In our climate research project in Bangladesh, we work closely with local rural communities. The communities have designed their own citizen science projects in close dialogue with the project’s climate scientists. The climate scientists have also directed their research based on the stories the communities previously shared in longer narrative interviews. In order for the citizen science to be a success, a sense of community and good team spirit is essential. We collaborated with a Bangladeshi artist to achieve some important goals. Not only did we want to create new and exciting outreach materials, but, more importantly, we also wanted to see how the artistic process could nurture a sense of community for the local participants. Despite being limited by time, we saw some promising outcomes from the collaboration. The artist successfully interacted with the project researchers and the local participants. The final artwork was a real collaboration between the artist and the participants, who felt pride and ownership in the results.
The artistic process nurtures collaboration and a sense of community in a climate project in Bangladesh.
Every science–art collaboration is molded by overall project goals, as well as the aspirations of the researchers, artists, and other participants. These aspirations guide the collaboration in different directions and influence the final results. Gabrys and Yusoff (2012) describe the meeting point between climate science and art as the complex Northeast Passage of ice floes creating interlocking shores and islands, forever moving. Our project was one such metaphorical ice floe. We use this metaphor since it speaks to the undefined territory we embark upon in the communities that we worked within. We could not rigidly define outcomes and we had to be prepared for the project to go in different directions. This is the short account of how our science–art (in this case, science, art, and citizenry) collaboration developed in northeast Bangladesh.
THE FIRST MEETING.
We had wanted to involve an artist in our climate research project, and some Bangladeshi friends had recommended Shakti Nomaan (Fig. 1). They had told us that Shakti liked working with communities and with climate- and weather-related issues. He also had experience organizing art camps with local people. We arranged the initial meeting in a hotel lobby, in the bustling city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, far from the rural communities we actually worked with. We arranged the initial meeting to get to know Shakti and find out if he was interested in our project. We discussed how the collaboration might proceed and our aspirations based on similar projects that we review below.
We told Shakti about the Transforming Climate Knowledge with and for Society (TRACKS) project. In TRACKS, an interdisciplinary team of social and natural scientists work with local communities in the Sylhet region of northeast Bangladesh. The aim is to coproduce quality knowledge for adapting to extreme weather events and climate change. We based the project in Sylhet because previous research has shown discrepancies between what scientists and locals think about the annual monsoon (Stiller-Reeve et al. 2015). The coproduction work in TRACKS is based on ideas of postnormal science (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993), where the quality of different forms of climate knowledge—scientific, local, indigenous, or other—is discussed and appraised by the project participants. These participants make up what we call the extended peer community of the project, comprising local businessmen, farmers, scientists, government officials, and so on. The members of this extended peer community were invited from the respondents of a large-scale interview survey we completed in late 2014. A total of 234 people responded to the narrative survey. After the survey, we went through all the interviews and used them to motivate our climate research questions. Many climate and meteorological issues concerned the local communities, but it seemed that convection and rainfall in the Bangladeshi summer months (premonsoon) of March–May were of particular importance. The research we would do on this subject would be communicated back to the people. The 234 interviewees also gave us a cohort of possible participants for the more in-depth citizen science within the project. From the larger cohort, many showed interest in continuing to work with the project. We invited a diverse group of different genders, ages, and backgrounds to attend our citizen science workshops. In the end, a total of 54 attended two workshops we held in March 2016, one with a peer group in the Sunamganj Sadar district and one with a peer group in the Barlekha district.
The aim of these workshops was to encourage the extended peer community to discuss and assess the quality of their own knowledge about weather and climate. They would then decide what knowledge they lacked and design their own climate indicators that they would observe in their citizen science projects. For these discussions and collaborations to work, we needed to create a safe and friendly environment for discussion and reflection. We hoped Shakti’s artistic process and his interactions with the participants would contribute to creating this safe environment and encourage the extended peer community to understand and respect different perspectives. Of course, we also wanted him to create his own art based on the inputs from the community/citizen scientists and the TRACKS project.
