A new science communication animation produced for BioFresh at the Oxford University School of Geography and the Environment. Contact Paul Jepson (project leader) paul.jepson@ouce.ox.ac.uk 01865 275896.


Produced for BioFresh by School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford

Water lives...

The beautiful, complex webs of freshwater life often go unseen, and their importance un-noticed

However, this remarkable diversity of freshwater life is vital in supporting our everyday lives

Are we capable of creating policies to manage water not only as a resource for humanity, but also as a medium for life?

BioFresh is a European Union project which is putting together the scattered pieces of information about life in our rivers and lakes, to better understand, manage and protect our freshwaters for generations to come.

» freshwaterbiodiversity.eu | biofreshblog.com | biofresh@ouce.ox.ac.uk

Water lives... Rationale

  1. Freshwaters are underrepresented in public and policy awareness - this animation uses creative means to bring this issue to life.
  2. The animation aims to improve the awareness and visibility of BioFresh research - we are helping put together the pieces of freshwater ecosystems.
  3. We are asking policy makers to consider the policy implications of managing water as a more ecosystem-based, hybrid resource.
  4. We are experimenting with art-science collaborations to open spaces of contemplation about our planet, its resources and life, and how we as humans manage and relate to it.

Water Lives … Context

Rob St.John, producer

"Water Lives …" is a new science communication animation designed to draw attention to the important (yet largely invisible) biodiversity which underpins and sustains our freshwater ecosystems. Produced at the School of Geography and the Environment for BioFresh - a European Union project on freshwater biodiversity - the animation brings artists and scientists together to collaborate and communicate the concept that freshwater is more than an inert resource: instead a living, dynamic system inhabited by beautiful, important organisms largely unseen by the naked eye. "Water Lives …" invites viewers to engage with their freshwater environments, perhaps value them in new ways and engage with how they should be managed.

The curious and otherworldly physical form of freshwater organisms such as diatoms provides abundant artistic inspiration. "Water Lives …" is a conceptual and cutting edge work, emphasising unusual natural forms in a six minute piece animated by Scottish artist Adam Proctor. It is sound-tracked by a specially composed piece of music by Tommy Perman from Scottish, BAFTA award winning arts collective FOUND which samples a series of haiku about freshwater ecosystems written by acclaimed environmental poet John Barlow. The content of both the animation and haiku was influenced by close consultation with BioFresh freshwater scientists Rick Battarbee from University College London and Ana Filipa Filipe from the University of Barcelona, alongside Alistair Seddon from the University of Oxford Zoology department.

This novel, cross-disciplinary team have produced a nuanced, multi-layered piece that not only contains sound, robust scientific information but that is beautiful, engaging and playful. It is a work that can be viewed entirely on its artistic merits, from which the viewer could take away a range of different information - from something as simple as "Freshwaters are more interesting than I thought" to something as intricate as "How can policy makers manage this complex entanglement of life?" - and a whole spectrum in between.

"Water Lives …" invites viewers to value the importance and beauty of freshwater ecosystems and engage with how they should be managed. It also suggests the productive possibilities opened up by collaborations between scientists and creative artists for the communication of environmental science and policy. As this work shows, such art-science collaborations have the potential open up new, creative spaces for how we contemplate, value and plan to manage our environment.

Water Lives … Reflections and intentions

Paul Jepson, Project Leader - paul.jepson@ouce.ox.ac.uk

Water Lives is a response to two stands of thinking that coalesced in in my mind around the issue of freshwater biodiversity. The first concerns the role of contemplation in the production of strategic policy decisions in situations of uncertainty and incomplete knowledge. The second concerns the need to rethink governance - and water governance in particular - if we are to assure we keep within the system boundaries of our planet.

A few years ago I interviewed successful Indonesian businessmen about their passion for songbird-keeping. They told me how at the end of their work day they sat with their birds and reflected about the day just past and plan ahead. A little later I visited Ferdinand de Rothschild's exquisite aviary at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, England which incorporates a small waterfall, plants and a chair. I was struck by the fact that 21st century Asian businessmen and an influential 19th century banker seemed to share the same practices of strategic contemplation. Bringing work thoughts into a space of aesthetic and intellectual hobby interest and allow one's mind to rest and generate unforced and unexpected connections and ideas.

Observing myself and my colleagues I wonder whether such spaces of contemplation have been squeezed out of the everyday. Emails, smartphones, and constant networking seem to put us in a permanent response mode. One idea behind "Water Lives" is that maybe smartphones, iPads, netbooks and the like are changing professional media habitats: they are geared to browsing rather than typing emails, and as such fit easily with bits of work-related down time - while traveling, over lunch, the hour in the evening after the kids are in bed .... In short, these are devices with the potential to facilitate contemplative engagement.

