Andrea Polli

One of the featured artists in our upcoming INtransit “Scientific American” journal is Andrea Polli. She is a widely recognized digital media artist who examines issues of science and technology in contemporary society. She is currently an Associate Professor in Fine Arts and Engineering as well as the Director of the Interdisciplinary Film and Digital Media (IFDM) program at the University of New Mexico. Her 2008 piece “Ground Truth” looks at a how scientists track weather changes in Antarctica. Her most recent work is around developing sonification, a system that assists atmospheric scientists in understanding storms and climate through sound. Her website is: http://www.andreapolli.com/

This is an excerpt from a recent interview with Polli:

What inspired you to make this video on weather observation in Antarctica?

One basis for the ‘Ground Truth’ video was thinking about the fact that we are all actually weather stations. As human beings, we are endowed with a sophisticated set of weather sensors: rain, heat and cold are felt on the surface of the skin; clouds, fog and lightning are seen with the eyes; heavy winds and thunder are heard by the ears; and changes in atmospheric pressure are experienced in the ears and body.  A database of these sensory responses is not only stored in human memory, but in any situation, the brain can call up these memories and evaluate the sum of sensory experiences in order to make future predictions. In this way, the body is a weather station combined with the predictive and interpretive capabilities of a weather database and models.  However, although extremely effective in gathering qualitative information, the human brain lacks the quantitative abilities of computerized weather instrumentation.  In all the artworks I have created in relation to Antarctica, I have been investigating how humans gather and transmit qualitative information about weather and climate in Antarctica, and how this sensory experience may be interpreted and expressed via sonification.

After interviewing the scientists, what were the beliefs or ideas that most surprised you? Why?

It really surprised me how prevalent human weather observers are in that extreme environment.  I expected much more reliance on machines.  In fact, human weather observers have been stationed in Antarctica for over 50 years. Despite the isolated location, their work plays an important part in the generation of weather and climate forecasts throughout the world. In the interviews, I found two distinct worldviews about weather observation.  One group of scientists stated that human observers will only be necessary until instruments become advanced and reliable enough to collect the same level of information a human can gather, while a second group believed that machines will never be able to collect the same quality of information as humans, and that the human researchers will never accept the validity of information without the “ground truth”.  The one group viewed the results of computational and sensing machinery as absolute, while the other accepted a biological mode of sensing and analysis that has intrinsic value, either actual or perceived.  However, both views accepted that there is currently a symbiotic relationship between human and machine.

I witnessed the powerful authority of a weather observer at the South Pole firsthand.  During an interview with South Pole weather observer Victoria Sankovic, a C-130 flight came within range of the station.  Sankovic had the sole authority to determine whether or not this plane, containing about 20 researchers and much-needed supplies, would be allowed to land.  While the plane was approaching, the weather observations that she had been taking hourly necessarily increased in frequency until she found herself out in the -27 degree Celsius air every five minutes trying to determine whether the visibility was adequate for a safe landing.  She kept the plane in the air circling for almost three hours waiting for a window of visibility and came close to directing the plane to turn back.   A decision to make a C-130 military aircraft turn around, a situation called a ‘boomerang’, is taken very seriously in Antarctica.  The wasted fuel of a boomerang can cost over $50,000 in addition to lost research time, but the safety of the passengers and crew must take priority. Finally, Sankovic spotted a window of visibility and the plane was able to land.  At the South Pole and other Antarctic sites, weather observers can undergo this agonizing process as much as twice daily during the busy air traffic in the austral summer season.

As this episode indicates, despite the expense of keeping the human body alive in a dangerous environment like Antarctica, human weather observers are not only prominent, they are essential to field operations. Human weather observers must sense weather conditions with their bodies and respond rapidly to changing conditions.  In matters of life and death in the field, the sensing capabilities of the human body are trusted more than the “state of the art” instruments.

How have your views on climate crisis changed?

