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Arts, Culture & Religion

New Residency Aims To Connect Artists And Scientists On Path To Climate Solutions

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Skye Morse-Hodgson.
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Ty Defoe with indigenous arts collective All My Relations performs GIZHIBAA GIIZHIG | Revolving Sky, an immersive theater production that is being developed as part of the Cairns Artist Residency.

Light pollution may not be the most pressing environmental issue at the moment, but it is one that comes with serious health, ecological and economic consequences. That’s according to Daniel Mendoza, a researcher and professor who runs the University of Utah’s Dark Skies minor.

Mendoza said too much artificial light can affect migrating birds and insect species. They use the moon and stars to navigate at night, but light from major metropolitan areas can disorient them, cause them to drift off course and sometimes die.

There’s also an impact on humans. Staring at screens or having bright streets can cause visual stress and affect people’s circadian rhythms, their ability to sleep, rest and recover. Dark skies are also a tourist draw — particularly in a place like Utah, where there are more International Dark Sky Places concentrated than anywhere else in the world. Losing them could impact one of the state’s major economic resources.

And while scientists and conservationists often try to explain how impacts like those can negatively affect people and the environment, the message doesn’t always resonate.

“While we like to think that we're logical creatures, humans are emotional,” Mendoza said. “Everything we do is guided by emotion. There are all sorts of great scientific articles, really well designed experiments. But ultimately, more people want to go see ‘Hamilton’ than read one of these studies.”

That’s part of the reason why Mendoza has teamed up with All My Relations, an indigenous arts collective based in New York, to help spread the message. The partnership is the first collaboration of the Cairns Artist Residency at the University of Utah, designed to bring artists and scientists together to explore issues around the environment and sustainability.

Brooke Horejsi, executive director of arts organization UtahPresents — also part of the effort — said while art and science collaborations are not new, Cairns is designed to enhance the process.

“It's not unusual for a scientist to work with an artist to say, ‘Here's all the stuff I found out in my research — I want to share it more broadly and have people understand it,’” Horejsi said. “And then the artist takes that information and translates it. But that's a translation. It's not necessarily a collaboration of ideas and sharing knowledge. And so Cairns is really meant to set the stage for that.”

All My Relations has been leading workshops with students and faculty in the Dark Skies minor, as well as the Global Change & Sustainability Center, Horejsi said. They learn about research, how light pollution affects different communities and share stories of the night sky from the perspective of the Anishinaabe people.

The artists are working towards an immersive theater piece called Revolving Sky, which takes viewers through Anishinaabe constellations and their origin stories. While much of the work so far has been remote, Horejsi said the ultimate production — expected to debut in 2022 — will be part in-person performance and part augmented reality.

Mendoza said he hopes the experience will help people form a connection with the night sky. That might inspire them to think more deeply about the planet and their role in protecting it.

“Unlike water or air pollution, light pollution is something that's not a problem yet,“ he said. “Dark skies are still a resource that we have. And what we should really be trying to do is to protect them and not have to remediate after the fact.”

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