Essay and Photographs by FRIDERIKE HEUER
“Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.”
Stick with me, folks, even if the mere mention of “scientific data” makes some of you want to shut your ears and avert your eyes. It’s going to be a playful, wild dive into the patterns of wind and water, electricity and pollution, geological formations and human experience around the Columbia River Basin. All brought to you by yet another innovative artist, Amanda Triplett, and her team of Lewis & Clark College students involved in Maryhill Museum of Art’s Exquisite Gorge II project, tackling the translation of numbers into pictures or something one can see — data visualization — with remarkable creativity.
Italo Calvino’s words about translation applied to his own work being translated into many languages, exposing his writing to the world beyond Italy. One of his seminal books, Invisible Cities, focused on the reverse, bringing the world to someone who lacked access despite being the ruler of endless countries. The Venetian explorer Marco Polo told the emperor of Mongolia, Kublai Khan, about the truths found in his realm, translating foreign concepts into a form that could be easily grasped and universally understood.
We are looking at bridge-building, then, crossovers between different worlds. In some ways one can think of the domains of science and art in this way as well, as two different countries with different languages that need translation. Two realms in need of connection.
Science is a domain ruled by methodic, structurally constrained exploration of data intended to add to a knowledge base that might explain our world. That knowledge base is organized in the form of testable predictions derived from our hypotheses of how our universe functions.
Art is a domain that frequently wants to explain the world as well, rather than just depict it. But the approach is much less regulated. No immutable rules as seen in the scientific method, no constraints on what counts or doesn’t count as fact, no limits to emotional engagement or manipulation. In (admittedly overly) simplistic terms, science wants us to know and understand, art wants to make us think and feel.
Both tell a story, constrained by rigid rules for science, open to unlimited embellishment for art. The language they use to tell their story is shaped by those factors. So how, then, do you translate from one to the other? And, importantly why would you want to do that in the first place?
You might argue that science and art embrace complementary ways of viewing reality that are not a substitute for each other. Yet translating scientific data into something other than numbers, or even into art, when done successfully, has major advantages. For one, it might reach many more eyes and ears than any old scientific paper, given the sad fact that a lot of people have negative associations to scientific data or a fear of approaching them. They might not trust them, or they might not understand them, given the lack of science education all around. They might not have the patience to wade through them, or they might not have access in the first place, given that so much has to be gathered to depict a complete story. Importantly, something we can see rather than just reading about it might deliver much more of an emotional punch which in turn could translate into engagement with the issues, or action. If a picture is worth a thousand words, think what sculpture might do to a million numbers. …
This was the impetus for Amanda Triplett’s approach to interacting with her college students, colleagues, and assorted scholars when devising a plan to translate the scientific data collected around the Columbia River and Northwest regions into a visual language. (Her contributors can be found listed below.) She utilized the many resources available on a college campus, access to the folks from environmental sciences, data librarians, tech support and so on, and in the process made connections among the various fields, translating various “languages” into an artistic narrative.
The process as it unfolded can be seen documented on the walls and displays of Lewis & Clark’s Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery, through July 28. (The gallery is open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays except July 4th.) It is still an active workshop, with fiber details being created, and the final sculpture yet to be put together. Really worth a visit: parking on the empty campus is easy and free, and public transport is available.
“All translation is a compromise – the effort to be literal and the effort to be idiomatic.”
— Benjamin Jowett
The project’s first steps included determining which data to look for and grasping what data visualization implies. It is basically the practice of translating numbers into a visual context, so they are more easily understood and allow us to find patterns or trends or outliers, things that do not conform with what we understand to be the norm.
Here is a simple example: if you look for advice on when there are the fewest number of visitors at the Portland Art Museum so you can safely visit, or be least disturbed, all you have to do is go to Google Maps. They offer a picture, a bar graph that shows you in simple form what otherwise would involve reading through hundreds of statistics on daily visitor rates and density. And that still would not allow you to decide in the moment, which is the advantage of these interactive live maps provided by the institutions, coded in red bars. Voila, this Friday at 11 a.m. was the best time to visit.
There are tons of ways in which data can be presented visually. Bar graphs, scatterplots, heat maps, box plots, line graphs, pie charts, area charts, choropleth maps and histograms all serve particular purposes. The participating students in this project all learned about these tools with the very concrete goal in mind of how to represent the information about the Columbia River region in yet a different modus: using fiber to create art. Due to the pandemic, the initial months of the project took place on Zoom, with Google jam boards collecting and displaying information that might be relevant. The digital brainstorming centered on representing data, but also concerned ways of understanding how traditional use, or misuse, and abuse of data can influence how we see the world.
