Interview with Dr. Antje Boetius

Polar and marine researcher with a focus on deep-sea microbiology, ecology and how climate change impacts the oceans. Director of the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research. Interview by Tim Heinze, Xenorama Studio, 25.06.2021.


The interview with Antje Boetius, the director of the Alfred Wegener Institute, focuses on the intersection of the arts and science and the potential for collaboration between these two fields. The conversation highlights the importance of interdisciplinary learning and experimentation in addressing complex global challenges, including environmental issues, raising environmental awareness and finding innovative solutions. Boetius emphasizes the important role that artists can play in addressing environmental issues as artists have a unique perspective and creative ability to engage with and communicate complex environmental issues to a wider audience, raising empathy and inspiring action. The arts can also contribute to scientific research by developing new ways of visualizing data and representing scientific concepts.


Please introduce yourself briefly and describe your profession on a personal level and with regards to related institutes, like the AWI for example.

My name is Antje Boetius. I am a polar and marine researcher and my key areas are research on deep sea microbiology, ecology and how climate change impacts the oceans. I am also the director of the Alfred Wegener Institute Hemlmholtz Center for Polar and Marine research. This is one of Europe’s largest oceanographic institutes. We have 2.000 to 2.500 members in various locations across Germany, and I’m also working a lot in finance management. I’m part of several national and European academies and I work also in science communication in various places.

Did you, or or any of your institutions that you’re affiliated with cooperate with universities of the arts or art institutions as it were?

Yes. I am part of a research team of the Max Planck Institute for Marine microbiology in Bremen and a professor of geomicrobiology in the geosciences department and the Marum Excellence Cluster at the University Bremen; all three institutions cooperate in various projects with European and international schools of arts.

How would you describe these collaborations? How have they worked out? How are they working out in specific cases maybe? And how do you see this kind of cooperation developing in the future?

Many of these collaborations arose from research projects where it was considered or even demanded as the funding strategy that we find approaches to science communication that include either the expression of the results in projects involving the arts, or also sometimes generating or accompanying the development of methods. The progress of observation of the oceans or polar regions for example, and some projects focused on science communication where we collaborated early on – it is in fact often a part of a teaching obligation. When schools of arts asked for scientists to be present in lectures or help design certain courses in climate change research, transformation research or sustainability research all have led to a globally strong interest in understanding the natural science-based observations to understand perspectives of the arts.

What impact did it, or does it still have on your work or the subject that you currently are mainly working on?

My natural science research at the core is often discovery research. It is research where I am trying to understand, assess and solve issues with unknown lifeforms. And in the process I have often used visualization technologies of various kinds to make my findings available and illustrate the world of microbes that are not visible to the human eye. That is one very basic approach where art based technologies have helped at the second level in the process of trying to communicate findings of processes in nature and also effects of our human behavior on nature.

Very often, I have tried to learn and assess the history of relationships between mankind and nature. And for that I have informed myself, not only about natural science-based communications. I’ve also researched literature, music and various cultural background information to understand the origin and depth of the problem of human-nature relationship and how to balance it. Yet that’s very specific for me, not necessarily for all my institutions. I have also an ongoing personal project where I use empathic communication and change of perspective in the expression of results to enhance the scientific findings. This involves theatre and also cooperations with musicians.

When I speak or when I show data and scientific results, when they are communicated on a theatre stage, with music, with photography or with our products—it is purposefully observing whether the message comes across more strongly, more sustainably. So that’s part of my individual research approach, not so much that of my institutions. The level of the institution often collaborates with arts because we have the obligation and also the will and the lust for interactive and broad sharing of the access to polar regions and ocean regions. So we regularly give offers to artists to accompany us on expeditions or to write about us or various other kinds. Those are the various levels that I have.

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So in general one could say that art plays a perhaps significant role in the accessibility of scientific understanding and makes it more accessible to all manner of thinking men and women?

I find that many of the art forms that I at least have used are actually limiting inasmuch as a theatre is limited in accessibility. A concert is very limited in availability. So I’ve mostly experimented with analog artistic communication. Currently, I am also working with film, for example, co-writing or supporting the storytelling of fictional formats and and other things I’m trying to understand, what the difference is for me or for my communications, but also for the reach or the impact that certain scientific messages have.

