Second Skin: UV Fashion or Data as Memory

Summer 2010: v.06 n.01: 2010 CAA Conference Edition, 2010

Judit Hersko
Associate Professor, Visual and Performing Arts
California State University San Marcos


For over five years I have worked on visualizing science through art in order to inform a broader public about issues of climate change. I have collaborated with biological oceanographers who study the effects of ocean acidification and with atmospheric physicists who monitor UV radiation at the poles in the wake of the ozone hole. My work translates scientific data through processes that embody the original physical phenomena measured by my scientist colleagues. For example, one series is created with UV rays on location in Antarctica and in San Diego, while another is formed by acidified ocean water that eats away at shells and other forms of calcium carbonate. The visual language emerges from my previous explorations of the transformation of matter, the displacement of the photographic image through mirroring, and the use of fugitive and moving screens such as melting wax or steam.

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The processes involved reveal the photographic image for what it is – a record of a particular moment in place and time that lasts for a given duration before it disappears. This earlier work investigates personal memory and collective history.  It explores the divisions of the western psyche as it emerged on the threshold of modernity grounding the modern subject and science in a widening gap between body and mind, emotion and intellect, nature and culture.

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Since I began working with scientists I have been pondering the role of art in narrowing the gap between nature and culture or between science and the natural world it investigates. It has occurred to me that data collection is akin to photography in that every piece of data is a slice of memory – a record of a particular moment in space and time (in this case measurements of the widths of the stream, stream flow and sampling of the algae in the dry valleys of Antarctica).

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What the increasingly sophisticated technologies and instruments contribute is an exponentially increasing number of snapshots of moments in place and time. Figure 17 shows a data stream from the UV monitoring instrument located at McMurdo station Antarctica (one of the 7 sites where UV monitoring takes place since the discovery of the ozone hole in the 1980s).

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Scientists interpret the data in various ways and create a number of so called data products. The chart below analyzes the data in terms of the UV index, which is a unit of measure of UV levels relevant to the effects on human skin. From snapshots of myriads of moments (the raw data) we have now arrived at some comprehensible scientific representation (see

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My role as an artist is to take this translation one step further and visualize the data in ways that place it in a larger historical and cultural narrative and render it more intellectually and emotionally accessible. Since data is a form of memory it is perhaps not surprising that the visual language I use is directly linked to my earlier work about memory and history. I continue to work with transformation of matter and phenomena of light – only this time these processes are directly related to the physical phenomena measured by the original data. I retranslate data (records of moments in space and time) into actual moments in space and time using the same processes that were measured in the first place. For example, when I visualize the effects of ocean acidification on calcifying organisms, I dissolve sculptures of a human heart and lung made of shells –as in seven days of dissolution (Shifting Baselines, 2006).

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When I turn to the UV data I use UV radiation to alter materials and create images. I arrived in Antarctica with a batch of papers prepared for me by Jim Druzik and Christel Pesme at the Getty conservation institute with dyes that are especially sensitive to UV radiation. All of the dyes we selected have biological connotations (they are DNA, RNA, protein or PH indicators thus linking this work to my projects with ocean science). The transparencies applied to the papers before exposure belong to a narrative “Pages from the Book of the Unknown Explorer” in which I investigate the history of Antarctic exploration and science through the insertion of a fictitious female explorer. The papers weathered for three weeks behind the carpenter’s shop at McMurdo station.

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I also brought an authentic rug from Shiraz to Antarctica because my physicist colleague told me that dyed wool is one of the most UV sensitive materials.

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After I failed to persuade the Penguins to walk on it I placed it in the center of the NASA long duration balloon launch pad only days after the last balloon launch. The carpet weathered for two weeks. When I removed it there was a sculptural indentation corresponding to the heat absorption by the dark areas of the carpet.

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Biospherical Instruments, the company responsible for the UV monitoring equipment and its upkeep, is located in San Diego, which is where they test their instruments. This makes San Diego the only lower latitude location on the NSF UV monitoring network list. I live and work in San Diego and had planned to duplicate the McMurdo UV graphs even before I knew about this. The San Diego UV projects took place exactly six month after the ones at McMurdo station and lasted for the same amount of time. The center of the Persian carpet was exposed in San Diego with pressed white sage on its surface.

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San Diego UV Index Daily Maximum Value

The project that gives this paper its title “Second Skin: UV Fashion” is still a concept wrought with technical challenges that I have been developing with my student Megan Nelms. It originates in San Diego and uses the methods seen above to create images on garments that have been dyed with UV sensitive dyes. Prospective wearers order the clothing through a Web Site (linked to the UV monitoring Network and the Ozone hole watch). The process of customizing their garment leads participants through a series of steps that informs them about the history, science, and instrumentation of UV monitoring while also allowing them to personalize their clothing.  Our collaboration with participants results in a design that contains information about the UV monitoring location they have selected, a UV data chart for a significant date in their life, as well as personal images and texts chosen by them. This design is applied to the clothing in the form of soft stencils. As people wear the clothing the UV radiation fades the dies so that only areas covered by the stencils retain color.  When the stencils are removed the design becomes visible but as the garment is worn further it fades as well, yet another allusion to the fugitive moment and memory. While UV monitoring takes place at remote locations near the poles the measurements reflect how we live at the center of the globe. The havoc we cause bounces back at us and affects our skin. In “Second skin: UV fashion” the clothing protects the skin by absorbing the UV radiation and letting it inscribe the surface with a mingling of images and symbols that connect the personal with the scientific.

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