We've been talking interdisciplinary collaboration, data-visualisation and sustainability for two intense days at the Making Visible The Invisible conference in Huddersfield at the University of Huddersfield, School of Art, Design and Architecture. Organized by Michael Hohl, Making Visible The Invisible was a conversational conference that didn't suffer any paper presentation. Instead, we met in small groups to discuss a series of topics then reported back in a common sessions. The process was nevertheless interrupted by keynote presentations. One of the most engaging was the one that Andrea Polli gave on the first evening of the conference.

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Andrea Polli (image via Ear Room)

Andrea Polli is a digital media artist living in New Mexico. Her work with science, technology, and media has been presented in exhibitions and performances internationally. She currently works in collaboration with atmospheric scientists to develop systems that provide an understanding of storm and climate through sound. Her agenda is chock full of residencies and participation to exhibitions all over the world. I'm glad that she's going to have a solo show here in Turin at the Parco Arte Vivente on October 28-Jan 8, 2011.

Her talk in Huddersfield, titled, "Who Owns The Air? Emissions Trading and Contemporary Media Art", mixed presentation of her personal work, contemporary projects by other artists that attempt to address the politics of air as well as information and thoughts on the climate change crisis.

The accelerating crisis in climate change and the realization that humans are the primary cause of this change has raised questions about ownership and responsibility. Who "owns" the climate change crisis and who is responsible for mitigating and reversing it if possible? One overwhelming response by governments on an international level has been to propose a market solution, in essence, to sell the atmosphere. Is the commercial marketplace the only answer? How can art, technology and media offer alternative cultural practices and open new forms of understanding the air?

The largest market-based approach to control greenhouse gases is the European Union Emission Trading Scheme. Launched in 2005 as part of the EU climate policy, the scheme requires large emitters of carbon dioxide to report their CO2 emissions, and return an equivalent amount of emission allowances to the government.

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Countries by carbon dioxide emissions map (via)

Where does the idea of a market-driven solution to the problem of air pollution come from? The attention to the concept of ownership has gained momentum in the 20th century with the publication of The Tragedy of the Commons, an essay written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968. Someone in the audience informed us that Hardin retracted the article when he realized that corporation used his essay as a justification to privatize everything they wanted to gain profit from.

Part of the model for the EU carbon trading scheme is the US cap-and-trade in sulfur dioxide, a market-based initiative launched to reduce overall atmospheric levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which cause acid rain. The program primarily targets coal-burning power plants, allowing them to buy and sell emission permits (called "allowances") according to individual needs and costs. It was successful because it was low-cost and easy to implement.

Other models that could be applied to carbon dioxide:
- right of the airwaves. In the US, airwaves are sold by auction. It's the highest bidder who gets them.
- Noise codes (who has the right to make noise). A few years ago, New York city reviewed its noise code. Noise complaints are indeed the number one quality of life issue for New York City residents.
- air is already marketed but on a personal level in oxygen bars. Canned versions of oxygen are even sold in Japan's 7/11.

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Artists might be partly responsible for this acceptance of air as a commodity.

From 1957 to 1962, Yves Klein imagined the Architecture of Air. My walls of fire, my walls of water, like the roofs of air, are materials for the construction of a new architecture. With these three classical elements, fire, air, and water, the city of tomorrow will be constructed, flexible at last, spiritual and immaterial. (Yves Klein, conférence de la Sorbonne.)

The late '60s also saw a dematerialization of art. Take the Inert Gas Series for example. On March 1969, Robert Barry released a litre of krypton into the atmosphere, in Beverly Hills. Over the following days, he released xenon in the mountains, argon on the beach and helium in the desert. All we have left of this artwork are a series of pictures that don't show much.

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Hans Haacke, Condensation Cube, 1963-65

For his work Condensation Cube, Hans Haacke used a biological system to create a work that depends entirely on the fluctuations in room temperature. The artist placed a small amount of water inside a sealed Perspex box. As the cube warms up, the water condenses on the inside walls. It then runs down to collect on the bottom, and the whole process is repeated again and again.

"When art becomes ideas ideas become commodities."

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Tue Greenfort, BONAQUA Condensation Cube, 2005

40 years later, Tue Greenfort paid homage to Haacke's Condensation Cube with BONAQUA Condensation Cube. By filling the cube with bottled mineral water from the Bonaqua label, Greenfort points to the global trading of a limited resource. The company is said to have destroyed local agriculture in 2004 by privatizing parts of India's water resources. In Plachimada, Kerala, Coca-Cola extracted 1.5 million liters of deep well water, which they bottled and sold under the names Dasani and BonAqua. The groundwater was severely depleted, affecting thousands of communities with water shortages and destroying agricultural activity. The remaining water became so contaminated with high chloride and bacteria levels that the local population suffered from a series of health problems and the area was affected by environmental damage (via).

