Visualizing Climate Change: Artist Michael Wang in Conversation with Scientist Nick Lutsko

Mar 27, 2020 1:26 pm

Climate scientist Nick Lutsko and artist Michael Wang met at Lutsko’s Los Angeles apartment last November, where the two compared their efforts to understand, model, and explain the complexities of climate change. Lutsko researches climate systems on a global scale—specifically, cloud processes and interactions between atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns. Wang’s climate change art includes his series “Carbon Copies” (2012–), for which he offsets the carbon footprint of various well-known contemporary artworks and sculpts forms that illustrate their carbon impact. Below, the two discuss tropes of climate change art and the recent evolution in popular understanding of their areas of research.

NICHOLAS LUTSKO I think “Carbon Copies” is super cool. A lot of climate change art simply says “climate change is happening, this is bad.” Your work is more hopeful—you’re not shaming people for the environmental impact of their art, but showing that we can have nice things if we, for example, buy a carbon offset.

MICHAEL WANG When I started this project in 2012, the idea of carbon offset was not as widely understood. I want “Carbon Copies” to show that highly visible artworks have shadows: their carbon footprints. My approach is to point away from the works—Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present [2010], Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project [2003]—and toward their environmental effects. By offsetting their works, I’m not only visualizing otherwise invisible effects, but also trying to work with the atmosphere itself as a medium.

LUTSKO I’ve also noticed an increase in the general public’s understanding, especially in the past year, thanks to people like [activist] Greta Thunberg. Lately, it’s gotten a little bit out of control: people are imagining major climate disasters. A colleague of mine recently did an informal study that asked people to rank, on a scale of one to nine, how bad they think the effects of climate change will be. Number one was the equivalent of the 2008 recession, two was the Great Depression . . . nine was total extinction of the human race. The average among participants was around four or five. But among climate scientists, it was between one and two. I don’t think human society is in danger, but that’s the message that’s being broadcast right now. At first, no one cared about climate change; now everyone cares about it almost too much.

WANG In my work, I usually introduce people to a system they’re not familiar with, so there’s often a didactic element. I’m always trying to gauge what is widely understood and what is new information that needs to be introduced.

Climate change has become a prevalent topic in mass media, but many people still don’t understand the basic processes that underlie it. I’ve done some mini-experiments among people I know. I’ve asked them: where does the mass of a tree come from? So far, no one has given me an adequate answer: the carbon mass of a tree comes from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Through the reactions of photosynthesis, air becomes solid. Basic relationships between plants and the atmosphere seem to remain obscure, even to highly educated people.

For my project Cyan Sea [2018], I cultivated cyanobacteria in an ornamental pool, trying to showcase an early form of photosynthesis—the source of the first organic green. It’s very likely that the emergence of cyanobacteria was linked to one of the greatest mass extinctions on Earth. It probably created an oxygen catastrophe, since oxygen was poisonous to most microbial life at the time. The theory links a specific organism to an extinction event—which is pretty much the analogy today.

LUTSKO People are saying that the emergence of conscious life, like the emergence of oxygen, leads to extinction.

WANG Though some ask: is it really the human species per se that’s causing all of this, or is it capitalism? I want to leave that question open. Your modeling work, I notice, is often on the scale of the planet.

LUTSKO I work with currents and patterns that cover thousands of kilometers. That’s the scale that really matters in the atmosphere, where no horizontal boundaries exist. But, having said that, I think that the cutting edge of this field is in regional climates. Most theoretical developments are highly abstract, but specialists are now adapting these concepts to more regional applications, since that’s the scale on which things actually affect us.

WANG That opens up a lot of questions about resilience in the face of global change.

LUTSKO Exactly. Scientists are in a tricky spot right now. For a long time, the emphasis was on understanding the climate system and showing that climate change is happening. But now that’s indisputable, so where do we go from here? For me, it’s really about zooming in and helping people adapt to climate change. I don’t think we’re going to stop it.

At the moment, I’m really interested in temperature variability. It turns out that the most variable surface temperatures on Earth are in central North America—east of the Rockies, places like Nebraska or Kansas. Last year, there was a day when the temperature swung by up to eighty degrees in some parts of the region. I want to understand how that works.

People like to say that by 2100, everyone will have to move a hundred, or even several hundred kilometers north to experience the same climate. But my recent work emphasizes that, because of regional differences, average temperature isn’t the only factor: there’s also temperature variability.

WANG That’s important to keep in mind as people are trying to find refuge from climate change. Climate systems are very complex. In the models we’re building, you can always add more variables and new data sets. The more you do, the more accurate—ideally—the models become. I’m working in the lineage of systems aesthetics and institutional critique: I want to make climate systems visible. There’s a limit to the amount of data one person can take in, so I find that I’m always using some process of reduction, or that I end up isolating one particular process to make the model more understandable. When the data gets too big, there’s a point where only a computer can really handle it.

