Article categories: Issue 79
April 1st, 2012

‘The arts are an even better barometer of what is happening in our world than the stock market or the debates in congress.’ – Hendrik Willem Van Loon (historian, 1882-1944)

ba·rom·e·ter/bəˈrämitər/ (noun):

1.    An instrument measuring atmospheric pressure, used esp. in forecasting the weather and determining altitude.
2.    Something that reflects changes in circumstances or opinions

The arts have long been a barometer for civilisation, registering, at the surface of our cultural consciousness, the seismic shifts in society’s bedrock. But only quite recently, with the advent of pervasive data and new sensing technologies, have artists also literally become barometers, seizing upon new materials and techniques to create instruments to measure and translate the natural environment.

Live Forever (2011), Hess and Didier

One such work is Live Forever (2011), by Los Angeles-based artists Oliver Hess and Jenna Didier. This artwork covers part of the façade of an LA County fire station in a metallic vine that mimics the local desert flora. Hidden within its mesh of flower-like nodes is another network of electronic sensors which register ambient humidity and temperature. When this data indicates conditions of high fire risk, the installation comes to life, signaling danger to the community in a new visual poetry all its own.  Hess hopes that over time the language of the installation will become second nature to people in the community, a little like the skill of reading clouds to gauge the weather.

As we enter the Anthropocene, the new geological era defined by humanity’s ability to fundamentally and irreversibly alter the atmospheric and geographic conditions of Earth, we feel the tectonic plates shudder. We seem to have become so disconnected from nature that we have put at risk our own survival, fouling the nest and endangering the functions of life-support ecosystems that deliver us clean air, clean water and nutrient-rich food. In response to this challenge, can artists contribute to a progressive shift in how we relate to and envision the complex interrelatedness of these natural systems?

There is a new breed of environmental artists, like Hess, who work closely with technology, often in collaboration with scientists, and seek to reconnect us to the natural, ‘non-human’ world. These artists are developing a new language which goes beyond the literal ‘communication’ of science. Using the power of real-time feedback loops enabled by sensor technology and data visualisation and representation, they seek to be instrumental in confronting and perhaps remedying our environmental carnage.

Amphibious Architecture (2009), N. Jeremijenko

Artist Natalie Jeremijenko’s  work, Amphibious Architecture (2009), provides a portal to understanding the health of the marine environment in the urban context of New York City. Consisting of a floating array of LED lights on the surface of the Brooklyn river, sensors collect data on dissolved oxygen and water pH and send signals to the lights, which change colour as water conditions vary – red is poor quality, blue is good.  When the lights flash it means that fish have just passed below. To further increase viewer empathy and improve our relationships with other creatures, we are invited to text the fish, a conversation that over time will help us understand how they’re faring in an environment which is predominantly conditioned by humans.

The power of such works lies in their ability to create a new language, one that acts as a counterpoint to the often disempowering and disengaging stream of numbers and statistics presented to us about climate change, pollution, and species and habitat loss. By responding to the local environment, art as barometer can seek engagement at a community level and spur on grassroots activism and management efforts.

Particle Falls (2010), a work by Andrea Polli and Chuck Varga, displays particulate matter pollution in downtown San Jose as a waterfall of light on the prominent wall of a building. With the number of people killed in California by airborne particulate pollution tripling each year, this work communicates an important environmental health issue. If kept as a permanent installation, the Falls would be capable of registering the impact of significant public works such as a light rail system. At the very least it lifts the issue to a new position in the collective consciousness of the city, combating the ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ mentality.

Particle Falls (2010), Polli and Varga

Technology occupies an ambiguous place in our drive to be better stewards of the environment. On one hand, the many gadgets we consume and their in-built rapid obsolescence are themselves responsible for environmental problems associated with mining, production, use and disposal of the myriad materials that make up the finished products.  On the other hand, technology, well-designed and responsibly wielded, can hold the key to cleaner energy, cleaner production, and cleaner transportation.

The use of technology in these heavily instrumented environmental art works promises a new paradise, a wired wilderness, an e-garden of Eden where newly-conceived data threads repair the rent fabric connecting us with our own ecologies. In new or retrofit buildings, and precinct developments where this high-tech infrastructure is already in place, the environmental artist need only tap into existing networks to generate new portals and add value. It is this ability of the artist to make visible the invisible, and to hold up a mirror to society, that makes her such a useful barometer in times of ecological crisis.

Jodi Newcombe

Jodi Newcombe is a curator and creative producer specialising in artistic responses to environmental challenges. She is director of Carbon Arts, an organisation working to facilitate an increased role for artists in generating awareness and action on climate change. An environmental engineer and economist by training with an international career in consulting to business and government, Jodi is committed to multi-disciplinary and creative approaches to progressing a low-carbon future.

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