Artists have adopted several strategies to address the politics of air:

Strategy 1 - Public Commissions and Activism

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A. Laurie Palmer, Oxygen Bar, 2004-2005. Photo A. Laurie Palmer

A. Laurie Palmer's Oxygen Bar is a mobile breathing machine, offering free oxygen produced by the photosynthetic work of green plants (from Hays Woods.) Pushed around the streets of Pittsburgh, the bar attempted to reproduce in miniature the beneficial cleansing and refreshing effects of city green spaces on the air we breathe.

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HEHE, Nuage Vert in Ivry-sur-Seine, 2010

Other projects Andrea Polli referred to in this part of her talk are the famous Nuage Vert (Green Cloud), by HEHE as well as the Blur building by Diller and Scofidio.

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Andrea Polli & Chuck Varga, Cloud Car, 2009

She added her own work Cloud Car to the list. Cloud Car visualizes in a spectacular way the emissions of your vehicle. A car fitted with special effects equipment is left in the street to produce a cloud of mist, enveloping car, rider and passersby. Guides stationed near the car, distribute fact sheets related to air quality issues and encouraging people to discuss the environment, automobiles and traffic in the city.

Another of her project, Breather, wraps up a car inside a plastic bag to illustrate the problem of air pollution in New Delhi India, where one person dies every hour from breathing complications. The quality of the air is so bad that walking in some areas of the city is the equivalent for your health to smoking 15 cigarettes in a day. In this work, a car is encased in a plastic bubble that inflates and deflates at a rate similar to human breathing. The car used is one of the most widely owned in India. That model has now been discontinued because of the excessive amount of pollution it generates.

Strategy 2 - Working with agencies to communicate data about air quality

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Amy Balkin, Public Smog

Among the examples that Polli mentioned is Public Smog by Amy Balkin. The artist bought and withheld carbon gas emission credits from international trading markets in order to create a temporary clean-air park in the atmosphere that fluctuates in location and scale. The park opened above the region where offsets are purchased and withheld from use. The project involved also an attempt to submit the Earth's atmosphere for inscription on UNESCO 's World Heritage List.

Ben Engebreth's Personal Kyoto allows New York ConEd customers to track their residential or commercial electric usage and work towards the goal of decreasing that usage. The project points the finger at George W. Bush who backed out of the Kyoto treaty as soon as he became President.

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Andrea Polli, Airlight Taipei

During a residency in Taipei, Polli collaborated with Dr. Chung-Ming Liu to develop Airlight Taipei, a networked real-time sound and visual installation using data from an EPA air-quality monitoring station in central Taipei indicating various air pollutant levels.

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Eve Andree Laramee, Parks on Trucks, Project for the City of Aachen, 1999

For Parks on Trucks: Project for the City of Aachen artist Eve Andree Laramee worked with bio-geographer Duane Griffin to plant parks on three Mercedes-Benz flat-bed trucks that circulated through Aachen, Germany.

A first truck was planted with a topiary garden as a reference to "artificial nature". The second one hosted medicinal and poisonous plants. The third truck, planted with a small crop of corn, polluted the environment and cleaned the air at the same rate by equating carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by the corn plants with the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere as exhaust as the truck moves around the city. The experiment lasted three months. During that period of time, the truck covered only a distance of one third of a kilometer. The project raised several issues, one of them was corporate "greenwashing", where companies such as Mercedes-Benz use nature images in their advertising strategies.

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Sarah Jane Pell, Undercurrent, 2007

For her performance Undercurrent, Sarah Jane Pell is enclosed in a bubble containing 16 minutes of air.

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Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Cloud Prototype No.1, 2003

Cloud Prototype No. 1, by Iñigo Manglano-Ovall, freezes a thunderstorm that erupted over Missouri and then progressed into southern Illinois. The storm was captured as 3D data by the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

Strategy 4 - Community Science

Preemptive Media's portable AIR (Area's Immediate Reading) kits allow citizens to measure and record exposure to pollutants in the area where they live such as carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen dioxide, lead and noise.

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Hello Weather! (image Andrea Polli)

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Hello Weather! (image Andrea Polli)

Hello Weather!, another of Andrea Polli and Chuck Varga's projects, builds on the phenomenon of Personal Weather Stations in which enthusiasts combine DIY technology with organized web forums for collecting and analyzing data. The project invites artists and others to engage with the real-time data and other information available here in a variety of formats.

Five wireless, solar powered Professional Weather stations are currently in operation: two in New York City, one in Los Angeles, one in Zurich and one in New Delhi.

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Particle Falls (image by Andrea Polli)

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Particle Falls (image by Andrea Polli)

More recently, Andrea Polli was invited to create a public piece for San Jose. Particle Falls visualizes Particulate Matter 2.5, subdivisions of solid matter suspended in the air we breathe. They are so tiny that they have been detected only recently. PM pollution is estimated to cause 22,000-52,000 deaths per year in the United States (from 2000) and 200,000 deaths per year in Europe. The number of people that airborne particulate pollution kills each year has tripled in California.

