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Can art make science a breath of fresh air?

Students in West Auckland are helping to create a truly innovative art installation while learning about air and climate science.

There is a one-of-a-kind exhibition on display at Te Uru art gallery in Titirangi, Auckland.

It combines art, science, music and app technology to create an immersive experience that grows over time as students contribute their nature-themed artwork to the gallery.

Exploring the gallery with iPads

The latest contributors to the O-Tū-Kapua (‘what clouds see’) exhibition are Year 6 students from Green Bay Primary School.

The students spent two hours exploring the gallery space and then creating a range of beautiful native birds – including ruru (morepork), tī/pīwakawaka (fantail) and kererū (wood pigeon) – using just cardboard, felt-tip pens and collage pieces.

Cutting out the birds

Colouring the birds

“My favourite part was when we all went around the art gallery,” says 10-year-old Malachi.

Holly, also 10, adds, “I loved making my morepork to put in the gallery.”

Central to the exhibition is an augmented reality app. It makes the gallery highly interactive while encouraging users to explore the science behind the air we breathe. 

The app works by using your smartphone or tablet’s camera and superimposes hand-drawn images on top of specific items, known as markers, seen through the camera. 

This means that when you use the app to view relatively plain objects in the gallery, these items appear to suddenly burst into life; revealing hidden colours, shapes, movements and sounds that are all played through your device.  You can then tap these pieces of digital art to learn their scientific story and even take a virtual tour of the Waitākere forest.

Marker without app  Marker as seen through the app

The app and exhibition comes from a massive collaboration between scientists, educators, app designers, artists and musicians as well as hundreds of students.

“The app recognises the image, analyses it and matches it to a library of markers in order to decide what to do,” explains air quality scientist Gustavo Olivares at NIWA and project collaborator. “The matching is done very quickly and the markers were designed to be very distinct so that the image recognition is easier.”

Exploring the gallery with iPads

The most striking element of the gallery is actually just a tree stump. Through the app, it becomes a beautiful tree that tells the user about the air quality in Auckland at that very moment. 

It visually represents four different components of air quality: humidity (a thermometer-like water gauge), pollution (a cloud), pollen levels (flying particles) and wind (moving leaves). It also changes colour from a parched brown during droughts to a lush dark green when there is ample rainfall.

The tree concept works through linking the app to local weather and air quality data that is automatically updated hourly. By translating these numbers into images and movements, the app creates a truly unique piece of art that is constantly changing.

Tree stump  tree stump with app

“Developing the app has been a long and winding road over the past year and a half and we are all so proud of what we’ve created,” Gustavo says. 

“My favourite part has to be the interaction between the scientists and the artists. My colleagues and I talked to Sue Jowsey, the lead artist in this project, about what happens to trees when pollution is around and how we, as scientists, visualise things – and then Sue changed that to come up with the gorgeous visuals on the augmented reality tree.”

Students and helpers in the gallery

Iona Matheson, project collaborator and Education Manager at Te Uru, also points out that science and art in fact can complement each other beautifully.

“I’ve been teaching for quite a while and I’ve found that art and science is such a good combination. It just works!” she tells us. “I believe that science and art are equally creative and combining the two also means the students stay interested in the science as much as the art.”

Samuel, 10, agrees: “I really liked looking at all the trees and creatures in the gallery with the iPad - it’s just so cool!”

Have a go at home! Visit the O-Tū-Kapua website to download the app, markers and activity booklet, or take a 3D tour of the gallery space from your armchair!


Finished birds


About the project

Snail logoLogoO-Tū-Kapua is a collaboration between TEMP Auckland, F4 Art Collective, musician Maree SheehanUnitec, AUTNIWA and Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery with support from the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.


Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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