Center Faculty Fellows Bring Science to Life at the Moss Arts Center

An audience of half a dozen people watch a young man standing on a chair and another seated on the floor.
Daniel Bird Tobin (seated on floor) and Al Evangelista (standing on chair) perform “Displacement” in the Cube. Photo credit: Lauren Holt

Think back to the last time you crossed the Virginia Tech drillfield on a stretch of rainy days – maybe you were forced to step through a large puddle and track mud into the library, or maybe you even decided to jump in the water for fun. But did you know that in a 100-year flood scenario, you would likely be waist deep in rushing water?

A challenge many researchers face is making these seemingly faraway dangers feel real and tangible to an audience. Some research-artist collaborations at Virginia Tech are trying to do just that.

As a pre-event to the National Geographic Live presentation held on September 17, Daniel Bird Tobin and Al Evangelista, faculty fellows with the Center for Communicating Science and instructors in the School of Performing Arts, shared a collection of performance pieces, “Animating and Embodying Science,” which they developed in collaboration with Coastal@VT and other researchers.

Taking place in the Cube at the Moss Arts Center, their original theatre works focused on using art to communicate the science behind sea-level rise, climate change, forced migration, and even lasers.

Tobin began the event by extending a bright red string in a straight line across the room. He seamlessly moved above, below, and around the string in a rhythmic pattern while describing the interactions of light and matter. This piece, directed by Liz Lerman, is entitled “Laser,” and was created in collaboration with Scott Sayres, an Arizona State University chemist who studies lasers.

Evangelista continued the performance with his piece entitled “Displacement,” a collaboration with Tom Crawford, professor and department chair for the Department of Geography at Virginia Tech. Evangelista tossed Tobin a die, assigning a specific motion to each number on the die. As Evangelista shared research about forced migration and population displacement, Tobin called out the numbers of each die roll.

From jumping in the air to standing on chairs, Evangelista turned the random combinations of motions into a dance, effectively drawing the audience’s close attention while he talked about Crawford’s research.

For his last piece, entitled “Flooding the Beach,” Tobin asked the audience to stand up, remove their shoes, close their eyes, and try to visualize, in as much detail as possible, the scene he was about to unfold.

Tobin started out describing a tranquil beach, with “the sea breeze gently cooling your skin.”

“Now walk down to the water’s edge,” he said, “feeling the sand between your feet.”

Tobin continued with his descriptions, having the audience picture themselves walking waist deep into the ocean, feeling the waves pushing and pulling. Then suddenly he asked the audience to remove themselves from the beach, keeping the feeling of the water at their waist, but instead standing outside of the Virginia Tech bookstore or the Graduate Life Center.

Tobin explained that a study by Peter Sforza, Director of the Center for Geospatial Information Technology at Virginia Tech, found that in a 100-year flood scenario the Virginia Tech drill field, bookstore, and Graduate Life Center would all be waist deep in water — just as the audience had experienced in their imaginations. These types of floods are becoming more frequent, with extreme weather, sea level rise, and other climate change factors to blame.

Tobin and Evangelista took time after their performance to answer questions from the audience and talk more about their communication methods, explaining that the most important factor is “finding a common language with the researcher and figuring out what information they want to get across to an audience.”

Tobin and Evangelista first performed “Flooding the Beach” and “Displacement” at Virginia Tech’s Advancing the Human Condition symposium in November 2018. Tobin’s “Flooding the Beach” and “Laser” also served as parts of his keynote presentation for the Virginia Tech Research Symposium in spring of 2019. “Laser” was first performed at the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, and has also been performed at a conference in New York City.

By Lauren Holt, Center for Communicating Science student intern

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