Amplifying Data Through Art

Five artists who make meaning out of science by translating hard data from the world’s oceans.

Published August 22, 2016

For the armchair scientist, looking at histograms, scatter plots, and probability distributions is like trying to read Beowulf in Old English. You know it’s important and you desperately want to understand, but it isn’t easy. With challenges such as overfishing, ocean acidification, and sea level rise rapidly changing our marine environments, it’s more important than ever to help people understand—and care about—what’s going on. To this end, artists are working with scientific data and translating complex concepts and new findings into visually stimulating, thought-provoking works—similar to what director Robert Zemeckis did with his cinematic spin on Beowulf.

The idea that art can be the catalyst to spur curiosity in science and promote greater awareness is gaining traction—some research and exploration vessels are taking on “artists-at-sea,” while academic and arts initiatives are pairing the right-brained with the left-brained for cross-pollination. When Philadelphia-based artist Rebecca Rutstein was aboard the exploration vessel Nautilus last year, expedition leader Robert Ballard made an apt analogy she won’t soon forget: exploring the deep ocean is like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon in the dark. The artist can turn the light on. “I see art making the invisible visible and communicating scientific ideas in a visceral way that can reach a broader audience,” says Rutstein, adding that her data-driven work seeks to evoke wonder and excitement about ocean exploration.

Here are five artists who are turning on lights, helping us look at scientific data differently.

Janet Echelman—Tsunami Sculptures Articulate Interconnectedness

This summer, visitors to Montreal’s Quartier des spectacles are being reminded of the 2010 Chile earthquake and tsunami, and how the devastating events reverberated around the world. While revelers enjoy cultural activities in a bustling outdoor plaza, a net sculpture inspired by the tsunami waves billows above them, covering an area about the size of a basketball court. The name of the ethereal aerial piece, 1.26, comes from the number of microseconds the earthquake shortened the day as a result of Earth’s shifting mass. “The artwork reminds us of our complex interdependencies with larger cycles of time and matter,” says artist Janet Echelman. “Its physical presence is a manifestation of interconnectedness—when any one element in the sculpture moves, every other element is affected.”

To create 1.26 and a second tsunami-inspired series entitled 1.8 (the number of microseconds by which the day was shortened after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake), Echelman’s studio used data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to generate 3D models of the tsunamis’ amplitude rippling across the ocean. These renderings became the basis for the layered textile forms, which are modified to fit the location. 1.26 has been exhibited in seven countries, while 1.8 London has transformed the skyscape above Oxford Circus and 1.8 Renwick has literally floored visitors to the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, who reclined on the carpet (also designed by Echelman and inspired by topographic data on the seafloor) to get the best vantage point.

“I see myself as an interpreter of scientific data rather than a presenter of data,” Echelman explains. “For example, when I want factual news I go to the New York Times, but when I’m seeking interpretation of the news, I might go to Stephen Colbert or John Oliver.”


1.8 London sails above Oxford Circus, strung between the buildings that frame London’s busiest pedestrian area. At night, the layers of knotted and braided fiber change color and pattern, the projected lights controlled by visitors who make selections through an app on their smartphones. Photo by Ema Peter, courtesy of Studio Echelman


Echelman’s arresting aerial sculptures have transformed skyscapes in capital cities such as London, Prague, and Amsterdam, inspiring millions to reflect on interconnectedness and the impact of natural phenomena on us all. Photo by Ema Peter, courtesy of Studio Echelman


Lying on the floor of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, visitors get a new perspective on the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami thanks to Echelman’s 1.8 Renwick. The piece was part of the WONDERS exhibit, which focused on immersive artwork, and has recently been acquired for the gallery's permanent collection. Photo by Bruce Petschek, courtesy of Studio Echelman


1.26 floats above the Amstel River in Amsterdam as part of the city’s light festival in winter 2012-13. The piece uses data from the 2010 tsunami in Chile, which devastated several coastal towns. Photo by Klaas Fopma, courtesy of Studio Echelman

Rebecca Rutstein—Shining Light on the Hidden Seafloor as an Artist-at-Sea

As the exploration vessel Nautilus traveled from the Galápagos Islands to California last summer, artist-at-sea Rebecca Rutstein watched in awe as images of the ocean floor appeared in real time on a screen. The terrain had never before been mapped in high resolution, and Rutstein was bearing witness to the science team’s gleeful discovery of seamounts and submarine volcanoes. “It was like watching this hidden landscape unravel in front of us,” she recalls. “Looking at the ocean floor with satellite data is like looking at a set table with the tablecloth on top. Using high-resolution multibeam sonar is like pulling off the tablecloth.”

