When Art Is a Matter of (Scientific) Interpretation

We’ve seen plenty of examples of scientists inspiring art at AMS conferences. It is also true that art can inspire scientists, as in the kick-off press conference at this week’s European Geophysical Union General Assembly in Vienna, Austria.
The_ScreamA team of scientists came forward with a new hypothesis about the origins of one of the icons of Western art–Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Since 1892, the man melting down on a bridge under a wavy, blood-red Oslo sunset has been a pillar of the modern age precisely because it expresses interior mentality more than objective observation. Or so art history tells us.
To be fair, some art historians also have made clear that there are honest clouds in Munch’s painting. In a 1973 monograph, the University of Chicago’s Reinhold Heller acknowledged Munch’s “faithfulness to meteorological and topographical phenomena” in a precursor canvas, called Despair. Even so, Heller went on to say that Munch’s vision conveyed “truthfulness solely in its reflection of the man’s mood.”
Take a Khan Academy course on the history of art and you’ll learn that Munch was experiencing synesthesia—“a visual depiction of sound and emotion….The Scream is a work of remembered sensation rather than perceived reality.”
Leave it to physical scientists, then, to remind us that nature, as an inspiration for artists, is far stranger than art historians imagine. Indeed, faced with The Scream, scientists have been acting just like scientists: iterating through hypotheses about what the painting really shows.
In a 2004 article in Sky and Telescope magazine, Russell Doescher, Donald Olson, and Marilynn Olson argued that Munch’s vision was inspired by sunsets inked red after the eruption of Krakatau in 1882.
More recently, atmospheric scientists have debunked the volcanic hypothesis and posited alternatives centered on specific clouds. In his 2014 book on the meteorological history of art, The Soul of All Scenery, Stanley David Gedzelman points out that the mountains around Oslo could induce sinuous, icy wave clouds with lingering tint after sunset. The result would be brilliant undulations very much like those in the painting.
At EGU this week, Svein Fikke, Jón Egill Kristjánsson, and Øyvind Nordli contend that Munch was depicting much rarer phenomenon: nacreous, or “mother of pearl,” clouds in the lower stratosphere. They make their case not only at the conference this week, but also in an article just published in the U.K. Royal Meteorological Society’s magazine, Weather.
Munch never revealed exactly when he saw the sunset that startled him. As a result, neither cloud hypothesis is going to be confirmed definitively.
Indeed, to a certain extent, both cloud hypotheses rest instead on a matter of interpretation about the timing of the painting amongst Munch’s works, about his diary, and other eyewitness accounts.
The meteorology, in turn, is pretty clear: The Scream can no longer be seen as solely a matter of artistic interpretation.

These Observations Get Our Stamp of Approval

The scientific benefits of Earth observation are well known in the atmospheric sciences. But there’s an artistic side to such observations, too, which is spectacularly depicted in the U.S. Postal Service’s new Earthscapes stamps, released last week in celebration of National Stamp Collecting Month and featuring images shot aloft from a variety of platforms, from a micro-light kite to satellites in space.
The set of 15 different stamps depicts natural, agricultural, and urban scenes from across the country. The Service’s contracted photo editors and researchers culled hundreds of images, which USPS Art Director Howard Paine narrowed down to the final 15. Some photos were taken by people in private planes and helicopters; others were taken by unmanned instruments, including the one below of the volcanic crater of Mount St. Helens in Washington, which was captured in 1999 by NASA’s Landsat 7. Other images in the set include ice breaking off from Alaska’s Bear Glacier, a cherry orchard in Wisconsin, and a cranberry bog in Massachusetts.
Along with the forever stamps, other Earthscapes collectibles for the philatelist include a first-day cover set, a jigsaw puzzle, and an Earthscapes ceremony program.

The Rainbow Goes Green

Omaha's Bemis Center, 21 June. Photo by Kathleen Franco.

Downtown Omaha, Nebraska, may not be a place you’d expect to see many rainbows, since the state is under an official drought emergency this summer. But art has a way of trumping nature at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. The Rainbow: Certain Principles of Light and Shapes between Forms, an exhibit created by artist Michael Jones McKean, gives residents a glimpse of welcome sights from wetter times. McKean worked with irrigation and rainwater harvesting experts and atmospheric scientists to create the display, in which a dense wall of water shoots up to 100 feet into the air to create a rainbow above the building.

