“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
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