Particulate pollution might be invisible to us but it can be measured by laser light scattering. One of those lasers was given to the artists. Particle Falls used a nephelometer to measure particulate matter (in particular the smallest particle, PM2.5) in the air and translated this information into the image of a "waterfall" that is projected on an eight story building. The data collected at this artwork installation demonstrates air quality in downtown San Jose and is also available on the web.

Strategy 5 - Structures allowing artists to work alongside scientists

Andrea Polli went on a seven-week National Science Foundation residency in Antarctica during the 2007/2008 season. The result of the residency is Sonic Antarctica, a radio broadcast, live performance as well as a sound and visual installation that features recordings of the Antarctic soundscape. The project mixes natural and industrial field recordings, sonifications and audifications of science data and interviews with weather and climate scientists.

More information about Polli's experience in Antarctica in Ground Truth Antarctica, a documentary that follows weather and climate observation at the South Pole, McMurdo Station and field sites in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica and asks why people go to remote, uncomfortable and often hazardous locations, doing what is known as 'ground truthing.'

Ground Truth from Andrea Polli on Vimeo.

Andrea Polli has a book coming soon, Far Field: Digital Culture, Climate Change and the Pole.

Image on the homepage by Andrea Polli.

Sponsored by:





(Re)Designing Nature - Current Concepts for Shaping Nature in Art and Landscape Architecture, edited by Susanne Witzgall, Florian Matzner, Iris Meder, Künstlerhaus Wien (available on Amazon USAand (Re)Designing Nature: Current Concepts for Shaping Nature in Art and Landscape Architecture: Aktuelle Formen der Naturgestaltung in der Bildenden Kunst und Landschaftsarchitektur.)

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Publisher Hatje Cantz writes: (Re)Designing Nature features innovative design concepts for nature in an urban context. The publication inspires readers to contemplate our current relationship to nature, and animate present-day debates about socially correct, ecologically sustainable, and aesthetically contemporary environmental design. Changes in nature and their ecological consequences have taken on acute dimensions these days. Rapidly growing mega-cities, for one, and shrinking cities, for another, call for new ideas and models for dealing with urban nature. Artists and landscape architects present concepts for the alternative use of vacant city lots and old industrial areas, design parasitical gardens in the middle of the city, or utopian visions for a future symbiotic networking of culture and nature.

Before i start my enthusiastic review of the book i need to get one thing out my chest: "What were the designers thinking?" The book is written in both german and english. Alles ist gut if you speak german: you get a clear black font. However, if you only understand english then prepare your reading glasses or your magnifier because the pale green font used for the english version of the text is a pain to decipher.

Now let's proceed...

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Lois Weinberger, Mobile Landscape, 2003. Installation view at Institut d'Art Contemporain Villeurbanne. Photo: Institute d'Art Contemporain Villeurbanne

(re)designing nature is the catalogue of a show that closed a few weeks ago at the Künstlerhaus, Vienna. Last year and the year before i kept complaining of the many, far too many, art exhibitions i had seen around Europe that dealt with art and design tactics that engage with climate change, new models of sustainability and more generally our relationship with nature. The artworks selected were not at fault. What irked me with many of these shows is that they felt like they were organized too fast, because suddenly the words 'ecology' and 'sustainability' were splashed across the front page of magazines, because that's what got the attention of the public or maybe just money from the sponsors. Artworks and artists traveled by planes, lush catalogues were printed, fancy opening parties were thrown. I'm sure the Vienna show had its fair share of parties and flying around but the tone of the essays, and the selection of works in (Re)Designing Nature have a more mature, reflected aura. The Vienna exhibition opened months after the others had closed but instead of looking like the slow learner, the show appears to be the only one in the class that has taken enough time to reflect on the issues at stake and see through the hype. Actually, the curators did such a thorough, serious job that several of the works in the catalogue lack in instant appeal. They don't even photograph well. But if you go beyond that first disappointment (because i was disappointed at first, used that i am to open a volume on amazing photos and graphics) you realize that the projects make sense. Some of them are utopian without ever falling into the trendy trap, others relate successful experiences, others are simply clever enough to make you ask yourself the right questions.

According to curators Iris Meder, Susanne Witzgall and Florian Matzner, contemporary landscape planners, artists and architects are adopting 3 different strategies to engage with nature in problematic urban areas. A first one looks for ways to protect what nature is already existing in urban center or to convert post-industrial areas into gardens. A second approach provides the frameworks, and the tools for agricultural and participatory projects. The last one explores parasitic structures and symbionts.

A few projects featured in the book and exhibition:

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Ingo Vetter, Detroit Industries, Urban Agriculture, 2003

Detroit used to be the automobile capital of the world. Since the early sixties, however, Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, General Motors have been moving their production plants either to the south of the USA or to Central or South America. Hit by the more recent economic downturn, Detroit saw its residential lot vacancy rise to 27.8% in 2009, up from 10.3% in 2000. About 3,000 empty residential structures were torn down in 2010.