And we listened to Shakti. He told us about his artistic training in Bangladesh and he showed us some of his previous work. His work showed a keen regard to societal issues in Bangladesh. He had previously worked with interdisciplinary groups, but not previously with research scientists or research projects like TRACKS. Shakti was clearly very patriotic, and hence he was excited to work with communities in his own country and to hear their stories about climate. We were inspired to invite Shakti on board based on his work, his previous experiences, his attitude to the rural communities, and his openness to interdisciplinary collaborations. During the upcoming workshops, Shakti would become a full member of the TRACKS team. He would travel to Sylhet with us, join the workshops and the conversations with the participants, lead his own session in the workshops, and produce his own art inspired by the stories and his experiences. Our conversation ended and our science–art (or, more precisely, citizen science–art) collaboration had begun.
Collaborations between science and art are not new. Since the 1960s in particular, art and science have been encouraged to collaborate and share perspectives. One pioneering effort was the relatively short-lived project Experiments in Art and Technology in the United States, which attempted “to facilitate and enable communication and collaboration between artists and engineers” (Shanken 2005, p. 415). More recently, the project Cape Farewell started in 2001 (Buckland 2012). Cape Farewell embeds scientists and artists together on expeditions to climate change “hot spots.” These expeditions result in both scientific research and artistic creations. Cape Farewell founder David Buckland describes these interventions as “cultural approaches” with the intention to create a “different language of climate change with which to engage the public” (Buckland 2012, p. 137).
Some commentators are critical of the traditional “linear relationship” where artists create art to communicate the climate science messages, and where art simply becomes a “transmission belt to the masses” (von Storch 2015, p. 3). Von Storch (2015) also declares that art could offer new insight and unsettle what science sometimes takes for granted. This is a different type of collaboration that we see evidence of from interdisciplinary projects like Cape Farewell, as well as in books like Weather Report (Dunaway 2009; Lippard et al. 2007) and exhibitions like “Forecast: Communicating Weather and Climate” (AMS 2010). In these projects, both the artists and the scientists benefit from the interactions during the creative process. For Khanna (2009), these interactions act as a cross-fertilization of ideas. This cross-fertilization brings science–art projects away from purely “imaginative and aesthetic” activities toward promoting meaningful communication (Duxbury 2010). A nice example of this “meaningful communication” comes from a recent project that joined science and arts students together to form environmental communication materials for the public (Jacobson et al. 2016). The students worked together during a field trip to a remote marine laboratory, where they created the communication materials. The dialogue and creative process normalized “the different views among the participants in communicating about climate change impacts.” Gibbs (2014) describes similar results from an Australian project called SiteWorks. In SiteWorks, scientists, artists, and local people teamed up to create works about a special place in southeastern Australia called Bundanon. Gibbs also noted how the interdisciplinary collaboration in SiteWorks stimulated critical reflection on practice within different disciplines. These results sound very promising, but they take time to develop. SiteWorks included a 10-day residential “lab,” where the participants worked together. This gave the participants the time to develop trust and to begin understanding each other’s work and practices. It would seem that time was key to the success of SiteWorks.
SCIENCE–ART IN OUR TRACKS PROJECT.
Unfortunately, we had not invited an artist to work with us at the beginning of TRACKS. However, within the available time, we wanted Shakti to be a part of the TRACKS research team as much as possible. He would help us plan and implement the workshops in Sylhet in March 2016. At the workshops, he would lead an art session with the participants. Afterward, he would take his experiences to create a piece of visual art that could be presented back to the extended peer communities. We had four goals in mind. Obviously, we hoped that his final artistic creation could 1) act as a powerful outreach medium and portray some of the scientific and community stories involved in our project. But most importantly, we wanted to see if the collaboration could 2) help us learn from different disciplines, 3) encourage the sharing of perspectives and ideas, and 4) nurture a sense of community and trust for the citizen scientists.