I would say, merging arts and communication of scientific results or the development of scientific methods is adding a level of perspective or increases the diversity of perspectives and hence the creative and learning process. It lends a certain empathy to the communication towards the object of research, or helps expressing that. That is a special form and it’s heavily debated in science communication, whether this is good or bad to have a certain binding to the research objects or a position towards the research object.

Alexander von Humboldt and others have written about the need for certain types of discovery research to actually feel something about the object in question – a landscape or an animal, for example. So I’m just experimenting how it affects me and my research results when I use various tools or means of expression.

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From your perspective, and with regard to both the present day and the future, what are the most impactful roles of artists, art or creative work in general, for example, in society or the economic sector, or with regard to collective responsibility?

There are various answers. One thing that I find immensely important, and it is rooted in science as well as in art is the opportunity to travel and to explore the past as well as the future, or to explore the different perspectives of the present also. It is basically both fields – since both cultural fields have deeper ways of understanding that which we cannot reach as humans; without the tools of science or the tools of arts it’s basically not possible to travel in time. That is where I see many parallels.

In The arts, of course, the means of expression are often more open and free and not as structured as is the case within science. The competition is much higher in the arts than in science for the impact that an expression has. In the mixture, in combining them one can learn about the perspective change. That is crucial for the field of research which I’m in namely, understanding diversity networks of life, networks of humans and nature and fears in areas where basically nothing is known. Whether in scientific or artistic fields, the first steps are explored by means of fantasy, hypotheses and by theories. In the second step they are explored by a new means of observation. Those two cultures work hand in hand.

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And how would that apply perhaps in your field of expertise, specifically?

In my field of expertise, when I document what I see in unknown realms, life or landscapes beneath the ice, we are using visualization and sound technologies. I try to find ways of demonstrating unknown landscapes or making them accessible or immersive. It has to do with being able to film, to understand the scales of observation and description, to be able to adjust these scales and to find ways of basically scaling observations from molecular levels to global levels and back, or time travel.

For example, when one wants to speak about landscapes of a few million years ago, and no humans were around even though I’m coming from scientific facts, I need a certain type of fantasy and creativity to combine these facts to a hypothesis of how it could have been. Here, visualization technologies are essential and they often come from an artistic background or artistic ability.

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Talking About Trends, Challenges, And Drivers: In Your Opinion, What Are The Most Influential Trends And Developments In Society Economy And The Arts?

Of course, in a way digitalization with all of its impacts is I think the most important driver of today’s society and also the availability of tools and technologies to express oneself also to share expressions of individuality and collectives, to reach global levels within seconds basically and also to filter global trends back to oneself. So digitalization and data availabilities, connectivity, and all of that is the most important trend.

So what roles would artists, universities of the arts and the creative sector in general potentially play concerning those trends? Talking also of the economy?

Based on facts or data that I know, many of the ones that went to art schools, creative business schools or media and communication schools — often end up in the creative market and have smaller or larger businesses from VR-agencies to television or media. So, as in science, only few, I guess less than 10%, stay in the business of art itself.

And hence for both the education and the impact of education, it should provide more than the enabling to be an artist and should help in being able to run a business or to enhance employability in many ways, as well as digitalization skills. At the skill set, even though one actually likes to paint, sing, or likes to deal with or perform in classic technology, I would say that inn any case access to skills in various digitalization technologies, including social media, film production or the basics of self-expression in digital tools are key skills that should be taught.

Is that also something you see as the development for your own work?

Yes, absolutely. It has been included for sure in our fields since day one—it is expected that students already have a certain skill set in digital tools.

And I should probably add something else: There is a critical part of the skill set that I find important where I think to be more potential in arts than in science. And I miss it in sciences: Historical context. So to understand the context in which knowledge develops, skill sets or methods develop, or our means of expression develop, I hope it is within the core curriculum. In science we don’t, we have merely lost scientists’ theories as a part of the core curriculum. And very often I find that people don’t understand the context of a question or a technology. And that is then often a blockade stopping them from really exploiting that essential background knowledge, the past context. So that’s a skill set that I would find very important for both arts and science likewise.

From your experience, what should artists and academies consider or change in order to act in a sustainable way?

