Interdisciplinary Collaboration Turns Climate Data into Art

Exhibit at CCNY uses digital design, computer game and audio technologies to make polar data more accessible and more compelling

One of seven infographics by Professor Saltz and her students, which explains the dynamics of surface melting and the sudden draining of glacial lakes. (Credit: V. Golosiy)

Scientific research produces reams of data that the average person has little contact with and less hope of interpreting. Members of The City College of New York art and music departments have collaborated with a colleague and prominent climate change researcher on an innovative project that uses their creative talents to make his findings more accessible and compelling.

This cross-disciplinary group of professors and students from CCNY has translated raw polar research data into an immersive art exhibit of sights, sounds and computer games.

Melting over the Greenland Ice Sheet (1958 - 2011.) Yearly Melting controls the Intensity of pre-composed “modular” music, using a variety of techniques. (Credit: Prof. J. Perl & Polar SEEDS Team)

View of the polar ice electronic game in which players try to control snowfall and clouds to protect the snow or ice, showing how the effect of albedo can cause melting. (Credit: Ethan Ham & Polar SEEDS Team)

“Communicating Polar Climate Change Through Data Visualization And Sonification” will be on view January 28 – February 14 in the Compton-Goethals Art Gallery, Room 134, Compton-Goethals Hall, on the CCNY campus. A public reception for the exhibit will be held 5 – 8 p.m. Friday, February 1.

Dr. Marco Tedesco, associate professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at City College, conceived the idea for the exhibit. The work uses vivid typography, electronic sound and computer game technology to give a multisensory impression of data on the warming Greenland ice sheet that he has gathered for several years.

“I never saw art and science as separate ground. I grew up in a country where art is literally on every street,” said Professor Tedesco, a native of Italy.

His lifelong passions for photography and music shaped his ideas, and a call for proposals from City College’s City SEED grant program catalyzed them. The program, initiated by City College President Lisa S. Coico, encourages new cross-disciplinary collaborations in order to help them bloom into larger research and creative projects.

Professor Tedesco contacted Ina Saltz, professor and director of CCNY’s Electronic Design & Multimedia (EDM) program, and Professor Jonathan Perl, associate professor of music and audio technology in CCNY’s Sonic Arts program. Professor Saltz is an art director and typographer; Professor Perl is a composer and jazz musician.

“Marco is a scientist who is also very much of an artist. He understood that he needed collaborators to help bring his data to life,” said Professor Saltz. She brought her colleague, Associate Professor Ethan Ham, into the group for his expertise in game design to create a ‘game for change’— a game intended to teach players something about the real world. Professor Ham teaches electronic game design and worked in the computer game industry for many years.

The City SEED grant enabled the team to hire seven graduate and undergraduate students to produce works for the exhibit: Patrick Alexander and Tri Datta, PhD candidates from The Graduate Center – CUNY; EDM graduates Vladimir Golosiy and Grzegorz Lewkowicz, Class of 2012, Sonic Arts graduates Carlos Felipe Quiroz and Kyoungtae Suh, Class of 2012, and junior Sonic Arts major Andrey Radovski.

Vladimir Golosiy, under the guidance of Professor Saltz, created infographic posters for the exhibit that visually describe climate change topics such as rising sea levels, disappearing habitats, and the “goliath year” – a recent record year of melting. They used chunky fonts and chilly colors to convey a sense of the polar environment. “We chose Vitesse for its square, blocky typography that feels like the ice and has a broad palette of weights and letter forms that visually suggest glaciers,” she explained.

Vladimir had never worked with scientific data before, Professor Saltz noted. The project allowed him and other students to form their own opinions about the data and fill out their personal portfolios.

Professor Perl and his students worked with three kinds of data to create sonifications, or translations of data into sound. He used tones and a variety of instruments with changes in pitch, intensity and distortion to convey the waxing and waning through the seasons of temperature, rates of melting and a measurement called albedo, which indicates how light or dark the ice is.

“Albedo is the steel drum – the darker the ice the more intensely the drum is played,” he explained. The distortion in the guitar conveys other fluctuations as it changes from a deep to a high tinkling sound. “It turns out to be pretty complicated.”

The project expanded his students’ horizons, he said. “Music is a tough field to go into, and sonification is whole area my students had never thought of going into until they were involved with this project.”

Professor Ham and his student, Grzegorz Lewkowicz, created an electronic game in which players try to control snowfall and clouds to protect the snow or ice cover. If the player isn’t able to prevent Greenland’s ice cap from melting, the game is lost and a city (whose skyline looks very much like NewYork City’s) is flooded. “It can sensitize a player to the idea that snow can melt even when the temperature is below zero,” he said. He noted that although Greg had not had lot of programming experience, he found he had a natural talent for it.

“This campus is the perfect incubator for collaboration between data and design,” said Professor Saltz. The group envisions the exhibit continuing to exist in a digital form or traveling to new venues, such as schools or community centers, to reach people who might not visit a traditional gallery or museum.

“Art is a powerful messenger,” added Professor Tedesco. “I hope that we will be able to help people understand that there is no political agenda behind scientists communicating climate change. The results we are showing in this exhibit are a clear message that the Arctic – and Greenland in particular – is strongly affected by the changes we are observing all over our planet.”

On the Internet

Polarseeds – exhibit website

Background and profiles

Marco Tedesco – Greenland Melting

Ina Saltz & Ethan Ham

Jonathan Perl

Media Contact

Jessa Netting
p: 212.650.7615