After the data was collected, Rutstein retreated to her makeshift studio in the vessel’s wet lab, where she used 3D visualization software to “fly” through maps of submarine landscapes and select interesting viewpoints to incorporate into her acrylic paintings. After pouring paint to create gemstone-like backgrounds, she projected the topographic maps onto her canvases and traced the lines in acrylics. The resulting pieces invite viewers to imagine the landscapes that lie beneath the sea.

“Artists and scientists share a desire to make sense of the world around them, but they do so from different perspectives,” says Rutstein, who recently returned from a second artist-at-sea residency, this time aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor. “The artist aims to communicate ideas visually, seeking out creativity and innovation, and ultimately thinking about the viewer.” It’s an approach, Rutstein says, that can help scientists make their ideas and findings more accessible to the public.


Following her residency aboard the Nautilus, Rutstein created this large piece—about the size of a dining room table—in her Philadelphia studio. Galá​pagos I is based on the sonar map of the Galápagos rift zone created aboard the Nautilus last year. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rutstein and Bridgette Mayer Gallery


After pouring paint to create abstract backgrounds, Rutstein superimposes topographic maps of the ocean floor onto her paintings. To be as true to the data as possible, the artist first projects the maps onto a canvas before carefully tracing the lines. Photo courtesy of SOI/Chris Linder


Lázaro Cárdenas Canyon depicts a canyon off the coast of Mexico named after the former Mexican president. The canyon was mapped in high resolution for the first time on the Nautilus in 2015, and the painting was created at sea right after the data was collected. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rutstein and Bridgette Mayer Gallery


Rutstein was busy aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor. In her two-week residency this summer, she created eight paintings in the vessel’s wet lab. In addition to using mapping data, she also worked with satellite images of the Mekong River plume dispersing into the South China Sea. Photo courtesy of SOI/Rebecca Rutstein and Bridgette Mayer Gallery

Artist at Sea: Rebecca Rutstein

Working in the cramped wet lab of research vessel Nautilus presented Rutstein with some unique challenges, including adapting to the motion and vibration of the ship, which made it difficult to keep a steady hand when tracing intricate seafloor maps. Directed by Katie Bryden

Jill Pelto—Graphs Are Given More Meaning with Watercolors

After seeing firsthand the devastating effects of climate change on glaciers in Washington State last summer, artist and scientist Jill Pelto felt a profound sense of sadness. She has been visiting the area since she was a child, and for several years has been a field assistant with the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project (which her father, glaciologist Mauri Pelto, directs). She knew the science community would pay attention to the news that the glaciers suffered their biggest loss of volume in a half-century, but she wanted to get more people to care. “The data was just so dramatic and so astounding, I wanted people to see it visually,” says Pelto. So she grabbed her watercolors and transformed a graph showing a steep decline in what’s known as the glacier’s “mass balance”—total snow accumulation minus total snow loss—into a painting of a beleaguered mountain.

Since then, she has made several other graphs more meaningful by illustrating the stories behind the stats. Arctic Melt, for example, shows a pair of Arctic foxes standing on the jagged tundra, the edge of which is drawn based on a graph of sea ice decline from 1980 to 2015. Warming temperatures threaten the species, which relies on the frozen sea ice for food, and the painting shows the animals becoming separated from that source. Could you get all that from a graph? “I have to read and make graphs all the time, so they have a lot of significance for me, but that’s not the case for most people,” Pelto says from Northern British Columbia, where she’s in the field assisting her brother with his PhD research on glaciers (and doing some mountaintop sketches for future work). “Art communicates to a broad audience in a way that science can’t always.”


Climate Change Data brings together three sets of data: global glacier mass balance, global sea level rise, and global temperature increase. The numbers on the y-axis represent the quantities of glacial melt and sea level rise, while the suns across the horizon show the global increase in temperature in the corresponding years on the x-axis. Image courtesy of Jill Pelto


Pelto used a graph of sea ice decline as the basis for this painting, Arctic Melt. “I painted the Arctic foxes to look cornered and skittish,” she explains. “One is hunched and defensive, the other is yowling in panic.” Image courtesy of Jill Pelto


Pelto was alarmed when she witnessed the barren rivers and reservoirs of drought-plagued Washington State last summer. Salmon Population Decline uses coho population data and shows how the species grapples with lower water levels and higher temperatures. Image courtesy of Jill Pelto


