“We need depth of knowledge but at the same time we need its context”

Eine Frau sitzt in der Natur neben einem Bach und hört über Kopfhörer etwas an.
© Roger Pimenta
02. September 2021

How to reach people and make them realize the urgency of climate change, sustainability, and pervasive pollution? Kat Austen has found a way to transport the narrative: through art!

von Rebecca Winkels

The Forum Wissenschaftskommunikation 2021 is all about language and science communication. We spoke with Kat Austen, a panelist at the Forum, about how art can help to transform narratives about sustainability in the future and the ongoing debate on the relationship between art and science.

You are taking part in the debate “Communicating Sustainability – Art as a means to transform narratives in society?” at the Forum Wissenschaftskommunikation. What are you planning to do in the session?

Put simply, we want to discuss how alternative approaches to science and knowledge making in general can be important in addressing sustainability.

Why do you think the arts should play a role when it comes to addressing sustainability?

This is very much my perspective on it. The other panelists and Alexandra Tost, who will chair the panel, have different perspectives on it as the discussion on arts and science and art and sustainability is very nuanced. Some people view the arts as a good means to transport scientific knowledge and others view interdisciplinarity as a means of creating otherwise inaccessible knowledge. I am in the second camp. Thus, my approach is to explore how different disciplines can work together to solve societal problems. The emphasis of my approach lies in bringing people from different fields together to access different types of knowledge to try and address some of the gaps that we have. That said, there are a lot of benefits in creating effective learning environments and straight-forward communication formats using the arts.

How has the field developed in recent years?

There has been a growing interest in the field in the last few years worldwide and it is heartening to see that there are more initiatives and also funding opportunities for our field. I am part of the STUDIOTOPIA programme which brings scientists into the artistic studio to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

What do you think is important when the different disciplines work together?

There are multiple modes of bringing together the different disciplines. My background is mixed. I trained as a chemist and later as a sculptor who brings her musical background into my work. So for me the two areas are deep seated already. I then try to engage with people from other disciplines who work with other methods to come up with questions and research ideas for tackling the problems and topics that I am interested in. These are broadly speaking the climate emergency and pervasive pollution.

The core of what I am interested in is what we need to know about our relationship to the environment. That is why I am interested in the human perception of the environment. When you are looking at person-to-person collaboration between people from different disciplines - even within science - the difficulty in understanding the other person's perspective, methods or even language can be quite detrimental to collaborations. The key thing is that there needs to be a personal connection and a mutual form of understanding for a collaboration to work. The challenge for the arts is often to convey the concepts of artistic research which is something many are unfamiliar with.

You mentioned that there is more interest in those collaborations recently. Why do you think there is a higher demand for it now than in the past?

The conversation between disciplines has actually been present for years, but there has also been a trend of hyperspecialization in the sciences and along with the belief that science is entirely objective and takes place outside of societal context. There has now been a push-back to that. There is a cultural shift that acknowledges that hyperspecialization - the trend towards narrower fields of expertise - is not going to answer all of our urgent questions. We know we need better understanding between specialisations too. We have an awful lot of data on the climate emergency and new technologies and yet we are struggling to transfer that knowledge into actions. Culturally, societies in Western Europe have started looking at many of the boxes that we have put ourselves in and opening them up for debate, from gender categorisations to job titles. I think we need to do that to face the wicked problems that we have. We need depth of knowledge but at the same time we need its context to affect people’s decision making and to affect policy making.

What would it need to make the engagement with those topics even better?

When I see the raging wildfires in Turkey or see news on the Gulf stream disappearing I suffer ecological grief. I wrote a symphony a few years ago called The Matter of the Soul, on the effect of the climate crisis on the Arctic. Since then I have been working on pieces that accept the current state of things to then move forward and address the future. The thing that keeps my spirit up during these times is that I am not alone in working to address those problems. There are a lot of people from different fields working together on solutions.

Are there specific target groups that you would like to reach with your work?

Everyone has their role to play. Everyone makes a difference, and while some people will be deeply affected by my work, for some it may not speak to them. Different people are affected by different forms of communication and that is true for the arts as well. Thus, it is important to make a variety of approaches accessible for as many people, and the more people who productively engage with the climate emergency the better. Pragmatically, I think it is important to reach policy makers and I work with them and engage with them. If one of them cries because of one of my symphonies and it gets them to rethink their actions I think that is an important achievement. Not because they are more important but because they have  immediate power to change things systemically.

What would you like to gain from the discussion at the Forum Wissenschaftskommunikation?

I think it is very important to see other people’s perspectives. I have strong views as to how art can have a positive effect on those topics but I am looking forward to hearing not only my fellow panelists' views but also the views of the audience members. I would also like to learn more about which narratives people think are most important to change in our current debates and how maybe the arts can play a role in it.