janine randerson

New Zealand-based new media artist Janine Randerson explores the interface between the bio-system, meteorology and technology. In 2008, she was in Denmark for an art residency studying radio and satellite- tracking data of Arctic bird and mammal species at DMU (The Danish Environmental Research Institute). She is currently a PhD researcher at the University of Melbourne.

from animal to information

Janine Randerson is a New Zealand artist exhibiting at RETHINK with her artwork cascade, which was partly developed at DMU in Denmark. Here she tells about her experiences working in the borderland of art and science and how it was to work in the ‘deep’ north in collaboration with environmental scientists.


Not only human culture, but also animal life and the abiotic have urgent demands in the current climate crisis. Science has played a key role in the communication of non-human interests but there is a role for wider cultural analysis. The art project Cascade tests the borders surrounding the digital distribution of material about climate change, through environmental science, social-networking on the internet and the artwork. On the one hand, we have the scientists who statistically monitor and observe climactic changes and their impact on Arctic animals and ecosystem, and on the other, the citizen who pulls out a video camera and uploads an environmental video to the web. Cascade shifts between spheres often kept apart: scientific visualisations, gathered on my creative fieldwork at DMU (the National Environmental Research Institute) in Denmark and the quotidian work of YouTubers, who document local environmental changes from the ground. An artwork can create a collage ecology, with unusual relationships between scientific data visualisation, the navigation routes of Arctic animals and migratory birds and shared video observations on the net.


In residence at DMU (National Environmental Research Institute)

From September to October 2008, I participated in an artist-residency at DMU in Roskilde, Denmark. I was on site at RISØ, a scientific research precinct. My research was framed with the outcome of generating a project for the RETHINK exhibition to accompany the COP15 United Nations Conference on Climate Change. As well as interviewing the scientists and recording informal conversations, I focused on the merging of animals and technology through scientific instrumentation, software and the daily desk workings of a research centre, after their summer of fieldwork in Greenland. I encountered a recurring phrase there; the ‘trophic mismatch’ that generates a ‘cascade of effects’, a condition that develops as a predicted consequence of climate change. When the availability of food at certain points of the ecosystem shifts in response to warming temperatures, the seasonal cycles of plankton or fish may go out-of-sync with the summering grounds of marine mammals (for example), and the result is a mismatch in the food availability needed for survival. The emotive, yet still scientifically applied word ‘cascade’, became a motif for my research for RETHINK. Cascade, the installation, includes scientific visualisations derived from the satellite-tracking of birds such as the arctic tern, Svalbard goose and king eider, as well as polar bears, caribou, narwhals and porpoise to reveal their migration and food-foraging patterns.


While I was at DMU, I was interested in engaging with the scientists on their own terms and learning their language, while occasionally asking a question that invited them to open up the way they engaged with their material from my perspective. Physicist-philosopher, Isabelle Stengers’ advice stayed in my mind during the research; to approach to scientific practice, “by feeling its borders, experimenting with questions that the practitioners may accept as relevant, even if they are not their own questions,” (2005, 184) so as not to let the borders close in the art:  science encounter. DMU Scientist Jakob Tougaard was very open to the creative redeployment of the bio-sonar information produced by the porpoise for example, which he collected using hydrophones and acoustic data loggers. These navigation signals are featured in composer Jason Johnston’s audio work for Cascade, as a non-human form of mapping.


Mobile relations

Like a scientist on a field trip, for an artist on a residency, there is an expectation that you bring back ‘things’ as Bruno Latour describes it, which are ‘gathered and displaced’ (Latour: 1986, 6) to make some kind of story about climate change. Cascade emerged as a response to the scientific knowledge distributed through figures and maps. A key task of the DMU scientists is to monitor the effects of anthropogenic disturbances on marine, terrestrial and aerial phenomena in Denmark and the Arctic environment. The scientists create simulations and visualisations from data collected by satellite telemetry from GIS transmitters on animals attached by collars or backpacks. DMU director, Jesper Madsen initially set my terms of engagement, expecting that I would choose one particular animal and work with one data set, in fact, I ended up spending time with several scientists who were particularly engaged in scientific visualisation or sonification. Peter Aastrup demonstrated the mapping of satellite positions of caribou onto large consumer softwares such as GoogleEarth, and Susi Edren taught me to use ArcGIS and ArcMap from data based on Danish harbour porpoise. Latour calls such scientific visualisations, ‘immutable mobiles’, however this immutability may be partially undone through art:science relationships. While art:science practices need to be mobile and create meanings beyond the art and science worlds, there is no corresponding requirement for art projects to create an immutable, internal consistency, (as a scientists must, in order to establish their research within the wider project of Science). When combined with YouTube data, the scientific figures no longer form a singular version of reality, but instead a possible subjectivity is fore-grounded. In making Cascade, I wanted to enact the process of translation from bioorganisms to digital GIS or internet data; from animal to information. 


