Wild Science: Experiments in Nature and the Vanishing Amazon

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

I was in the Amazon jungle where, despite the heat and humidity, I was so excited I could barely contain myself. Insect repellent from a small bottle that had already saved me from Southeast Asian and Ugandan mosquitoes was the invisible shield that was preventing Amazonian ones from making a meal out of me. A dedicated umbrella-carrier, I had brought a bright yellow umbrella to the jungle, which amused the other artists in the expedition, but also gave them comfort when I shared my portable shade with them on the hot beaches of the Rio Negro, or when the rains poured incessantly in the Ducke Reserve.

In this ten-day residency, I would often be seen smelling things for my project. In An Olfactory Portrait of the Amazon Rainforest, I explore the scents of the Amazon, how these relate to people’s memories, and how the Amazon itself, like the ephemeral nature of smells, is vanishing because of destructive human practices. It was a joy to explore the Amazon through my nose.

One of the highlights of this experience was listening to talks by established scientists and artists, who helped us, resident artists, see the jungle through their different perspectives. It was illuminating to hear about research projects done in the Amazon, but disheartening to learn about the ways the jungle is being harmed through commercial exploitation. The Amazon struck me as a battlefield.

Hiking in the Amazon. Photo by Catherine Sarah Young.

Climate Change and Social Issues

For the past few years, I have focused on climate change and art through my series of interdisciplinary works in The Apocalypse Project. This has been a kind of jungle for me, but instead of poisonous insects and muddy trails, I wrestle with climate change deniers and people who do not believe that art has value. Over the years, I have felt that simply looking at the environmental consequences of climate change—extreme temperatures and weather events—wasn’t the whole story. Recently, issues of inequality, the ineffectiveness of science to affect policy, the lack of science education, our post-truth era, and the many things that divide humanity have haunted me and made me look anew at the role of science and art in society.

What is the good of science and art if we cannot relate to one another as human beings? This was my personal jungle to battle with: these networks of wicked problems that give me as an artist much to work with, but also makes me as a person very concerned about the future of mankind in general.

One day, I was in the woods with Gui, our intrepid photographer. Gui was taking photos of the distillation experiment that would help me extract smells out of some of the samples I had collected. As I stared at the scientific equipment that looked so out of place in the Amazon, something clicked in my head. Seeing science brought out of the ivory tower and into the wildness was haunting. This episode was more than just a residency documentation. It led to my next series of projects, “Experiments in Nature.”

Visiting an indigenous community. Photo by Catherine Sarah Young.

Experiments in Nature, Nature in Experiments

This series of investigations takes a critical look at the role of science in society. Science often has the reputation of being hidden in an ivory tower, and here I bring it out into the forest. Elements of nature are seen to be “helping” the experiment along, with the branches and logs supporting the equipment, temperatures helping to catalyze or stop the experiment, etc.

The questions I raise when I bring a controlled experiment in an uncontrolled natural environment are: Who is doing the experiment? Is it a successful or a futile experiment – I did manage to make the experiment work, but are the results even valid? Are these “performative” experiments in the same way that science, with its failure to affect policy, seems to sometimes be a performative discipline? Science almost becomes a theatrical space where people question the legitimacy of, for instance, climate data.

Jungle Experiments – Amazon (II), 2017. Still from video (1:39).

Science and the Public

After the residency, I was asked to give olfactory workshops at the Bosque da Ciência (Science Forest). It felt wonderful to share the value of our sense of smell and the wonder of experiments, and to further explore the themes I had worked with in the Amazon—nature, public participation, collaboration, etc.

As someone with both a science and an art background, I wish for these two disciplines to work together to change public perceptions on climate change (it’s real) and how we act on it (we can all do something). In the context of the Amazon, ongoing deforestation and resource extraction reduces the jungle’s ability to sequester carbon, and worsens the effects of climate change. Most of all, I want this project to reflect on the public’s seeming disenchantment with knowledge, and to call on all of us to rekindle our sense of wonder and intellectual curiosity. It was a humbling and awe-inspiring first visit to the Amazon, and with these new experiences and relationships, I’m looking forward to the next step.

Workshop at Bosque da da Ciência. Photo by Roumen Koynov, © LABVERDE.

Thank you to LABVERDE Artist Immersion Program in the Amazon for supporting the residency. Thank you to LABVERDE, INPA National Institute for Amazonian Research and Bosque da Ciência for supporting the workshop. Thank you to photographer Gui Gomes.

(Top image: The artist at work. Photo by Gui Gomes, © LABVERDE.)


Catherine Sarah Young is an artist, designer, and writer originally from the Philippines whose work explores emerging technologies and alternative futures through interactive storytelling and sensory experiences. She creates works that investigate nature, our role in nature, and the tensions between nature and technology, exploring themes such as climate change and sustainability, science policy and citizen science, feminism and participatory art, among others. She has an international exhibition, residency, and fellowship profile and has collaborated with scientists, companies, chefs, artists, think tanks, and museums around the world. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

About Artists for Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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