Right from the beginning of each workshop, Shakti tried to form a bond with the participants who made up the extended peer community. He circulated around the different groups and started friendly conversations. He made a clear effort to interact with all the participants and listened intently to their stories. He heard stories about how the weather impacts the community and landscape, how plants and animals can indicate the coming of different weather, and how the weather has changed over the past years. Toward the end of the workshop, Shakti led the main art session. He started this session by dressing as a farmer and decorating a table with local materials that farmers and fishers use in their daily lives. He told the participants that he considered all these materials and clothes as art and the participants as artists. These words encouraged the participants, who later willingly took part in the drawing exercise. Shakti tasked everyone to draw some of the things they had discussed about local weather and climate (Fig. 2). Shakti wanted to give them the opportunity to express their perceptions in a different way. Some of them had found it challenging to express these perceptions verbally during the workshop. For some of the participants, this was the first time they had drawn anything since going to school; for a couple, it was the first time they had ever drawn. Even though some participants were more eager to draw than others, everyone joined in the challenge.
Shakti collected the participants’ drawings, gathered his notes, and brought them—along with his memories—back to Dhaka. He then proceeded to create his artwork over the following few weeks. With his final creation, he traveled back to Sylhet. He presented the artwork to the citizen scientists at one of their bimonthly meetings and asked for their feedback (Fig. 3). He wanted to find out if he had created an agreeable depiction of their stories. Had he included and interpreted the most important climate issues?
Before we answer this question and judge the overall success of this project, let us have a closer look at what Shakti’s painting actually portrays. The painting comprises three canvasses (see Fig. 4) on which Shakti painted several portholes. Through these portholes, Shakti chronologically tells the stories of the weather according to the citizen scientists. From the left, you will see different indicators including mango buds, snakes, crabs, and frogs. The participants had told stories about snakes coming into their homes during floods, and the frogs croaking loudly before the monsoon onset. Below the portholes, Shakti also painted a line of ants. These ants can also indicate the coming of bad weather. The final three portholes showed important weather events and impacts including storms, floods, and the crusty, dry ground of a drought. The painting’s background was dark with lighter scratch marks. Shakti told the citizen scientists that he used this combination to depict the tension between the climate and everyday life in the Sylhet region.
WHAT WAS THE IMPACT?
The citizen scientists were the main judges of this project’s success and whether we had achieved our original goals. We therefore asked 10 participants about Shakti’s artistic process and his involvement in the TRACKS project. You can find the full responses in the online supplement (https://doi.org/10.1175/BAMS-D-16-0044.2). Here we provide some key perspectives and quotes that respond to our four main objectives.
Obviously, only the viewer can judge whether the final painting is pleasing to the eye and effective as outreach. What was important for us was whether the citizen scientists liked the painting and felt it conveyed their stories. One participant said that the painting was “something real that comes from our lives. This is why I like it.” They also told us that the artwork reminded them of the discussions they had had about weather and climate in the workshops. Several others praised Shakti and said the art was beautiful. For some of the respondents, the outreach part was a particularly important aspect, with one respondent saying, “This is [a] story of our area. Whoever will see this art will know about our village, our area. This is something that made us happy.”
The citizen scientists’ feedback was also important for Shakti. One issue cropped up quickly when he presented the painting. Several people questioned Shakti about him including crabs in the painting (see Fig. 3). This was a story that he had heard from one of the workshop participants, but the citizen scientists told Shakti that the Puti fish are a more important indicator of the coming weather. Apparently, the deeper the red line along their bodies, the wetter the coming year will be. You will see the changes Shakti made if you compare the original painting in Fig. 3 with the final version in Fig. 4. Despite the challenges for Shakti to instigate these changes, this little episode really illustrated that both Shakti and the workshop participants truly collaborated to create the artwork together.