Maybe other very strong trends in both fields (science and arts) are the wishes to change production methods, the way that jobs are performed, the way that materials are used and how energy is used. This is commonly summed up under sustainability. It is usually much more than that. Scientists and also students—both in science and arts—they would not like to continue in the old system. And with sustainability it often includes also a perspective on including the diversity of human thought and cultural background, including also awareness of discrimination in many ways.

So the concept of developing an approach to the future while learning with universities and schools as institutions is a strong driver as well. I reckon there is a need for universities to fulfill the wish of the upcoming generations to comply. However, in the regulatory background of an institution it is often not possible to do that instantly, since it is not necessarily the president of a university that forbids sustainable operations. It is actually the laws in which she, or he has to operate that do not allow to change the contract with the energy company or to have alternative solutions to flying somewhere, etc.

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Talking of the students of those institutions: Do they have little, if nothing, to say about these kinds of structures?

…That’s then the fault of the students because every proper school or university should have a student body that has a representative organ…

What advice would you give students to work in a more sustainable way, obviously to make themselves heard?

To form a collective, as it always has been. When I was a student, of course, it was important to be outspoken about the future we want and the institution we want and the profession we want. So it is certainly a step to consider the following: What is the type of future I need or want for the environment? How does my profession have to be? What do I have to contribute and what do we have to contribute, and how can this be given a voice? There is no reason why that should not be possible.

Talking of responsibilities. If art has the means to bring forth positive change, does it also have the privilege to act less responsible in certain areas?

I’m not so sure. Well, I don’t see art necessarily as a skill set that absolutely changes things to the positive or illustrates optimism or radiates optimism and positivity. In fact, most of the art I’m enjoying is more of dystopian nature. It may be me, but when I think of art and the role of art, it often gives us visions of options, of pathways that we enter. And it allows us to experiment, in the mindset, it enables us to actually explore scenarios of utopia versus dystopia, or the impacts of behavior of others and oneself, or simply the perspective of others, including also non-human life.

I would say that it basically is a skillset of creativity and exploration that is helpful in times when a transformation is needed or will anyway happen. But I don’t see exactly how art itself can change things… I’m not aware that art has a specific role in that. It can bring people together. It can create a certain type of enjoyment or an attitude of enjoyment, but also an attitude of frustration. So it’s maybe the basis of forming collectives and strengthening them. But its role in future societies, I must say in my own address to the theatre or to various forms of arts, I mostly assume the position of »where are you when one needs you?«. There is like a lacking voice towards climate and nature. There is a lacking ability at least in Western arts and culture to explore traditional thinking of human–non-human interactions. So I would be more on the side of strengthening the institution of our training and understanding the future, future trends or expectations of the futures to come.

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So does art play any role in our awareness of how we affect each other and our surroundings?

Yes. Art can help exploring, basically. Art can provide a »repositioning«. Art allows oneself or a collective to always question and change their own perspective and empathy as well as the position towards each other.

Art of course can also simply be enjoyed or can be a matter of exactly experiencing that. There is something like a collective, a collective force or so… I mean, when I think about music and dance, it has certain power of bringing people together and activating them. It is an entire conservation of its own!

So something that I’m thinking about a lot as far as art is concerned, is the role of art to conserve human culture. When you think about concerts, I mean, tunes, music or instruments, for example! I’m currently discussing a lot with orchestras. We can preserve instruments and melodies over a few thousand years, which we have not achieved for nature. So I find art is a way (in my mind) sometimes also very conservative, in a good way, maybe.

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Talking of instruments and sort of forwarding communication for media, like an instrument, for instance the information can also be transformed?

Yeah, that’s right. I forgot to mention the transformative power. Art definitely has (much more than science) a transformative power. But I cannot see at this point that it is much used in the big questions of society, whether it’s health or the needs to find a balance with nature and climate. And this exploration of the position of art towards sustainability is urgently needed. But it’s much limping behind, I would say, similar to sports.

So imagining, hypothetically speaking, there’s a working group called the »maritime transformations« (talking of which) — imagine you were planning an overall sustainable transformation of the handling and say the empathy towards the oceans. So in which sectors or working steps, would you employ arts or artists in general?

It’s actually a good example because currently there are several large global projects emerging, where part of the scientific challenge is to increase empathy and to embed the results of science into creative approaches, changing people’s opinions, feeling closer to the ocean and things like that. We have just begun to explore opportunities of how to do that. Such ideas include of course working with narratives, storytelling, fictional approaches, and the use of different technologies of the arts to do that. Enhancing public engagement is basically the goal we pursue.

