Interviews

Artist Makes Enviro Art That Helps Urbanites Eat Better

by Erin Lindholm on December 7, 2011

Britta Riley with her protoype Windowfarms (image provided by the artist)

The ingeniousness of the Windowfarms Project is that from the beginning Britta Riley didn’t keep it to herself. It’s easy to imagine a parallel story in another universe: the mad scientist toiling away, alone in a laboratory, striving to build the invention that will change the world.

Instead, our heroine is an environmental artist, living in a landlocked nabe in Brooklyn, who had an idea of how to build a system to grow fresh, green food in any urban environment — all you need is a window. And the power of the internet.

Shortly after fashioning her first windowfarm prototype in late 2008, Riley helped launch R&D-I-Y (Research and Develop It Yourself), a web platform for collaborative, open source innovation that has since grown to more than 18,000 members. Their first collective project: windowfarms.

In the three years since, Riley’s windowfarms have been featured in an installation commissioned for Family Day at the Whitney (2009) and at Eyebeam in New York. Riley has given a TED talk and spoken on numerous panels. The largest windowfarms installation to date is the Louisville Public Windowfarm in Louisville, KY, a commission of Art Without Walls. Riley describes it as “like a library, it’s open to the public, but it supplies free salad.” There’s even a sliding library ladder that’s been modified for harvesting and plant care; greens are harvested for Proof on Main restaurant next door.

Hyperallergic caught up with Riley on the eve of the finale of the Windowfarms Project Kickstarter campaign, which ends tonight at 11:59 pm EST. So far, the campaign has raised $250,000, way past their more modest $50,000 goal.

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The design for the products she plans to make with her money (image courtesy the artist)

Erin Lindholm: Technology, R&D, open source, DIY — these concepts are all very fundamental to your work. Which artists and innovators are you inspired by?

Britta Riley: Clay Shirky was my professor [at Tisch School for the Arts at NYU]. I got excited about the concept of mass collaboration because of him. I really want us all to move past crowdsourcing and actually make something together. I’m inspired by Marina Zurkow, Usman Haque and Caroline Woolard.

EL: You mention in your TED talk this past February that you’ve previously studied NASA’s hydroponics in space. In what context?

BR: For my day job, I used to design museum exhibits and interactives, especially around environmental issues, with my collaborator Rebecca Bray. In our spare time, we did environmental art, which now I do full time. We worked with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History researchers on a project that dealt with agricultural ocean pollution.

That inspired a previous art project called drink.pee.drink.pee.drink.pee about examining boundaries between ecosystems and our bodies, using human urine for food growing. NASA did a lot of research on recapturing astronaut pee and creating closed liquid cycles. That’s when I discovered their work with hydroponics.

EL: How does Windowfarms fit into the trajectory of your growth as an artist and technologist?

BR: I wanted to stick with something for a while instead of churning out an art project every year. When you want to pull something off at a global scale and involve people, it takes time. I love that I have to wrestle with making it a business so it can support itself and that I have had to learn a lot about the law in applying opensource to the physics of pumping. I love that I have to figure out how to collaborate with thousands of people and find technologies to help make that happen. The project and company was just in a great show about incorporated art called “CIncArt The Convention on Incorporated Art” at CentralTrak Gallery in Dallas.

The components of one Windowfarms unit. (via the artist)

EL: Obviously Windowfarms are very functional. I happen to think they’re also very pretty. What part, if any, did design and form play into the development of the Windowfarms kit?

BR: My aesthetic allegiances have changed over the years. Because the whole project is fundamentally a collaboration with communities, I think of it similarly to site specific collaboration, but more community specific collaboration. I love both the new pretty ones and the old janky looking ones.

Originally, the spark of the idea entailed a kind of living sculpture spreading across the windows of the planet made out of all the messy stuff that our world is made out of, part living and part dying, as we were learning how to make them. I loved the idea that in Mexico, windowfarmers would be using some strange juice cups and tubing from a candy store.

As I began really caring about the plants, I tended to lean more and more toward their being a stable habitat and so I leaned more and more toward a clean look and a grid format. As I fell more in love with people’s experience of growing food plants, I have been thinking about the looks more from a cultural standpoint, of what we want to live with and the therapeutic aspects of cultivating food for the urban dweller.

The latest version was highly designed and engineered, taking the best of aspects that we had tested in the community and putting it into a producible form so that that living sculpture could spread across the windows of the world a little faster. The design influences came from the biosphere and handbuilt houses of the 70s. What lies ahead is the hope that we will reimagine the window entirely. It’s such wasted space from an ecological perspective. Let’s let more than just sun come into our lives from outside.

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You can support the Windowfarms project on Hyperallergic’s Kickstarter Page, but hurry! A pledge of $99 or more gets you a unit.

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