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Animated Science

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Dr Lisa Roberts, Visiting Fellow in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), outlines how she is bringing scientific data to light through drawing, dance and animation. Dr Roberts grew up in the Dandenong ranges in Melbourne in the house of her great grandfather, the well-known artist Tom Roberts. Even though she grew up in an environment full of art, and there was an expectation that she would be an artist, she went to university. She studied logic and the history and philosophy of science just to try some different ways of thinking. She did then go to art school and even imagined leading a movement, just as Tom Roberts had, opening people’s eyes to things in new ways.


Lisa drawing on bridge (2002) Location: Australian Antarctic Territory, Southern Ocean
‘Calligraphic lines drawn in pen, paint and pencil are made to capture movement patterns in the water that I feel through my body and trace with my eye.’ Photo credit: Debra Glasgow

Roberts first drew, danced and painted. She was really lucky to know, from the age of five, some very intelligent women friends of her grandmother, German intellectuals who had fled Nazi Germany. One of these women had been a student of pioneer dance analyst Rudolf Laban who developed a way of objectively observing human movement and dance. This connection has led her to explore the use of time, space and energy in gestures that people use to explain things. Roberts lived in Tasmania doing a lot of community art, creating animations to bring together stories shared by many people. One job was on Flinders Island working with various quilters, dancers and musicians. One person on that project was a whale observer, who went to Antarctica regularly. That person actually wanted to go there as a photographic artist and she convinced Roberts to apply with her for the Australian Antarctic Division Arts Fellowship. 


Moving through ice (2002) Location: Australian Antarctic Territory, Southern Ocean. 'After the 2002 voyage to Antarctica I made pastel drawings by tracing photos taken by fellow expeditioner Ken Wilson, to reflect my feeling of moving through ice.' Photo credit: Lisa Roberts

Roberts connected with a lot of scientists in Antarctica and also met her partner there. Back in Sydney she did her PhD in animation with an external supervisor, Simon Pockley, the first person to complete and publish a PhD wholly online. She wanted to know how animation could be used to combine scientific data and subjective responses. The key to her research was Laban’s work on dance, allowing her to interpret gestural forms.


Sapphireberg (2002) Location:  Australian Antarctic Territory, Southern Ocean

This picture of a sapphire blue iceberg is one of a small series of oil paintings that I made as we travelled South. Photo credit: Lisa Roberts

One good example of her work is in furthering understanding of Antarctic krill, tiny crustaceans that have both individual and collective behaviours. Krill are in the middle of the food web, eating plankton and in turn being eaten by whales, octopus, squid and the like. Quite by chance, the Antarctic krill biologists filmed the entire mating sequence of Antarctic krill in an entirely unexpected place, the sea floor. They filmed a gravid female being chased by two males that were doing a dance around her. 


Push (2010) ‘I made this drawing to show how the male krill uses his pleopods (swimming legs) to transfer his sperm into the female krill’s thelecum (egg sac entry)’. Photo credit: Lisa Roberts

When Roberts heard of this she knew she had to watch the video and that she could make sense of those dance movements. Roberts traced the video footage frame-by-frame and made it into an animation. The animation became an online component of a scientific paper in the Oxford Journal of Plankton Research as well as being screened on ABC TV on shows for adults and children. Knowing where, when and how marine organisms have sex is important for their conservation and the conservation of their habitats.


Nudge stage (2010) Location:  Australian Antarctic Territory, Southern Ocean
This is one of over 800 video frames that I traced to help work out how Euphausia superba (Antarctic krill) have sex on the sea floor of the Southern Ocean. This frame shows the ‘Nudge’ stage in the mating dance first observed by Australian Antarctic Division scientist So Kawaguchi. Photo credit: Australian Antarctic Division.

Since 2012 Living Data exhibitions have been staged At Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings, Hobart, within Ultimo Science Festivals, and at UTS for the inaugural Sydney Science Festival. The krill sex animation has been screened at these events along with other artworks based on relationships in the natural world. Roberts is currently recording scientists and artists talking about what they know about climate change. Collectively there are lots of little bits known about climate change and art is a way of bringing all those bits together. She is particularly looking at the gestures they use when discussing climate change to see how they physically express their understandings. She has finally realised that early dream of leading a new movement, in her case a data movement creating animated science. 


Plankton mesh (2003) ‘I made this installation from strips of mesh that once trawled for plankton in the Southern Ocean. The mesh now captures holds printed pages from the journal that I kept in Antarctica, of drawings, paintings and notes from that experience.’ Photo credit: Lisa Roberts.

Dr Lisa Roberts was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. All images supplied by Dr Roberts. Theme music by Graeme Ewing with permission. Summary text by Victor Barry, November 2015..

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