Art

Plugging Art into the Environment

Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab, "Transborder Immigrant Tool" (all images via author)

The intertwined energies of art, technology, and environment were alive in Brooklyn on the night of Thursday, October 13. I was scheduled to speak at Hyperallergic HQ about the work I am doing with my Ecoarttech collaborative on social, political, environmental and media ecologies. When the first press release for the talk went out, a friend emailed me with an uncannily similar event happening nearby on the very same night: the opening for Ecologías Correlativas at 319 Scholes.

319 Scholes has operated out of a renovated warehouse in Bushwick since 2009, and its exhibitions, performances, workshops and lectures have focused on digital arts and interdisciplinary explorations of networked culture, especially the role of technology in everyday life. In the next few months, 319 Scholes is “greening” this theme. The first exhibition in this new vein, Ecologías Correlativas, curated by Chimera+, explores the role of technology in “navigat[ing] environmental and socio-political ecologies.” Given how the show’s concerns overlapped so squarely with my own, I had to check it out.

Chimera+’s curatorial inspiration for Ecologías Correlativas was French philosopher Félix Guattari’s text Three Ecologies. As environmentalism shifts its traditional focus on preserving “nature” and “wilderness” to engaging the complicated networked terrain in which modern humanity actually lives, this short essay by Guattari has gained prominence. Rather than seeing environmental issues as isolated in physical spaces, Guattari correlates ecological degradation to other modern processes, such as the standardization of human society: capacities of human imagination and creativity have been reduced at the same time that the wildness of “nature” has been converted into consumable resources. Three Ecologies calls for an “ecosophy” that targets three ecological registers — environment, social relations and human subjectivity. Guattari’s text will be included in the PDF exhibition catalogue to be released when Ecologías Correlativas closes.

By adapting this philosophy to the gallery setting Chimera+ adds yet another node to the network of ecoart practices that have emerged since the Earth Art movement of the 1960s. No longer only site-specific work interfacing “natural” landscape elements like water, ice, sticks, rocks, the work in Ecologías Correlativas engages and redefines environmentally themed art from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including art, engineering and science.

A view of Terreform ONE's "E-waste Bot"

I arrived at 319 Scholes on a Friday night. With its steel roll-down gate opened all the way up, the white gallery space glowed amidst the darkened warehouses in either side. Looming in the entrance was Terreform ONE (Open Network Ecology)’s E-waste Bot, a towering robot constructed out of repurposed white styrofoam e-waste. I was immediately struck by the suggestion of historical confrontation. The Ewaste Bot is a futuristic machine — part of Terreform One’s utopian vision of a sustainable New York City that recycles 100% of all waste products — and yet there the Bot stood, immobilized, in the post-industrial landscape of Bushwick, precisely the kind of place that in the past was an integral part of the network of production processes that set so much wastefulness in motion. Was E-waste Bot a ghost of the future?

Fluxxlab, "personal powerPlant"

DIY projects for energy and food production form the crux the show. Fluxxlab’s “personal powerPlant” provides an instructional demo-model of a portable hand-held device that uses solar or human (handcrank) energy to recharge two AA batteries. Manos Tentzeris’s Inkjet-Printed Smart Skins capture the electromagnetic energy produced by ubiquitous wireless devices. Living Environments Lab’s “Energy Parasites” harvest energy from unexpected sources — such as car headlights, escalator belts and water flowing into city gutters. These works reframe the public landscape as a space of free, renewable energy. How much energy is “wasted” by not sticking a Living Environments Labs “draindrain” in nearby gutters during rainstorms? Where can I get a “luxsap” to recharge my smartphone or computer during car rides?

N55, "City Farming Plant Modules" (click to enlarge)

On the gallery wall, Fluxxlab literally gives away the plans to make one’s own “personal powerPlant,” embracing an open-source model of cultural exchange and democratic distribution. In a similar spirit, a video installation by Ecosistema Urbano presents interviews with scholars and architects about urban sustainability, making ideas often locked in the ivory tower accessible to gallery audiences and those who watch the interactive ecosistemaurbano.tv. Online, N55 provides detailed instructions to recreate its “City Farming Plant Modules,” which are encasements of soil wrapped in semi-permeable cloth and watered by drain pipes. At 319, the Plant Modules transfer the power of growing herbs to the gallery’s concrete floors. They wind around E-waste Bot and extend to the sidewalk outdoors, bringing workers from neighboring businesses, WB Office Furniture and Illuminations, into the gallery with lots of questions: an event-making of cultural ecological diversity itself.

Works like these food and energy harvesting projects present practical solutions to identifiable ecological questions. Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) 2.0 /b.a.n.g. lab supplements this methodology by introducing poetry into its “Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT).” Perhaps the most well known work in Ecologías Correlativas, TBT caused a controversy last year when Republican California congressmen claimed it violated the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which makes it a felony to encourage illegal immigration into the United States.

With repurposed, GPS-enabled mobile phones, TBT guides people crossing the Mexico-US border to water caches in the desert. (It has been estimated that more than 6,000 people have died making the passage since the mid-1990s — mostly due to dehydration.) Simultaneously, the phones provide audio recordings of poetry, which one of the artists, Brett Stalbaum, has called “emotional and informational sustenance.” By departing from the relative instrumentalism of the works by Fluxxlab, Manos Tentzeris, Living Environments Lab and N55, EDT/b.a.n.g. lab raises complicated questions about the role of art in the quest for a free, just and sustainable society. Is poetry as integral to human life as water? Should eco-artists be only solving scientific problems, or should they also be ensuring that there is a human element present in the struggle for sustainability? What is the role of aesthetics in environmental design?

More “poetic” explorations of our troubled environmental times include time-based works by Miguel Soares, Dan Baker and Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga. Miguel Soares’s 3-D animation “Place in Time” depicts the transformation of the planet from its lava-like origins to an eventual post-human future. Amidst the tumult, there remains one constant, the bug (some call it a cockroach), suggesting the insignificance of humans’ stint on earth. Dan Baker’s untitled work presents a light box of living mold in a base of agar accompanied by a time-lapsed video grab of the mold’s strikingly beautiful flower-like unfolding. Miranda Zúñiga’s documents the meeting of three Guevarrian Neo-Marxist Latino Terror Revolutionaries in a Connecticut hotel. Together they discuss the crimes of the US government against people and the earth.

Environmentalism has diversified in the last decade, especially in the arts and humanities. No longer associated only with preserving “nature,” going back to the land or creating a sense of local place, the green movement is beginning to turn its attentions to the hybrid networked terrain of modern life — the cities, suburbs and the electronic spaces of the web in which we live; as immigrants, commuters, and ubiquitous-technology users; through global exchanges of intellectual ideas, commodities, and cultures. Chimera+ has captured this new convergence with Ecologías Correlativas, and 319 Scholes, by continuing to explore this evolving terrain in the coming months, has taken a leading role in demonstrating art’s unique contribution to exploring the ecological promises and failures of our technological world.

Ecologías Correlativas continues at 319 Scholes (319 Scholes Street, East Williamsburg/Bushwick, Brooklyn) until this Thursday, October 27.

 

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