Filmmaker puts the art to NOAA’s science

  • Jeanne Liotta

  • Jeanne Liotta is the featured artist at Friday’s Macdowell Downtown. Above: Liotta during a presentation. Left: A still image from Liotta’s latest project. Courtesy photo

Published: 3/30/2016 7:00:41 PM

Award-winning filmmaker Jeanne Liotta makes work at the lively intersection of art and science. The path to that intersection, she says, led her to work with atmospheric scientists and climatologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for her most recent project, which she will screen and discuss tomorrow evening for MacDowell Downtown at The Monadnock Center for History and Culture.

When NOAA scientists were seeking new ways of engaging the public with discoveries they felt were relevant beyond the scientific community, they turned to artists for help and Liotta answered the call.

“Observation is such a basic and key area where artists and scientists stand on the same ground,” said Liotta, explaining she became involved in NOAA’s Science on a Sphere project when she was approached after a talk she gave in Denver on her artistic interest in scientific subjects. Among the broad variety of NOAA investigative science, she chose climate change as her area of focus.

Science on a Sphere is a newly developed presentation tool that has elicited a great deal of excitement among NOAA scientists and educators. Liotta was asked to create video for the six-foot diameter globe that displays animated images of the atmosphere, oceans, and land masses. It’s a way of seeing the finitude of our Earth, Liotta said, putting the planet directly in front of the audience. She worked with imagery taken from satellites – specifically Greenland and the polar ice cap – and also shot her own clips, developing video slowly over the course of a year.

“It’s an odd thing,” said the University of Colorado Boulder associate professor of film, “because I am an artist and made this work meant to exist in a non-art environment. It’s now part of the datasets for NOAA and any science center with a NOAA sphere can use it.”

Liotta explained that she worked on flat screens in her studio within very specific parameters that made it possible for NOAA’s technicians to wrap her finished video images onto the sphere. While in town for her second MacDowell fellowship, Liotta will screen the project as an atlas projection on a flat screen while describing the larger context of collaboration, which now can be viewed at more than 100 museums, planetariums, universities, and science centers around the world.

For one sequence, what she calls the “ice sphere” section, Liotta drew inspiration from science fiction writer J.G. Ballard’s novel “The Drowned World.” She created an abstraction of a quickly melting ice planet. As the ice ball melts, the viewer becomes aware of what rising sea levels might mean.

In another sequence, Liotta used NOAA data to illustrate the way carbon dioxide flows through the atmosphere. Many viewers will immediately recognize the movement as reminiscent of a planetary weather map; the colorful flows are beautiful and simultaneously disturbing.

Liotta’s signature film of the night skies, “Observando El Cielo,” won the Tiger Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2008, was voted among the top films of the decade by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and was among Artforum’s Top Ten Films that year. In her description of that film, she explains, “the work is neither a metaphor nor a symbol, but is feeling towards a fact in the midst of perception.” That emphasis on the factual combines with her basic human curiosity and drives her to her art by way of science.

“Scientists are a little bit frustrated,” she said. “They’re looking at the numbers, and it’s scary. They figured if they could get the information across in a more palpable way, maybe people would alter their behavior and put pressure on the decision makers.”

“The Earth is a dynamic living thing, and that’s what motivates this type of work,” she added. “I felt useful, and that has been very gratifying.”

Be sure to get down to The Monadnock Center for History and Culture at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow to get a peek at the cutting-edge of filmmaking and learn how it supports science with Jeanne Liotta. Doors open at 7 p.m. with light refreshments served.

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