Filling gaps in science with creativity: an interview with artist Anna Keleher

 Posted by sustainable on March 29, 2013

Some time ago, we asked how the creative arts might bring a new dimension to your research: might it actually be possible to integrate creative practitioners into interdisciplinary teams to generate new insights about the world around us? We asked this question to Anna Keleher, an artist with an MA in Arts and Ecology, who is currently fundraising for her latest project Radio Dreaming (with Claire Cote), which explores dreams of place and how landscapes speak through dreamers.

In this interview, Anna suggests how the creative arts may operate within an interdisciplinary context, to help derive new insights. The interview suggest that there are (at least) four ways you can work more effectively with the creative arts:

  1. Integrate artistic practice into your methodology as you would the methods of any other discipline. The practices of many artists are remarkably similar to researchers in many disciplines, methodically experimenting with new materials to infer new insights about the natural world (as Anna does with soft rushes to infer insights about the role of cordage and material cultural of Neanderthals)
  2. Create informal spaces for the creative arts to act as a catalyst to stimulate new ways of thinking about the world around us (in Anna’s case by posing a simple but radical question)
  3. Enable the creative arts to perform a mediation role between disciplines, initiating conversations between disciplines that might never normally interact together, using art as the medium through which conversations can occur without the barriers of discipline-specific jargon
  4. To get these sorts of benefits from collaborating with the creative arts, it is essential to collaborate with creative practitioners as equals – for an interdisciplinary team to function effectively, no team member can perceive themselves to be any better than anyone else, no matter how many letters they’ve got after their name or how many titles they’ve got in front of their name. Artists need to be integrated into interdisciplinary teams as equals, who like everyone else in the team have unique expertise, experience and insights to bring to the research

Over to you Anna!

“As a contemporary artist, with an Arts and Ecology training, I mediate between worlds, interpreting and revealing “hidden” or “hard to see” things. I use ancient and contemporary technologies to reach and share insights. But like other wild things, insights are timid, so my approach must be indirect. I feign disinterest, I experiment, play, record, collect, disguise, collaborate with people, places and/or things. I have found thatcollaboration acts as a kind of lure, encouraging a whole wildlife of novel ideas and approaches with which to help shape the future.”

“Meeting with New Mexican artist/anthropologist, Claire Coté and adventuring into Geopark and National Parks alone, I understood that an important part of my practice is to meet with experts in the field. Like bats, rocks, fungi and dreams, experts are part of the natural biodiversity of a place, and can help me deepen my understandings. I might meet them by invitation or quite by chance in a cave, on a mountain or in a car park. Many of these encounters have had the status of true exchanges.”

“During my experimental research project “Talking With Things”, English Riviera Geopark Co-ordinator Mel Border, invited me to visit “Lynx Cave”, situated under Paignton Zoo. The Devonian Limestones of the Geopark are honeycombed with cracks, crevices and caverns some of which have been home to all kinds of creatures from hyenas and Steppe Pika to hominids. Mel was accompanied by a multi-discipliinary team led by Dr Danielle Schreve, a vertebrate paleontologist and specialist in Ice Age environments, fossil mammals and the early human colonisation of Europe. Danielle’s research into quaternary mammals both simulates and recreates present day ecologies.”

“I try to reconstruct prehistoric ecologies in my own imagination and had been wondering what mammals the robin might have followed long before the appearance of the gardener. Danielle told me about her research into the role of mammals in prehistoric ecosystems and about how Konic horses can increase biodiversity in the polder; as the horses’ hooves churn the boggy marshlands, bitterns come in to feed and the ecosystem becomes more complex and diverse. I thought I’d gone to heaven when the three of us ended up at the Zoo gates chatting about Neanderthal culture and creativity!”

“Dr Chris Proctor’s scientific data on the stratigraphy of flow-stones atKent’s Cavern shows that the hand axes trapped underground date them at 400,000 years old; therefore, the axes must have been made by Neanderthals. While Neanderthal hand axes are perfectly preserved beneath these giant stalagmites, there are no organic artifacts that have survived into the archaeological record to give us more information about ancient lives and cultures; no clothes, nets, traps, baskets, tethers, hammocks. Danielle emphatically dismissed the possibility of Neanderthal textiles. She said they didn’t wear clothes, so I persisted and explained my own experimental research and then posed a question.”

“Whether through the play of modern human or Neanderthal fingers, the string potential of long leafy plants means string is bound to happen again and again. My experiments in the natural world tell me that cordage is one of the cornerstones of our culture and is older than us by far.”

“I explained that as my project had unfolded, I had been using myself as a lab, experimenting to discover more about potential prehistoric cultures using iris leaves, rushes, horsehair and my own hands and feet. Though Neanderthals had slightly different brains from us, they would have been totally in tune with their environment as a matter of survival.  The lower parts of soft rushes are a known famine food and I’m in no doubt that Neanderthals would have eaten them. When you chew the soft rush, the flesh comes off, revealing a core of fibres that already looks like twine; when the fingers play, cordage is formed.”

“Giving evidence from my own practice I was able shift this paleontologist’s stuck vision of Neanderthal people’s creative capacity and their possibilities for material culture by posing a simple question. “What were Neanderthals doing all day if they had fingers and they had fibrous leafy plants, but they hadn’t discovered string?”.   A light bulb went on for her at that point!”

“Art thrives in the gaps between scientific evidence and I saw a niche opening for myself as a creative thinker/experimental researcher, like the bittern that enriches new ecosystems.”

Anna Keleher has a distinction in M.A Arts and Ecology from UCF incorporating Dartington college of Arts. Donate to her Kickstarter campaign here: Radio Dreaming Kickstarter Campaign


Mapping Dreams at Killykeagan

Find out more about Anna’s work: