An interview with Jeremy Mendes on the use of scientific data in artistic documentary projects
The project the Canadian artist and documentary maker Jeremy Mendes is probably best known for is his pioneering interactive documentary Bear 71 (which has also been fervently discusses on i-docs.org). After documentaries which he co-created at the NFB – among others The Seven Digital Deadly Sins (in partnership with The Guardian), The Last Hunt, The Devils Toy Redux (in partnership with Arte) and This Land – Jeremy is now working on a new project which combines his fascination for science with his passion for creating settings which make complex interrelations experiential. In an interview with Lomax Boyd, a scientist and documentary producer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, he talks about interface design and data-visualization, about tone, emotion and experientiality, and he shares his visions of the role of data in future documentary-making.
This post is one of a series of interviews conducted by Lomax Boyd, a Fulbright Scholar in residence at the National Film Board of Canada, with creatives and producers at the NFB. The series explores the complex interplay between (scientific) data, the representation of uncertainty, story and emotion in data-driven interactive factuals. The series offers insights for technologists, documentary artists and science communicators in imagining how data and other representations of scientific process might be used in the creative process.
“… to be continued…” – For more on this topic, stay with i-docs and follow the discussion on facebook!
LB: In addition to producing the visually-technocratic documentary such as Bear 71, one of your last works, you are also an avid reader of science magazines such as nautil.us. Where does your interest or curiosity in science originate from?
JM: Science has always been a passion of mine. The other one is art as I have been artistically motivated from an early age. My father was an engineer, very logical, but that does not explain my interest in science. I think that I get pleasure from understanding the natural world and the manifestation of how we try to understand the world around us in a very physical way. When I was in High School, I did quite well in chemistry, physics and calculus. But I also had a really great art teacher at the time. I was really confused – not sure which direction to go in. At that point, my art teacher took me aside and said: “You can always pursue scientific themes in your art but it would be very difficult for you to go the other way.” And I said: “Well, you can’t beat that.” And off I went in the direction of art.
LB: Do you think your art is inspired from specific scientific discoveries or is more from process?
JM: Probably it’s process, but also through ideas. In Art School, I often did collage work. I would find biology text books and use illustrations from them. I did some film installation work, 16 mm film – all found footage from film board from High School biology and physics classes from the 50s and 60s – and I made huge installations from them. The art world, especially in the 90s, was very informed by itself. I never liked that. I found it very limiting. I’ve been inspired by artists that cross the lines – artists like Simon Starling, artists who take scientific process very literally into their artwork and then hybridize it with story.
In my eyes, art can do a good job with this in some places. There are liberties when you are not confined to narrative – liberties that the art world can play with. I’ve always been inspired by that kind of work in my interactive forays.
LB: You are currently producing a new documentary that explores our relationships with electricity. How have you approached the huge corpus of scientific research as you craft the narrative?
JM: I can describe this pretty easily: it was a matter of identifying tone. “What the fuck is electricity?” is one of the guiding questions. It’s curiosity. You are starting finding all these little pieces. It’s everywhere. It’s not what we think it is, and yet, at the same time, it is exactly what we think it is. So what kind of story do we want to tell? You watch a couple PBS documentaries and they are going to tell me exactly what it is and what it is for. That is not what I want to do.
LB: Why not?
JM: Because it’s been done. Someone has checked that box, here is. It has been done with the drone fly over American’s wealth and electrical energy. It’s a coal mine. It’s a wind farm. It’s the grid, and it’s here to stay even though it’s a terrible idea. I think those stories are interesting but as I said:
I want people to see things in a different light when they have watched a story that I have made.
In our media culture, it’s more common for people to find a mode and repeat it rather than find subversive viewpoints – to take the risk to show different sides, to generate a different interest and to create a different perspective. From the thematics that we came up with, we’ve found characters that we think embody those themes that have personal stories. For one episode, it is about atmospheric electricity so we found this guy in the desert that is obsessed with space electricity and building radios. He spent his whole life around recording this sound. So instead of describing what is energy is, we use a person who you can care about, with whom you can share his passion and interest for that phenomenon. Once we have that main character, the idea is to tailor the details with a couple other points of view that are maybe more specific or scientific, or maybe more detail oriented.
LB: In your research for this project, have there been any new scientific insights that you have uncovered that have reshaped the narrative?
JM: Yes, lots. I would say that a lot of it has been informed by scientific journalism like you would find in nautil.us, that style of observation where it is less like New Scientist or Nature which are really hard science. At the same time, it’s not ‘romantic’ either – it’s a more literary interpretation of something that is a lot more complex. This kind of articles was the center piece. Then we tried to subvert those stories by trying to find characters that were in that milieu but in a weird space: artistically, or off kilter. My co-writer and myself found these quirky narrative sparks interesting. You have some hard science and then you have an artistic interpretation and a philosophical interception of the same event. I think by doing this, you get to weave a narrative between physical science, myth, and human experience: that is what we are trying to do.
