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Artist hacks scientific equipment to explore Arctic ice melt


Environmental artist Kat Austen is to premiere a symphony that uses water from the Arctic to highlight the effects of climate change.

Having hacked the electronics of lab equipment to transform them into musical instruments, Dr Austen – a Cultural Fellow in Arts and Science at the University of Leeds – explores the changes to ocean chemistry caused by the melting of Arctic ice.

Dr Austen will “play” samples of Arctic water in a live performance of a three-part work based on field recordings from a trip to the Canadian High Arctic, accompanied by pianist Matthew Bourne and cornet player Alex Bonney, for the premiere of The Matter of the Soul | Symphony on Tuesday 23 October at Opera North’s Howard Assembly Room in Leeds.

Telling the story of changes to the waters around Baffin Island, Canada, the symphony incorporates snippets from interviews with people living in the region as well as visitors to it. Dr Austen also highlights the role played by socio-politics and culture in the Arctic’s physical changes.

She said: “Just days after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report urging us to make drastic changes to how we live in order to avoid catastrophic global warming, I’m asking again the questions that inspired this work: in the face of insufficient action on climate change to date, can art prompt an emotional relationship to the environment, and can that motivate us to act differently?

“The Matter of the Soul combines music with sculpture to engender empathy with the process of dispersal and transformation in the Arctic. I wove together narratives of human migration, cultural changes and the movement of water from ice to ocean in this fragile and iconic region as a way to emotionally engage with the complexity of climate change.” added Dr Austen.

The laboratory meters she adapted measure water’s acidity and saltiness. Dr Austen visited the Nunavut region in the Canadian High Arctic to record the sounds the instruments made while taking measurements from different part of its shoreline.

Throughout her fellowship at the University of Leeds’ Cultural Institute, she has worked with researchers and students associated with the Priestley International Centre for Climate and across the institution. The Cultural Institute’s Cultural Fellowships in Arts and Science support and develop emerging creative talent, embedding artists within the University in order to work with scientists to explore areas of science research and emerging technologies.

An example of audio can be heard here.

About the Artist:

Kat Austen’s work redefines and enriches our relationship to the environment, with a particular focus on climate change. Previous works has explored our relationship to the environment through sculptural and interactive installations. The Coral Empathy Device (2016) uses sound and sculpture to engender empathy with coral under anthropogenic influence, Vital | Flows (2016-2017) explores our relationship to food and environment, and Not Waving (2015) explores climate clicktivism.

Kat Austen is a Berlin-based artist and Cultural Fellow in Art and Science at the University of Leeds. She is 2017-18 Artist in the Arctic for Friends of SPRI / Scott Polar Research Institute, sponsored by Bonhams and OneOcean. She lectures on art and citizen science at University College London’s Art and Science BASc, and Engineering Thinking at UCL. She advises internationally on art and science, art and technology, technology in society, futures and scenarios, multiple knowledges, inter-disciplinarity, community and participatory research and design, resilience and infrastructure design. Kat holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from University College London and the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Kat has been commissioned to create art by for Williams Arts in Cambridge, LASTheatre, European projects and private individuals to make interactive and sculptural works for exhibition and private collections. She was part of the first intake of the London Creative Network (run by SPACE) and has taken part in multiple residencies such as NYU Shanghai Gallery / PCI (2016), ArtOxygen (2016 as part of Stereotropic Anecdota), the Faculty of Maths and Physical Sciences at UCL (2013-present). She has exhibited at SPACE, London; Kulturbrauerei Berlin; Lady Beck, Leeds; Palazzo Ducale, Genoa; NYU Shanghai; Schwartz Gallery, London; Kreuzberg Pavillion, Berlin; German Patent Office, Berlin; Kuehlhaus, Berlin; Pixelache, Helsinki; Carter Road Promenade and What About Art, Mumbai.

About The Matter of the Soul:

Research for The Matter of the Soul was supported as part of the Artist in the Arctic programme by Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute, One Ocean Expeditions and Bonhams. The scientific instruments were donated by the Chemistry Department of University College London. The production of Symphony is supported by Ice Alive.

About the Cultural Institute Academy of Cultural Fellows:

Cultural Fellows are practising artists embedded within the University of Leeds, given precious time to experiment, to interact with researchers, cultural partners and students – and to create bold new work. The Academy of Cultural Fellows embodies our ambition to support and develop emerging creative talent in a variety of different art forms, placing artists at the heart of the University. Find out more here.