Attempts at self-organized community projects using the empty surface of the inner city for agriculture and horticulture emerged in the early '00s. People would either buy land or just occupy it, turning a former industrial city into urban villages. In 2003-2004, Ingo Vetter's Detroit Industries - Urban Agriculture documented the gardens growing food right in the middle of the decaying city. Grassroot, community-led urban agriculture has now been officially identified as a valuable part of the city's transformation.

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N55, City Farming Plant Modules, Bremen, 2003

N55's City Farming Plant Modules enable city dwellers to grow plants in the streets, directly onto the pavement. The flexible plant modules are watered by hoses connected to drain pipes on buildings or to any other water source. Rainwater penetrate the fibre cloth, which will retain moisture while allowing excess water to escape.

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Hager Landschaftsarchitektur, Filling Station Garden, 2008. Photo: Annette Kisling

Swiss architecture studio Hager Landschaftsarchitektur ingeniously turned an abandoned gas station dating back to the 1950s in Berlin's Schöneberg district into an enclosed city garden.

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Observatorium, Into the Desert, installation at the Stiftersaal, Künstlerhaus, Vienna, 2010. (photo by FLOLO)

Observatorium piled up Styrofoam parking lot strips to a huge heap in the entrance room of the exhibition. The installation "Into the desert" points to motorized traffic as being an essential landscape element.

Architect and author Paul Shepheard
In Houston and other car-heavy cities of the U.S. every threshold experience is made similar by th eawalk from the parking lot to the building through ranks of cars; it is a powerful but not unpleasant phenomenon and a real landscape event."
each of the 28 artists and landscape architects as well as the 3 curators of the show are represented by a parking lot space

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Isa Melsheimer, Square, 2004. Photo: Roman März

A simple blue and gold mattress is embroidered with graffiti saying "monolithic super-lanscape", "controlled consumption" or "zoning". CCTV cameras mark one of its corners, they seem to monitor the surrounded area. Weeds grow into concrete bowls. A mirror hangs above the scene. Platz/Square recalls the soulless design of many urban 'green' spaces, as well as the gradual loss of open public space in the city, due to privatization and the attempt to maximize profits.


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Reiner Maria Matysik, Alpinum, View of installation, Kunsthalle Bern, details, 1999 (Vorläufer für Brache / Predecessor for Urban Wasteland, 2010)

Reiner Maria Matysik's 'post-revolutionary forms of life' are models of synthetic organisms elaborated in labs. A mix of plants, animals, mushrooms, bacteria, viruses and prokaryotes they can walk, roll, jump, crawl. Some emit electrical field, others ultrasonic sounds. Resistant and highly adaptable, they don't fear global warming nor the collapse of human civilization.

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Vincent Callebaut's Hydrogenase (warning, the music on the project page might have you deeply embarrassed if people are around you right now) proposes a concept of emission-free habitable airships powered by seaweed. Callebaut claims that the energy obtained by farmed algae would be superior to any current biodiesel or bioethanol production.

The vessel would be used as flying hospitals or to provide food or even disaster relief to areas that cannot be accessed by road or that do not have an airport nearby. The vertical structure of the Hydrogenase doesn't indeed require a runway to take off or land.

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Khondaker Hasibul Kabir, Ashar macha / Platform of Hope, 2009

Landscape architect Khondaker Hasibul Kabir lives in the largest slum of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and the "world's fastest-growing megacity." Many of the inhabitants of the slum are illegal immigrants from various parts of the country. He involved both the immigrants and his students at the BRCA University in a series of self-help projects that involved the creation of gardens, the building of a bamboo platform over the river, the erection of a library, the planting of resistant plants that even flourish on contaminated soil.

Views inside the book:

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Previously: The flying tree.

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Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

The exhibition Alter Nature: We Can, currently on view at Z33 in Hasselt, focuses on artists and designer's visions on the ways humankind has displaced, manipulated or designed nature and how this affects and modifies our concept of 'nature'. Some of the exhibited artworks embrace with enthusiasm this deracination and manipulation of what we call 'nature', others have a more critical take on it. Some rely on basic and quirky ploys, others call on the most scientifically advanced means.

Alter Nature extends beyond the Z33 walls with shows at CIAP and at the Fashion Museum. I wish i'd been informed about it, either in the gallery or on Z33's website.

A striking and simple introduction to the exhibition could be Driessens & Verstappen's Morphotheque. The dozens of artificial carrots of the most unusual shape are based on natural carrots that were rejected in distribution centres for not presenting the 'proper' size and shape of a carrot. The works reminds us that it was only a year and a half ago that European Commission abolished its ridiculous ban on 'imperfect' fruit and vegetables.

