Catalina Giraldo is an environmental artist who combines her scientific background with visual media to raise awareness of environmental issues. Her aim is to reach city youth by illustrating how city life affects rural areas and the environment.
Catalina worked as a botanical researcher and pollen analyst before co-founding Fundación Biodiversa Colombia, a biodiversity foundation that carries out research and educational projects in Colombia to protect the environment and help local communities develop a sustainable way of living. Originally from Colombia, Catalina also studied in the Netherlands and the USA.
She is particularly interested in the intersections of past, present and future as well as science and visual media.
What was your first job and how did it help you develop leadership skills?
When I began to work in the ‘real world’ I knew many people who worked in botany so I got a job as a botanical researcher studying present-day vegetation. We researched forests, agricultural and livestock areas and examined them to understand how to define them, protect them and develop plans to manage land use.
My role was to define which areas should be protected, which areas should be restored (to their original ecosystem) and which areas people could continue to use. In that sense I connected, in a way, the past with the present.
Our research team consisted of biologists, forest engineers and many others who specialized in fauna, flora, forest management and so on. Through information gathering and discussions we determined as a group what was going to be done with the areas in question and why. We collaborated with the Environmental Secretary of Bogotá and several NGOs.
How was team work organized? Was there a team leader?
Yes, the team was led by a woman and a man, one managing the social aspect and the other the environmental part of the research. We were recent graduates, so we were very young. Our job was to support and implement decisions, each in our field. We worked together with economists and sociologists to support the overall vision for the project, which had a strong social component considering the role humans play. In the end, the leaders were in charge of connecting all aspects of the projects. It was great!
Later, at the Instituto de Ciencias Naturales of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá, I worked on a pollen research project in collaboration with the Institute of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics of the University of Amsterdam. So my first job was in botany and my second job in pollen research. The second job was more independent because we didn’t have set working hours. It was a long project that stretched over seven years and included many people who were completing Masters and PhDs. That’s what I did for many years – mostly in an Andean zone close to Bogotá called Fúquene Lake. The goal was to reconstruct the ecological history of that area from 1 million to the present. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to understand what an ecosystem looked like in the past and to understand it from that perspective. I attempted to connect my findings to the past to try to reconstruct the environment of a specific place in the present.
Professors led the project and students and recent graduates helped support it. I worked with them for about four years analyzing pollen slides. I learned so much during that project and it was because of that project that I had the opportunity to do an internship in the Netherlands.
Before I left for Holland, I was also working with the Botanical Gardens in Bogotá identifying threatened species around Bogotá and species that are important for Bogotá’s ecosystem. My job was to identify the area where the species grew originally. Of course deforestation reduced the living environment of a given plant. So we made maps to show the areas in which the plant lived originally and created models of species distribution using geographic information systems. I focused on unique species in the world or species that were crucial to restore the ecosystem. How can an ecosystem be returned to its original state? I always liked linking the past and the present. Take an agricultural zone or livestock area for example. We needed to determine what kind of forest used to grow there using various techniques including paleo-ecology. Past and present are always intertwined. That connection has always fascinated me.
After working at the Botanical Gardens and counting pollen for four years I had a bit of a professional crisis. I’d always loved photography and many of my friends who are biologists are also hobby photographers. So when I went to the Netherlands, I was already looking at alternatives. The professor I was working with in Amsterdam encouraged me to take a photography class. So while I was working there I started exploring the arts by enrolling in a film course for international students. That was the first serious step I took in that direction.
Tell me more about your role in the project on bee pollen research…
Well, I had the opportunity to work in the Biology Department’s bee research lab at the Universidad Nacional. Within that project I specialized in pollen, which is an important part of bee research. There, I had more of a leadership role because it was a new project. I organized pollen samples and supported students who were counting pollen samples and determined which species they belonged to. So my role was to support and lead this group by helping them identify plant pollen at different taxonomic levels like family, genera and species. We also took pictures to digitalize the collection. Looking back I realize that I was already slowly moving away from the microscope and the work of a palynologist and into the digital and visual world – in this case through photography.
In a way you were a kind of mentor…
Yes, and our work culminated in the publication of an illustrated guide book of plants that bees are drawn to most, the result of four years’ work and a collaboration with other university labs. We had to select which species to include and why by focusing first on species native to Colombia and then taking a look at other species as well. Because there are also visiting bees that aren’t native to Colombia that have been introduced through garden plants for example. For me it was the first time I had a visual, tangible result. We used scientific methods and focused on communicating them visually to provide people interested in the subject with a visual resource. In this case, it was mostly for beekeepers, people who produce honey in Colombia, people who live in the countryside and scientists.
