Interview with Mark Dimmitt

Photo by Keegam Shamlian for The Guardian

This is a text version of an interview with Sarah Clark who is documenting the 6&6 project in audio and video.

What is your role in the 6&6 Initiative and why did you decide to participate?

My role is to contribute botanical/ecological expertise to an art project. I accepted the invitation to join the 6&6 group because of my admiration of the Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers network and my deep respect for two of its founders, Ben Wilder and Taylor Edwards. I’ve known Ben since he was a student at the UofA, and Taylor since he was a keeper at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum long before he entered graduate school. Both of them are exceptionally bright scientists and enthusiastic researchers. I am excited to watch their careers take off as mine is winding down, and want to help them in any way I can.

What is the value of collaborating across the arts and sciences?

Science is the primary reason for human prosperity. Nearly all of the technologies that make our lives better, from smart phones to the internet to our abundant food supply to effective health care, result from the direct application of scientific knowledge. And by extension, most of our economy is driven by these advances. But the vast majority of Americans are scientifically illiterate, and in fact there is a strong and growing anti-science attitude. Most scientists are incompetent at communicating with the general public. We were taught to present our knowledge in formal, strictly factual and analytical, technical language that is in fact quite boring. The aim of the artist is exactly the opposite: it’s to inspire.

When I was writing my chapters for the first edition of A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, I was lucky to have Gary Nabhan as a mentor. As both a scientist and artist, he understands the importance of communicating scientific knowledge to the public, and is an expert at doing that. He advised me not to start with the dry facts about species or ecosystems, but to begin with a story to capture the readers’ interest. That advice has greatly improved my communication skill.

I hope that the 6&6 project will create some beautiful, inspiring exhibits that also impart some useful knowledge about our natural world. First capture their interest, then help them understand.

What personal and/or professional qualities do you hope to deepen or expand through your participation in 6&6?

I have no expectations for this project. I’ve entered it with a blank open mind and will see what develops.

I have known a number of artists in my life, but have never worked closely with one. But having become aware that there is more than one way to view a subject, I hope to gain insight into how artists view the world differently from my scientific perspective. I have also observed that a number of scientists have become more artistic and philosophical late in their careers. I want to experience such a transformation myself.

What would you like to communicate to members of your own profession (i.e., other artists or scientists) about the 6&6 Initiative?

Too early to say. Perhaps that the factual/rational and the aesthetic/spiritual are not mutually exclusive realms of human experience.

Outlining the Touch Screen Application

Scott Bennett and Tom Baumgartner meet through Google Hangouts

Scott currently resides in Seattle where he works for the USGS so we meet via Google Hangouts so we can talk and share files on screen. In our last meeting we outlined the project which will be a large touchscreen table that can be interacted with like a giant iPad. Navigation will guide you through 5 separate vignettes. Animations can be controlled manually by sliding a finger, rotated or zoomed, and points of interest tabs will appear that will open up additional infographics/photos in relation to the timeline.

The 'App' will involve 5 vignettes:

  • Main animation of the creation of the Sea of Cortez from 11 million years ago to the present.
  • A version of the main animation that highlights the movement of faultlines during that time period.
  • A "WebGL" section of the area's layered strata. Users can rotate the 'brick' to examine the layers.
  • A "How do we know?" section that will explain how geologists can track rock through time. IE rocks have a magnetism in relationship to the poles when they are born.
  • A "What do geologists do all day" section that explains a geologist's career as well as everyday tasks.

Presently, Scott is gathering the electronic files of his research and animations for use in the 'App.' Tom is building a library of graphics and javascript code for use in the 'App.'

Below are rough mockups of the main animation, the side-drawer menu, and an example of draggable popup info windows:



November 2015

In mid-November 2015, Eric joined Maria and her students aboard the Cozar IX, a shrimp trawling boat, to gather bycatch data. They boarded before sunset and stayed throughout the night, returning to Bahia de Kino mid-morning the next day. Maria wrote in her notes:

Throughout the night, the rain would come and go. The lightning illuminated the surrounding islands from behind, creating mountainous silhouettes and a reminder of the world outside the deck. At one point, we were in the midst of the storm and the lightning would light up the sky around us—an electric pink, that faded to a pale purple as we boated onward…What kind of humans are we? Sometimes it is hard to know if what covers us is agua dulce or agua salada; we are wedged between worlds of water—terrestrial beings covered in water, hovering above water, standing below a blanket of water, made of water.

Eric began notes on a poem:

that the night
          falls into a rhythm

shrimp heads shoveled
          into 55-gallon barrels

Maria Johnson “By Catching Shrimp” article in Edible Baja Arizona



Watch Video Clip


Finding a Theme

Meeting at Taylor’s house to discuss ideas
Meeting at Taylor’s house to discuss ideas

We have now had a few meetings and are starting to narrow in on the theme of our project. We are both intrigued by the ephemeral stories found in the changing tides, such as the tracks left during low tide but soon washed away as the tide comes in. We are also interested in how these stories change over time, including deep time as sea levels changed during the Pleistocene and more recently as development transforms the shoreline in the Sea of Cortez. We have decided to focus our project on Bahia la Cholla in the Northern Sea of Cortez. Heather is currently working on a project titled 'Palimpsests of Bahia Adair' that captures the stories of this region through casting of mud flat textures and a time-lapse video of the tracks left by cerithium. Similarly, we may explore other ‘casts’ left as the fossils in geologic record to characterize changes and similarities over time. We may also explore the invisible ‘tracks’ present in the composition of microorganisms by performing comparative environmental DNA analyses on these ephemeral surfaces (eDNA).

We plan to visit the site together early in 2016 and hope that through finding patterns in our preliminary explorations, we can develop hypotheses which we will test during the realization of this project.

Example casts of tracks left in the mud flats at Cholla Bay
Example casts of tracks left in the mud flats at Cholla Bay

Our Plans

We plan to co-produce an art-science project that deals with shrimp trawler by-catch in the Gulf of California. By-catch is a term that refers to everything captured that is not a target species, so in this case, everything that is not shrimp. Approximately 87% of the weight of catch by shrimp trawlers is by-catch fish and invertebrates. This is the instigation of our project. One of us, Maria, has worked studying by-catch with Prescott College’s Kino Bay Center for a number of years. The other of us, Eric, had not been to Kino Bay Center before this project began.

In our pairing, Maria is listed as the scientist, and Eric is the artist; however, neither of us firmly fits into either of these categories. Maria is both a marine biologist and an artist, and Eric is both a poet and a human geographer.

Making a project around by-catch, and the experience of by-catch by witnessing its scientific, aesthetic, emotional, sensory, and affective presence through research over-night on shrimp trawlers will be the primary fieldwork of our project. At the Next Gen summit in Guaymas in October 2015, we discussed the ground/sea work of this project, and will do research on the trawlers in mid-November. We’re excited about the blending of marine biology, political ecology, poetics, and visual art that we will bring to this collaboration. We anticipate that the form the project will take will blend a poem series with ink drawings, possibly to be presented in book form or in broadside/print form. Something will happen.