Using arts-based research for temperature, weather and climate.

by Dr Alan Kennedy Asser and Clifton Evers, from Temperature Life Stories

In conversation:

Dr Alan T Kennedy-Asser, Research Associate, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol.

Dr Clifton Evers, Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University.

Clifton: Let’s discuss your Temperature Life Stories project today and the use of arts-based research. For those of you who don’t know, or aren’t familiar with this term, arts-based research is the use of Creative Arts practices in research about any particular topic, for example social life, the sciences and across engineering and the business world. Creative arts practices used can be anything from knitting, to filmmaking, to soundscaping, to poetry.

Alan, can you tell us a little bit about your project? And if as a scientist, you’d come across arts-based research before?

Alan: I’m a climate scientist by background. I started my studies with geography and I specified into physical geography quite early on. But based in a geography department, we’ve also got cultural geographers, so quite a broad spectrum within the subject and I’d kind of been exposed to little crumbs here and there – that this is a way that people might do research – but I’d never really given a huge lot of thought to it myself.

For the project Temperature Life Stories, I was interested in how an individual would experience temperature extremes because my day-to-day climate science work is all thinking about temperature extremes. How we classify something as ‘extreme’ or ‘not extreme’ is of fundamental importance when we want to figure out if extremes are changing in the future with climate change. The threshold of what is extreme or not extreme is different for every single person, because some people maybe grew up in a warm place, some people grew up in a cold place, some people might have a medical condition, which means that they can’t tolerate high heat, or they might live in a house which is not well adapted to high heat.

I thought it’d be interesting to produce a life graph of temperature for individual research participants, so they would see how the temperature had varied in the places that they lived throughout their life. I wanted to do something creative, so I spoke to a few people in the university and they suggested working with Caleb Parkin who is a poet, so people could articulate their experiences of temperature through poetry. Then we could compare the graphs and the poetry and see if the two matched up. If people remembered the hottest bit of their life, does the data actually match up with their memories of what they think they experienced. It struck me that there are certain days that I remember feeling very hot and uncomfortable in my own life, but they were generally days when I was stuck in an office in Bristol. It was hot for Bristol, but technically it wasn’t as hot as when I’d been on holiday. When I was on holiday I was kind of prepared for heat, maybe on a beach, I was dressed for the occasion and mentally prepared. Whereas when I was just trying to get my work done at a hot office in Bristol, it was it was really uncomfortable and grim. This is the sort of thing I wanted to explore. We had lots of really interesting ideas that came out through the project.

Clifton: So temperature became about stories. Often when we think about temperature is often associated with data, and we read data in our own ways. Data tells its own stories, but people also speak a more everyday data, for example, through particular stories. They might say “it’s 30 degrees Celsius” but then they’ll go into description of being “sticky”, or say “we didn’t walk here because it was too hot, so we stayed in this place.” Other people pick up on the signals and read them, so stories are a form of data sharing and making through the everyday. Arguably, arts-based research can enable you to explore this data.

One of the things when you’re doing arts-based research is the question: how much control do you place in the process? Sometimes it can be a case of giving participants complete freedom: “here, go create something.” Sometimes that works then at other times people ask for more guidance and structure. So what did you do? How much structure did you offer compared to how much freedom?

Alan: What I had envisaged at the start was that everyone would tell a story with one particular narrative about one particular event and it would compare to some point in their life graph. A clear structure. In some cases, that did happen, but in other cases people brought micro stories to the event – little tiny insights. I think it was because of the first poetry exercise we did called “I Remember”. Caleb got everybody to begin with that phrase – just let everything kind of spill out from your memory. Some of the things that came up were so graphic that you could put yourself back there, scenes you could see, smell or sensations. They were full of all these details, golden nuggets. You could have had one long narrative and it would be one tiny detail that just makes the story complete. I thought that was amazing and I really would claim that was data, a very different kind of data to what I was used to but I think that was a great way to start the workshops off.

In terms of the control, I’d already come in with this idea that people would have a complete single story but really, it was it was an awful lot more scattered. We gave people the skills in poetry, because that’s what Caleb was coaching people in, but we also said to them we want to do an exhibition at the end of three workshops and to bring whatever you want, in whatever format you want, whatever works for you. We did three workshops, two as a kind of actual training and the final one was the exhibition. At the end of the second training workshop, we did ‘graph-jamming’ where people were encouraged to think about how could they reinterpret their graph. What creative method could they use? Could it be turned into a flower bed or a stained glass window, or you know, whatever. People started suggesting these mad ideas and I was like, “that’s crazy,” “no, you couldn’t do that,” “that’s just too mad!” Like soap opera, or docu-drama, an acrobatic aerial silk show. They went away for two weeks and came back and some of them had actually done these ideas that they’d suggested!

So I think one of the things you need to have is a good level of trust within the group to do that. I also think the group size was quite good. I believe that Caleb created an environment that people felt safe to try these things. It’s really essential to have that kind of safe space feeling to be as productive and creative as can be.

Then there was the timing of the workshops: we did three workshops. We did one then we left a week and the second and then we left a two week gap with an optional one-to-one drop in. There was enough time to give people a chance to create something like a piece of artwork: two weeks to go away and compose that but not so long that they kind of lost interest and lost momentum. If we had just done one full day workshop, people would have come up with all these great ideas but not necessarily have had space to build upon them.

