students face in schools and the artful and holistic actions we might employ to raise awareness and explore creative solutions for equity and equality in our schools.


You can participate in How Was School? and view other works that relate to educational issues in the exhibition Summer Break at the JCC Harlem (318 West 118th St, between Frederick Douglass Blvd & Manhattan Avenue) through December 2018.