During the project, we wanted to see if TRACKS researchers and the artist could learn anything from each other’s disciplines and methods. Several authors have previously considered the opportunity of art–science collaborations inspiring each other. Von Storch (2015) even calls it “therapy” for climate scientists. Other projects, like Cape Farewell (Buckland 2012) and Weather Report, also show that both artists and scientists can learn from each other’s perspectives. But did anything like this happen here? It did, to a point. We certainly learned from Shakti’s artistic process and how he interacted with the participants and clearly respected their perspectives. Shakti also told us that he learned many things about the weather and local knowledge about weather and climate. This type of knowledge combined with Shakti’s artistic background would have put him in excellent stead to question the scientific research in TRACKS. However, this type of dialogue needed time to develop, time we did not have.
One of the most important parts of the TRACKS project happens during the citizen science. This is dependent on the citizens working well together, having a good dialogue, and sharing ideas throughout. We hoped that the art project could help this process. If we managed to create a safe place for the citizen scientists to air their views, then it would be more likely that a stronger community would emerge around the citizen science projects and future adaptation. When we asked Shakti, he told us that he had planned his contribution around these goals: “I tried to organize the [drawing] session in a way that they felt that I am respectful to their knowledge and culture.”
From the questionnaire responses, we also see that the project made gains toward these goals. One part of the process really helped. The drawing exercise that Shakti led was enjoyable for most and helped to conclude the workshops on a high note, with the participants (including the project researchers and climate scientists) comparing and discussing their drawings in a relaxed atmosphere. It was reminiscent of the woodland workshop developed by Robinson et al. (2014, p. 86), where participants developed a “positive will to move forward together rather than divided into established bunkers of ‘science’ versus the ‘public.’” It simply comes down to whether people enjoy being in each other’s company. At least one of the citizen scientists thought so: “We came together and these are common issues of this area. We love to be together and discuss about these important issues.”
Could we have brought people together in a different way? Probably. But at the workshops, the participants designed their own citizen science, and they also contributed to the creation of a piece of art. The participants obviously felt some pride and ownership over the final artwork, since one of the questionnaire respondents said, “This artwork belongs to all of us who live in this area.”
We now have the challenge to decide where the painting should hang. If the people own the painting themselves, then it should hang somewhere in the community. However, if the people want the painting to communicate their stories to the outside world, then it should hang in more distant locations, where we would hope that a steady stream of people would see it and learn something about the climate stories of the people of Sylhet, Bangladesh. In this sense, we were dealt a lucky hand. In May 2017, the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen, Norway, moved into a newly refurbished building. Shakti’s painting now hangs on the wall in the entrance foyer, where climate researchers, colleagues, and visitors from all over the world can see it (Fig. 5). The painting hangs next to a plaque that explains the project and the origin of the art. Viewers will hopefully gain an understanding of the importance of different perspectives about local climate and in climate research generally. In addition, one participant suggested that we should make prints and donate them to local schools and government offices. In response to this, we made several full-scale prints and presented them to the participants, when we visited them in May 2017. They are free to hang the prints where they think is best and tell their extended communities about their achievements. And on this positive note, our science–art collaboration ended.
In the context of the TRACKS project, the artistic process acted as a vehicle to break down barriers and nurture a sense of community within the citizen science group. It is important to emphasize that the success of the project was also dependent on Shakti’s attitude and the way he interacted with the workshop participants. The workshops and the art itself would have looked very different if another artist had been involved. It would have also looked different if we collaborated with a different community or if the overall TRACKS project had different objectives. So, our project did end up like an unpredictable ice floe. Luckily it developed in some very positive directions and we learned some important lessons that we can take to future climate research and climate-service projects.
Funding was provided by Norwegian Research Council Grant 235613. We thank the reviewer for offering useful advice to improve the paper. We also thank artist Shakti Nomaan and the communities we worked with in Bangladesh, including all our colleagues in the TRACKS project.
A supplement to this article is available online (10.1175/BAMS-D-16-0044.2).