Institute at Brown for Environment and SocietyIBES

Earth, Itself: Art/Science Collaborations

The Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES) is concerned centrally with the challenges facing us in ensuring sustainable life. Earth, Itself is an integrative program of the humanities, natural and social sciences, and creative arts, designed to further conversation about the environment in innovative, engaging, and inclusive ways.


The aim is to highlight ways of understanding Earth, environmental change, knowledge systems, and policy, to address some of the most complex problems of our time. The program cuts across the key interests of IBES faculty and their collaborators, and is directed by Lenore Manderson. 

Photo: Nikki CarraraPhoto: Nikki CarraraThinking the Earth was the first signature event, held April 23-24, 2015, and brought together researchers working on earth and its uses, on ontologies and epistemologies of land, and of stewardship. Across the panels, participants considered the complex ways in which people understand earth and human relationships to land and its resources, as expressed and enacted through local ideologies and global policies and practices. 

The opening keynote lecture was from Dan Nepstad, Executive Director and Senior Scientist of the Earth Innovation Institute, a research, policy and outreach organization that supports sustainable development in Brazil, Indonesia, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Kenya. A second keynote lecture was delivered by researcher and hula dancer Kekuhi Keali‘ikanaka‘oleohaililani, who works on Indigenous GIS for sustainability goals, and leads various programs for Native Hawaiian cultural preservation and education. Participants included scholars from history, literature, anthropology, geography, natural science, and creative arts concerned with the environment, climate change, knowledge systems, and social engagement. We also hosted a poster competition. 

The art practice coupled with this program was dance, with Shura Baryshnikov, Teaching Associate in the Department of Theatre, Arts and Performance Studies at Brown, working with other Contact Improvisation dancers from the US and Canada. The primary performance, Aftershock: sampling impact, used wet clay on the wooden floor of the Ashamu Dance Studio, allowing dancers to imprint their weight through dance. 

Atmospheres was held from April 28-30, 2016, and focused on air, climate, and the environment. Under this theme, participants and programs explored atmospheric circulation and weather; air as habitat—insects and birds; and air pollution and quality of air. The keynote speaker was Kenyan ornithologist Mwangi Githiru, who is Director of Biodiversity and Social Monitoring at Wildlife Works, leading teams assessing environmental and social impacts of REDD+ in African settings and beyond. The program also included a performance from actor/theater maker Wendy Woodson (Amherst), and acoustic ecologists and musicians Leah Barclay, Lawrence English, and Garth Paine, who all participated in panels and in a concert on the final night. The art program—of sound art, installation, music—coordinated by Brown sound artist, Associate Professor Ed Osborn, incorporated several student acoustic installations in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, and a sound installation by Jim Moses of the Music Department in the greenhouse on the top floor of the IBES building. In addition, there was an early morning guided bird walk, a film night on the environment, and a poster competition and Ignite! speaking competition showcasing the research of Brown students and staff. 

What Fire Does was held from April 19-28, 2017, and focused on the productive, creative, destructive, and transformative powers of fire. The creative arts were the ‘fire arts’—particularly ceramics and glass—with exhibitions and performances conducted in collaboration with RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). The keynote speaker was Stephen Pyne (Arizona State University). Academic panels, lectures and symposia, held across departments, included the unintended consequences of fire fighting and soil contamination; fire on ice—the role of fire in early human migration and settlement in the Paleolithic period; and, in collaboration with the John Carter Brown Library, an afternoon panel on the Americas and the generative power of fire. IBES again collaborated with Magic Lantern for an evening of Films on Fire, and hosted poster and flash talk competitions. 

Water's Edge (April 3-13, 2018) will address the fourth element, water, with events hosted both at Brown University and at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. By moving to two continents, we will take advantage of a number of new collaborations and address multiple questions of climate change and the environment. At Brown, scholars and writers will come together to examine different ways of knowing water in the Americas and Arctic at the John Carter Brown Library, as well as to participate in a two-part symposium entitled Writing on Water. Acclaimed poets will read works on water and the environment. We will also co-host a panel discussion on Indigenous use of drone technology during the #NoDAPL crisis, partner with Magic Lantern for a double feature film screening and discussion around environmental issues, and put on a poster and flash talk competition. Coordinated events at the University of the Witwatersrand will take place in September 2018, under the banner Watershed: Art, science and elemental politics.

Part of the academic program is held in the John Carter Brown Library, taking advantage of the concurrent exhibition on ‘Exploring the Four Elements’. In 2015 the library held an exhibition entitled Subterranean Worlds: Under the Earth in the Early Americas, showcasing library material on the quest for metals in the colonial Americas. In 2016, the library exhibition, Air America, illustrated the multiple and resonant meanings of air to the history of the Americas, and in 2017, the library exhibited a range of works under the heading America on Fire. The 2018 exhibition will be entitled Bodies of Water/Bodies at Work.


Lenore Manderson is Visiting Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at IBES and is Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. She can be contacted at: lenore_manderson@brown.edu
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