Once back in person, the group listened to experts, had discussion sections, took a field trip to the river and Bonneville Dam for data collection, and learned from presentations by the Columbia Riverkeepers about the current state of affairs of environmental facts, woes included. It became clear that all things are interconnected and cannot be judged in isolation. Dams, as just one example, provide hydropower and regulate shipping. A good thing from a consumer perspective, but they also destroy fish habitats and spawning abilities, affecting not just salmon populations but also the cultures of Native Americans on whose land dams were built and who depend on salmon for existential and ceremonial reasons. Water use, as another example, benefits agricultural businesses, but stands in competition with river health and fishing rights in times of increasing droughts.
But how to translate this into fiber art?
Here are three examples that were generated by the project participants:
1. Energy across Oregon and Washington is drawn from multiple sources in varying amounts. Hydropower, harnessed by the dams, generates about 48%, natural gas base load is next (18%) and in descending order coal, wind, natural gas peak load, nuclear, biomass and solar are filling our needs. Each energy source is color coded.
A distribution of these resources, as seen in the pie-chart data visualization, was knitted or crocheted with the exact amount of stitches and colors representing each percentage, surrounding a lightbulb representing electricity use.
2. Solid pollutants such as fishing lines, mesh bags and other odds and ends were collected from the river and fabricated into a sculptural configuration (photograph below) to visualize what sickens the water and fish. The pebbles beneath represent parts of the carbon cycle. Carbon sinks, such as forests and oceans of a certain temperature, absorb emitted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, yet are increasingly depleted. Carbon sources, on the other hand, such as the burning of fuel stored in fossils, and maintaining large livestock operations, are continually in use or even increasing, despite the havoc they wreak on our climate.
3. Other participants looked at the composition of the river, including the geological history of the Columbia River Basalt Group, which consists of seven formations: The Steens Basalt, Imnaha Basalt, Grande Ronde Basalt, Picture Gorge Basalt, Prineville Basalt, Wanapum Basalt, and Saddle Mountains Basalt. Many of these formations are subdivided into formal and informal members and flows. One proposal, in the process of being beautifully executed right now, was to make a topographic map.
And then, of course, there is the river itself with its eddies and currents, its waves and flow, carefully constructed with recycled fabrics, salvaged upholstery, some wool, the center piece of the display.
“Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”
— Anthony Burgess
I met Amanda Triplett two years ago when I first wrote about her work for Oregon Arts Watch:
“TRIPLETT HOLDS A B.A. in Art and Art History from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Starting out as a performance major, she soon switched to visual art, mostly focused on drawing and other works on paper. She credits the fact that she was raised in fabric-rich societies like Egypt and Taiwan, with parents later living in India, with her eventual settling on fiber sculptures. Her intention to work with discarded materials found the perfect source: Shortly after she moved to Portland from California in 2016 she was awarded one of the artist-in-residence spots at Glean, ‘a juried art program that taps into the creativity of artists to inspire people to think about their consumption habits, the waste they generate and the resources they throw away.’ They work in partnership with Recology Portland; Metro, the regional government that manages the Portland area’s garbage and recycling system; and crackedpots, a nonprofit environmental arts organization.”
She most recently exhibited at Shift Gallery in Seattle and is currently working on a project, Morphogenesis, on weekends as an artist in residence at Mary Olson Farm and White River Valley Museum in Auburn, Washington.
I was not surprised to see that her work now includes an important educational aspect: marrying aspects of art and science, putting the A into the STEM fields, echoing what is going on in the larger world with the arrival of STEAM. STEAM is an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking. The hoped-for end results are students who feel at home in scientific fields as well as the arts and use both approaches to enhance their problem-solving and functioning in an increasingly data-oriented world. (Ref.)
Reports on the fruitfulness of collaboration between scientists and artists are more and more coming into view, and much is written about how creativity is a common denominator in the thinking of both professions.
In fact, two years ago, The Smithsonian turned to art to get out a message that scientists had been clamoring about loudly — and in vain — for decades with their tools of data-driven messaging. The exhibition Unsettled Nature — Artists reflect on the Age of Humans delivered information with an emotional punch, much of it from sensitive photography of man-made ecological disasters, but also from Bethany Taylor’s woven tapestries of varied ecosystems. Art was used to communicate the gravity of our planet’s situation as established by scientific inquiry.
