“I think of us as kind of an art collective” – interdisciplinary research and filmmaking

An interview with the ZiF fellows Ulf Büntgen (environmental scientist) and Clive Oppenheimer (volcanologist and filmmaker)

The images of volcanic eruptions, such as the most recent one in Tonga, a Polynesian country and archipelago, are always impressive, their effects above all terrifying. Tonga is a scene of devastation, the drinking water is running low, and fish cultures are destroyed. But little can be said so far about how volcanic eruptions, environmental changes, global climate, and social change are linked. The new international ZiF cooperation group “Volcanoes, Climate and History” aims to remedy this.

Until October 2023, seven researchers from four countries will analyze important historical volcanic eruptions. The goal is to find out how volcanic eruptions affected the global climate system and how environmental changes triggered by them influenced agriculture, conflict, or political structures. In an interview with Ulf Büntgen, head of the group and professor of environmental systems analysis at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Geography, and Clive Oppenheimer, professor at the same department and a film director and producer, we discussed interdisciplinary collaboration and the medium of film as part of the scientific journey of discovery.

The filming process in November 2021 at ZiF Bielefeld
© ZiF / Philipp Ottendörfer

One part of the cooperation group “Volcanoes, Climate and History” is the production of a film. It is rather unusal in science to make films–not about science in general, but about the research process itself. What is your goal, what is the film supposed to achieve or to convey?

“it is difficult for an audience to watch a film that has endless talking heads–and that is kind of what we are!”

Clive Oppenheimer

OPPENHEIMER: I think it is an opportunity to do something more experimental. We have this very interdisciplinary nexus, historians, archeologists, climate modelers, volcanologists and so on, coming together and generating a discussion and dialogue at this interface between volcanoes and history. As a film project it is somewhat experimental because it is difficult for an audience to watch a film that has endless talking heads–and that is kind of what we are! We are in an academic mode when we are meeting at these workshops. So one of the things I wanted to tease out are some more general themes. For example: What does it actually mean to do interdisciplinary work? Is it just getting experts in field A and field B to come and sit in a room and talk to each other? Or does it take a historian to come and work in an ice-cold laboratory or a tree ring laboratory for a few months to really transplant themselves into the world of a different discipline?

“I hope it will be a kind of document of how interdisciplinary thinking worked in the early twenty-twenties”

Clive Oppenheimer

I hope it will be a kind of document of how interdisciplinary thinking worked in the early twenty-twenties, as a little moment in the history of science that people will look back on and say ‘that is how people got together and discussed these issues and thought about them’. It is supposed to be compelling because it’s about history and climate and eruption.

BÜNTGEN: The film is not a side project of the cooperation group, that is very important to me. The motivation for me was really to break out of the traditional products. Everyone would say, look, we write a paper and at the end of the cooperation we write a book and use the last workshop to maybe apply for the next funding opportunity etc. That is the usual approach in academia and we will also do that, of course, but I wanted something else and more innovative. And as the film project is highly experimental, as Clive said, we honestly do not really know what the outcome will be, how the filming during the workshop will play out, if we get to film ‘in the field’ at Laacher See, for example and so on. There will be a film and it is going to be nice, I am certain of that.

The cooperation group “Volcanoes, Climate and History” at ZiF in November 2021.
© ZiF / Foto: Philipp Ottendörfer

OPPENHEIMER: It is very different from the other films I have made so far. I have always had a very, very clear idea and would have been able to answer exactly what the film is supposed to convey. In this case, we are kind of feeling our way into it. I think it will present something novel and interesting and I think it is also actually a kind of methodological innovation for us as a collaborative group. I think of us as kind of like an art collective, the way that we are working, no matter where we are coming from and we have all these different areas of expertise, like materials that we can work with and different ways of thinking from the Humanities and Social Sciences to the Natural Sciences. We can paint a new canvas in a way. And I think, using film both as method and as output will be seen as an innovation.

Is the film going to be a form of presentation of scientific results in science itself or is it a format for science communication outside your scientific communities?

OPPENHEIMER: A film should be something that people enjoy watching. It is not going to set out to be didactic, it is gonna set out to be interesting and it will be character-driven. The characters will include our protagonists, who of course have a unique knowledges and experience. There will also be non-human protagonists, like the volcanoes and the trees. It will have an overall narrative arc and like all good film, it will be storytelling. That is also what writing a scientific paper is. It is about storytelling.

What was your impression, did the filming process influence the collaborative work and the discussions in your group during the workshop?

BÜNTGEN: Partly, because there is definitely some additional excitement for everyone who joins the group. No one has experienced this before, it is new for almost everyone, except for Clive, of course. I would say it creates some additional momentum. I only noticed positive energy coming from it, it was not a distraction. I would not go that far to say it shifted the direction of our discussion or perspective or so. But it is an additional aspect that adds a little complexity. It created this additional dimension and opened our talks, especially in the evenings, for things we would not have talked about without this component of making a film.

What did you find most interesting or striking about the interdisciplinary form of the group, were there some surprise elements, did you learn something new during the workshop?

“There is one thing that comes with interdisciplinary work: You always have a very steep learning curve.”