As for myself, I experiment—as I said—with theatre, and I’m trying to work with artists to use their skill set to tell my story. When I’ve gotten ideas or some knowledge about the oceans, for example, about the unknown diversity of life or the destructive behavior of humans towards the oceans, then I look for »artifacts« for literature, music, dance, any kinds of film, any kinds of expressions…

…And I try to mix them with my own scientific results so that the audience (mostly digital, but I try to do that also in a couple of analog experiments) gets an enhanced understanding of the information that I want to share and, say, gets enlightened and touched, to have more empathy towards the hard results that I’m going to present because they’ve heard poems, because someone has played a harp or other, and there is perhaps a film playing. This is an attempt that I personally use. And at the higher level myself and others engage in advising television and cinema on stories where scientists, or heroes use certain technologies and ways to understand the future and play a significant role.

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Based on what you said earlier that art perhaps is somewhat »limping behind« —is it possible, generally speaking, or in which ways could design and art contribute to tackling complex societal and planetary challenges?

In my mind, the most important approach would be in the sense of forming utopian options. The challenge when shifting from the present structure that we live in towards a sustainable future is that everything seems to be in the way. And so if people have more options to think about, if people get options to play or to change roles and to try out how would it feel if I can no longer fly, or how would it feel, what would it mean if my voice would be heard? And I am a fish that wants to defend its future. So these ways of engaging, enhancing experience with often non-present problems is I think the strongest option, it can be as simple as just happened: presenting 3D-travel. I mean, I’ve worked also with companies that, for example, program a 3D-game and immersive experience where one is part of a coral reef and understands what bleaching means or heat waves, or when one takes the role of a fish that lives in aquaculture or in freedom. So these kinds of enhancements of experience and understanding is an artistic power, and I think can be explored a lot to create empathy for nature.

Talking about utopia and dystopia: Imagine, and describe your work at the Alfred-Wegener-Institut in 25 years!

In 25 years scientific institutions are globally, digitally, fully connected and have found ways of expressing results much faster, more accessible, and in a more participatory way. So that society has access to the research process and understands it much better, but that scientists also have access to questions arounds feelings, to empathy towards certain subjects so that we all reach a level of a modern humanity, where we give, where we share information much better and are able to accept that there is an approach in science that is immensely valuable. That is the exploration of the world we’re in.

I would also think that scientists in institutions have creative labs in which they can visualize their research and immerse in their research using 3D-technologies [HMD/VR], visualization technologies, much more connected audiovisual experiences of their own data to enhance the way we interpret data and by means of which we discover anomalies and also trends and regularities. I think that artificial intelligence methods from machine learning will play a much bigger role. So it will be much faster in understanding patterns. And I could imagine that to perform well and to use and do all of this, there will be a stronger co-education in arts and science.

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So that was perhaps a neutral, sober assessment. How about a worst case and a best case from your point of view?

That’s what I was thinking. There’s no real «worsed case». Of course one could think of a dramatic reality in twenty-five years from now, in which we have already ruined the planet that hence the taxes are all used to save us from floods, heat waves and pandemics. And that the investment in science and arts goes to nothing since we are all struggling to survive. It happened before in the history of mankind, then everyone is left to themselves and people without payment are scientists and artists, nonetheless. And then at least they should have a toolset to self-survive, and use that creative power to help themselves and their families.

And I’ve just seen an impressive film by a master of a Pacific island; he said, we are a small island—no one will help us in 50 years, our island will be gone. So what should I teach to the children? I should teach them building a canoe because no one will come and rescue us. So the only thing, the only valuable thing I can give to the next generation is the ability to build a boat and to travel. And so in my worst case scenario, it comes to that, there being nothing less than a few practical, but also creative skills. That will help us survive.

There is no reason to think of the worst, I think much more than that some middle ground will be found. Of course we have already rather bad situations in some countries for scientists and artists alike, the loss of freedom, danger to express yourself and all of that. So it’s always very close and that’s why I think that another skill in sience and arts is just being able to support each other, having networks and having large abilities to collaborate and support.

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Wonderful. Okay. So I would close the interview now, unless there’s anything else that we haven’t discussed that you’d like to share or address?

No, I would like to see the results of everything once you’re finished with the project


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