The Kruger Project: Performing DataKruger

[An excerpt of Almost Human’s talk given at the Future Climate Dialogues Symposium, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, June 13th]

Our project focuses on the research and data that was collected by the IBERS department and Steven Tooth, alongside other universities and investigators (D.J Milan and G.L Heritage) as part of the project ‘Evaluating and modelling the impact of extreme events on South African dryland rivers: Cyclone Dando (January 2012), Natural Environment Research Council Urgency Grant NE/K001132/1’. This project focused on Cyclone Dando, which in January 2012 struck southern Africa, leading to widespread heavy rainfall (450-500 mm in 48 hours) & flooding in the Kruger National Park, eastern South Africa. This flooding occurred just 12 years after the last major catastrophic flooding in the Kruger National Park in January/February 2000, which also caused dramatic river channel & vegetation changes. Using data acquired from light aircraft together with field surveying & sediment sampling, the study analysed the flooding, erosion & sedimentation that occurred during the January 2012 event along three rivers in the Kruger National Park. The data obtained was compared with pre-existing data collected prior to & following the 2000 disaster, and combined with state-of-the-art computer models to simulate flow characteristics during floods and the longer term response of the rivers to sequences of extreme floods.

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We will very briefly summarise what the investigative team discovered during the data collection at Kruger National Park in order to give you an idea of the kinds of statistics we will be working with in the creation of the performance work. There are three rivers in the park, and during the flood event in the year 2000, in both the Sabie and the Letaba River the flooding and subsequent damage was much larger than in 2012. The data that had been collected for that same year for the Olifants River was a lot less detailed; however, this data demonstrated that the flooding in 2012 had actually proved much worse. This is partly influenced by the track of the cyclones, but the Olifants River has a larger catchment area, and it continued to rain much more heavily in that catchment during 2012 which ran off to create a larger flood. Once data is computed there will be detailed comparative data between the two flood events, which can be used to track volume loss and gain, the effects on vegetation and the displacement of sediment in the river system. From the data that was collected and compared to the previous flooding, the scientists hope to be able to predict further increases in the size and frequency of extreme flood events in Southern Africa, as well as being able to apply those predictions to other dryland regions.

What Almost Human aim to accomplish is a performance work that entertains, both in a live and mediated format. Introducing the scientific aspect to our approach enables us to assist the project by exploring the dialogue between artistic and scientific disciplines through a technology based performance initiative, giving the hard data and statistics an artistic edge that allows that evidence to have an impact on both UK and international audiences. As identified in the original project proposal, making this evidence have impact on global audiences is one of the potential aims of the project, and various groups were indicated as beneficiaries of this research for educational purposes.
The project is envisaged as a durational performative diagram, filmed using multiple time-lapse cameras, achieving a score built from scientific data. The project will allow the data to ‘perform’ in a dynamic and accessible way through use of objects, materials and their interactions with performers. Filmed material will then be edited into 10 minutes of footage, for viral internet dissemination with additional post production voice over and sound track. Our specific aims for the research are as follows:

  • To use the specific data from the investigation of the river in the Kruger National Park, and frame it in a way that gives it universal significance through metaphor, allegory and correlatives.
  • To find a mode of performance which presents and describes the scientists findings with minimal interruption, analysis or interpretation from the artists.
  • To use micro performance as means to describe and give scale (in terms of size and time) to global catastrophic events.
  • To find a mode of performance catering for both a public audience and the internet channel viewing public by following trends in performance and the internet blog.

There have been various artists who have contributed to a performance discipline combining art and science. However, our company is increasingly interested on the discussions around the idea of scale. Our current performance ‘Letters From another Island’ is constructed using green screen technology to superimpose performers onto a model at 28mm scale. This idea of the scale of environmental event becomes our focus within our exploration of the data discovered at Kruger National Park. While in Southern Africa this was a disaster beyond prediction, the international community heard little to no reports of that disaster. This blasé approach to the impact of global warming is becoming a more recent trend, and early responses of ‘we must save the planet’ are changing to a much more ‘what’cha gonna do?’ attitude. The issue we have is that the scale of the disaster at Kruger needs to be able to resonate in its transition from the location in Africa through the collection of data to its translated destination in the format of live performance. How do we make this scale translate to an audience that has absolutely no knowledge of Kruger National Park or comprehension of the data collected?

