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A Conversation on Art & Environment with Rafe Sagarin

Observation and Ecology author Rafe Sagarin discusses art and the environment with poet Eric Magrane from the University of Arizona.

Eric Magrane: Rafe, you write and speak about observation, most pointedly in your bookObservation and Ecology, with Aníbal Pauchard. I’d like to discuss the way that observation interacts as a hinge between science—and particularly environmental science—as a way of seeing and understanding the world, and art as a way of seeing.
Rafe Sagarin Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin: Absolutely. Observation is at the core of so many things we do, especially art and science. It’s almost so much at the core of science that it’s forgotten how important it is. The primacy that observation has to everything that we know—we’ve almost gotten too clever by half and think we could skip that deep observational step. Of course, all artists implicitly understand that they need to be really good observers of the world first, before they can start translating those observations to something they can appreciate. Sometimes in science we drill down way too far too fast before we understand observationally the whole context of what we’re looking at. Eric Magrane: It seems like there are intersections between where one starts, as well—whether one begins with a hypothesis or a question that will guide the way that you look at things. Or sometimes in artistic ways of engaging with the world, it doesn’t always begin from a specific question or a discrete category that one is already organizing the world in, right? It seems like the way that you speak about observation addresses this stepping back and being attentive to what is actually happening in the world rather than going in already saying—within this space, within this marine ecosystem, for example—I know exactly how I organize this world already. It upsets the way that we make knowledge and has openings for new ways of understanding the ordering of the world and trying different arrangements. Rafe Sagarin: Exactly. There’s been a lot of shifting of this in science. The early naturalist-explorers were wide-open observers. Darwin didn’t go to the Galapagos with a hypothesis in mind about evolution. He observed and observed for years, even when he got back, and eventually came out with this hypothesis and looked back at the data to see how it fit. What happened especially in the second half of the 20th century is that science got really more and more pressure, to this day, to define itself by being able to ask a hypothesis and then test that hypothesis. In the way we’ve made that process more efficient, it’s almost like you need to know—in order to get funded for your science—exactly what your hypothesis is going to be beforehand. Otherwise, you’re accused of going on a fishing expedition when in reality you’re never going to come up with a good hypothesis until you’ve done a lot of observing as broadly as possible before you even think about what’s the most appropriate question here. Eric Magrane: How do you know which scales to observe? There are connections here to citizen science or engaging the public in bringing in multiple frames of observation and observers looking at different objects. Rafe Sagarin: There’s really no one right way to determine what scale you start at. I think it’s really determined by what it is you’re interested in. But you do need to have the cognizance that there are multiple scales out there, so that you’re not blinding yourself. So for example if you’re just looking at satellite data of something, you may be missing some important processes that are going on right down at the ground. And if you’re just looking at one local site, you might be missing how that connects to the whole picture. The beauty of being an observer in today’s world is that you can move across scales. Technologically speaking we’re able to observe like never before—observe the entire earth—but also we can do so in terms of our networked world we live in. Even if you’re not the person who can do the observations at the very local scale, you can connect with people—through citizen science programs for example or through networks of scientists—who are observing at different places. We have kind of an unprecedented opportunity and ability to observe at all kinds of scales. But that doesn’t suggest there is one scale you should necessarily start on. Click here for more and a video.