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Signatures of Living Things

As I trace lines of a dancer responding to an exhibition I recognise similar forms in the exhibits and imagine a timeless merging of iconography and choreography.


It's not just about the story teller, is it, but about the story to be told.

Kirralee Baker, 2013

I think of art [as] (belief) and science [as] (reason) in that the reason is the facts that we will or won't accept based on what we are drawn to, the belief.

Charlotte Robinson, 2014


Drawing, dance, animation and photography are just some ways we relate our experience to the knowledge that we glean from science. I dance, draw and animate.

Scientist Charlotte Robinsonis researching ways to "better understand the physiology underlying acclimation [adjustment] of phytoplankton to changes in the spectral quality of light". Charlotte knows about dynamic relationships that exist between the colour of water at different ocean depths and the colour of pigments (chloroplasts) in phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are the tiny living things that photosynthesise to make the air we breathe. Collectively they produce the oxygen in every second breath we take. Phytoplankton are our genetic ancestors. They inspire me by their delicate, diverse forms and movements, and their ingenious individual and collective behaviours.

I draw live specimens that Charlotte is studying and wonder how these tiny things adjust to changing light, as well as breed, forage and make oxygen. Charlotte explains that as well as producing the oxygen we breathe they collectively work as a global photovoltaic system, harvesting all the sunlight that casts through all the water surrounding planet Earth. I imagine the diversity of phytoplankton forms and their pigments complimentary against the colours in the water that excites their photosynthesising. Then I wonder how we humans adjust to changing light, apart from feeling happier on sunny days, and how we might work as global community.

With my mother
in the sunlight


Looking through microscopes at tiny living things, I imagine dancing with them.

Ditylum brightwelliiis one of many phytoplankton in the ocean that collectively produce every second breath of oxygen we breathe.



Artist Dean Walshdances in response to the ocean and its life forms. He draws on his experience as a diver and to knowledge he gleans from scientists about marine life forms and their behaviours.

Dean's dance response to the Living Data Lab: Evolving Conversationsexhibition in Sydney is a response to many responses: those of scientists and other artists around the world whose exhibits are responses to our changing climate, and to me and other artists who come to see and record his performances. His dance is also a response to the way the space is shaped by curator Anita Marosszeky.

Other people who watch and record Dean dance are New Media artist Jason Benedek,Photographer Paul Sutton,TV journalist Jen Ng, Business Manager Mike Jones, and visual artists Catherine Nolanand Jemima Eve McDonald, and anthropologist Jonathan Marshall.



This is the voice of a character in a story who at first fails to recognise the creative nature of science:

[Jacob Boehme] had believed in something he called "the signature of all things" - namely, that God had hidden clues for humanity's betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth. All the natural world was a divine code, Boehme claimed, containing proof of our Creator's love...

Jacob Boehme worked in the opposite direction of proper scientific methodology. He lacked the rigor of orderly thinking. His writings were filled with shattered, splintered, mirror-fragments of insight. He was irrational. He was credulous. He saw only what he wished to see. He overlooked everything that contradicted his certainties. He started with his beliefs, then sought to make the facts fit around them. Nobody could rightly call that science...

Elizabeth Gilbert The Signature of All Things 2013; 268-269


In the story the character's understanding evolves as her true nature unfolds to unite her analytic and sensory selves.

The 'shattered, splintered, mirror-fragments of insight' are precisely what can lead to the most valuable discoveries. What may seem at the time to be crazy imaginings may lead to the most useful knowledge. For example it once seemed crazy to some people that the sun and not Earth could be the centre of our universe. It contradicted the Renaissance view of Earth as the centre of everything. The new solar-centric view is useful because it allows more accurate mapping which opens up access to what lies beyond where we stand. The new view leads to questions that inspire development of technologies that expand perception into microscopic and astronomic dimensions.

Current knowledge of photosynthesis fits beautifully with the solar-centric view. It fits beautifully because it resonates with deep beliefs and has potential for iconography to make the science memorable and respected. The solar-centric view places Earth centre stage in a profoundly new and attractive way, as the centre of life itself, uniquely powered by sun's energy through photosynthesis. This view of Earth resonates with the infantile belief that we are the centre of the universe, a belief that Freud explains as part of the archaeology of the human mind conserved before birth, when our every need comes freely to us. This view also resonates with feelings of connection to the sun we see expressed in forms of art created since pre-history, most famously in ancient Inca artefacts and less well known in ancient Chinese calligraphy.

The primal forms are circling, spiralling and crossing. They are found in drawings and dances of the Great Apes, as well as in human children and in iconography used by scientists and artists. The forms express knowledge of the world and feelings of connection.

Can iconography that combines scientific and subjective expressions arise from conversations between scientists and artists? Could such iconography embody stories that are vital to our survival and be understood beyond the artist's studio and scientist's lab?

Can we work collectively? Collectively we will tip or maintain balance between the plants and animals. Do we burn fossil fuels and destroy living things (including us)? Do we invest in renewable energy systems now available?Are artists and scientists already leading the way, inspiring and informing people beyond their studios and labs, to protect and to build sustainable economies?

An artist friend smiled when I described to her the vast and colourful dance of phytoplankton in the sunlit ocean depths and currents. "That sounds like fun!" We must have fun as well as beauty and pathos.



