Lecturer in Human Geography at Bristol University Naomi Millner reflects here on her involvement in the Trans.MISSION II project, working with Colombian writer and activist Juan Cárdenas to create a piece of creative writing that explores the socio-ecological systems within Colombia and their response to environmental change...
What made you interested in doing this project?
I have always been interested in the role that stories and narrative play in science, and the ways that understandings of the world emerging in science affect how we perceive the world and it’s problems. It was also a great opportunity to work with an established Colombian author!
Have you done anything similar before?
I have done a lot of interdisciplinary work myself, as a human geographer who collaborates with ecologists, soil scientists and artists, so I already quite identify with the idea of moving between different kinds of knowledge and forms. I have never worked with an author before, although I do write for children myself.
Did you enjoy art / science in school?
Both! I specialised in arts and social science subjects but I’ve carried on collaborating with biophysical sciences because it’s a fascinating way to understand the world.
What do you think are the biggest barriers at the moment for communicating science?
Probably the lack of governmental will in many parts of the world to act on what we do know about the environment. If we put the ecological understandings we already have into practice we would not be in such a pickle!
Which scientists / artists do you look up to?
I’m an avid reader and am fascinated by the way that fiction, and visual art/film, make us think again about the world we live in. I’m also endlessly inspired by my colleagues in the biophysical science who use wonder to open up the mysteries of the world, in a way that fosters greater care.
What other examples of art meeting science have inspired you?
The work of science theorist Donna Haraway, which explores how metaphors animate science.
What have you learnt from the collaboration?
I was cautious about the idea of making a simple story to communicate about the complex contexts we are working with in Colombia, but Juan has shared that grasp of complexity and has taught us new tools for describing or telling without being reductive. I love that he has chosen speculative science fiction to communicate about our work, because it is a way to capture some of the ecological and social dynamics we have been studying without trying to represent them completely.
What’s been the biggest surprise?
It was great fun taking Juan into the field with us. We had a wonderful trip and shared lots of common ideas about what the written word can do in relation to images and art.
What’s been the best moment?
Sharing understandings together from our different disciplines and experience.
What’s been the biggest challenge to overcome?
For Juan it was a great challenge to think of simplifying our projects into a narrative, I think, because we don’t have finalised data and much of what we do unsettles simple understanding of how ecology and social science fits together. Also understanding our different fields.
What do you hope people will take away from seeing your piece?
As lead social science in the project I hope that people will take stock of the fact that doing conservation isn’t always good for people. How data is collected and the way that protected areas are set up and governed can be very disempowering, and can reinforce conflict. We need to think the science and social science of conservation together.
Would you work with a scientist / an artist again?
What have you learnt about each other’s work?
That we all have our own complexities to hold in tension!
How will this experience change your approach to work in future?
I’d love to work with other artists and writers from the regions I research in.
Naomi Millner is Lecturer in Human Geography at Bristol University is working on one of three linked research projects under The Exploring & Understanding Colombian Bio Resources programme. In 2019-2020 took part in the Hay Festival's Trans.MISSION II project, merging science with art to find new ways of communicating cutting-edge research. Her collaboration with writer Juan Cardenas launched at Hay Festival Cartagena, Colombia in 2020.