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Driessens & Verstappen, Morphotheque, 1996, collection Anne Marie and Sören Mygind, Galerie für Landschaftskunst, Hamburg, Germany

Morphotheque also refers to the fact that the now almost ubiquitous orange colour of carrots was a political choice. The Netherlands made it particularly popular in the 17th century as an emblem of the House of Orange and the struggle for Dutch independence. White, yellow, red, and purple carrots have long existed but they are now raised primarily as novelty crops.

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Adam Zaretsky, The Transgenic Orange Pheasant project, 2008. Courtesy: Adam Zaretsky

The House of Orange was also at the heart of the Transgenic Orange Pheasant project. Adam Zaretsky wrote to His Royal Highness Prince Willem-Alexander to propose him the creation of a "Royal Dutch Transgenic Breeding Facility" were orange pheasants would be bred and offered for the royal hunt. The exhibition features images of transgenic pheasants, an impressive genegun, the letter to Prince Willem-Alexander and two videos detailing the project. The manipulation of the colour of carrots doesn't raise an eyebrow but the creation of a pheasant of the same hue triggers more doubts and questions: how far can one go in the creation of a 'royal aesthetic'?

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Adam Zaretsky, Transgenic Orange Pheasant, 2008. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

More about Adam's work in Dangerous Liaisons and other stories of transgenic pheasant embryology.

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BCL (Georg Tremmel & Shiho Fukuhara), Common Flowers - Flower Commons, 2009. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

In Common Flowers, Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara have reverse engineered a type of carnation that was already the result of genetic manipulation. Suntory Flowers genetically manipulated an originally white carnation into blue and sold it under the name Moondust. It was the first commercially available genetically engineered consumer product that was intended purely for aesthetic consumption.

BCL bought the blue flower and using do-it-yourself biotech, cloned it in their kitchen. They later released their cloned flowers into nature along with an how-to-clone manual on their website in order to raise questions of intellectual property and copyright in the realm of nature.

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BCL (Georg Tremmel & Shiho Fukuhara), Common Flowers - Flower Commons, 2009. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

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BCL (Georg Tremmel & Shiho Fukuhara), Common Flowers - Flower Commons, 2009. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

As i mentioned yesterday, the exhibition was rather cruel to trees.

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Makoto Azuma, Frozen Pine & Shik1 03, 2010. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

Makoto Azuma' s Shiki 1 features a bonsai tree suspended from a metal frame. The tree represents of course nature. It has been manipulated for aesthetic reasons. The steel frame adds a second layer of artificiality, it represents the legal framework within which nature is manipulated, or to which manipulations must comply.

In 'Frozen Bonsai', a new work commissioned for the exhibition, Makoto sprays a bonsai pine tree with instant freeze and presents this in a transparent fridge. As the ice slowly drains the colour from the bonsai tree, the tree dies - but its beauty is preserved in optimal conditions.

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Makoto Azuma, Frozen Pine (detail), 2010. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

Have a look at this video interview with Makoto Azuma about 'Shiki 1' and 'Frozen Bonsai':

Le Paradoxe de Robinson is a palm tree installed on a trailer. Once you're on the first floor of the exhibition space, you can see its branches swinging in the wind. A tropical tree lost in the Belgian grey Winter.

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Julien Berthier, Le Paradoxe de Robinson. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

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Julien Berthier, Le Paradoxe de Robinson. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

Tue Greenfort 's big "Wardian Case" protects 50 orchids. Wardian Cases were small greenhouses developed in the 19th century by Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward to protect his plants from London air which consisted heavily of coal smoke and sulphuric acid. Wardian Cases not only made it possible for city dwellers of the time to keep expensive orchids and ferns in their home, they also prompted the commercialization of exotic plants: vulnerable plants could now survive the boat journey because they were protected by Wardian Cases. The invention has even been credited for helping break geographic monopolies in the production of agricultural goods, they allowed tea plants to be smuggled out of Shanghai and seedlings of the rubber tree to be shipped from Brazil to new British territories. Wardian Case were a means to - literally - displace nature.

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Tue Greenfort, WardianCase (Alustar-Sonatural), 2007-2011. Photo by Kristof Vrancken/Z33

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Lounge of Z33. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

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Natalie Jeremijenko, Tree Balance, 2005-2010. Courtesy: Natalie Jeremijenko

Also part of the exhibition: Acoustic Botany.
More images: on my flickr and on Z33's: Alter Nature Opening and exhibition views.
Curated by Karen Verschooren, Alter Nature: We Can remains open until March 13 at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.

On Saturday i made yet another trip to the Z33 center Hasselt. This time to see Alter Nature, an exhibition as fascinating as it is cruel to trees. Here's a quick and lazy peek at the show, while i'm slaving on a lengthy report.

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Michael Sailstorfer, Raketenbaum, 2008, ©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Raketenbaum is a performance and a diptych showing how Michael Sailstorfer had a fruit tree catapulted into the air by compressed-air cylinders attached to its root balls.

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Michael Sailstorfer, Raketenbaum, 2008, ©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

By displacing nature quite literally, Raketenbaum offers a playful introduction to an exhibition which focuses on the different ways people have displaced, manipulated or designed nature.

Alter Nature: We Can remains open until March 13 at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.

System Synthetics is the third winning project of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award (see also 2.6g 329m/s, aka the 'bulletproof skin' and The Microscopic Opera.) The first edition of competition, launched by the Waag Society with the Netherlands Genomics Initiative and the Centre for Society and Genomics invited emerging artists and designers to submit projects involving the exploration of biotechnology.

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Designer Maurizio Montalti is teaming up with the Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation to work on an alternative to fossil fuels. He aims to build a transparent bioreactor that will allow the public to see how one fungus breaks down plastic and the other fungus makes bio-ethanol out of it.

Hi Maurizio! This is not the first time that you are working with fungi. Can you tell us a few words about your previous project, Continuous Bodies? I am particularly interested to hear more about The Ephemeral Icon. Is the Bio Cover 'tool-product" you present in this project functioning already?

Exactly, you're right. My fascination for these astonishing organisms already started before, and culminated in one of my last works, titled Continuous Bodies; in that investigation I've been looking at physical decay and physical death as natural processes, without which there could be no new life. The project originated as a reaction to the prevalent attitude of denial which usually characterizes people when it comes to be confronted with the loss of a beloved. In order to try and change this attitude I placed my focus towards a better understanding of the realm of fungi and at their fundamental importance in the environment with regard to decomposition and transformation of both organic and inorganic substrates and the resultant cycling of elements; this offered me the opportunity to try and re-qualify the general perception of the public in relation to these organism, usually associated with feelings of disgust and repulsion.

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Continuous Bodies, cycles of decomposition triggering a symbiotic partnership between humans and fungi, 2010

Envisioning alternative possibilities, while questioning different attitudes related to modern human culture and "development" allowed me to highlight some of the potential extended benefits that fungi could provide us. By getting more and more familiar with this organisms, directly experimenting with them and widely diving into the scientific literature, I got in touch with the ability of a specific fungus (Phanerochaete chrysosporium) in literally feeding on every kind of plastic, even the toughest ones (e.g. polycarbonate, phenolic resins and so on...); this created the basis for the development of the second part of 'Continuous Bodies', titled The Ephemeral Icon.

The main drive, concerning this part, has been the possibility of neutralizing synthetic materials that do not naturally decompose and that are found to provoke unhealthy, risky consequences for both the human being and for the entire ecosystem.

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Bio-cover, 2010

Merging this finding with a vision allowed me to create a social narrative to help us questioning our "throw away" culture, while exploiting, in a beneficial way, the resources that this social behaviour created. In order to translate my overall research and address issues related to disposability, plastic toxicity, and the possibility of having fungi being able to "kill" this immortal materials, i focused my attention on a globally well-known iconic object: the plastic monobloc chair. I use this chair as a statement about the life-cycles of consumer products in comparison with the immortality of the materials, most of the consumer products are made of. Highlighting the complementarity of life and death as a whole, with my design, the Bio-Cover, i play with the idea of infusing life in a dead everlasting material, in order to trigger a process of final dissolution. At this time, the duration of this process is quite long (but still good if compared to millennia) and takes place in standard lab conditions (sterile environment and specific set of parameters in relation to temperature, humidity and so on.); this because this finding is still very young and in need of further explorations regarding the optimal conditions in which the process would develop more efficiently in the 'real world'.

Nevertheless, by performing different tests with the fungus on plastic material, one of them ended up being luckily successful, as I've been able to achieve the complete degradation of plastic samples (acrylic rings) in less than ten months.

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Plastic degradation experiment - before

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Fungus eating plastic - Middle process

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Plastic degradation experiment - after

How much does the research you made for Continuous Bodies inform System Synthetics? Do you see this new project as a natural extension of CB? Do you feel you are ready to tackle your new ambitious project based on what you've learnt with CB? Or do you have to start almost from scratch because the fungus you are going to use in the new project is entirely different from the ones you worked with in the past?

You could say 'System Synthetics' comes as a direct continuation to my previous work; but i would rather say it's an 'evolution' of it. However it looks at something different; if, on a side, it still tries to develop a practical research to show the important contribute that micro-organisms do have in our existence, on the other side it raises new questions and aspires to promote a discussion about a man-made evolution of life.

The possibility of improving the performance of a natural organism (in this case a fungus) to face the consequences of the human indiscriminate action on our ecosystem, is a valid enough reason to give a start to this new potential vast territory of research; i strongly believe, in fact, that we humans, should start recognizing how important it is to team up with other species and organisms and establish with them a symbiotic relationship.

Moreover at the core of my project lies the (unusual) idea of combining the abilities of two
organisms which belong to the same kingdom: one fungus (Phanerochaete chrysosporium) and one yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), so to create an intimate man-made endo-symbiosis between two fungi in which the capacities to degrade plastics and to produce bio-ethanol are intertwined.

