Researchers at Public Laboratory pursue environmental justice creatively, through re-imagining our relationship with the environment. Our model is to rigorously ask oddball questions, then initiate research by designing or adapting locally accessible tools and methods to collect the data we need to answer those questions.

We’ve found, perhaps not surprisingly, that innovation in tools and methods frequently emerges from creative practices. In the larger trend of art plus science collaboration, 2D graphics, illustration, and visualization get most of the glory. But sculpture and dance are also major drivers of environmental imagination — and therefore scientific inquiry.

taking back the production of research supplies

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Mathew Lippincott, Leo Famulari, Elaine Choi, and Leif Percifield launch a handmade parachute kite.

In early July, approximately 25 people gathered in the cool interior of the 600,000-square-foot Pfizer building to design and build kites and balloons. This event was led by a sculptor, Mathew Lippincott, one of the co-founders of Public Laboratory. From his workshop in Portland, Ore., he’s been researching the performance of tyvek and bamboo as well as ultra-lightweight plastic coated with iron oxide powder that heats itself in the sun. Because community researchers around the world use commercially produced kites and balloons to lift payloads (such as visible and infrared cameras, air quality sensors, and grab samplers) high into the air, this is part of a mission-critical initiative to take back the production of research supplies into the hands of local communities.

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This delta kite (similar to a commercial model called Levitation) features a low-waste, quick (two-hour) assembly from rectangular pieces of material of any size. The completed kite is held by Lizzie Ingraham, Lailye Weidman, Elaine Choi, Mathew Lippincott, Leo Famulari, and Leif Percifield.

dancers and scientists collaborate

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Jessica Einhorn and Lailye Weidman exhibit their work on lightweight kites.

What you may not be expecting to hear is that half of the workshop attendees were dancers or choreographers, organized by Lailye Weidman and Jessica Einhorn, two fellows of iLAND, an organization dedicated to collaboration between dancers and scientists. Inspired by embodied investigations into atmospheric pressure and dynamics, these dancers joined the sculptors to drive forward a research agenda into the little-understood urban wind condition. Other attendees included engineers, theater artists, design students, landscape architects, and urban foresters. This group spent the weekend splitting bamboo, heat seaming painter’s plastic towards building a solar-heated balloon large enough to lift a person, and learning about aerodynamics through attempting to fly their creations.

This work on the replicability (ease of making) and autonomy (easily procurable materials) of DIY aerial platforms — directed by the aesthetic and embodied sense of sculptors and dancers — has increased the ability of non-professional scientists to ask and answer their questions about their environment.