Visitors to the Whitney Museum of American Art can now glimpse a dire future when New York is underwater. Up on the sixth floor terrace, an outdoor video screen and two indoor tablets show coral growing on the building. Although they are vibrantly colorful, with a liveliness accented by an ocean noise soundtrack, closer inspection reveals they are composed of plastic trash like flip-flops, straws, and rubber ducks. During the course of the day, they are slowly desaturated until they are a ghostly white.
Created by artist Tamiko Thiel in collaboration with /p, the “Unexpected Growth” augmented reality (AR) installation was commissioned by the Whitney as part of Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018. “AR, as a form of digital art, was not yet represented in the exhibition and provides an interesting perspective on ‘programming’ since it is invisible until seen through digital devices,” Christiane Paul, adjunct curator of digital art at the Whitney, told Hyperallergic. Paul co-curated Programmed with Associate Director for Conservation and Research Carol Mancusi-Ungaro and Curatorial Assistant Clémence White. “Tamiko is a leading artist in the field of AR and many of her augments have involved natural systems, which are important to the generative qualities of digital art that are highlighted in Programmed.”
The work in Programmed spans decades, but it all includes “programmed” structures, whether Lillian Schwartz’s 1978 computer-generated films based on mathematical systems, or Tauba Auerbach’s 2005 translation of the English alphabet into binary code to produce geometric patterns. For “Unexpected Growth,” Thiel was inspired by the Lindenmayer-Systems conceived in 1968 by Hungarian biologist and botanist Aristid Lindenmayer to model plant and coral development.
“Lindenmayer-Systems repeat basic units to create growth forms, and as I had also been reading a lot about ocean-borne plastic waste, I suggested we use virtual plastic garbage as the base units,” Thiel explained. While the digital plastic bottles and forks in “Unexpected Growth” depict commonly discarded objects, which may float around forever in ocean garbage patches, the rubber ducks are a nod to a 1992 incident in which a shipping container of over 28,000 bath toys was lost in the ocean (and the toys subsequently started turning up on beaches around the world). In the morning, Whitney visitors see these clusters of detritus as buoyantly colored structures; by evening, they are depleted of hues. This reflects the real bleaching of marine coral caused by environmental stress like rising ocean temperatures and other ecological disruptions.
Thiel has regularly experimented with AR projects that draw attention to ecological issues, such as “Newtown Creek (oil spill)” (2011) which visualized the full length of the heavily polluted Brooklyn-Queens waterway, which has little waterfront access, and “Clouding Green” (2012) which animated huge clouds over major Silicon Valley corporations that ranged from ashy black to bright green depending on their usage of renewable energy. In 2016, her “Gardens of the Anthropocene” was viewable in the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, overlaying possible ecological additions based on scientific data on shifts in local plant species due to climate change.
“I know myself that artworks that only spread doom and gloom make an emotional impact, but leave the viewers depressed rather than energized,” Thiel stated. “With all my artworks, I try to give the visitors a bit of delight to encourage them to engage with the artwork, which creates an emotional moment when they realize the underlying darkness.”
While Programmed features an extensive history of artists investigating new technology, Thiel’s is the sole AR work. It is a medium activated through user movement and interaction, offering a portal to an alternative reality, or future. “The more we are physically involved with a process, the stronger it becomes embedded in our memories,” Thiel said. “The physical engagement that AR requires is not a bug, but a feature.”
Tamiko Thiel’s “Unexpected Growth” is on view through April 14 in Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018 at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan).