2020 Art Exhibition by HPS Artists-in-Residence featuring Alex Johnson and Alex McDonough.
A video installation that captures the effects of climate change on Pennsylvania's forests
Here is the vimeo link for (un)observable https://vimeo.com/451894005
Global warming affects the natural world in innumerable ways. Just as humans must adapt to climatic changes, so must other organisms, including plants. The “plant world” is infinitely complex, but the human eye is limited in its ability to observe these complexities because they occur over relatively large temporal scales. In northern forests like those in and around Pittsburgh, spring comes earlier every year with increasingly warm temperatures. Plants are adapting to these conditions, but at different rates. Recent research by Heberling et al. (2019) has shown that trees are responding to climate change relatively quickly, shifting their life cycles so that spring leaf-out occurs earlier in the season. Meanwhile, on the forest floor below, spring wildflowers are lagging. My work as an undergraduate researcher in the Kuebbing lab at the University of Pittsburgh attempts to uncover the mechanisms driving these temporal changes in plants’ life events (referred to as “phenology”). Our lab works both in the field, monitoring the phenology of several tree and wildflower species, and in the lab, experimentally manipulating temperature cues to understand how various plant species will adapt to an ever-changing climate. The wildflowers we study rely on a period of high light availability in the time between freezing winter temperatures and trees leafing out to flower and begin photosynthesis. Their existence is thus threatened by the narrowing of this temporal window as tree leaf-out advances earlier every year. This move towards extinction is happening too gradually to be immediately seen by humans, and cannot be captured in one moment. Instead, it must be observed over a long period of multiple growing seasons. Magnuson (1990) describes this phenomenon as the “invisible present”, noting humans’ inability to perceive long-term ecological change.
My work aims to capture the “invisible present” through animations that condense many growing seasons into minutes, making subtle changes in timing clear to the viewer. I also use audio to draw attention to the increasingly asynchronous timing and duration of tree and wildflower phenology relative to one another. The sounds and animations I use are representations that signify the much larger scale of the natural world, which is shown in the background as a reminder of the very real consequences of global warming. This warming is suggested by the steady warming of color in the piece as well as the slowly growing, static-like sound, which is a “sonification” or audio representation of the sun’s energy. The environment is changing in ways we are just beginning to understand. As these changes occur, we must adapt our observations of the world to capture the “invisible present,” facilitating long-term thinking and consciousness of how anthropogenic climate change affects the other species with which we share the planet.
Heberling, J.M., McDonough MacKenzie, C., Fridley, J.D., Kalisz, S. & Primack, R.B. (2019) Phenological mismatch with trees reduces wildflower carbon budgets. Ecology Letters 22: 616- 623
Magnusen, John T. (1990). Long-Term Ecological Research and the Invisible Present. BioScience, Vol. 40, No. 7, pp. 495-501.
Perception Study: Color Set - A series of six studies exploring color perception and the process behind color manipulation - See photos below
The Perception Study Color Set was inspired by Professor Mazviita Chirimuuta’s book, “Outside Color”. This book dived into a plethora of topics spanning from a philosopher’s take to the problem of color, the difference between coloring in and coloring for, perceptual pragmatism and so on. The main points that drew me in and sparked my research was how color could be manipulated thus changing one’s perception. What are shadows? What is depth and what is it’s role in how we perceived color? How did neighboring colors effect how we perceived other colors and shapes? The pieces were also inspired by Josef Alber’s and his work in color theory. When I started this research, I started by deconstructing the concept of perception into pieces. I soon realized that breaking apart color perception into many different factors would be impossible to incorporate into one piece, so I decided to work “backwards”. I took factors that I found intriguing, such as shadows and dimension, and homed in on what connected them all and how I could apply that to each piece. Even with the residency being finished, I still view this project as being continuous because studying to see how color interacts with one another is a concept that is constantly in my work.