So you were in charge of organizing the lab in which you worked on the book?
Yes, it was about developing a taxonomy. When you analyze pollen, you look at small glass slides containing the specimen under the microscope. There are many different kinds of pollen, so you look and say this could be this kind, that could be that kind and so on. To confirm your identification you compare your sample to a collection. To be able to use that collection, it needs to be organized meticulously – it’s like a library. I helped organize that collection and digitalize it so we’d know how many samples we had, where they came from, what region they belong to – that’s important as well. The group leader was a professor but I lead the editing project that resulted in the book.
What was the dynamic like within the group? How did your leadership skills come into play there?
It was a little complicated because at the beginning it was somewhat disorganized. Everyone was doing their own thing. So I tried to mold the group into a team.
How did you do that?
By talking and arguing (laughs). Obviously, I can’t see what’s in your microscope if you don’t tell me, so I made sure that everyone knew when someone had a question that needed to be answered. When we’re done looking into our microscope (counting our specimen, identifying the regions), we need to talk about what we saw and put everything together. We need to make sure we’re talking about the same plant for example. So I tried to make them communicate more amongst themselves because they weren’t. Of course at the beginning they were bothered because it felt like something was being imposed, but there are moments when everyone works alone and there are other moments when you have to work together. It’s about working more efficiently to achieve better results – teamwork. So I felt I had to create that team spirit and explain why it was important that we all communicate with one another.
Did they accept your approach?
Yes. At the beginning there was a little bit of conflict, but then it worked well. Generally speaking, I don’t really impose when interacting with other people. After the initial hurdles, we had a great time and managed to make this book. Our team effort made it possible.
So when did you create the foundation?
That was in 2005. We’re a group of friends from university. After graduation, most of them went to the Netherlands to pursue a graduate degree. There they came up with the idea of creating a foundation, so we met up in 2005 to discuss and develop the idea. What values and ideals would we have? What would our vision be? Once we fleshed out the idea and philosophy we set up the foundation and dove into all the legal and administrative work of setting up a non-profit.
It has truly become a philanthropic project. There’s a core group of people involved but it ended up creating work for other people as well. One of the co-founders works with primates and another with reptiles. Both were working in the Magdalena Medio region and realized it was a damaged region. The Magdalena River runs through it and the forest was being logged to make room for farming and livestock because it’s a flat region. So they were very surprised when they found four monkey species in such a deteriorated zone. We began investigating and researching the area and found many aspects unique to the region. We then contacted other institutions to enlist their support to buy some of the land in that region. The aim was to have a center of operations to develop more environmental protection projects there. Based on all those factors we decided it would be best for the foundation if we focused our work on that specific region in Colombia. In 2011 we received a grant from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and began working on our project: the El Silencio Reserve.
Did you do all this or did other people join the foundation?
We were seven founders (two of whom are no longer involved with the foundation) and were later joined by about sixteen researchers. Most of them are biologists with different specialties but we also have one mechanical engineer (who is one of the co-founders) who loved the idea and got involved. The foundation has really evolved into a platform for research and conservation projects. There is also a social aspect to our work and gradually more people became involved: anthropologists, biologists with other specialties (birds, reptiles, insects), botanists – a little of everything. Most of the co-founders work with other environmental organizations as well.
How do you choose the projects?
Some start out as individual projects and become projects for the foundation, like the first one with the monkeys that allowed us to discover this incredible but abandoned region. The co-founder in charge of this project did her PhD in New York. Her specialty is the evolution of primates. So as part of her research she does zoological work and works in regions where the species she studies live to improve their living conditions. Other members carry out their research on reptiles and the protection of turtles in the Colombian Amazon. We accept that our researchers do their research throughout Colombia but the foundation focuses its work on the El Silencio Reserve. The idea is for everyone to work together to protect that area and work towards reforestation and the protection of endangered and endemic species. In that context we also talk to land owners in the region who are rich people and own many hectares of land. We also work with local communities, one of the social aspects of our work.
How are you involved with the foundation when you’re not in Colombia?