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The previous experience in the lab is for sure an important advantage to me, to tackle this new ambitious project; this because I already had the possibility to get familiar with different micro-biological techniques in the study of fungal behaviour and to directly test my hypothesis with a "hands-on" approach. However there's much more to learn and that's what makes this whole project so exciting.

The fungus I'm going to use is the same I've been previously working with, but for instance I never worked before with yeasts (if not for making pizza dough...!) and also, some of the techniques and methodologies that I will adopt in this new process will be for me a totally new discovery and a possibility of gaining new knowledge.

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Fungus - yeast, symbiosis sketch

The press release states that your project aims to develop a "publicly accessible transparent bioreactor". does this formula means that the technology to do it will be available for the broad public to replicate the process and produce fuel at home?

Not really, but hopefully in a not-so-distant future, yes.

I say this because the path I'm starting with this project could be a long one. In these next five months I will create a design of the architecture of the symbiosis of Phanerochaete chrysosporium and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This design will be integrated with a tailor-made bioreactor, resulting in a set-up that efficiently would convert plastic into bio-ethanol. The implementation of the design of the new symbiotic life-form could probably take many years of research. I will contribute to this process by defining the conditions under which Phanerochaete chrysosporium and Saccharomyces cerevisiae can co-exist. Moreover I will label the partners with fluorescent proteins, in order to make the interaction between the two organisms clearly visible to the public.

The bio-reactor will be built from transparent materials, allowing the viewer to monitor the complete process. For instance, within the bioreactor the new life-form will be visible.

The viewer will witness that the machine operates autonomously, using part of the produced bio-ethanol as source of energy and having as only input the plastic waste. A process film, documenting all the main relevant experiments in the labs, together with visual materials, will complete the exhibition.

The results of the competition have been announced last month. Have you already started working on System Synthetics? How is the collaboration with Kluyver Centre for Genomics of Industrial Fermentation taking shape? Are they mostly your consultant when you need some feedback about the most scientific details or do you have a more symbiotic relationship with them? Do you work at their venue for example?

Yes, absolutely. I already started working on my project, mainly by preparing the first cultures of the two selected organisms and organizing the different phases and experiments of these next months; this together with the Kluyver Centre. Of course the whole planning could get re-shaped in the course of the next months, according to the results that I will achieve during the process.

Also I had the possibility of being given a personal working space within the lab, as I'll be present in there most of the time, not only for documentation purposes; i'll be directly responsible for performing the whole experimental part, with the assistance of a small team, which will naturally give me the needed operational instructions for the achievement of a successful outcome.

The process will develop, in any case, on the base of a regular consultation with the leader of the 'Filamentous Fungi' group at the Kluyver Centre, Prof. Han Wosten, with which I feel I already established a strong symbiotic
relationship. Looking forward to taking the next steps...

Thanks Maurizio!

All images courtesy: the designer.

A couple of weeks ago the French branch of The Council met at the Maison des Métallos in Paris to discuss about the challenges and promises of 'the internet of things.' There were presentations by artists, hackers, designers, researchers and also by various people in suits. The highlight of the event for me (and for many other people i'm sure) was a presentation by Jean-Baptiste Labrune on DIY Transducers.

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Piezo Flower. Image by JB Labrune

Currently working for Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, Dr Jean-Baptiste Labrune has recently traveled back to Paris after a couple of years spent as a postdoctoral researcher in the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Medialab. The Council was not our first encounter, I had met the French computer scientist before at interaction design workshops, media art conferences, dorkbot meetings and in other events where hackers, artists, designers and engineers might want to hang out and discuss.

His presentation gave a provocative (and much welcome) twist to the discussion about 'the internet of things.' Labrune's talk revolved around the idea of developing organic circuits and, more broadly, about an internet of thing which might one day be made of materials that grow, evolve, decay and die just like us.

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Jean-Baptiste Labrune at The Council. Image by Pierre Metivier

Labrune manages to be very witty, very geek and very funny at the same time. The chaotic notes i took during his presentation are, alas!, unable to reproduce his style and ideas so I thought it would be best if i'd have him speak in a super short interview about his work:

One of the projects you developed while researching at MIT was a reflection on electronic components that wouldn't be made of plastic nor metal but of natural materials? Can you tell us about the outcome of that research? What did your prototypes look like?

Because of their homogeneous hence controllable nature, many modern objects are made using the same materials, like plastic for example. Fabrication line-ups engineers like to control i.e. predict in advance the rate of failure and in a way eliminate error from the production process of high-end artefacts. Because I think that our capacity to repurpose unpredictability into meaning is what makes us human by opposition to machine, I was exploring in this project how using less controllable process and materials might lead to different results than traditional techniques for electronics like PCB for instance. Among the prototypes, I try to develop simple circuits with simple functions to more complex ones with microcontrollers or microchip programmers. I was also interested in creating unstable sensors and actuators made out of wood for instance where regular components would be only press-fit and connected to the circuit trace by dry-paint and not solder joints, allowing young children to create simple electromechanical artefacts without soldering irons or chemical etchant.

