Arizona ArtBeat: Phosphorus Sustainability

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Art and science converge as an ASU School of Life Sciences’ art show raises public awareness about the sustainability of phosphorus, an essential element of life.

Ted Simons: In tonight's edition of "Arizona artbeat," art and science converge. You've probably heard concerns about the world's depleting oil supply. But you might not know that the same is being said about a natural element critical to that supply. It's phosphorus. It's mined from phosphate rock and commonly used in fertilizer. But scientists say that we're using it at a rate that's unsustainable. ASU's global institute of sustainability recently brought together experts from around the world to explore the issue. And as David Majure reports, they got a little help from artists.

Narrator: This story starts with the letter P. On the periodic table, it stands for phosphorus. A chemical compound that happens to be stuff.

Mark Edwards: It provides our energy and provides the energy for every cellular organism on the planet, which is everything living. Our bones are phosphorus and provides our eyesight and teeth and hair and phosphorus is the base of our DNA structure.

Narrator: Scientists like ASU professor mark Edwards can go on and on about phosphorus and probably whip out a 100-page report if we asked him. But who would read it?

Mark Edwards: As scientists we're dull. You know? And words on a page just don't cut it.

Narrator: Acknowledging that a picture really can be worth a thousand words scientists recruited artists.

Blake McConnell: As far as the phosphorus issue, I didn't know much about it.

>> I had no idea.

Mark Edwards: And each artist paired with a scientist so they had the opportunity to talk with a scientist and brainstorm.

>> I never worked with someone who came at it from a scientific appropriate afternoon she had never worked with someone who was a creative mind.

Blake McConnell: I did experience some interesting, shall we say, communication issues with my scientist.

>> And for me, it was inspirational to see the -- it's way bigger than I could have completed myself.

Narrator: This exhibition is the product of that teamwork.

Angela: This is my first impression of -- whoa! -- the shakiness and overwhelmingness of hearing there's a phosphorus issue.
Narrator: They created a mixed media sculpture called "our floating days." It's a metaphor for the information overload for this whole phosphorous thing.

Angela: And there may be a crisis but we don't know and there's cultural parts and financial parts and biological parts and ecosystems and it's just really hard to sort out.

Narrator: Rather than just try and sort it out, they're collecting people's opinions about phosphorus to include in a documentary that will part of the work in process.

Angela: At the end of the day, we'll destroy it and remake it into something more efficient and cohesive.
Narrator: Some studied how surface water runoff produced a toxic environment for some aquatic life and others on the unsustainability of phosphorus from mines,
Mark Edwards:it tells the story of sustainable phosphorus and how we need to recycle it rather than what we do now. We mine it, refine it, use it once and let it go into the waste stream.

Blake McConnell: I wanted something interactive and a game-like feel.

Narrator: Blake McConnell provided this and shows them the potential consequences of their actions.

Blake McConnell: I wanted it to be more like a dynamic portrait that would show the cycle and how choices affect other choices.

Christine: The process is cast concrete, glass fiber reinforced.

Narrator: Subsidized rhythms. The vertical panel examines the solutions but doesn't reach a conclusion.

Christine: The thing I like about art, it poses a lot of questions and so I think what happens, I'm hoping, people walk away and start to think a little bit more critically.

Narrator: And that's all the scientists were looking for. Another way to get people to pay attention.
Mark Edwards: Not just with words in science, but with art.

Ted Simons: The "phosphorus, food and our future" artwork is on display through Friday at the step gallery on ASU's Tempe campus. Hours are noon to 5:00 p.m. week days except for Friday, when the gallery closes at 3:00.

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