The project started from a tour that I did on one of these hydroelectric plant. The premise under which I was there was that this thing was run completely by analog governors. There wasn’t a computer in this whole complex. Yet, it was providing 25% of the electricity for the lower mainland. This idea, I thought, was really cool. That flip in this analog interpretation of gravity and water molecules in this place of wilderness, with this gothic infrastructure providing the electricity that is running things, probably mostly dishwashers, but also scientific innovation in the city. It was a neat juxtaposition to use somewhere in the narrative, not on a human level.
But when I went through it all again, I was most impressed by the moment when I stood inside one of these turbines: I was literally at the transition zone where physical energy of water molecules under pressure are converted into electrostatic charge! You could feel it. You are standing in this turbine with 30,000 tone peloton wheel below your feet, below a 1 inch metal plate just zipping around and a huge drive shaft and then a massive generator with this little Wizard-of-Oz-brass governor party standing beside it. It was the intersection of those things that I knew I was in big trouble.
How do you write a documentary about that feeling of electricity? It became very clear that it wouldn’t happen by describing the science about how hydroelectric power works. It would have to be more about how I felt at that moment. That is where it turned into something else.
It was the intersection of myth and science that we figured out it was. Every episode has scientific input but also artistic impression and philosophical impression, which I think are similar. Often scientific inquiry starts from a philosophical place. What is it that makes me feel that way when I’m in this thing?
LB: Are there opportunities for using real data in this new project?
JM: Absolutely. In fact, in atmosphere, the grounding story is that of a pot smoking artist who is famous for making recordings. He’s a deaf self-proclaimed cyborg who is a full-time writer for the New Scientist who has created has a piece of technology that has enabled him to hear an urban environment by analyzing reflected radio signals from radio and telecom. He is working on a side project where he is creating a device similar to radios that help him see the cosmos. He’s created this devise that enable him to hear a landscape that can’t otherwise be heard by making graphic visualizations. That part of the story won’t be much about him but about seeing his graphic interpretations of landscapes. It’s by presenting that person’s perspective of the cosmos and tripping out in the desert and being a recluse and then showing another character that is taking the same observation. My hope is that by seeing that, I am creating a canvas for inspiration.
Data visualizations tend to be graphs and alienating. How can that visualization be different and be generative? That is the key. Otherwise it’s just a map. If it’s somehow live and being informed by real data, that would be cool.
LB: Can data break the infographic box?
JM: How does your imagination see things? How do you share that imagination? How do you illustrate the life cycle of a water molecule? You could make a diagram that has a little ball that goes up and describes what’s happening, how it becomes super-heated, goes into a vapor, goes up into a cloud and is cooled, moves great geographic distances because of winds created by the same heating and cooling, drops down into a glacier, runs down into a stream, into a turbine. How do you create an infographic that looks like that? Could you do it by cutting together puffs of clouds and a stream and a turbine? Or do you have to draw an arrow going up to the clouds and draw an actual particle? You could do it all without drawing a single thing. You could do a photo collage. It’s all metaphors. Most people think water molecules look like that because of the illustration we made of them. If you think about how a person thinks and how you want them to relate to that, you could create an illustration of an atomic mesh using rubber duckies.
LB: All drawings are abstractions. Scientific ones are based on original datasets. In the documentary world, is there value in creating visualizations derived from original scientific data?
JM: I think so. For example, we are going to make a point about several elementary things – the exchange of water for electricity. What does that look like? You have to look for real world examples and make it physical.
LB: What about the emotional?
JM: I don’t know if it’s possible to make motion graphics emotional. The things that make graphics emotional are often related to people’s lives and stories. If you want emotion then that is why you make visual narratives. Static art and illustrative work relies on data and must be cast into the storyline.
LB: Artistic creations are perceptual in nature while scientific illustrations strive to be comprehensive. Are they inherently irreconcilable?
JM: No, there is a lot of overlap. Strong art direction needs to understand the importance of both and present that accordingly. If the goal of the project is to understand a huge amount of information, then the artist role is to be clear about that and put emotion and metaphor aside because clarity is important. A good person to look at is Edward Tufte. I was huge fan of his when I was in my late 20s. He does these coffee table-like books on how we interpret data and how we see data through visualization. He takes examples of things that are terrible and successful.
LB: Data is everywhere, what do you think is the near future of data in documentary?
JM: I think the role of data will proliferate. The real issue is that creators don’t have a command of that data easily: accessibility. I think simulation stories could use data in a transparent way. If you created a narrative of an ecosystem in a small area, whether its polar bears or plankton, you had real life data inform the narrative outcome then you could create a visualization that shows what happens when something changes, a dramatic response based on data that plays out through characters rather than numbers.
Video games, for example, if the models are created from data rather than by something arbitrary. I would look to CG for the first place where that is going to happen. Anything that no one is doing yet is a perfect thing to be in. If you’re doing something interesting, then you should be terrified as fuck about it is. If you’re not, then you’re not in new territory. You’re not taking any chances. At the end of the day, fear is the important animalistic driver we have: fear and curiosity. If it scares you and you feel compelled toward it – then great! Hopefully, you’re not too far ahead of your time.