“There are a number of novel aspects of this project,” explains Joseph A. Zehnder, professor and chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Creighton University, who also served as a technical advisor on rain and wind climatology and on atmospherics optics for the project. “One is that the display is created using harvested rainwater. Local agricultural irrigation and rainwater harvesting companies contributed time and expertise to the project, with the hope of providing a public demonstration of currently available technologies.”
Prior to the opening, a self-contained water harvesting and storage system was built in the Bemis Center. The collected and recaptured storm water is filtered and stored in six above-ground 10,500-gallon water tanks while within the gallery a 60-horsepower pump supplies pressurized water to nine nozzles mounted to the roof. Based on atmospheric conditions, vantage point, available sunlight and the changing angle of the sun in the sky, each rainbow has a singular character and quality.
Zehnder notes that although the basics of rainbows are well understood, there are some complications that arise with providing them on demand. “There are variations in the hue and intensity of the rainbow that are related to the water drop size and density,” he explains. “The drop sizes need to be sufficiently large in order for the internal reflection and refraction of sunlight to occur. Scattering from smaller drops is the wavelength independent Mie scattering so the color separation doesn’t occur.”
McKean began experimenting with manmade rainbows in 2002 and in 2008 started researching the logistics of creating a rainbow over the Bemis Center. In 2010 he started a partial test of the rainbow in Omaha, with the full test last October. “The rainbow is a reminder of a constant universal—something forever, simultaneously contemporary and ancient,” comments McKean. “In the face of our earthbound landscape of shapes and forms, of geologic, evolutionary, archeological timescales, the rainbow is a kind of perfection, our oldest image.”
Even if artists can make their own rainbows, weather still has its say. Because of the dry summer, the Bemis Center is only showing the exhibit on select occasions, with scheduling twenty-four hours in advance. To find out when the rainbow will be on, check here or the Bemis Facebook page. There is also a free mobile app that can be downloaded to Apple and Android phones, which will notify users when the next rainbow will take place and also includes information about the artist and the project.

Science Meets Art on Floor 2

Art is a method of communication, a dialogue between artist and audience. The exhibit “Forecast: Communicating Weather and Climate,”  currently on display on the second floor of the convention center, is also about communication between artists and scientists.  The collaborative exhibit paired up Washington State artists with forecasters, climatologists, and atmospheric scientists with the idea that looking at weather and climate through a different lens opens up a new viewpoint and ultimately greater understanding.   The end result is not only interesting artwork but what turned out to be enlightening experiences for those involved. Here’s one of the two interviews with the artists and scientists up on Ametsoc YouTube:

If you haven’t already, stop by to view the photography, paintings, and sculptures that portray the weather in a way you may not have seen before.
For more from the scientists’ perspective, take a look at University of Washington science writer Vince Stricherz’s article.

If Your Climate Cup Runneth Over

Processing the endless stream of weather data can be a little like drinking from a fire hose. So designer/artist Mitchell Whitelaw has found a new way to civilize information intake.

measuring cup
"Measuring Cup," by Mitchell Whitelaw, showing at the Object Gallery in Sydney, Australia.

“Measuring Cup” is formed using 150 years of monthly average temperatures for Sydney, Australia. Says Whitelaw,

The structure of the form is pretty straightforward. Each horizontal layer of the form is a single year of data; these layers are stacked chronologically bottom to top – so 1859 is at the base, 2009 at the lip. The profile of each layer is basically a radial line graph of the monthly data for that year. Months are ordered clockwise around a full circle, and the data controls the radius of the form at each month. The result is a sort of squashed ovoid, with a flat spot where winter is (July, here in the South).

Whitelaw decided to smooth the data with a five-year moving average “because the raw year-to-year variations made the form angular and jittery.” The result is not only aesthetically pleasing but functional due to climate change:

The punchline really only works when you hold it in your hand. The cup has a lip – like any good cup, it expands slightly towards the rim. It fits nicely in the hand. But this lip is, of course, the product of the warming trend of recent decades. So there’s a moment of haptic tension there, between ergonomic (human centred) pleasure and the evidence of how our human-centredness is playing out for the planet as a whole.

In other words, don’t sip from your own data unless you can show a perceptible warming.

Art Gets Meteorological

Lawrence, Kansas, has been an epicenter of serious weather in the past–dating back at least to a killer tornado in 1913 and with numerous others documented there or nearby since.
An art show where you shouldn't forget to look up.Right now, however, Lawrence has got to be the epicenter of the weather-art world. First an ongoing exhibit through October 4 at the Lawrence Percolator gallery entitled “Clouds Are Easy to Love” features works on the walls–and ceiling–inspired by things meteorological. Channel 6 Meteorologist Jennifer Schack gave a talk at the gallery about the science of clouds.
Meanwhile, a “flash” exhibit in a vacant downtown retail space lasting less than a month, through the end of this week, is featuring some cerebral and sensory explorations of themes that ought to sound familiar: “explores the material attributes of the passage of light and its blockage (through opacity and diffusion)…”
Called “TRANS*parent TRANS*lucent,” the show at 739 Massachusetts St. in Lawrence features a drawing/painting on suspended mylar called “Meteorology,” by Linnea Spransy. Writes reviewer Ryan LaFerney,

"Meteorology," by Linnea Spransy.