LUTSKO Scientists often critique these models as black boxes that people are basically fudging. On the one hand, yes, you want to make them as complex as you can. But if they’re too complex, then you can’t tell why they go wrong. There are always uncertainties, and the people who make the models are experienced with playing around to make what we would consider a “good model”: one that reproduces the observed climate. The process can feel very non-
objective and unscientific. Some guy in a lab somewhere decides: I think I’m going to set this parameter to two, because that seems to work. But in terms of making projections, it’s the best we have . . . for now.

WANG Researchers typically look at past climates to model current and future climates. I take a similar approach with my project Extinct in New York [2019–], which I showed on Governors Island. I tried to look at the history of the New York City area, highlighting its many lost wetlands. I also catalogued all the plant, lichen, and algae species that were once found there but have since vanished. Then, I brought the species to New York and showed them in an installation of greenhouses. I saw this as a proposal for what the city could be: a place that welcomes back organisms it displaced.

LUTSKO You have another extinction project.

WANG Yes, Extinct in the Wild [2017–]. It looks at organisms that are normally found in nature but now exist only in captivity
or in cultivation.

LUTSKO I really love this project, though I admit that when I first saw it, it felt a little eye-rolly. Like Olafur Eliasson’s ongoing “Glacier” series, where you’re forced to watch glaciers melt. Then I realized that you’re not just showing all the extinct species, but rather the species that are extinct except in captivity. That’s a much more nuanced perspective: you’re calling attention to what’s been lost; but it’s not a total loss, and you’re highlighting the human hand.

WANG With Extinct in the Wild, I wanted to show the double-edged effect of Homo sapiens on other species. On the one hand, nearly all the species extinctions in this project are related in some way to human actions. But their survival is also contingent on human preservation.

LUTSKO And we’re also curating what survives. Plenty of species go extinct that aren’t in captivity, like bugs. We chose to preserve certain species for a reason.

WANG Within the catalogue inventory—I imported various species and showed them inside life-support systems that I created—are many types of relationships between humans and other species. It can be complete exploitation, as with the aurochs, who were the victims of the first extinction to be historically recorded, which took place in Poland in the seventeenth century. Aurochs are the wild ancestor of domestic cattle. They were prized as game animals, but they went extinct partly from diseases introduced by domestic cattle. Ironically, this extinction is linked to us—probably the most populous large mammal on Earth—through human husbandry. For me, that story really highlights the strangeness of this category, and also suggests the many possible relationships that humans can have with other species.

I met with researchers in Hawaii who keep some of the last populations of terrestrial Hawaiian snails in captivity. These native snails were probably endangered by nonnative predatory snails. In this case, captivity is an act of preservation.

In your work on precipitation, you move between the micro and the macro in super complex ways.

LUTSKO The subject forces you to be really creative in your approach. For instance, we have to try to find indirect ways of measuring clouds—which are the biggest area of uncertainty in climate change, especially their effect on surface temperature. We’re not sure if we should expect more clouds, which would help offset some of the effects of CO2, or fewer clouds. They’re hard to measure. How do you define a cloud? There’s satellite data, but how do you capture overlapping clouds?

WANG In my practice, I often think that I’m more interested in using synecdoche than metaphor as a strategy. For Extinct in New York, I brought in actual components of the system I wanted to address, not some sort of stand-in that represents the system. In your research, are you looking at a fragment of something larger? Or are the computational models you’re creating more of a metaphor?

LUTSKO We work only in metaphors, essentially. Of course, people fly through clouds and make observations, which would be more of a synendoche. And obviously we incorporate observations. For my work on temperature variability, I worked with a sphere that represented the earth and had one bump on it, kind of like the Himalayas. Then, I observed how that bump affects temperature variability on either side of it. I used those observations to develop a theory, which I expanded to more complex models.

WANG I want my audience to experience climate change on a one-to-one scale. I can show only fragments of these global systems.

LUTSKO I think that’s an important strategy for making people care, since so much of this stuff is beyond our ability to understand.

WANG People sometimes ask if my work is art or science, which I think is a stupid question. You are a scientist. You’re creating new knowledge. I’m drawing on scientific work, but it’s not building upon that research: my aim is to create spaces that allow people to understand the world in ways that are familiar to scientists but relevant to everyone and should be common knowledge.

LUTSKO This might sound cheesy, but there are definitely a lot of aesthetic choices and intuition that go into making a model look elegant and understandable. That makes
this question of art versus science kind of meaningless.

—Moderated by Emily Watlington


This article appears under the title “Modeling Climate” in the March 2020 issue, pp. 16–18.