Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

C(art)ography

By Marcy Davis

Adriane Colburn's "Who’s on Top? Arctic Ice: 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2003, 2007 and East/West Lines, 2008." Paper, Aluminum, wood, gouache, watercolor, latex paint, string, ink and graphite. For more views and the artist's notes on this installation, click on the picture. All photos courtesy Adriane Colburn

Adriane Colburn works all the time. By day she’s a technician at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. By night, she’s a renegade sculptor, pushing the boundaries of her favorite medium – paper. Colburn has long been inspired by the human impulse to visualize the world through cartography, by the act of communicating data and information through maps in order to better understand environment and processes. Maps led her to merge creative pursuits with science.

“My artistic motivation is that my subject must be intellectually challenging – the result of research. Science and politics and art are all related,” says Colburn, a Vermont native who has lived in San Francisco since 1990.

While surfing the Web one day, Colburn happened upon the home page for the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping (CCOM) Joint Hydrographic Center where she read about the Law of the Sea Mapping Program, an intensive, multiyear partnership between UNH, NOAA, the NSF and others, aimed at mapping the seafloor to support U.S. claims to the extended continental shelf. The arctic seafloor maps immediately caught Colburn’s attention.

“I already had a strong interest in the Arctic and climate change. I did a project using sea ice extent maps, but they weren’t exactly what I was looking for. When I came across the CCOM Law of the Sea bathymetry maps, I became interested in the ways mapping the sea floor is pivotal in the Arctic — the role of these maps in geopolitics, natural resource exploration, and unexplored frontier,” Colburn explains. “The maps are simple and uncomplicated in their own right, but also rich and complicated in their links to highly charged topics.”

"For the Deep, Phase I," 2008, Inkjet prints, aluminum and paper, 12'x14'

After reading about a 2007 arctic cruise led by Larry Mayer (UNH) and Andy Armstrong (NOAA), Colburn cold-called CCOM to find out more. The call led to a visit and the visit led to her participation in a September, 2008, arctic cruise aboard the USCGC Healy. While on board, Colburn worked as a watchstander, monitoring computers used for sonar data collection during an eight-hour shift.

Watchstanders monitor a fleet of computers taking data on the sea floor.

“The thing I was really interested in was collecting the data – the interruptions and inaccuracies. The flaws in the process are fascinating. As a non-scientist I always assumed that data collection was inherently accurate, but I became aware of the subjectivity, of the personal decisions that go into it, and how the arctic seascape determines what you can do,” she says.

The rest of Colburn’s time she dedicated to photography, gathering audio and video footage, journaling, and talking with at-sea colleagues, an eclectic mix of scientists, graduate students, technicians, Coast Guardsmen (and women), a lawyer, and a member of the U.S. State Department. Colburn felt that she was “having this really rare experience most people never get to have and that the science was really interesting. I felt like I had this responsibility to share it rather than be narcissistic.”

Yo, Adriane! The artist having some fun aboard the Healy.

Back home in San Francisco, Colburn spent six months working up pieces for an exhibition at the Kala Art Institute entitled For the Deep, which showcased her arctic experience through a series of large, colorful installation pieces made of cut paper – arctic bathymetry maps. Round photos of the arctic landscape reminiscent of portholes dot the work. Colburn encouraged viewers to interact with her sculptures by looking into telescope-like vessels, rewarding them with video clips of the open ocean and of the Healy breaking ice.

"For the Deep, Phase II." The telescope-like viewer (up and to the right of middle) shows videos of the Healy breaking ice.

“What I tend to do in my artwork is decontextualize. I present the data without the scientific context. It is an abstraction. I thought a lot about how people understand places and about what comes back to the population from a far-off exploration,” says Colburn. “We try to understand places remotely so I intentionally forced distance between the person and the place. But mapping is also very interactive in our digital world. I wanted to include that element as well without having my work be totally immersive.”

Reactions to Colburn’s work are what she calls “multi-tiered”: what people get out of her art is what they bring to it. And whether that is something technical, scientific, or purely aesthetic doesn’t matter to her. She admits that her own sense of beauty has changed dramatically as a result of experiencing life at sea. She says “the Arctic has a specific light. It’s like being on another planet. You can’t really know that from pictures and words. It’s a transient landscape – one in which you can get a foothold because the ice is solid. But it’s also constantly shifting and changing and very dynamic.”

Colburn still works with scientists. She’s moved her attention to warmer climes but still focuses on climate change, measuring carbon in the Amazon with researchers at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. Colburn also had the opportunity to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. And she says she’s “trying to get back to the Arctic at least one more time,” if you happen to know anyone who’s looking to fill out a field team.

Adriane Colburn’s recent work is currently on display in an exhibition entitled Earth:  Art of a Changing World, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, December 3, 2009, to January 31, 2010.