YouTube ecologies

Narratives created by ordinary people about wildlife encounters with animals threatened by climate change are now flourishing outside of the expert knowledge of the scientist or the formalised account of the nature documentary. In contrast to the (often automatically granted) authority of the scientific visualisations, the digital data from public video-sharing sites reveals Arctic animals in immediate contact with humans. Polar bears startled on eco-tourist ventures, or Arctic creatures are caught on video when they approach human dwellings. Digital excerpts on YouTube are usually freely distributed despite the attempted restrictions of the site regulations, while scientists are often protective of their research until it is ‘cleaned-up’ for journal presentation. YouTube videos are a global phenomena and Cascade includes images of Arctic migratory birds, recorded on stop-overs in Australia and New Zealand, as well as terrestrial and marine animals from video-makers in the Arctic Circle. This empirical video presents the close-range vision of personal observation, rather than the panoptic viewpoint of scientific visualisations.


Wild animal-chasing, video-enthusiasts on YouTube are interventionist in their recording methods and equally, the animals are more than passive subjects of observation. I have selected moments where humans are attacked by an Arctic tern, or a caribou stares as he is circled by a motorbike. The DMU scientists also actively intervene through their monitoring processes, particularly in the capturing of animals and the attachment of satellite transmission devices. Donna Haraway’s text, When Species Meet, is useful to counter my knee jerk response that satellite-telemetry is fundamentally surveillant and intrusive. Haraway suggests that it is easy to critique projects where animals become involuntary agents for human technological research. Instead, she argues that there is a kind of ‘infolding’ of human, machine and animal in technologies like the ‘Crittercam’ where the animal (and the technological object) have a form of agency. The DMU scientists are forced to adapt to both the animals and the technological affordances of how they attach equipment, how much weight the animals can carry and the data gaps where satellite transmitters are forcibly removed by the animals. The border zone between human and non-human is constantly renegotiated in these interactions.


Trophic mismatch

During the DMU residency, I felt a little ‘mismatched’, as an artist from New Zealand placed with scientists from the Denmark because of the distance between our cultural and geographical habitats. This feeling was catalysed by my involvement in an online discussion on the art:science list-serv, Synapse, when a participant challenged me to explain why I was in Scandinavia and not working at my own ‘end’ of the earth. The border issues for an artist from the South, on a residency in the North, are paralleled by my interest in the fate of migratory birds from the Arctic. The bar-tailed godwit, sooty shearwater and even some arctic tern migrate as far as the deep South of New Zealand’s coast. These species are vulnerable to trophic mismatch as they are genetically programmed to reach feeding grounds where they may miss the spring in a warming world. Fewer godwits have been observed arriving to New Zealand’s shores, and the impact of climate change is experienced in their absence. Stengers writes that an ecological approach to research is never a neutral tool because it realigns habits of thinking. The arbitrary border between hemispheres of Western thought needs to be realigned in context of the global effects of climate change. The strange ecological model of a migratory bird, without geographical boundaries, yet tracked by satellite, may suggest a renegotiation of the constraints between animals, humans and technologies, and the separation of the world into North and South.



Haraway, D. c2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Latour, B.1986, ‘Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together’, accessed 18 September 2008, <http:// www.bruno.latour.fr>.

Stengers, I. 2005, ‘Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices’ Cultural Studies Review, vol. 11, no. 1, (pp 183-196).

Interviews and conversations with scientists Jakob Tougaard, Susi Edren, Peter Aastrup and Jesper Madsen, DMU research centre, September 25 -October 10 2008.