I’m part of the board of directors, so I’m involved in all the decision-making. One of our goals right now is to have that region declared a protected area on a national and international level because of its ecosystem. We also have a project focusing on an endemic bird – some of our researchers are ornithologists. Then there’s the research station we’d like to build on land we bought in the area. The idea is to make it the center of operations for that nature reserve. That would be our home base for our projects and to communicate with interested people. The research station was designed by an architect who specializes in sustainable architecture. The aim is to make it a green research station that complies with green regulations: using clean energy, ensuring good waste management and so on. So right now, we’re focusing on fundraising for that research station.
How do you – the board of directors – make group decisions? How do you resolve disagreements?
There are always disagreements (laughs)! We vote. It’s a democratic system but in order for a decision to be taken, there has to be a quorum. We talk things through and discuss issues thoroughly. At the beginning we met up more often because we were all living in Bogotá. But over time almost all of us ended up abroad, so we handle much per email and we have meetings via Skype. So that’s how we handle the bulk of our communications.
There’s also an implicit trust that everyone sticks to the rules we set out in the statutes (which we wrote) and to the law. So there’s implicit trust that we’re acting correctly. But yes, there are misunderstandings and we discuss things until they’re resolved. Some of these misunderstandings also arise because we communicate via email and words can be interpreted in a number of ways. But we’ve known each other for over 20 years, so we know how to handle each other. We all have our hearts set on this project and are committed to creating the best possible result. So we have the same goals, the difficulties only arise because of misunderstandings in communication. They aren’t complicated in the end. Small by comparison.
When you move out of Colombia though, you also realize that it’s a Latin thing often. In America, for example, people are blunter, less emotional. English is a language that lends itself to doing business and expressing yourself clearly. Spanish – and other romance languages – are more emotional so you have to be careful with what you say and how you write it. In Colombia, people react more strongly when you don’t express yourself well. You have to be very sensitive. So this aspect sometimes creates small issues but we’re learning, which we’ve been open to since the beginning. What matters is our common goal and not so much individual sensitivities. We all agree on that.
After working as a researcher and creating the foundation you moved to Amsterdam and began pursuing artistic projects. You then decided to pursue an MFA in Digital Arts and New Media at the Digital Arts Research Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Can you tell me about your MFA projects?
When I first started the course I had no idea what I was going to do – it could have been a photo exhibition or anything else, really. It was truly wonderful because this course offered an infinite array of possibilities. Over time I realized I wanted to do a projection because it seemed to be the best way to reach a wide audience. I had to ask myself: What kind of art is it? Who is my audience? The central part of the course was to push you to grow as an artist. You had to figure out what you want, know who you want to reach and how.
So my project, Verde Oscuro, consisted of a video mapping projection masking the Digital Arts Research Center to trace the ecological history of the land the building stands on today. My aim was to create awareness of the past, present and future of a place and to show how nature can be integrated into an urban environment. The medium was technology but the message had to be about nature. The Department of Environmental Studies had a green house and kindly helped me distribute ornamental plants native to the area to the audience for them to plant in their own gardens. A graduate student fund helped support that part.
So I had to come up with the idea for the video and edit it using film, animation and time-lapse techniques. I also created a prototype of the big installation consisting of a model and a small projector. Then I had to ask the Fire Department for permission to set up the lighting projection outdoors to avoid any kind of accident with people, the building and so on. Americans are very cautious. So they came to see where to plug everything in, where to put the cables, where the audience would be.
The prototype installation was there for one week and many people came to view the mapping projection and took plants home at the opening of the MFA exhibition.
Even though it was my project, it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of many other people. They all knew I had studied biology and didn’t know much about the technological side of things, so they taught me a lot about the technical aspects. They shared similar values in terms of environmental protection. Gene Felice for example helped me a lot. I’m not sure what he studied, but he just knows everything. So he helped me with the mapping projection and taught me how to use the software. He’s a genius. Gene genius! (laughs) He was truly like a guardian angel because there were many things I didn’t know about.
Then there were Drew and Lyle who were in charge of managing all teams and the electric installations. Tina, a film student, supported the teams as well.
Did you ever have doubts?
I had no idea how to do what I wanted to do (laughs).
How did you overcome those doubts?
By asking everybody! My advisors and mentors Helen and Newton Harrison, my professors, the committee, other advisors, classmates, the course manager…There was a committee of three professors, one of whom was from the Environmental Studies Department and helped me with the ecological side and the plants. Another of my advisors always knew who to ask, so she helped me by directing me to the right people. I also did a required independent study with an animation professor and he helped me solve technical issues. My classmates were also technologically savvy so I just asked around when I had a question. We helped each other out that way. The course manager was also very supportive and my mentors supported my transition from scientist to artist.