Studies show that more acidic water alters the way in which the brain of a clownfish processes information. Ocean Acidification shows a school of clownfish separated from the anemone they call home. The anemones’ tentacles were created from a graph of ocean pH data from 1998 to 2010. Image courtesy of Jill Pelto

Nathalie Miebach—Storms Surge Into Sculptures and Musical Scores

When Hurricane Noel whipped through Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in fall 2007, most locals hunkered down inside. But Nathalie Miebach headed straight into the storm. At the time, the artist’s daily routine involved visiting Herring Cove Beach and using low-tech devices to record water temperature, humidity, and wind—data she later used to create colorful woven sculptures. “Even if there’s a hurricane, you have to go out and get your data,” Miebach says from her Boston studio. “It’s one thing to look at the weather data of a storm online, but it’s quite a different thing if you’re actually out there. It’s incredibly visceral.”

For the past decade, Miebach has been using her own data as well as that of agencies such as NOAA and the US Naval Observatory to create structures that tell the stories of extreme weather events, climate change, and shifting marine ecosystems.

After collecting data, Miebach plots it on a reed basket, which acts as a 3D grid, and adds markers such as beads and dowels to represent key data points. She also explores the economic, social, and political impacts of the storms and integrates her findings into her work. The artist’s Sandy Rides series, for example, features pieces that resemble the New York and New Jersey shorefront amusement park rides that took a beating during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.

In addition to making dozens of sculptures—from creations the size of a table centerpiece to 10-meter-wide wall installations—Miebach has worked with musicians and composers to translate weather data into musical scores. Classical and contemporary musicians alike have performed the arrangements, which can also be read off the accompanying sculptures. You’ve never heard—or seen—a storm quite like it.


To Hear an Ocean in a Whisper is a collaboration between Miebach and acoustic engineer and oceanographer Jonathan Fincke. Using Fincke’s acoustic data, Miebach illustrates the currents, temperature variations, tidal patterns, and weather changes that affect krill near Georges Bank in the Gulf of Maine. Photo courtesy of Nathalie Miebach


This is not your standard sheet of music. To create this musical interpretation of Hurricane Noel, Miebach started with a six-octave piano keyboard (seen on the right) and plotted wind, temperature, and barometric pressure data points, which became musical notes. In her notes to musicians, Miebach writes, “You hear music, but you also hear weather.” Photo courtesy of Nathalie Miebach


Solar Beginnings of Everything that Changes looks at ecological changes related to the Sun at Herring Cove Beach, Cape Cod. In the notes that accompany the piece, “data” is listed as one of the artist’s materials; the piece represents air and water temperature, barometric pressure, tides, solar azimuth, and Moon phases. Photo courtesy of Nathalie Miebach


Changing Waters is a large-scale installation that includes these three-meter-tall sculptures, shown here at the Fuller Craft Museum in Massachusetts. Using data from NOAA and the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System, Miebach explores the biological, chemical, or geophysical relationships between marine ecosystems and weather patterns. Photo courtesy of Nathalie Miebach

David Bowen—Witnessing Waves a World Away through Mechanical Sculpture

When a tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, David Bowen’s kinetic sculpture tele-present water—which uses real-time NOAA buoy data to re-create ocean waves—started heaving up and down inside the Esther Klein Gallery in Philadelphia. “I don’t know if it was data from the tsunami or if the system just got overwhelmed, but it was a disturbing and fascinating thing that happened to the piece,” Bowen says from Scientific Delirium Madness, a California residency that brings together artists and scientists.

To create tele-present water, the Minnesota-based artist wrote a web-scraping code that grabs data on wave height and period from NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center. The specific buoy he taps depends on the location of the exhibit—the piece has been shown in the United States, Europe, and Japan—with Bowen opting for buoys as distant as possible. The data is then scaled to the range of the tiny motors that operate the marionette-like mechanical grid structure. The result is a simulation of the movement of the ocean on the other side of the world. “I’m exploring ideas of interconnectedness—how changing climate and changing oceans affect us all in some way,” says Bowen, who has created other water-inspired works using data he’s collected. “Water is just such a fundamental thing—it’s something that’s on all of our minds.”

tele-present water

When David Bowen exhibited tele-present water at La Friche la Belle de Mai, a cultural center in Marseille, France, he used data from a NOAA buoy lost at sea, but still transmitting wave data. Buoy station 51003 was originally moored southwest of Honolulu. Video courtesy of David Bowen