Please email comments to Lisa Roberts


From: Charlotte Robinson
To: Lisa Roberts
Subject: RE: Does this make sense?
Date: Thu, 8 Jan 2015 19:42:16 +1100

The first thing I noticed about the piece is the similarities between the movement in your drawings of Dean Walsh's dance and the Ditylum cells. I'm not sure if that is just a reflection of your own perspective of the two 'organisms', but even before I saw the drawings of Dean's dance, I thought the Ditylum looked as though they too were dancing.

I agree with your line, "The 'shattered, splintered, mirror-fragments of insight' are precisely what can lead to the most valuable discoveries.". I think that both the thinking of scientists can be shattered and splintered as too can the delivery of new insight or knowledge to our minds. The entirety of scientific knowledge is fragmented throughout thousands of journals and books, and scientists spend much of their time with splinters of knowledge (and subsequent thoughts) floating around in their brains. I guess though, in order to make discoveries or be 'successful' in science, there must be convergence or ordered thinking at some point.

Do you think creativity is both the imagination of new possible splinters of truth as well as the assembly of known splinters/truths - both leading to discovery? No new insights for your piece really, just agreeing with you.

You write about belief and reason in the formation of knowledge (or how we like to view things) and I immediately think of art (belief) and science (reason) in that the reason is the facts that we will or won't accept based on what we are drawn to, the belief. In the same way that my eye was drawn to movement in the images that you created, our perspective or view of the centre life is biased towards the dynamics and 'movement' on Earth not observed on something as constant as the sun. I think artists can inspire belief and define importance in the science. Just as the primal drawings connect us with the importance of the sun, which the energy source of life, Earth is just a stage.

Creativity exists in both belief and reason I guess?


You say that 'in order to make discoveries or be 'successful' in science, there must be convergence or ordered thinking at some point'. For me this applies to my experience of making and responding to art, which I can only describe as a sense of elements coming together in ways that transcend verbal explanation.

Do I think creativity is 'both the imagination of new possible splinters of truth as well as the assembly of known splinters/truths - both leading to discovery?' Yes. This description fits with my experience of making art and responding to art, which I feel are both creative processes - with responses being part of the conversation needed to complete the artist's connection to their observer. However I don't think creativity can be defined. I think creativity is a deeply personal, pre-verbal experience. And we think of it in ways that fit with our training and experience. Maybe it's a primal survival response. On the other hand it can arise when basic survival needs are met and there is time for leisurely mind wandering. At the height of civilisations there is a flourishing of the arts and sciences. The Renaissance is an example.

The other day I found a book on the street that suggests a new model for Living Data conversations. Now my mind is wandering, thinking how conversations such as this one may reveal the creative process in action, as something that happens between people, elusive and beyond our grasp to define until the experience is consciously processed. Bringing to consciousness sudden insights of things coming together may be the art and science of understanding that can lead to writing with clarity. Australian sculptor and arts educator Lenton Parr used to say that creative insights may come through conversations with other people, as well as with materials and equipment that we use, and with the natural world we move through, sensing through our whole body. Parr was my teacher and his teacher was the English sculptor Henry Moore. He left a big impression on me and other students. I now define Living Data as responses of living things, including us, to our changing climate, and conversations as two-way interactions we have with people, places and things.

The book I found in the street is Martin Heidegger and Eugen Fink: Heraclitus Seminar, on Fragments of Heraclitus published in 1997 by Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois and first published in 1970.

The form of the book is a dialogue between Heidegger and Fink and the Introduction explains that the book's "pervading theme is interpretation of the relatedness of The One and The Many, a fundamental theme in Heraclitus' thinking":

"[I]t records conversations, and is not the finished work of a single author... it also accounts, at least in part, for the imaginative and experimental character of the interpretations. In conversations, we can rarely anticipate the responses of those with whom we talk. And if an interlocutor disagrees with us, we are often forced to take an imaginative step into areas about which we have not previously thought."

With the advent of the Internet we are part of a global shift towards combining individual (subjective) and collective (scientific) voices. Can an online interactive dialogue form work for Living Data conversations?

Lisa Roberts, Thurs 8th Jan 2015


From: Charlotte Robinson>
To: Lisa Roberts
Subject: RE: Does this make sense?
Date: Fri, 9 Jan 2015 16:28:34 +1100

Richard Feynman said, late in his life, that he regretted not taking the time to study other areas alongside Science such as Philosophy, Art, Humanities - I don't want to make the same mistake. :) I see engaging with Living data and yourself as a rare opportunity for me to learn and think about those other areas, as well as to contribute as a Scientist.

I think online conversations will be another good way to encourage deep thought and discussion.

I am looking forward to seeing the essay evolve. This theme ties in with Jacob Bronowski's argument that knowledge is defined by how we perceive the world through our physical senses. Art can engage the senses as well as change the object or space the senses are detecting.


That is a really interesting idea to ponder in more depth, that 'Art can engage the senses as well as change the object or space the senses are detecting'. I will migrate this conversation to the Living Data website to begin the 2015 program of evolving conversations. Thank you Charlotte!

Lisa Roberts, Tue 12th Jan 2015