[Spransy’s] work is about working within boundaries. She creates predetermined systems, underlying grids that her drawings and paintings are formed from. These grids serve as boundaries to be utilized and traversed. From these grids, which are determined by the artist, Spransy draws one single continuous line that blossoms into a labyrinth of molecular-looking abstractions. For Spransy, these limits generate surprise and even freedom. Meteorology is no different. The only difference is the physicality of the piece. It is experiential, like all of her

"Maelstrom," by Linnea Spransy.

work, but warrants a visceral response and physical interaction. Suspended from the ceiling, Meteorology, outstretched in transparent layers, reaches out to engulf the viewer. It is an inviting work that calls one to investigate the whirlwind of orderly detail from both sides ….The viewing experience is rendered not as one of solitude but as one best experienced in good company. Spransy ends up giving value both to the creative act and to community.

Sounds a lot like some atmospheric scientists we know. A sampling of Spransy’s  meteorologically oriented works, from her web site confirms the connection.

"Weak Potential Energy," by Linnea Spransy

"The Spectra of Light Emitted," by Linnea Spransy

"The Quantized Values of Angular Momentum," by Linnea Spransy.

Art and Science To Reign Together in Seattle

Atomic Storm Cloud by John Lewis.

Microbursts, photography, supercooling, sculpture, Alberta Clippers, painting, sea level rise, and more. If you’re curious about the connection between these things, then you’ll want to see Forecast: Communicating Weather and Climate, a visual art exhibition with a scientific twist opening in January at the Washington State Convention Center alongside the 91st AMS Annual Meeting. Best of all, the artists making the exhibit have joined forces with your scientific colleagues to develop the connection between art and science.
Nearly half of the artists selected for the exhibition accepted the invitation to work with AMS members to create new works for this occasion. Nine of these collaborations will be on view at the Convention Center. AMS conference chair Peggy Lemone and committee member Steve Ackerman identified collaborating scientists who study what the artists are interested in exploring. Forecast collaborating scientists hail from universities and research centers in seven states in the US and Australia.  In addition to Washington, the states are: Colorado, Illinois, Montana, New York, and Wisconsin. The scientists’ areas of study include Arctic sea ice; atmospheric boundary layer; atmospheric chemistry; climate dynamics and change; cloud physics; eco-meteorology; hydrology; mesoscale analysis, convection, forecasting, and meteorology; oceanography; optical sciences; paleoclimate; precipitation physics; radar; regional climate; weather; and wind energy.)
Following the theme of the Seattle meeting, “Communicating Weather and Climate,” Forecast will engage scientists, artists, and the general public in dialogue on innovative ways to communicate and understand weather and climate issues. The exhibit will feature the works of more than 30 regionally, nationally, and internationally recognized artists based in Washington or featured in Seattle art collections.
“I can say from personal experience that working with an artist, you discover the commonality between the sciences and the arts. The creative process is similar: we both want to ‘see’ the world in new ways and to communicate our vision to others,” comments 2010 AMS President Peggy LeMone. “These scientist-artist dialogues give us a better chance of communicating this vision—and through the arts we can avoid the barriers people might have to learning something new.”
The exhibit is a collaboration between AMS and EcoArts Connections (EAC), which brings together science, arts, and other organizations to advance understanding of climate change and sustainability through performances, exhibits, talks, consulting, and other activities.
“In addition to being aesthetically nourishing, the exhibition will also be scientifically engaging, helping the public better experience a broad array of weather and climate activities.” says Marda Kirn, executive director of EAC. “The works will share not only the beauty of natural forces, but also the impact of weather and climate upon public health and safety, economic growth, national security, sustainability, and air and water quality.”

Approaching Storm by John Armstrong.The exhibit is curated by Lele Barnett, a Seattle-based curator and the former owner of McLeod Residence, a home for extraordinary living through art, technology, and collaboration. (www.lelebarnett.com.)

The exhibit will open on Monday 24 January and will continue thru 9 April 2011. On that first day (5-7 pm) there will be a private opening reception at the exhibit for AMS donors and collaborating artists and scientists followed by a public reception from 7-9 pm.
Forecast is made possible in part by the American Meteorological Society, Brainerd Foundation, NASA, JOSS, and UCAR.