Science organizations have started to acknowledge the important role that art can play, with some even holding juried art contests like, for example, the Materials Research Society, (MRS) with its annual Science as Art competition. Pictures are in the link — some pretty incredible!)
What I admire about Triplett’s approach is her ability to keep the interconnectedness of the two domains, art and science, in focus, but also remain dedicated to the language of her own field. Even with translation from the science end into the visual arts realm, there is a focus on playfulness that is a hallmark of her artistic practice. It’s a trait she shares with her students, encouraging them to experiment with tactile materials of all sorts and, importantly, try out how it feels to break the rules. There is a non-quantifiable, and in some ways non-translatable, aspect to making art; one that centers on pleasure.
Not the pleasure of a satisfactory scientific result, or the pleasure of having had the right ideas now confirmed by the data, not the pleasure at one’s cleverness of creating a brilliant experimental design.
Instead it is the pleasure of the tactile exploration of fiber, seeing a fantasy or an imaginary construct come into existence, the freedom to bend the rules, to bring your very own creative impulses into the open. It is pleasure in the process, not linked to outcome. To this purpose, all participants are encouraged to create something with fiber; bits and pieces that can be selected from a basket. The growing display on the walls of the Hoffman Gallery is proof positive of how playfulness translates into beauty.
“The best thing on translation was said by Cervantes: translation is the other side of a tapestry.”
— Leonardo Sciascia
We’ll see the final sculpture, the translation tapestry, in August at Maryhill Museum of Art. Or the other side of it, as the case may be. In the meantime, here is my own data collection during the interview, trying to weave stories out of snippets. Then there’s my data visualization with fiber remnants, translating interconnectedness, flow and play. In the spirit of Lewis Caroll’s remarks:
“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
— Lewis Carroll
“…a collaborative fiber arts project featuring 13 artists working with communities along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River from the Willamette River confluence to the Snake River confluence. The project, again initiated by Maryhill Museum of Art and following the original one by printmakers in 2019, takes inspiration from the Surrealist art practice known as exquisite corpse. In the most well-known exquisite corpse drawing game, participants took turns creating sections of a body on a piece of paper folded to hide each successive contribution. When unfolded, the whole body is revealed. In the case of The Exquisite Gorge Project II, the Columbia River will become the ‘body’ that unifies the collaboration between artists and communities, revealing a flowing 66-foot work that tells 10 conceptual stories of the Columbia River and its people.”
Section One: Oregon Society of Artists–Artist: Lynn Deal
Section Two: Lewis and Clark College–Artist: Amanda Triplett
Section Three: Columbia Center for the Arts, The History Museum of Hood River County and Arts in Education of the Gorge–Artist: Chloë Hight
Section Four: White Salmon Arts Council and Fort Vancouver Regional Library–Artist: Xavier Griffith
Section Five: The Dalles Arts Center and The Dalles-Wasco County Library–Artists: Francisco and Laura Bautista
Section Six: The Fort Vancouver Regional Library at Goldendale Community Library–Artist: Carolyn Hazel Drake
Section Seven: The American-Romanian Cultural Society and Maryhill Museum of Art–Artist: Magda Nica
Section Eight: Desert Fiber Arts–Artist: Ophir El-Boher
Section Nine: The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation–Artist: Bonnie Meltzer
Section Ten: ArtWalla–Artist: Kristy Kún
Frontispiece: Tammy Jo Wilson (project artistic director) and Owen Premore
Section 2 Group featured today:
The Exquisite Gorge Project II: Fiber Arts: Section 2 features the work of the following Lewis & Clark student artists:
Brynne Anderson, Melissa Even, Margo Gaillard, Jones Kelly, Haley Ledford, Ella Martin.
More folks who have been apart of the process and supported the project:
Tammy Jo Wilson, Visual Arts & Technology Program Manager; Professor Matt Johnston, Art History; Professor Jessica Kleiss, Environmental Studies; Professor Lizzy Clyne, Environmental Studies; Justin Counts, Educational Technology Specialist; Mark Dahl, Director of Watzek Library; Ethan Davis, Digital and Data Science Specialist; Parvaneh Abbaspour, Science and Data Services Librarian; Rachel McKenna, Art Department 3D Technical Support; Kate Murphy, Community Organizer, Columbia Riverkeeper; The Columbia Fiber Arts Guild; Lewis & Clark Students: Katie Alker, Francisco Perozo, Gwenneth Jergens, Ava Westlin, Sarah Bourne.
Originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on June 20, 2022.