The environment is a tricky subject when it comes to technology. From trash eating genetically engineered organisms to plastic bags that biodegrade, advances in technology are curbing threats against our environment while simultaneously making us wary of their impact. Within the art world, environmental concerns have long been prevalent topics for creative expression. As technological art practices gain mainstream acceptance through the Internet and networked society, artists are questioning how our physical and digital lives interact. The natural world has become the perfect antidote for false expectations of technological utopia.
From early eco-art such as Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” or Christo’s wrapped islands, there has been a challenge to both display the natural beauty of our environment while simultaneously critiquing its use. Fusing technology with ecological art unearths questions relating to how technology can illuminate environmental issues. What is technology’s role in preserving nature? How does questioning reality – either virtual or real – help us improve our relationship with the natural world? How can technology enable communication about ecological conservation between people over distance?
Digital = Dirty
Looking at environmental pollutants in home computers and distributed networks, Australian research scientist and techno-artist, Natalie Jerimijenko’s work challenges our assumptions about the cleanliness of “digital lifestyles”. Her project, “Stump” infiltrates your computer’s printer queue keeping track of how many pages you’ve printed. As time goes by, the software agent prints out a tree ring representing how much of a tree you’ve consumed. In her work, “Bang Bang”, Jerimijenko set up webcams at specific environmental sites where data collected from the site triggers the camera to take video clips. For example, a camera resting at New York’s Fresh Kills landfill is activated by a radioactivity threshold meter. Similarly, she attached a crude Co2 meter to the serial port so that virtual trees on the desktop grow in proportion to Co2 readings in the room.
Also starting on the home front, Irish designer Philip Phelan’s Co2nvertweb project features working prototypes of innovative eco-conscious modifications to existing home appliances. Focusing on the individual rather than national responsibility, his work uses technology as an empowering tool for social environmental protest. The “Snobby Toaster” makes a fuss over the type of energy it consumes while the “Weather Socket” allows us to see if the energy we are plugging into is coming from wind, solar, or fossil fuel sources. Co2nvert’s main goal is to have a monthly “Emissions Bill”, breaking down each household’s global pollutant contribution. By changing our everyday power consumption habits through simple interaction design, Phelan’s work highlights the natural resources we often take for granted.
As technology gains ubiquity in our everyday lives, natural and artificial begin to blur. Artists are looking at how we can create hybrid spaces where digital and analog worlds can exist in tandem within a sustainable architecture.
MAKROLAB, “Makrolab is an autonomous communications, research and living unit and space, capable of sustaining concentrated work of 4 people in isolation/insulation conditions for up to 120 days. Three primary global research fields have been identified within the Makrolab project. These are: TELECOMMUNICATIONS, MIGRATIONS, and WEATHER SYSTEMS.” (web site)
Located in the hills of Scotland, MAKROLABfunctions as a fully autonomous research, communications, housing and creative unit. Its premise is built on the idea that sustainable architecture can fuse with digital practice to provide a haven for collaboration within a self-contained shell. Since our connected lives require more infrastructure everyday, the MAKROLAB project proves that our digital lives can exist in a resource-free world where reliance on ourselves is the only option.
Building a sustainable ecosystem within the computer, The Bank of Time is a screensaver that uses idle time to grow virtual plants on the desktop. This simple project gives nature a dependency on virtual activities where only when we take a break from using computers will growth occur. Despite the fact that the plants are “virtual”, the project illuminates the struggle for balance between interacting with both natural and artificial worlds.
Technological art practices tend to be more accessible to a mass audience since they often have a networked component. As ecological disasters hit, artists respond by creating environmentally conscious works that highlight and frame these events as global phenomena.
Reacting to a Russian tanker’s major oil spill of the coast of Japan, digital artist, Maki Ueda created “Spilt Oil Project” . Taking photos of the effected areas, Ueda then printed them on large pieces of fabric and placed them in pattern formations on beaches along the southern coast of Japan. The accompanying website features a map of Japan with flags representing the beaches where the fabric was displayed along with the effected areas from the spill.
Similarly, reacting to the disposal of hazardous waste, “Ocean Landmark” by NYC based artist, Betty Beaumont is an interactive 3D rendering of an ecological art project. In 1980, Beaumont dumped 500 tons of processed coal-waste into the sea, 40 miles from the New York Harbor to create a new underwater ecosystem that would create a “fish haven”. The technological realization of this project exists as a VRML world that recreates the experience of the blocks falling onto the sea floor.
As technological art practices shift from screen-based to physical installations the potential for ecological art becomes more varied. By both using natural landscapes and animals from a particular environment, art can flourish by being not-only site-specific but also ecologically sensitive.
New York based artist, John Klima’s project, Terrain Machineis an analog mechanical device interfaced to a computer that creates a physical recreation of the Earth’s surface. A continuation of his “Earth” simulation, an interactive geo-spatial visualization system that takes real-time satellite data from the Internet and maps it onto a 3D model of the Earth’s surface, “Terrain Machine” looks at how we can represent ecological data in physical form.
Instead of data visualization through networks, Celeste Boursier-Mougenot and Alan Lockwood’s installation “From Here to Ear” creates a hybrid space between natural and artificial environments. The project features 40 zebra finches which are let loose in a space rigged with hanging harpsichord strings and coat hangers all connected to an audio system. As the audience enters the space, the birds move and perch on different structures which trigger unique ambient sound patterns.
Technology aids not only the dissemination of information and meaning across distance and time, but also allows for insight into the hybridization of the natural and artificial. These works are meant as a starting point for understanding the increasing importance of exploring how ecological practices and technological innovation must exist as symbiotic entities to ensure a sustainable future.
Jonah Brucker-Cohen- Research Fellow, Media Lab Europe, Dublin, Ireland.