 

10 For his work at the Tate Modern, ‘Sunflower Seeds’, Ai Wei Wei employed 1600 workers from Jingdezhen, a small Chinese city, in traditional porcelain production to create 100 million sunflower seeds. However, the precise number of seeds, 100 Million, is not actually claimed to represent any major statistic. But, Stan’s Café’s installation ‘Of all the people in all the world’ uses grains of rice to represent individuals, and the company create piles of rice in which one grain equals one person. Again we have a reoccurrence of this very tiny scale, but this time using the rice to represent specific human numerical data, represented in tiny objects. The piece, like Ai Wei Wei’s seeds, creates a landscape formed by minuscule objects – vast mountains that the audience must walk around, to barely a pinch of rice representing the number of individuals who have walked on the moon. It is the idea of tiny objects that are able to create a landscape that we are also interested in, and where our concept of using Lego was born.

Stan’s Café’s use of rice to represent human statistics, one of the largest food resources on the planet, evokes a strong dialogue between human statistics and hunger issues, global commodity and economics. Similarly Ai Wei Wei’s seeds are manufactured by Chinese workers who would otherwise be facing displacement and potential sweat shop working conditions, as Ai Wei Wei’s project saved the towns traditional porcelain firm from bankruptcy. Seeds are also a local street delicacy. Lego, although not an edible commodity, encourages a human response; like the seeds and the rice it is tactile, it is an object that the human body has a recorded sensory response to. It is the worst thing to step on when you come downstairs in the morning and find some bugger has left a piece on the floor and its imprint is now recorded on the sole of your foot. And because of this human reaction to it, it is a perfect tool to use to represent data. It is playful, colourful. It takes a statistic and turns it into a visible, constructed thing; it models data, it builds information, and is childishly creative, so it becomes accessible. Its ease of construction and its ability to interlock is its asset, for we can turn one unit into a larger unit, or by pulling it apart have several units existing as evidence, like the technological building of bites and mega bites of data, collected into chunks and constructed as information. We want to be able to translate the written record into a physical entity through playful construction.

Our intention to use an internet video platform is informed by the need to turn a durational piece of performance work into an accessible film or performance lecture outside of the performance space. From the initial conversations the live element has always needed to work towards a final internet located project. We want this information to be able to exist on social networking and youtube channels so that the data and the record of the event is being fed to those who want it, and introduced to those who did not know of it. The ambition for the data to ‘go viral’ is a large one, however, if we want raw data to have an impact then having it sit on a website in the middle of nowhere is not really going to help it. Creating a work that is playful and filmic, developed from a live performance allows for the spread of data, but continues to query performance theory. Phillip Auslander and Peggy Phelan raise many questions in their work about the ethics and ability to record performance, and the slippages between ‘live’ and ‘mediated’ events that enquire as to the true location of ‘performance.’ This continuing debate around the Liveness question compliments the notion that recorded data be accessed through performative means, and the ability of that record to be accessed after, making data live through an increasing virtual audience. The live performance is the plateau from which the scientific data is able to leap into a virtual beyond.

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Much of the live action will be filmed and edited using time lapse technology. We were interested in the way that natural disasters move, that it may take many years for an event to creep up on us, but when it does the devastation is instant. We then have a process of restoration and recovery, and this can also take many years to happen. By using the Lego to build not only diagrams and data representation, but also landscapes, animals and river systems we can film both the process of construction and the act of destruction, and slow down or speed up that action in the editing phase. In the live element, audiences will get to witness our approach to filming, to constructing, and there may also be some instances of stop-frame animation. All of this is being played before a live audience as well as being edited down for an online community of viewers.
Our current intention is to edit our durational performance into 10 minutes of film.
As it stands, this project is still very much a work-in-progress, and Almost Human are still working alongside Steve Tooth and Richard Downing from in Aberystwyth to complete this proposal. We are very excited to be a part of this project and hope that our incredibly playful and human approach to performance can help transfer some of this data into the minds of those who perhaps had never accessed information like this before.