Ulf Büntgen

BÜNTGEN: There is one thing that comes with interdisciplinary work: You always have a very steep learning curve. So if I go to a tree ring conference or Clive goes to a workshop on volcanoes, we usually know most of the things that are discussed. There are new nuances and questions, but in general you know your field extremely well. But with interdisciplinary collaboration, everyone is constantly hearing something out of their own field. So there is a constant and very steep learning curve. We have to start with the basic things in our individual fields to explain them to the others. We started with archeology in our first workshop and will be going from deeper past towards the present in the upcoming workshops. The first one was maybe the most difficult because we are trying to work at this volcano-climate-human interface, in a period with low data quality and quantity. The few data we have are very, very noisy and that makes it very difficult. I do not want to say things will get easier but will maybe change when we get closer to the present.

Ulf Büntgen during a talk on volcanoes, climate and history in November 2021 at ZiF Bielefeld
© ZiF / Foto: Philipp Ottendörfer

OPPENHEIMER: I did learn new things from some great presentations and great discussions. Our archaeological experts ranged from some working in Palaeolithic, Neolithic, or Bronze Age to Medieval Times. In some respects they are disconnected but things started to piece together during the workshop even though people had their very tight disciplinary foci. We talked about the greening of the Sahara a thousand years ago, for example, and one of the major themes that emerges from this is human mobility, migration and how that is influenced by climate variability and how the climate variability is in some cases triggered by volcanic eruptions. So migration became a real kind of focus as well as the question of agency in human migration. In cases like the desiccation of the Sahara, there are not a lot of options – when the Sahara dries up and there is no water, you stay and die or you move. In other situations people have choices. So we talked more about this idea of human mobility as a choice, which was interesting and we linked this all the way to the present day.

What advice would you give early career researchers with respect to interdisciplinary research? Do you have any general tips or learnings maybe, from all your experiences?

BÜNTGEN: I gave a talk to students in Germany this week and almost the same question came up during the discussion. I said, I think you should get specialized as a student at this stage of your career. You have to get to know your field very well. Interdisciplinary work can come at a later stage and you cannot do it yourself. You can just initiate it by bringing different people together. The idea is not, at least not for me, that one person knows everything. But you have to know your field and have to get expertise there. You have to also get respected in this field. You have to have an achievement there and then you are in a position to bring experts together for interdisciplinary work.

OPPENHEIMER: I totally agree that there is space for all kinds of approaches in academia and it is great that there are some people that are incredibly focused and do not interact much because they push so far in one direction. And it is good that there are people who are more Jacks of all trades and Masters of none who help to connect, glue things together. But in terms of advice for early career researchers: read, read, read. Read outside of your discipline, read literature, go to seminars outside of your faculty. Universities are very rich environments to encounter people doing completely different stuff. You start to realize that very different fields do actually have an influence on what you do. I do not think it is for everyone to have an interdisciplinary outlook. And I think that is great because there are other people who will provide that cement. I think it is also great to have an open attitude and imbibe what is out there and is provided by the rich academic environment.

In terms of not that early career researchers: What would you recommend to people who also want to apply for a group format at ZiF or try to assemble a heterogeneous group of researchers in general?

BÜNTGEN: The key is who you invite. That is probably the most difficult part or one of the more difficult parts of such a project, maybe even underestimated. But who joins is absolutely crucial of how such a workshop and then a sequence of workshops will translate into something. I do not have a blueprint of how to assemble people, but it is very important that you have people that are collegial, friendly, open, obviously. You have to have people that participate very lively in discussions but also do not dominate them too much. In the end you have to consider so many factors, but essentially the pool of people is restricted because you need the experts. We all noticed that our cooperation group format is more suited for advanced scholars, so rather not for PhD students or postdocs. You need people that are very experienced and far in their field.

“It is about casting”

Clive Oppenheimer

OPPENHEIMER: It perfectly brings it back to filmmaking: It is about casting. And you have to do your homework for casting. You do not want everyone who already knows each other and knows what they are going to say, so you need new faces. In our case, there were people in the group who knew of each other’s work but had never met before. One member said to another one, ‘I taught your wonderful papers in my classes, it is great to meet you for the first time!’
And the life experience of our participants really made this a very rich workshop. Some have worked sixty missions in the Sahara or are working in Yemen and Syria, in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti. People who have really embedded themselves into the field, in books, and have very deep experience. So casting, it is everything!

One last question concerning the film: What role do films about research and science play for you in connection with the topic of Open Science?

“The really big steps, they happen at these interfaces.”

Ulf Büntgen

BÜNTGEN: It is a catalyst; you do not just present the results, but the film is an additional dimension that helps to bring the project to the outside world, creating more transparency, perception, that people watch the film and think ‘ah, that is how scientists do their work, and they are actually quite nice, too’, you should not underestimate that.
What fascinates me about Clive’s work and the work we are doing together now, is that we are taking a new path twice, if you like. We are not only making a film out of the scientific project, that is one new path, but the film itself is a new path because it is not so easy to classify – it is not really a documentary, it is something else. Coming back to interdisciplinarity: The really big steps, they happen at these interfaces. If you leave your discipline or link the information from one area with another and make it accessible so that others can see it all at once, then maybe there is a synergy, something can happen that did not exist before. And that is actually similar with the film – we cannot predict what will come out of it, but more people will become aware of our work and also of the ZiF, so it basically cannot go wrong.


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