Art of Uncertainty
One difference I find striking between artists and scientists is the way in which these two groups deal with uncertainty. My scientist friends and colleagues are usually determined to ‘pin down’ the uncertainty in their models, define the error bars on their measurements, and then move on with assumptions and caveats carefully defined. For artists, on the other hand, uncertainty is a valuable currency: something to explore, play with and sometimes even revel in. While these are generalisations to some degree, I do wonder whether from this antipodal viewpoint, artists can bring something important to light about how we think about and understand uncertainty in science. Climate change is one area where the communication of uncertainty has landed scientists in dangerous territory. Can artists do better?
A few weeks ago, I attended a fascinating workshop exploring scientific and artistic approaches to uncertainty, organised by Tipping Point—an organisation that works to catalyse the cultural response to climate change—together with the King’s Cultural Institute and the Geography Department at King’s College London. It was a fantastic evening in which a diverse mix of artists, scientists, sociologists, writers, thinkers and other fascinating folk gathered to discuss the problem of uncertainty from a myriad of angles. While the issue of uncertainty has been well-examined from a scientific perspective by the Royal Society and a recent publication from Sense about Science, this gathering brought a range of other perspectives to bear with an emphasis on the role of art and artists in understanding/communicating uncertainty.
The joy of uncertainty
Is uncertainty itself actually a bad thing? In science, uncertainty is inherent in everything we do: from our descriptions of the basic laws of physics (as described by quantum mechanics) to the measurements taken by almost any our tools. As such, in general it is something that scientists should be quite comfortable with. Moreover, even as science advances, uncertainty advances with it. Where scientists tend to run into trouble is in their communication of uncertainty, and an expectation from the public/media (generically speaking) that they can provide certainty. This is a world where scientists are expected to provide answers—ideally boiled down to a single bullet point—and not more questions or caveats. So it’s not altogether unsurprising that the communication of uncertainty goes awry, but unfortunately it does so with serious consequences.
In contrast, artists do not have this burden. Interesting art is not didactic. Even when photorealistic, it usually isn’t just showing the world how it is. It is asking questions. Telling a story. Exposing contradictions. Consider Edward Burtynski’s photographs of polluted rivers and gaping strip mines. By all rights, these images should invoke horror—and they do—but they are also luscious, beautiful, and don’t lend themselves to a single judgement. Artists like to practice towards uncertainty, where there are multiple perspectives on an issue to explore. They are not often interested in literal interpretations; rather, artists often come at an issue sideways, using inherently uncertain devices such as narratives or metaphors.
Showing, not telling
Doing this well is a lot trickier than it sounds. In science, uncertainty is told with words and visual diagrams. This isn’t necessarily wrong, and a great deal of thought is now being put into the visualisation of uncertainty. However, do we really want art that lectures us? A great deal of art dealing with climate change unfortunately tends to be didactic: melting polar bears, giant sizzling globes and the like? While the message from these works is clear, they lack nuance and are aren’t particularly thought-provoking because they make very clear, unambiguous political statements.
My suspicion is that art that is a bit more uncertain and that provides more space for individual engagement is likely to be more effective and affective. Consider, for example, Breaking the Ice by Kjetil Berge: the artist drove an ice cream van across Europe, exchanging ice cream for conversations about the weather and climate change. In some senses, it was a bit of an experiment, and as he revealed at a discussion I attended last March, it gave rise to conversations that were as varied and mutable as the weather itself. Or consider Roni Horn’s classic series of portraits, You are the Weather, where we see all four seasons on one face. There is no fixed answer in these works, and I like that.
Similarly, I found that the High Arctic installation at the National Maritime Museum, inspired by Matt Clark’s trip to the Arctic with Cape Farewell, provided territory for exploration by the visitor. No explanatory plaques were provided, just a UV torch. Exploring this abstracted arctic landscape, the visitor came across the names of islands of the high arctic, listened furtively to the poetry of Nick Drake and to the writings of arctic explorers, and discovered what happened when they shone their torch on a moving field of shapes resembling ice-bergs. It acted as a ground for exploration, allowing the visitor to explore an unknown landscape that reacted in unexpected ways and where we encountered interesting tid-bits of its history. Intuitively, we experienced and explored the fragility of the landscape, without being subjected to a lecture on climate change.
Artists are not going to solve scientists’ problem of communicating uncertainty pertaining to climate change. This is something that scientists themselves need to do, perhaps with help from sociologists and innovative designers. But in so doing, scientists must recognise that in the communication of uncertainty, they must not just win minds, but also hearts. This does not necessarily come naturally. I suspect that there is a great opportunity for artists who are interested in collaborating with scientists to engage in this area. We need people who can help us navigate uncertainty not just intellectually, but also emotionally. And to remind us that the complexity of our world is no bad thing.