Field Notes Collective

In 2009 Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate, a scientist in Lethbridge, Alberta, decided that she needed to find a new way of reaching the scientific community and the broader public about environmental issues such as climate change. She wanted to develop a project that would facilitate interdisciplinary dialogue and action, as well as strengthen community ties among diverse groups. De Clercke-Floate called up Ryan Doherty, Director of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, and pitched the idea of a collaborative project that would bring together local artists and scientists. Doherty quickly came on board and said that he had, in fact, been envisioning a similar initiative. When De Clerck-Floate began approaching artists and her colleagues in the scientific community, the response was similar—immediate, enthusiastic, and eager to get started.

The Field Notes Collective began with a series of potlucks, field trips, and micro collaborations. Through these personal interactions new ideas formed, a sense of trust was fostered, and the commitment to work together grew. Collectively, the group shared a keen interest in gaining understanding of the complex relationships between social, cultural, and environmental issues.

The first large-scale project the Collective undertook was called Ecotone. In addition to cross-pollination between the fields of art and science, the Collective engaged with ranchers in order to investigate and respond to issues related to local food production, water preservation, and the land. Participants collaborated on scientific assessments of vegetation on the southern foothill rangelands of the Rocky Mountains while touring a long-established grazing study at an agricultural research station. Afterwards, the group shared a 100km dinner. The intent of these events was to bridge three seemingly diverse groups—a goal that, initially, was met with some skepticism. Yet, at each event, the participants shared their experiences, knowledge, and ideas in a spirit of openness and adventure. A series of artist residencies, in which ranchers opened up their lands and their homes to participating artists, were subsequently organized so that the artists could gain intimate knowledge of the ranches. The work that resulted from the residencies and cross-disciplinary exchanges was organized into an exhibition that was shown first at SAAG and then at Nickel Gallery in Calgary. Ecotone, the title of the exhibition, is a word that describes the area where two distinct plant communities (such as a forest and a grassland) meet; This kind liminal zone creates a fertile habitat for evolutionary change—a metaphor for the kind of creation and experimental thinking that the Collective has set out to do.

Through working together, the group has let go of their preconceived notions about each other’s disciplines and engaged in reciprocal learning about varied working processes, technologies, and insights. De Clerck-Floate notes that on the part of the scientists involved, there is an appreciation for the artists’ willingness to work within a sense of ambiguity and the unknown—and an understanding that this approach can enable one to see things differently and at a larger scale. Yet, both groups acknowledge that art and science aren’t actually that far apart. There is a shared understanding that both fields are grounded in critical questions, a commitment to deep research, and, in Doherty’s words, an attempt “to pull back the veil on the truth.”


November 10, 2014
Jessica Hein