Water Lives is designed to enter this space, and by bringing together a diverse and eclectic mix of talent we hope to have created a product that is beautiful and engaging and full of hooks such that the messages and ideas will be co-produced by the viewer and the video.

As water climbs up the policy agenda it is being aligned with "big ticket" agendas - most notably water security. This makes tactical sense but this agenda frames water primarily as a liquid resource for humanity and downplays its role as a medium for life. Freshwater scientists are mobilising to build a stronger evidence-base for why this life matters to humans, but the scientific and policy process are out of sync. Water Lives offers a space for a few minutes of contemplation on how we should govern our planet's water for the times ahead.

Dr Alistair Seddon, Long-term Ecology Laboratory in Department of Zoology, Oxford - website

One of the reasons that I like the output of this video so much is the positive message. We can all grow weary of the dire message with regards to the human impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss - this video gets back to the basics as to why biodiversity is important. Species are inherently fascinating, even the ones living on your doorstep, but microscopic (and freshwater) lifeforms commonly get left out of documentaries and the public's perception, despite the interesting stories they can tell.

This video shows that you don't need to travel to the tropical rainforest to get an appreciation of the different forms of life on the planet; it's all there in front of you. Hopefully the next time someone walks the dog and sees a bit of brown slime, they'll realise that there's some really interesting looking stuff below the surface - it can even be seen with a cheap toy microscope! All this is important, by doing this you can start to tell the story of the ecosystem functions that these species provide - the other side of the coin as to why biodiversity is valuable to all.

I also think it's useful to think about creative ways to get science out to others and the general public. We've been talking with some colleagues on the different ways to explain and describe the key findings of our papers- internet videos are an obvious way to go, so it was great to be involved in this from the outset. Now we're planning a large scale project where different members of the university, alongside local NGOs and the public, create videos about their research or local ecological processes, which will be integrated into a trail around Oxford. I'm really excited about this and can't wait to see the results.

Artist statements:

Adam Proctor: animator

Adam Proctor is a freelance animator and video artist living in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He has worked for a variety of clients and has been awarded several moving image commissions for major arts projects. His productions have been exhibited by the National Galleries Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy.

Adam is currently at work on an animated sequence for a major television production which will be broadcast later this year by the BBC and HBO.

» www.fortsunlight.co.uk

As a child, despite living in central Manchester I was curious about the natural world. My Grandpa gave me a copy of Gerald Durrell's "Amateur Naturalist" which probably did more than anything to fuel my interest. We had an old microscope at home under which I would place water collected from moss and puddles in the garden. Squinting through the eyepiece I would spend hours observing rotifers, amoebas and water bears, fascinated by this normally unseen bustling world.

In bringing diatoms and the importance they play in their ecological niche to the public, I have attempted to echo the sensitivity of traditional natural history illustration and drawing techniques. Rather than a cold computer generated rendering of hundreds of diatoms, I have tried to create a more intimate moving-image portrait, contrasting the macro and microscopic worlds. Restricting my tools, process and colour palette I set out to produce a series of simple visual statements. This sequential flow of images is intended to echo natural rhythms and cycles with each of these individual 'vignettes' standing in their own right as a visual haiku or stanza.

John Barlow: haiku poet

John Barlow is an award-winning poet, editor and publisher. His poetry is largely informed by considerations of the haiku tradition, both classical and modern, and often fuses the worlds of outer and inner landscape. It has received awards in Britain, America, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, while works he has edited have been honoured by the Haiku Society of America and the Poetry Society of America. His books include The New Haiku, Snow About To Fall, Waiting for the Seventh Wave and Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku, one of The Guardian's 'Best Nature Books' of 2008.

» www.wingbeats.co.uk | www.snapshotpress.co.uk

A lifelong interest in natural history and a belief that the human spirit is inextricably connected to the physicality of the natural world has led much of my work to be concerned with the interconnectedness between nature and humans. Although natural historical accuracy underpins my haiku, hopefully these underlying truths serve to deflect attention from the scientific "facts" and allow a reader far more intuitive connections with the natural phenomena depicted - connections that, as an experiential haiku poet, invariably form the genesis of my haiku.

This project represented something of a considerable departure for me in that it often involved responses to organisms and environments that were not directly perceptual. This presented its own challenges, not least as the timescales decreed that some haiku had to be written before scenes were animated. A great deal of research was necessary to attempt to appreciate the lives and habitats of diatoms and other freshwater organisms, even if this didn't necessarily end up directly informing the actual haiku. In some instances, thankfully, I was able to draw on direct or composite experience: the dipper, for example, and the dragonfly hawking in the fading light. But it was also productive and fascinating to collaborate on the background to the animation and haiku with such a talented team, and to contribute to the animation, haiku and soundtrack being fine-tuned accordingly.

