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UB poet collaborates on exhibit about climate change, melting polar ice cap

The words, "deep convection / overturning cells / deep water / formation" and a grid-like pattern superimposed over an image of sea ice.

An interactive back wall that combines video and audio works based on icebreaking and shipping in the far North, and uses a Kinect motion sensor that responds to activity present in the room to alter the video and audio in real time, evoking effects of human disruption of the Arctic environment. Image: Courtesy of the artists


Published February 25, 2020

headshot of judith Goldman.
“I make research-based poems that both explore how to stretch our human language to represent inhuman processes, and how nature is represented by scientific and other discourses. ”
Judith Goldman, associate professor and director of the Poetics Program
Department of English

Environmental change is a heated topic in the current political climate. But as the polar ice cap at the North Pole continues to melt, and as microplastics and marine garbage build up in the planet’s waterways, the disturbing realties become harder to ignore or deny.

This controversial and compelling subject serves as the major inspiration for poet Judith Goldman, associate professor of English, College of Arts and Sciences, and director of the Poetics Program. Goldman’s work is a central component of a collaborative, multimedia art installation now on display at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State.

The exhibit, titled “Open Waters: Northwest Passage | Open Polar Sea | Arctic + Great Lakes Plastic,” showcases Goldman’s distinctive, signature writing style and was inspired by the history of expeditions to find the Northwest Passage and an “open” polar sea. It illustrates that the once-impassable channel is now sailable, and explores how this development reconfigures the globe.

“I make research-based poems that both explore how to stretch our human language to represent inhuman processes, and how nature is represented by scientific and other discourses,” Goldman says, explaining her interest in the project.

“I am interested in metaphors and other aesthetic dimensions of scientific language that are not in the foreground when science is presented in its own habitat, so to speak,” says Goldman, who has authored four books of poetry and performed her work widely in the United States, as well as internationally.

To create the poems for “Open Waters,” Goldman used hundreds of sources, from historical archives to contemporary scientific and industry journal articles on topics like the design of ice-breaking ships, the biofouling of the Arctic and the laying of fiber-optic cable under polar seas.

Large-format book that is part of the Open Waters exhibit.

A unique, very large format, hybrid print-digital book of poems based on archival research across scientific, geographic, economic, literary and political fields on the history of Arctic “exploration” and contemporary Arctic geopolitics and environmental degradation, including the rise of microplastics and extractive industries. Image: Courtesy of the artists

“Open Waters” is the most recent element of a four-year collaboration among Goldman; visual artist and artist bookmaker Andrea Wollensak, professor of art and director of the Ammerman Center for Arts and Technology at Connecticut College;  computer scientist Bridget Baird, professor emerita of math and computer science at Connecticut College; and sound artist and composer Brett Terry.

After working together on earlier environment-related projects, Wollensak and Baird discovered Goldman’s research- and sound-based methods for creating poetry about natural phenomena. In 2015 and 2016, the four collaborated on a multimedia performance piece called “Ice Core Modulations.” The piece was performed at Connecticut College and appeared as an installation at the 2017 International Symposium for Electronic Art in Manzinales, Colombia.

The group then won an Open Call for Brown University’s Arts Initiative, which was focused on art about the North and South Poles. Goldman also won a seed grant from UB’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development. This led to the first version of “Open Waters,” which was shown for a month at Brown in 2017.

In 2018, the group won a Global Warming Arts grant from the Art Services Initiative of Western New York to bring “Open Waters” to the Burchfield Penney. They re-envisioned the show, and expanded the scope of their initial areas of interest, Goldman says.

“The concept for this multimedia installation was the 500-year history of neo-imperial Anglo exploration of and conjecture about the Northwest Passage and the North Pole as seen throughout the present-day context of global warming,” Goldman says. “For several hundred years, whether the North Pole was an ‘open sea’ was an issue for debate; this fantasy of a warm polar ‘paradise’ persisted, despite many expeditions worth of empirical data, in part bound up with globalized desires to find a short route for commodity exchange across the hemispheres.”

This contributed to an assortment of forces that have led to global warming, Goldman says.

“The melting of the North Pole changes the configuration of the globe, and indeed is now the impetus for yet new waves of resource exploitation, new routes of commodity transport and areas for tourists, and a new geopolitical dispensation,” she says.

“It’s like there is a new piece of Earth, and with it a repeat of past patterns of capitalist, colonial depredation.”

In the “Open Waters” installation, Goldman’s poems are featured in a very large format, hybrid print-digital artist book. Wollensak embedded RFID tags in the pages, and sensors detect when readers turn the page, causing digital animations of ice graphics and text to appear, which in turn interact with what is printed on the page, Goldman explains.

A large floor assemblage of 17 etched-glass panels that depict a high-resolution shoreline map of the area from Buffalo to the North Pole, combined with plastics collected from waterways in Buffalo.

A floor piece of 17 slightly raised panels of etched glass that depicts a historical map of the route from Buffalo to the Northwest Passage; this floor assemblage incorporates locally collected used commodity plastics in various states of distress and post-consumer processing. Image: Courtesy of the artists

The exhibit also features a large floor assemblage of 17 etched-glass panels that depict a high-resolution shoreline map of the area from Buffalo to the North Pole, combined with plastics collected from waterways in Buffalo. There is also an interactive wall composed of audio and video works based on ice-breaking and shipping, an assortment of large-format photographs of plastic pollution and an animated video projection featuring poems about our plastic-based world from young writers from the Just Buffalo Writing Center.

“About 10 youth poets gave beautiful, powerful readings of their work at our opening, which was a huge highlight for me,” Goldman says.

Programming for “Open Waters” also includes “Contemporary Environmental Art and Poetics: Reflections & Performances,” from 7-9 p.m. Feb. 27. The presentation will feature Goldman, along with Joshua Schuster of the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University in London, Ont.; poet Evelyn Reilly; and media artist and nonfiction filmmaker Ann Scime. The panel, sponsored in part by the UB Poetics Program, will include talks, readings and a video screening. It is free and open to the public.

“Open Waters” will be on view through March 29 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays; and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays.