Understanding climate
for the benefit of society

Approximately 30 people gathered at the Geophysical institute (GFI) Thursday 8th of October to attend the opening of the exhibition. Head of GFI, Nils Gunnar Kvamstø, and professor in meteorology, Thomas Spengler, introduced Katrin von Lehmann and her artwork. Dean of The Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, Helge Dhale, and Assisting Director, Kristin Bakken, were present among other scientists, postdocs, and PhD and masters students from GFI and the Bjerknes Centre.  All photos: Oda Eiken

Searching for knowledge in the unseen

To challenge scientific perspectives and to inspire researchers for new thoughts on climate phenomena is at the essence of the new exhibition that is taking place at the Geophysical Institute this October.


Katrin von Lehmann spent March and April 2014 at the institute. She conducted fifteen interviews with scientists about the climate phenomena they study, and the result is  an art exhibition called Shifting – an intervention at the Geophysical Institute and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research.

The artist was astonished in how scientists went spontaneously to draw illustrations on blackboards to explain their work instead of using perfect visualisations on a computer. These blackboard drawings became her starting point and has resulted in 5 series of work entitled Blackboard Drawing #1 to #5.

New perspectives

“During the interviews, I tried to understand the processes in the atmosphere and in the ocean, but I didn’t get it all. So I wanted to work with the gap of understanding and not understanding”, Katrin von Lehmann explains.

The majority of the series Blackboard Drawings consisted of two layers and her perforation technic created an interconnection between the layers. She explained how the holes are creating access to the past and at the same time taking away something from the present.

During the opening of the exhibition it became evident that it was not only the artist who wanted to understand more. Various discussions were taking place in the corridor at GFI, and people concentrated deeply when trying to understand the rules and systems of her work. Simultaneously others guessed which professors were responsible for the various illustrations in the series Blackboard Drawings.

 “I realized that each association is very connected to their working field; one professor saw air bubbles of the ocean and another saw rocks and islands. We see what we know”, von Lehmann says.

She emphasizes that she wanted to enrich the research of the scientists by challenging their perspective of understanding and not understanding.


Two Scientists and their associations

Association to series Blackboard Drawing 1

The different layers of the images remind me on a psychological principle of remembering and forgetting: Each time you remember something, you actually do not remember the experience itself but your latest memory of it. Each time you remember, you wipe out and replace the previous memory. Scientists may experience that they are sure to remember some facts just exactly as they are - but when they re-read/re-view the original they may realize that they forgot some details or that they may even remember something in a wrong way. So the layers of memories of a scientific fact are not exactly matching.

I interpret the holes in the images  as my non-understanding of the science that is presented here. Also a phenomenon that students and scientists know very well: you listen to a scientific presentation, some parts you understand, some parts you don't understand. If there are only few holes, few details you did not understand, the whole picture may still be recognizable, which means you still get the message that the scientist meant to pass on. If there are too many holes, the story remains unclear to you.

Friederike Urbassek Hoffmann, October 2015



Association to series Blackboard Drawing

Jack stood up, fetched the paperboard standing in a corner of the conference room, and took a marker pen. “Let me try to make a drawing”, he said. We had been discussing for about an hour-and-a-half and tempers were starting to get frayed around this table. The ocean biologists were quietly conversing in their own splinter group, seemingly exchanging brief sentences and taking notes; they seemed to know what they were about, alright. Here, among the group of physical oceanographers and climate modellers sitting around this table, there was a sense of frustration. What are you not getting? Why do you keep intervening only to say the same thing again? Why do you stick to this obviously inadequate description of the problem? Why are you repeating this to me when I obviously already agreed with you – say it to the others!... Jack marked a rectangle on the paper sheet, and said: “this is our ocean”. Then he added some curved lines ending in an arrow, going around the boundary and extending inwards. “This is the large-scale flow”.

artwork shifting
Photo: Enrique Curchister

He added more arrows near the right-hand-side boundary, then circular symbols with a dot signifying arrows pointing out of the page - “the eastern boundary current, and upwelling”. More arrows for the winds, some squiggles for the Ekman drift and doodles for clouds, and Xs for land and terrain... a rough, poor drawing, hardly showing with any degree of accuracy the physical system we had tried so hard to describe to one another by words.

Yet, everybody became quiet and paid attention; even better, the mood palpably lifted. We knew what this was about. After a minute everyone was making suggestions, more words were added, a few equations to make quite sure; a second drawing giving a view from different angle (a section instead of a plan view) was quickly produced.

artwork shifting
Photo: Enrique Curchister

It took us a few  minutes to agree on everything. Roles were parcelled out for the work to do, and we asked the biologists whether they had finished.

Thomas Toniazzo, October 2015

See also:
The parallell laboratory