Research that creates an immersive experience of climate change in the Arctic
Photographic methods, visualisation and storytelling, and climate change in an arctic environment. This is what the research project: Extended Rephotography: immersive visualization of climate change, is all about. Project leader Tyrone Martinsson’s three-year research project is coming to an end, and preparing the application for his next project, which will take the results of his research to the next level.
The research project revolves around visual methods and how they can be used to tell a story about humans’ relationship with nature and the environment. For Tyrone Martinsson, researcher and teaching professor of photography at HDK-Valand – Academy of Art and Design, this has always been the linking factor running through his work. Back in 2003, he gained his PhD with a thesis on how digital tools can be used to work with historic photographs, in which he studied Nils Strindberg’s photographs from Andrée’s polar expedition in the late 19th century. The Extended Rephotography research project draws on these same historic images. Martinsson and his research team then developed techniques to re-photograph, in other words take a new photograph of the same subject in the same place by seeking out the exact camera points of earlier photographers. An interesting method from an artistic point of view, but the choice of subject and location also adds a dimension of scientific interest.
“I work on environmental and climate issues and glaciers have always been a fundamental element in that. When you place the two images of glaciers in north-west Svalbard taken 120 years apart next to each other, the change is hard to deny,” says Martinsson
New developments led to a change of plan
Something that wasn’t factored into the original plan at the start of the project was Universeum’s decision to build a huge dome, or cupola, called Wisdome. The dome was inaugurated in summer 2023 and today is Sweden’s largest visualisation dome, in which visitors can experience 360° video projections.
“We had originally planned for expanded 180° photography. We had bought the equipment and started the work when we came into contact with Universeum. The construction of the dome meant that there was an opportunity to take the project further. We therefore decided on a 360° camera which we bought and took with us on our expedition in late summer 2022,” Martinsson explains.
The dome at Universeum is just one of several similar buildings made open to the public around Sweden, funded via the Wallenberg Foundation. The aim for the domes was not primarily entertainment but research. But the fact that Wisdome was built by Universeum does open up an opportunity to reach the public.
“Universeum sees the dome as a place for learning and education. Visualisation enables people to part of something that is very difficult to experience, like space travel, or to understand something very complex like quantum physics. If, as researchers, we want to make it possible for others, outside the research community, to share or understand our research, we need to find ways to make that possible. For us, it’s about making the Arctic accessible,” says Martinsson.
The fact that this research project is about both glaciers and visualisation makes it interdisciplinary, or transdisciplinary, whereby the unique perspectives of different disciplines are added together, bringing a wider and deeper understanding of the content. Besides the artistic perspective via Tyrone Martinsson, the University of Gothenburg is represented by education via Professor Lena Pareto and digital humanities (GRIDH) via Associate Professor Jonathan Westin. There is also collaboration with the science discipline via Erik Mannerfelt, doctoral research fellow in glaciology at the University of Oslo. With this in mind, the fact that the research project was formulated as artistic research might not seem obvious, but for Martinsson it wasn’t a difficult choice.
“My starting point is from the artistic perspective, because I work with artistic methods, but my true field is visualisation and storytelling. In fact, you could say that the research is interdisciplinary within art as well, as it also includes design and architecture, for example. The choice mostly comes down to us within the project having a long experience of working with artistic research,” says Martinsson.
The research project is also a collaborative project with a number of different organisations and co-actors. Besides the University of Gothenburg, it includes the Norwegian Polar Institute, Universeum, the University of Plymouth, and Visual Arena, Lindholmen Science Park, which is developing XR technology, i.e. Extended Reality. Gorki Glaser-Müller, project leader at Visual Arena, has been part of the research team from day one. He is also an alumnus of HDK-Valand’s film school and works in parallel as a director and screenwriter.
“For me, this collaboration is unique,” says Gorki Glaser-Müller and continues “You don’t own the process when you buy in a service from a production company where everything has to come in on deadline to a tight budget. In this project, we’ve been able to incorporate the development of new technology, as we’re working with a flexible process."
The fact that the project was delayed due to the pandemic was not possible to plan ahead and of course unfortunate, but it also meant that new technology developed over the course of the project that could be implemented in the project.
“Since the deadline and budget weren’t fixed, it meant we were able to adjust, stretch out or shorten and adapt the application of technology because we own the process from a creative perspective,” says Glaser-Müller
The new project
It is already possible to visit Svalbard virtually via the research project’s open database, where visitors can easily compare the photographs from the 1890s with photos of the same glacier taken in 2012-2022. An additional dimension is being able to “step into” the arctic environment using a VR headset and experience a 360° view in which a digital version of Tyrone Martinsson talks about the environment and shows the photographs that are 120 years old. This educational comparison clearly shows the impact of climate change but the XR experience also enables visitors to experience something more. The ability to experience the unique beauty of the location, the sounds and the sense of being in the Arctic and the effect of being able to look around from several angles packs a bigger emotional punch than viewing pictures on a computer screen.
“The new project partly builds on the work we have done in Extended Rephotography. The database we built, with all the photographic material, films, observations and source material is part of the project’s results, and the new project is about how we can use this material and make it accessible,” says Martinsson.
If funding goes through, the plans are to start the new project in spring 2024 and run for three years, with at least one field study, which will mean another expedition to Svalbard.
“We know this area quite well, so now it’s about refining things using the tools we have at our disposal. It isn’t a problem that the technology is constantly developing, although, naturally, it takes time to learn to use new cameras and drones. At the moment, we can’t imagine the next stage of technological development but it can only get better. Underwater drones, for example, are an opportunity we don’t have today. Perhaps they might become cheaper over the course of the project, which would mean we could bring them in too,” says Glaser-Müller
This time, the new research application is being carried out with Universeum as a partner from the start, and the idea is to move from the VR headset to visiting the environment in Svalbard virtually via the dome’s 360° projection. Martinsson says that this opens opportunities for meeting a wider audience and by doing so, make a greater impact on the public.
“Because we are working with educators right from the start, the idea of how the technology could be used as a teaching tool to engage the general public and foster understanding is a big part of the project from the beginning.”
Gorki Glaser-Müller agrees that a big part of the the project is to create change through engagement and he believes that accessibility in combination with being entertaining makes a good starting point to achieve this.
“The new technology can create the conditions for visitors to become mentally accessible to the facts. The fact that climate change is melting glaciers in the Arctic is something most people already know, but maybe do not want to admit to themselves. To experience the Arctic creates a more personal connection to the place. When you think it is beautiful and fascinating - perhaps you are more willing to do something to change the conditions for this unique environment.”