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Four Copper Preg LaserCut Boards. The one in the down right is wood, other are PMMA (acrylic). Image JB Labrune

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Liquid copper. Image JB Labrune

You employed a rather unusual material, some kind of liquid copper? Can you explain it its role in your prototype?

Some of my colleagues and friends (Leah Buechley, Hannah Perner-Wilson, Nadya Peek) are the best in collecting nice stuff that conduct electricity like all kind of liquid suspensions, animal exoskeletons or felted particles... I realised different prototypes of circuits boards using liquid copper since with silver, this metal is a very good conductor of electricity, which we like in general (except if you want to make resistive sensors). The particular one used in the project you mentioned is the moderately cheap CuPro-CoteTM paint from LessEMF, a website specialised in anti-abduction garments, well known from electronic textile folks since it proposes all kind of nice conductive fabric based on copper or silver with beautiful and strange names like Flectron or Zelt. Because it is almost entirely composed of copper, this paint is in principle not dangerous for health since copper can even be moderately ingerated (in principle :). Leah Buechley and her research group frequently use it to make paper electronics by directly painting circuits on paper with such paints. My idea was to use a fast CNC machine (like a laser cutter for example) to quickly draft electronic objects since this kind of machines are precise and good at repetitive tasks, and then let a human finish them since they are usually very good at the inverse, therefore creating an interesting tension between repeatability and originality. The boards were made out of different materials with various hydrophobic or hydrophilic surfaces (PMMA, Wood, BioComposites) inviting the liquid copper to go into machine cut channels according to precise paths. The precision of the CNC machines I used allowed to create rather compact circuits at SOIC or even QFN pitch (which corresponds to most of artistic grade electronic components) but also, and interestingly enough to develop precise high frequency antennas or very precise solenoids (electromagnets) by simple depositions, which led me for example to create monolithic speakers from wood and copper in a following project.

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Simple implementation of the FabISP made by David A. Mellis in a HTMAA class. Image JB Labrune

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Wooden PCB. Image JB Labrune

Was your project motivated by a strong sense of ecology and respect for nature?

Well, I am not sure it was motivated by nature or ecology in the greenwashing sense, but more in the idea of situatedness (à la Lucy Suchman), or as Von Huexküll puts it in the beginning of the last century, in terms of non-forgetting the idea of Umwelt, where an object is as defined by everything it is not than by its internal or intrinsic components. Let say that I was motivated by these ideas and also by the desire of a playful drift from the ubiquitous idea of cybernetics, theory of governance and control (kybernetika, the art of steering), minimising the presence of predictive control (feedforward, feedback, negative-feedback) by systems or their operators, while, like in poetic cybernetics, celebrating human abilities to appreciate scale-invariance, navigate through intricate recursive assemblages and adapt to ad-infinitum changes. A second perspective is the ability to create processes or machines that intervene into natural environment but then withdraw themselves to let their artificiality being re-conquered by living entities, controlled by extra-human rules. I am thinking here for example of the works of land art researchers and artists like Philip Beesley for instance who comes to forests on deserted islands with many students, knit their roots and then go for many years to finally come back and see how nature interpreted their interpretations.

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Cardboard Hello. Image JB Labrune

How do you think users will relate to tech components that are going to 'grow old' and 'die'? Do you feel they will care for them more? Develop an altogether different relationship to technology?

One of the outcome of this quick investigation of electronic devices made out of wood for instance is the idea that if we would make circuits on living entities, they would perform differently according to the environment or the homeostatic state of the substrate. This will lead to situations where regular objects that usually are our slaves and perform their function in a controlled and predictable manner would then resist to us, fail to obey to our desires or the anticipated ones designed by technological designers. This resistance might anthropomorphise them and maybe create a feeling of empathy due to the then finite nature of the object relation, that might stop if not nurtured or a least manifested and preserved. Anthropologues and thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour or Michel Serres frequently remind us of the political nature of nature. In the electric or electronic field, luxuriant and drifting definitions of nature are often replaced by an efficient determinist ballistic culture. What if technology to come would integrate natural substrates? Would it transform human sophisticated illusion of control and wishes to tell the future as a serious fiction? Maybe it will actually be the limits of technology that will invite users, as humans, to re-question their relationship with modern environments, especially when most of them are now created by other humans.

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Solenoid test (50 spires) is to show whether laser engraving can create precise circuits to make magnetic coil, inductors and even pretty high frequency antenna (for RFID, Radio, etc.) Image JB Labrune

Merci Jean-Baptiste!

More: Slideshare of DIY Transducers, flickr set on Lasercutting, and Orgatronics.

Related: Interactivos? Garage Science: the Fruit Computer Laboratory.

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