Q&A: Dorsey Kaufmann’s “Ripple Effect”
Dorsey Kaufmann is an MFA candidate in Illustration and Design at the University of Arizona School of Art, who works in Dr. Monica Ramírez-Andreotta’s Integrated Environmental Science and Health Risk Laboratory as an Information Designer.
Kaufmann examines the most effective and purposeful means of data communication, evaluates the ways in which people receive and understand information about environmental quality and the potential exposure to contaminants near hazardous waste sites, and how art and design incites informed citizens and behavioral changes.
What inspired you to get involved in environmental science?
“Environmental quality, ecology, and public health have become increasingly important to my generation and those after us because we’ve lived through and seen the detrimental effects that unregulated industry has had on our immediate environment and the health of all living beings. There is such a public need for more discourse around the ways we affect our environment and who is impacted the most, and I view art as a communication tool in this regard.”
Briefly, what’s an Information Designer?
“An information designer visualizes complex data by creating user-friendly, comprehensible graphics. In my case, I create graphs with unique forms as well as art experiences like Ripple Effect.”
Ripple Effect is an interactive art exhibition created by Kaufmann that visualizes local water quality data through sound, light, and water. Through software technology, water contamination data is translated into sound waves.
The installation consists of speakers that play the ‘data sound tracks’, which vibrate the water held in attached trays. The sonic vibrations create unique patterns to emerge in the water, known as water cymatics. Participants hear and see the water vibrate based on the chemical concentrations in their water samples.
Ripple Effect travels to communities that neighbor resource extraction activity and aims to transform the way people understand their data in relation to their environment.
What inspired you to create Ripple Effect?
“I felt that traditional scientific communication was not reaching the populations most affected by environmental contamination. Not all communities have had a ton of exposure to scientific graphs and tables and even those that have may not be excited to receive a bunch of printed academic study findings. It’s not an accessible or exciting way to understand and learn information. Also, it reduces the beauty and awe of nature, something that’s very tactile and encompassing, to a point on a graph. I created Ripple Effect as a way to communicate water quality data through the water itself, as vibrations, so the visual representation is no longer detached from the source as it’s found in nature.”
How many communities have you visited with the installation, how many are planned?
“The installation has been shown in rural mining communities across Arizona to communicate their local water quality data – in Dewey-Humboldt, Hayden-Winkelman, and Globe-Miami. It’s also shown to participants in South and Central Tucson. About half of our participants are low-income and/or minority so these are environmental justice communities. We are visiting these four communities again during January 2020 to show them their year two results. Ripple Effect as an art exhibition has been shown at Biosphere 2 and is currently being exhibited at the James and Anne Duderstadt Gallery in Michigan.”
Support of this exhibition was provided by the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru).
Recently, the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences’ Communications & Cyber Technologies featured Kaufmann in its Landmark Stories video series, in partnership with the Department of Environmental Science. Produced and edited by Angel Marquez and Sandra Westdahl.
How gratifying is it to see your concept embraced?
“Well, first of all, it’s very rare that a science lab accepts an artist into every part of their process – from building community relationships, to training participants on how to collect samples, to the processing and analysis of samples and then generating visualizations. So, I’m incredibly lucky to have found this lab and Dr. Ramirez-Andreotta as a mentor who embraces the arts.
“It’s incredibly validating to hear participants talk about the water “dancing,” or describe the experience as ‘suspenseful,’ ‘experiential’ and even ‘more impactful’ than seeing the same information on paper. I continue to believe in the transformative impact that art can have on cognition and will continue to create art with the goal of motivating long-term change and action.”
Describe the role of the arts in research.
“Art can be used in research as a way to connect and reach a broader audience, as a visualization or communication tool, but I also think it’s important to state that art can be research in its own right. Art is one of the only fields where the ‘student’ conducts research through material creation. Art-making is a self-referential process that always considers the historic use of the material or medium that the artist chooses. What an artist can contribute is something tangible, something crafted and made, that people have a physical relationship to and that cements itself in the politics, culture, time, and place of that instant.”