How did you communicate your vision?
Well, it was the result of at least one year’s work. I had to write a proposal and explain it. Then the committee either accepts it or asks for changes to be made. We had at least three meetings with the committee and had to write a paper on the artistic installation.
Tell me more about that intersection of art and science…
Yes, I wanted to work on the intersection of art and science because I think science often falls short in reaching people, in telling people what they found. That’s really what all my projects have in common: forests, agriculture…how can we teach people what can be done and what shouldn’t be done and what the consequences are of doing it anyway? There is a lack of communication in this area. Scientists focus on their work, understanding their research question, trying to answer it, and that’s really how it works. But they’re less interested in trying to explain all that to everyone else.
That’s why it always seemed so important to me to go out to the country side, figure out what we wanted to know, do our research – but then also reach out to local communities, because they’re really the ones who are affected.
Visual arts seems like the perfect medium to me because it has the advantage of being magical in the sense that anyone can understand something visual quickly – maybe with the help of a few short sentences. A scientist is more interested in exploring his research question and writing a paper on it. This paper will only reach people who are interested in the subject and go looking for it.
We have an environmental crisis right now and we need to address these issues seriously and consider future generations. Because we’ve been talking about it for many years but we haven’t really solved anything.
I love pure science. Spending 8, 10, 12 or 15 hours looking through a microscope was fantastic at that moment in my life and it helped me dream of other things. But at some point I got tired of it. So I was looking for something that would allow me to fully develop who I am, as Catalina. Science is a part of me and I love it. But at that point it was blocking my artistic side. And immersing myself in art allowed me to view science with different eyes as well. Combining both aspects of me has been truly fulfilling. Having the capacity to understand science but also the ability to express it through art seemed fantastic.
It’s also been difficult because I’m neither a pure scientist anymore but I also don’t master all the technical aspects of art right now. You have to learn a lot of software. So in terms of jobs, people are either looking for one or the other. Scientists or technical artists. It’s been tough getting out of academia.
What kind of projects have you been working on since then?
I had the opportunity to work with NGOs in Santa Cruz focusing on resource management. We did surveys to help governmental and private organizations make environmental, economic or political decisions. It was great because it was to find out how much awareness there was surrounding environmental issues: the river, the ocean, urban contamination, how the water system works, what happens to paper tossed in the street.
I also worked on an environmental entertainment project in the city of Watsonville and on another project on the sewage system in San Francisco. It was wonderful to be in San Francisco and meet people from all over the world. The aim of the project was to solve an environmental problem because sewage and rainwater systems are connected in San Francisco. So when it rains that system collapses and they open doors that drain the system and everything flows out into the ocean. We went door to door to explain this problem to people and ask them if they were aware of it and what they thought of the solution. The city’s solution is to add more green infrastructure, which means adding more gardens and plants that absorb rain fall to avoid a system overload. So we asked people if they would want more green walls or green roofs or more parks or green sidewalks and so on. I really enjoyed it. It was interesting because I’d never worked like that before – interviewing people. My English got a lot better because I interacted with a lot of local residents.
The purpose was to develop a proposal for public outreach in order to raise awareness in an entertaining way – through art. That was with Civinomics in Santa Cruz.
I also participated in an ocean-related project in Santa Cruz called Fluctuations organized by the UCSC community including the OpenLab and the Digital Arts and New Media Center. I created a video mapping projection for a cliff. It was about the history of the place, the story of that specific wall, from water animals, vegetation, forests up until today – linking past and present.
What are your plans now?
I want to develop an art project for the nature reserve we’re developing with the Fundación Biodiversa Colombia.
I also like working with city people because they’re not aware that everything that happens in the city affects other regions and environments as well. Kids today think that milk comes from a carton, not from a cow. So I’d like to focus on working with children and teenagers. Art offers more opportunity for sensibility, unlike science. I’d like to continue doing these kinds of projects and stay in the audio-visual world and develop more interactive projects where the audience can play with the screen as well.
My goal is to raise awareness in a subtle way through an emotional medium. It’s more powerful than a purely intellectual approach. I want to trigger people’s interest in the environment and in ecological issues. I’d like to develop the way information about these issues is spread by focusing on visual mass communication.