From the outset I felt that it was important to represent as broad a spectrum of subject matter as possible: some familiar, some perhaps less so, this familiarity varying according to the perspective of the audience. Besides the diatoms, the haiku evidence something of the diversity of freshwater ecosystems, including human activities and artefacts, avifauna, flora, insects, crustaceans, gastropods and fish. While the haiku weave their own narrative, this is intended to complement the animation rather than mirror it precisely. For example, a dipper is introduced to the opening upland scene, the soft, slow song of this riparian species being heard even in the depths of winter. Likewise, the haiku accompanying the reflected leafless trees in the second scene identifies these as alders, with the introduction of catkins suggesting both subtle coloration and precise seasonality (an alder's catkins appearing before its leaves in March or early April). Other elements not present in the animation were similarly introduced to various effect. The image of "the fisherman's cast" was intended to draw attention to the shared environment, while the introduction of a "hazy day moon" juxtaposed the otherworldly moon and the stellate colonies of Asterionella formosa, beginning its bloom phase of exponential growth. It also underlined the seasonality, "hazy moon" traditionally being a season word for spring in haiku.

Seasonality is a fundamental traditional element of haiku, and various natural and cultural phenomena are associated with one of the four seasons, or with particular parts of those seasons - the haiku seasons traditionally being considered with the equinoxes and solstices at their midpoints. I was keen that phenomena featured in the haiku, and also in the animation, were ideally not only accurate from the perspective of natural history but also inherently seasonal in accordance with haiku tradition, whether they be biological, meteorological or anthropological. Further examples include "north wind" in the opening haiku, which is a season word for winter in haiku; "dragonfly" in the penultimate scene, which is evocative of autumn; and "early dusk", another winter season word, from the closing scene - as well as phenomena depicted only in the animation.

I also felt it was important that the haiku evidence variation in form and expression, utilise a range of poetic techniques appropriate to the genre, and offer scope for multi-layered interpretation. The final haiku, "adding their stories/to centuries of stories/the silicate tests" was intended to bring a positive, geological aspect to the close, suggesting deep time, and the fact that diatom records go back through the millennia. The "stories" referred to in the haiku stem from the fact that although the organic material within the cell wall decomposes, the silicate of the frustules/tests is inorganic, so layers of sediment can potentially be cored to reveal historical environmental detail: again, underlying scientific truths that might hopefully facilitate an intuitive connection with the natural world and an appreciation that we are all tiny parts of one whole.

Tommy Perman: soundtrack composer

Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, Tommy Perman is an artist, designer and musician who works in a variety of media including drawing, printmaking, sound and music. He has a particular interest in combining new digital technologies with traditional techniques. Tommy is also a member of the artist collective / band FOUND.

FOUND are perhaps best known for their 'autonomous emotional robot band' Cybraphon which won the 2009 BAFTA Scotland award for Best Interactive. Since its unveiling at the Edinburgh Art Festival, Cybraphon has been featured in national newspapers across the world (e.g. China, Brazil, Holland, Italy, Spain, UK), made the top story on the homepage of WIRED.com and has been covered by CNN and TV networks internationally including the BBC's primetime arts show The Culture Show.

» surfacepressure.net | foundtheband.com | foundcollective.com

I was very excited when Rob St.John asked me to produce the soundtrack for the Diatom animation. I am a big fan of collaboration as it often enables me to produce new work free from the old patterns I've fallen into. The diversity of collaborators from different backgrounds on this project made it particularly interesting to work on.

After the initial group discussions with the science advisors and collaborators Adam and John I decided that the music should try to mirror the cyclical nature of the life of a diatom. I based the chord sequence on a cycle of fifths - a musical form that incorporates all of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, 'cycling' through each before returning to the beginning again. I felt that this form also has a flow that can symbolise running water. In response to the brief I choose a sound palette that combined acoustic instruments, digital samples and field recordings of aquatic environments recorded with a hydrophone (these were provided by Patrick Farmer and from FreeSound.org's online resource).

I worked closely with the tone of the animation and decided to build my chords from many layers (double basses, cellos, violins and an accordion) to correspond with the rich tones in Adam's colour palette. Over the top of these deep chords I added samples of a Celeste (a keyboard instrument which has a light bell like sound) to represent, at different points, ripples in the water and later the blossoming diatom. I used an automated arpeggio effect on the Celeste to give the impression of the increasing frequency of the diatom bloom.

The overall structure of the soundtrack follows the change of pace and mood created by the animation and haiku. I wanted the music to ebb and flow just like the changing seasons and I utilised rhythmic patterns in the drums and bass line to help accentuate this. I'm really proud of the end result and the way in which the animation, haiku and soundtracks compliment each other.