Documentary film Visualizing Agriculture to premiere at Crossing Boundaries

What started as a class project became a creative collision of art and science on display. Fortunately, it was all captured on film. Visualizing Agriculture, a documentary co-directed by Leanne Elias (MEd ’03; BFA – Art ’95) and Bryn Hewko (MFA – New Media ’16), premieres at the Crossing Boundaries Symposium, October 26 at the University of Lethbridge.

Elias, Crossing Boundaries keynote speaker and Department of New Media professor, will premiere the documentary and discuss the collaborative efforts of artists and scientists in the work executed in the University of Lethbridge Data Physicalization Lab.

The film features the collaborative efforts of artists and scientists in the work executed in the University of Lethbridge Data Physicalization Lab.

With the desire to build a method for interdisciplinary research and creation, Elias and Department of Art faculty colleague Denton Fredrickson, took on the challenge of finding a way for art to play a role in the dissemination of scientific research data. They didn’t just want to use art to communicate science, they aimed to develop a method of cross-collaborative research and development that put scientists and artists from different disciplines in the same room, tackling the same project. This endeavour was the launch of the Data Physicalization Lab.

Data physicalization is a relatively new field of study. Data visualization can be understood simply as a bar chart, a 2D visual of information. Data physicalization takes that a step further, by mapping information to something that is physical, taking it off the screen and putting it into objects.

Inviting Art and New Media students to participate, research scientists from the Lethbridge Research Centre, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, provided a dataset for the students to analyze and visualize. Through semesters of engagement with this process, Elias and Fredrickson were able to develop an instructional pedagogy and creative practice.

“We wanted to make sure that the data was accurately represented in all the work so we knew the scientist needed to be an integral part of the critique process,” explains Elias.

The students and scientists participated in critiques every three weeks, allowing them to continuously adapt or recreate their works before the next critique. At first, the artists were engaging with the dataset alone. Eventually a student asked for more context, to see first-hand the research that provided the data. After visiting the research station, the work exploded.

“It became really, really good after that. It changed the concept of the data in their minds; they understood it and could ask questions about it because it was all visual,” says Elias. “Those visuals worked their way into the art and design work. From there, Denton and I knew that it was a key element in this interdisciplinary formula – it wasn’t enough to bring science to art. We had to take the art into the science as well.”

Dr. Leanne Elias is the Crossing Boundaries keynote speaker and a Department of New Media professor.

Each semester the process of working with different disciplines became clearer until Elias and Fredrickson were ready to take the idea one step further. Using the formula created, they joined forces with the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG), and with funding from Alberta Foundation for the Arts, The Community of Research Excellence Development Opportunities (CREDO) program of the University of Lethbridge, a professional artist residency, documentary film and exhibition was put into motion.

The results of this 18-month science-meets-art collaboration are produced in Visualizing Agriculture, a 20-minute documentary premiering at Crossing Boundaries, October 26 in the University of Lethbridge Recital Hall. With the help of the research funding, Bryn Hewko’s Output Media accepted the challenge of documenting the process from the first meeting through the final exhibition.

Six professional artists, Jackson 2Bears, Tori Foster, Mary-Anne McTrowe (BFA – Art ’98), Robyn Moody, Adrien Segal, and Michelle Sylvestre (MFA – New Media candidate; BFA – Art ’17), joined research scientists, Dr. André Laroche and Dr. Jamie Larson, for a weekend residency where they spent time at the research station analyzing two datasets around the genetic code of wheat. After the intensive residency, the artists returned to their own studios across Canada and the US.

“That's the period that Denton and I were really interested in because instead of having these check-ins every three weeks, now we were giving them the time to make their work. We were really interested in how much support they would need. How many times would they talk to the scientists? What were those conversations like? How often did they, or could they, return to the station for additional information?”

In February 2017, the Visualizing Agriculture exhibition opened at the SAAG, curated by Christina Cuthbertson (BFA – Art ‘05). “It was absolutely fascinating. All the artists approached it very differently… which you’ll see in the film,” teases Elias.

The documentary takes the audience through the whole process, from first meeting to the final exhibition highlighting the challenges and success of the facilitators, curator, artists and scientists. Filming any footage they could of the process and interviewing participants throughout project, the narrative came together as the exhibition did.

“This project was different than anything I’ve done before,” says Hewko. “Normally things are heavily scripted at the beginning, but here we didn’t know where it was going to go, so we just started filming and gathering interviews, and through the editing process we were able to find the real story.”

Audiences will be as surprised by the findings as Elias and Hewko were.

“I don’t want to spoil the documentary, but I think the key discovery for many of us was a changing definition of what data visualization or data physicalization is,” explains Hewko. “We had some expectation of what the artists might contribute, but what actually happened in a lot of cases was the artist’s reaction to the data. It wasn’t a direct representation, it was more of a reaction or a translation of the data. Their own processing of the information.”

See the final products from the artists, hear more from Leanne Elias on this interdisciplinary research method, and take in the premiere of Visualizing Agriculture during the keynote presentation at Crossing Boundaries. Purchase tickets online at or by phone, Monday to Friday, 12:30-3:30 at 403-329-2616.

For a full schedule of activities and speakers visit