Multidisciplinary projects and informal science learning create a climate conversation

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This artistic work by Brandon Ballengée is titled “Collapse.” The mixed-media installation includes 26,162 preserved specimens and depicts relationships within the Gulf of Mexico food chain. Photo by Varvara Mikushkina

By Ava Borskey

BATON ROUGE, LA — The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new report with a dire outlook: Climate changes, like warming and sea level rise, are projected to increase in every region in the coming decades.

Climate change is on the agenda in political circles and governments worldwide. It’s written in the news headlines. And the subject is making its way into community circles through some rather interesting means, like theatre playbills, art installations and pop-up boat launch presentations.

Amy Lesen, a biology professor and minority health and health disparities researcher at Dillard University, recognizes that by nature, climate change is a multidisciplinary, multifaceted problem.

“It’s a scientific problem that has a social and economic cause and a lot of not only ecological and environmental effects, but also a lot of social and economic effects and health effects,” Lesen said.

Lesen is currently involved in a research project studying how collaborations between artists, scientists and educators can contribute to science learning and community decision-making when it comes to environmental change.

“In order to live — especially live near the coast — it’s more and more important to understand how climate change works and, like, what kinds of problems it will cause,” Lesen said. “That information is really necessary to understand how to make decisions in your life. Should I stay here? Should I move? Should I get a specific kind of insurance?”

The project, known formally as Educators, Artists, Scientists Engaging Learners, or EASEL, is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program. 

“In the education field, informal science learning means learning about science anywhere that’s not in a traditional classroom,” Lesen said. “Kind of the most commonly thought of way is like a science museum. But there’s a million different ways to do it,” she added.

EASEL focuses on in-depth community engagement and takes a creative participatory approach.

Throughout the first year of the program, artists, scientists and educators collaborated with residents of Gentilly, a New Orleans neighborhood. The result was a public theatrical performance addressing climate change entitled “Gentilly Lily’s Mystical Porch.”

Lesen and other researchers are still interviewing participants and analyzing observations.

“But I already know from speaking with the participants and the people and the artists and scientists and educator professionals, that it was extremely engaging and really different than reading a book or seeing a documentary,” Lesen said.

Down the bayou in Plaquemines Parish, Brandon Ballengée is engaging communities in his own way.

Ballengée, a visual artist, biologist and environmental educator, is engaging coastal communities in citizen science, a learning approach that involves public participation and collaboration in scientific research.

“I don’t see it as, you know, a top-down approach as much as I see it as a cooperative approach where we’re learning from each other,” Ballengée said.

Ballengée is working with fisherfolk and shrimpers to search for missing species of endemic Gulf fishes. Endemic Gulf species are fish found only in the Gulf of Mexico — many of which are rare and elusive, and some of which have not been reported since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

He uses the missing fish as a metaphor for coastal communities that are facing cultural extinction because of factors like climate migration.   

“The idea is by looking for these missing fish, it’s a way to kind of indirectly talk about like their own civilization, their own towns starting to be endangered and having that conversation,” Ballengée said.

This missing fish portrait by Brandon Ballengée depicts a Highfin Blenny, a species that has not been reported since 2000. The portrait is made with oil from the Deepwater Horizon and Taylor oil spills. Photo via Brandon Ballengée

Ballengée brings portable museums with art installations and preserved specimens to marinas, farmer’s markets and communities around the coast.

He’s also setting up an office in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, where Tulane University houses the Royal D. Suttkus Fish Collection. The idea is to have small groups of people, like oil field workers and fisherfolk, come to tour the preserved fish collection, participate in drawing classes and think of creative ways to catalog the environmental changes they are seeing.

Ballengée said art is almost like an olive branch for meeting people.

Samuel Oliver, executive director of the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, Louisiana, has a similar view.

“One of the big utilitarian roles of art — and especially kind of contemporary art — is to ignite a conversation or to create a space in some way to talk about an issue that might be an elephant in the room,” Oliver said.

Oliver said art is the kind of thing that can get people talking about uncomfortable subjects, whether that’s beginning a process of acknowledgment or inspiring individuals to action to mitigate the effects of environmental change.

“You don’t start in the legislature,” Oliver said. “You start with the people who are going to be affected by it, and you start a conversation. And a great way to start a conversation is to show them something and say what do you think about that?”

The Acadiana Center for the Arts will be showing an exhibition of three of Ballengée’s larger artistic works beginning in October. The interactive installations explore humankind’s relationship to the environment, using art as a vessel to create a larger conversation about environmental issues.

“Sometimes it is just about triggering, you know, the creative center or hitting the part of somebody’s brain that learns a specific way,” Oliver said. “And the arts are great about that because it’s all about, you know, touch, feel, experience, do as approaches to learning because there’s no other way to learn.”

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