Clifton: I quite like this idea – it is a fine balance. You have a goal but it’s a flexible goal. You have quite clear research questions you want to address that you will revisit depending on what the participants bring. People have creative skills and they want to use them. I think an important thing coming out of the project is about a space of safety, confidence, support. If participants felt like they needed some skills, you could offer them skills training but it’s more like a more nurturing environment rather than an extractive environment.

Often when we do data collection, it can sometimes feel to me that when people use some more traditional approaches, be it in the social sciences or physical science it can feel like you’re extracting something from the community. But what you’ve given them is a change to grow and create data alongside you and to make use of it collaboratively. Often when people participate in research projects they’re left behind. It is good practice to go back to them but, as you know with a scientific paper some people might be interested but other people less so. This arts-based research is an opportunity for them to clearly be part of the contribution to knowledge. That’s a really powerful outcome of using arts-based research. It does raise an interesting issue about authorship and ownership of research. Participants present important data, these golden nuggets. Does academic publishing need to better accommodate different modes of authorship, different modes of ownership of data?

Alan: I haven’t given that a huge amount of thought to this point and it is probably the next step. For this whole project, I didn’t know what to expect going into it because I’ve never done this kind of research and used these methods. So much of it was new for me as a physical climate scientist. It was first time I’ve ever had to do an ethics form – if you’re just studying climate model data it’s not seen as having feelings and emotions that you could hurt, so you may abuse the data. That said, the point of doing the climate science with model data is to contribute to making informed societal decisions about what we’re going to do in a changing climate and there is an ethical side to that. I feel that the fact I’ve never experienced an ethics form, or had to think about that at all, as a physical scientist, is quite surprising.

In terms of what happens next with the research, because I’m new to this, I didn’t really envisage before I started that I would actually count this as ‘data’ and research. For me, with a straightforward background in sciences, you prove that you’ve done research by having a publication, or that your name has been cited in some sort of policy report. Doing this project has made me like reassess what actually useful research is. Is it useful if it can be used by society at large through some sort of policy? Or is research about me as the researcher having a shift in my own thoughts and my own views which will then trickle into my worldview which will then inform future publications and reports and feed into the wider academic community.

I think that’s kind of where I’m at now: I realised that actually that’s what some research is about. The common format as a scientist is to write a paper, but actually there’s lots of ways I can change my viewpoint, and then I’ll go out and have conversations with my colleagues in geography or elsewhere based upon those little golden nuggets. In the future, how this may make it into a publication, and how people need crediting for that, I’m not really sure at the moment. I just feel like I was in that group of participants, I was a participant as much as the others were, and we all learnt together. I’m just more likely to be in a situation in the future, potentially, than some of the other participants where I’ll actually have to talk about it and process what the bigger picture was from all of those little nuggets and stories that people brought to the workshops.

Clifton: I love that idea that the methodology is a learning experience that everyone is involved with. You’re showing people’s work, you’re building a website to show the contributions to knowledge and you’re valuing everyone’s contributions to knowledge. That is an acknowledgement. There are some great examples out there when it comes to acknowledgment. For example, the CLEAR lab in Canada, headed up by Maxim Liboiron, who put everyone down as co-authors. They bring a very, very different ethics to science research. I think Temperature Life Stories worked out a lovely model. That’s credit to the way both you and Caleb have run this project. In terms of advice going forward, I know you haven’t done a lot of this work, but what advice do you have?

Alan: Although a project can be too small meaning you cannot pay an artist like Caleb to facilitate it, I wouldn’t have wanted it to be too big either – it’s quite nice to start small-ish. For someone like myself who’s new to this kind of research, it’s quite nice to have that small to medium sized funding pot for something like this.

I don’t know how much of the success of the project really came down to the luck of getting the participants who came along; if we’d got a different group of people who just didn’t really click with each other or were disinterested, the whole thing might have been a bit like “it was interesting but I wouldn’t do again,” whereas I loved it. I thought it was really, really good. I think, for me, that was kind of the perfect size of project and the perfect length as well. I couldn’t have justified costing in my own time without knowing that it was going to be a useful experience, and I didn’t know it would be useful before I’d started. I think was more than just a pilot project though. I think it really generated stuff. It wasn’t just a proof of concept.

Besides the money and the practicalities of running it, it does require a very open mind. I’m not saying that every scientist has to do it. Just like not every artist should have to interact with the sciences. But it’s also really important that there’s some people who bridge the gap between different, approaches. I think it’s exciting because as a researcher I’m curious. I’m sure most other researchers would describe themselves as curious. So why not try something different? I think it helps if you already have a bit of love of the arts. If you’re one true passion in life is computer coding, that’s great: code and code and code and make the code better and more efficient – and that’s fantastic. But if you just sort of think “I wonder what those cultural geographers are really doing, what do they talk about?” then just go out and try it. It’s good fun!

Clifton: Sometimes these projects work and sometimes they don’t. I think we have to be comfortable with failure. Sometimes people don’t gel, it can happen in focus groups but you’re learning something anyway. And I think that experience, that willingness to be open minded and experiment and to explore has a place in a research setting. Given the challenges we’re facing in the contemporary era we have to have these urgent conversations and collaborate: we’re not going to accomplish any changes alone.

Find out more about Temperature Life Stories .