I have become very focused on public awareness of and participation in weather and climate monitoring.  The experiences with weather and climate scientists in Antarctica led me to create another project entitled Hello, Weather!.  This project is a series of professional weather stations installed in art and community centers across the world in order to de-mystify the collection and interpretation of weather and climate data. Artists, technologists, ecologists and environmentalists have been brought together around a growing number of these public weather stations.  By using sophisticated weather technology in an accessible way, Hello, Weather! attempts to create an alternative pathway for audiences to access and compare information about weather and climate.

At these sites, the station itself “becomes” a public artwork. All stations are wireless and solar powered and transmit data to a receiver that logs and uploads the data to an on-site computer.  Data is saved locally for archiving and use in art projects, and the Eyebeam and Debs Park stations currently provide data to three international volunteer weather observer projects: Weather Underground, Anything Weather and The Cooperative Weather Observer Program (CWOP).  This data is reused in government and commercial forecasts and scientific research.  In addition, the stations provide updated, online custom-formatted data, for example data in ascii text format and xml.  The station also serves as a context for workshops, presentations and other activities related to weather and climate.

Visitors to the Hello, Weather! website are also invited to contribute stories of extreme weather experiences, and the site includes several audio conversations between the author and interview subjects from all over the world about personal experiences of climate change.  Through the workshops, I am attempting to bring the affective experience of weather and climate into public consciousness and to connect personal stories to the process of weather data monitoring and analysis.  By sharing their experiences, workshops participants become aware of both the importance of weather and climate to their personal life history and the subjectivity of individual weather interpretation.   This awareness, coupled with learning about the science of weather and climate monitoring, will hopefully lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of the work of atmospheric scientists.

How would you describe your relationship with weather while at McMurdo Station?

In the South Pole where temperatures of -27 Celsius are considered warm in the summer, weather observers often limit their observations outside to just a few minutes.  Often they must take a partner on the observation for both verification of the observation and for safety.  When humans spend time in extreme environments like those of the Antarctic, they become very aware of the fact that the accuracy of weather information is necessary for safety and survival.  It is also very important to track weather in the Antarctic precisely because melting and other events have the potential to transform global weather patterns, which can cause disastrous changes across the globe in areas including temperature, sea level rise and wind circulation.  So, in my experience, the weather was both a local phenomenon and a global one, and I have tried to maintain that sensitive awareness in all my weather-related experiences and studies.

From an artist’s perspective what struck you most about the landscape in Antarctica?

It was definitely a shock to get off the plane for the first time in Antarctica and experience the vastness of the landscape, but for me what was more interesting was exploring the soundscape.  The Antarctic soundscape is one of extremes, from the very quiet to the oppressively loud.  For example, the wind produces a lot of white noise at the surface.  You can’t correlate it between locations, and you can’t subtract it out.  The quiet times are the most interesting, the times when the wind drops and you have no reflectors around you at all.  It actually can get still enough that you hear your heart beat. To be in a place so quiet you can hear the processes of your own body is a profound experience.  For example, while recording in the Dry Valleys, I continuously heard a high-pitched sound I attributed to the wind.  However, when I reviewed the recordings in the lab, the high-pitched sound was not on the recording.  After trying to record the sound twice, I realized that in the field I was most likely hearing the sound of my own nervous system.

While the soundscape of the Antarctic can be one of the most quiet in the world, it can also be extremely loud.  The experience of these sonic extremes was one of my motivations to travel to Antarctica.  In an attempt to reproduce the immersive nature of the Antarctic soundscape, I recorded while wearing in-ear binaural microphones (microphones that are placed inside the ears while recording in order to create a stereo image).  These soundscape recordings were used as inspiration for sonifications of Antarctic weather and climate data collected by the researchers.  The results serve as the soundtrack of the ‘Ground Truth’ documentary.   Through these soundscape recordings, audiences can become immersed in these environments. Through the sonifications, the scientists and scientific instruments ‘speak’ directly to audiences through data sets. In this way, the video integrates a combination of sonification and soundscape to try to bring audiences closer to a visceral understanding weather and climate and the Antarctic continent.