citizen science

James and a quadrat, Gylly Beach

There’s a strand of thought in environmental art that suggests that artists behave more like scientists: that art, like science, should be about research, data collection, and generally working to develop, support or refute theories. I’m not sure where I stand on this. On the one hand I love that scientific knowledge can enhance our experience of natural wonders, such as the thrill that comes from knowing that when we see stars we are looking back in time. I also suspect that a lot of science happens because scientists, like artists, retain that sense of wonder and imagination we all have as children, and that generally gets dulled by the experience of growing up going to school. Think of Einstein. On the other hand, art is not science.

It is true that artists research and experiment with methods and materials, so as to build up a knowledge base and expertise. However, I think art works on many levels and the experience of art will be different for different people because the way it taps into our individual emotions and memories as well as our sense of cultural belonging. You can’t describe how art works in quite the same way as, say, electricity. But we live in challenging times, both politically and environmentally. If as artists we can use our work to help create a new way of living on this planet, then it can’t hurt to borrow a few tricks from scientists – incorporate science into artistic practice if you like – and see what happens. Call it an experiment in cross-disciplinary action.

Which is why, when I said I would organise an activity based on my practice for my MA group, I decided to use quadrats on the beach. Quadrats are one meter squares, usually made of tubing, used by biologists to measure bio-diversity. You place your quadrat on the ground and count all the plants, bugs, etc you find within it. Placing several quadrats randomly over the area in question, (a meadow, perhaps,) will give you a pretty good idea of what’s there without having to count every living thing. It will also show patterns – does one creature hang out in one area, and not in another, for example. And it can be replicated in different places or at different times of the year.

Five of us tried it on a sunny afternoon during half-term after a week of high tides and strong winds from offshore. Gylly Beach, the main tourist beach in town, was covered in huge piles of lovely thick seaweed at and below the high tide line. I had to improvise, so we used quadrats I had made the night before: some out of bamboo poles and others of string.  I gave my classmates/guinea pigs basic instructions on what to do and then left them to choose where to go. James, who you saw at the top of the page, and Pete went below the high tide line. Pete decided to place his quadrat right in all the seaweed:

He found one cigarette butt and bit of plastic wrapping and then decided to create a sculpture in his empty quadrat. James, who dug down an inch before the tide came in, found some well-worn fragments of glass, with the larger pieces lower down. Both were disappointed they didn’t find any of the “promised” plastic rubbish I’ve been banging on about all year.

They should have been at the back of the beach with me, Jan and Dani. Jan, who admittedly is practically a professional beach cleaner, (together we have removed thousands of items of rubbish from local beaches,) found 163 pieces of rubbish in her metre sqaured.

127 of these were pieces of polystyrene. She also found 27 nurdles. Dani’s first quadrat yielded only one piece of glass:

She then moved a few yards and set up shop again, this time finding an assortment of rubbish including 9 cigarette butts, 36 pieces of polystyrene, and 86 nurdles. This find warranted a “woah!” on her sampling sheet. Quite so.

I didn’t finish my quadrat, which was also at the back of the beach right at one of the access points, but I collected 120 pieces of litter including 4 cigarette butts, 58 pieces of polystyrene, and 41 nurdles.

So what did we find out? That glass gets buried into the sand below the tide line but nurdles don’t. That when you’ve had heavy tides you might not find much plastic below the tide line – the sea has taken it all away. That there is more rubbish at the back of the beach and the most common items on this beach are cigarette butts, bits of polystyrene and plastic nurdles. And that even within this finding there will be patches at the back of the beach with lots of rubbish and others with very little: In conclusion, if you’re walking along the edge of the sea on a beach this winter and see is what appears to be a pristine beach, you’re not getting the whole picture.

I already knew this: I can tell you that in my experience I tend to find polystyrene and nurdles at the back of the beach and that they collect in patches where, I presume, the wind has blown them (the polystyrene) or the tide has deposited them (the nurdles.) But until now I had I no factual evidence for that assertion: My work cleaning beaches creates data because I collate all the material I pick up once I get it home. But the interpretation is limited: everything I find gets thrown into my bags and mixed up, regardless of where it came from on the beach. So using quadrats gives a more accurate picture and this can only improve upon repeating the exercise.

But how significant is that data? As interesting as it is – and as useful as it is for showing people just how much litter gets washed up on our beaches – for me the art in my work happens in the act of cleaning the beach itself, on my own or with others, and in the encounters I have with people on the beach and the coastal path or the reactions to this blog. Think of it as a sort of street theatre but on the beach or in cyberspace.

So for me, the most interesting data came from the observations made by James, Pete, Dani and Jan as they cleaned their patches of beach, and later recorded on the sampling sheets I gave them to fill in. First of all, they all complained that the quadrats I gave them didn’t stay in one place. So I definitely need to improve upon the design – and maybe supply scissors to cut the seaweed. Jan and Dani expressed their frustration in comments such as:  “Quadrats are a great way to quantify the collections but I found myself noticing the plastic outside the quadrat and getting annoyed I couldn’t pick it up” (Dani.) Or, “Using a quadrat is very frustrating because you feel the pressure of the square and also you see all the rubbish outside the quadrat.” (Jan.)

In the end Dani began to clean the beach proper rather than start a third quadrat. Personally I loved my quadrat and had no trouble ignoring all the rubbish outside it. I know that if I ever go back there will always be plenty for me to pick up.

beautiful seaweed - shame about the nurdle

James gave a great description of what he did and revealed disappointment: “After finding a small amount of glass on the surface of the beach I then took an inch off the top layer of sand – this revealed a lot more glass of larger sizes. I was hoping for buried nurdles.” Pete asked a pertinent question: “was it a performance or a scientific data gathering exercise/process? ….. in the end just wasn’t sure what you wanted me to do and made a sculpture using canes, sand, seaweed etc, which was ‘nice’ – but not what I think you wanted”

Actually, Pete, it was exactly what I wanted! This was an experiment, after all. I wanted to try something different from just cleaning the beach. I wanted to see what would happen if I introduced a scientific method into my practice. But because I am stubborn and do not like to be told what to do, I wanted to leave the exercise open-ended, and to give the participants enough room to do what they felt like, wether it be dig for glass or clean outside the quadrat or make a sculpture with sand and seaweed.

My only disappointment for the exercise was the non-existent reaction from other people on the beach. Everyone reported a distinct lack of interest – I even had one swimmer run right through one corner of my quadrat and not notice. Yes we may have garnered some data but I want to create art, as well! So for the next time, I think we do indeed need to make it more of a performance. Should be fun.

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