Abstract: Eco-visualization technology made by media artists offers a new way to dynamically visualize invisible environmental data. Eco-visualization can take many forms. My own practice of eco-visualization involves animating information typically concealed in building monitoring systems, such as kilowatts or gallons of water used. A public display with real time visual feedback promotes awareness of resource consumption and offers a practical alternative to remote meters concealed in utility closets. The long-term goal of most eco-visualization practitioners is to encourage good environmental stewardship using hybrid practices of art and design. This essay contextualizes the emerging field of eco-visualization and its interdisciplinary trajectories.

1. Introduction

(1) Buildings breathe data. Our homes shelter technology that quietly counts in the background of our daily lives. We cook; we wash; we sleep. All the while, small electronic gadgets tally numbers. How many of us know how many gallons of hot water we use daily? Residential water meters are often hidden in dark basements. As a media artist, I design software that creates sounds and images from real time environmental information for the purpose of raising awareness about resource consumption. Methods to inspire good environmental stewardship through dynamic visualization in media art and design are relatively new; for the purposes of this essay, I will hereafter refer to the visual display of vital ecological data as eco-visualization.

(2) Eco-visualization software made by media artists offers a novel way to dynamically visualize invisible environmental data. Eco-visualization can take many creative forms. It is the purpose of this paper to provide a critical survey of this emerging field. My current practice of eco-visualization involves animating information typically concealed in building monitoring systems, such as kilowatts, gallons of water used, or water quality facts. A public display with real time feedback supports public awareness of resource consumption and offers a practical alternative to remote electricity meters or water meters concealed in utility closets. In my work, the immediate aim is to raise public awareness about patterns of resource consumption. The long-term goal of most eco-visualization practitioners is to encourage conservation behavior. This paper will provide a critical examination of work made by artists working to picture ecologically significant and often hidden data using innovative visualization strategies made possible with new technologies.

(3) My own artistic practice is inspired by conceptual artists of the 1960s like Hans Haacke who promoted environmental stewardship through the real time performance of water decontamination. After defining some key terms, this paper will first detail the history and context of eco-visualization practices. Overall, the survey focuses on an exploration of eco-visualization projects that raise awareness about water. I begin with Hans Haacke’s influential installation Rhinewater Purification Plant (1972), and progress to a survey of contemporary artists working in the eco-visualization arena. This survey will end with an in-depth investigation of the successes and failures of one of my own projects: Floating Point, a dynamic visualization of water quality.

(4) Building on the history of land art from the 1960s, eco-visualization provides a much-needed link between scientific research and public education. This paper will suggest that media art – particularly the eco-visualization projects that focus on the imaging of hidden processes or the usage of key resources – can help redefine and strengthen our complex relationship to nature. Artists have a vital role to play in the representation of environmentally critical data that is secreted from public view due to either the inward focus of the scientific research community or the private practices of industry. Special attention will be given to eco-visualization software that involves collaboration or direct participation between any or all of the following groups: artists and scientists, scientists and the public, and artists and the public. Throughout the course of the paper, patterns of both pollution and consumption on the planet will be briefly summarized, as these are the forces driving both the scientific and artistic research. In the forthcoming survey of eco-visualization and other technology-driven art works that deal with water issues, I intend to demonstrate the following:

  • Eco-visualization offers a new way to visualize invisible environmental data.
  • Eco-visualization can provide real time visual feedback that can increase conservation behavior or environmental awareness.
  • Dynamic visual feedback through eco-visualization encourages perception of linkages between the natural world and the built environment.
  • Eco-visualization can encourage good environmental stewardship.

Definitions of Key Terms

(5) Before developing the history and practice of eco-visualization, the related discourse of sustainability and sustainable design must be defined in the context of this paper. Eco-visualization projects incorporate the philosophy of sustainability. Presently, sustainability is an umbrella term used to describe the philosophy of maintaining the diversity of life and resources on the planet1. The two related terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development” originated with 18 th century forest managers determined to safeguard timber supplies by employing innovative strategies of reforestation2. The terms resurfaced 25 years ago in a political context. According to the 1987 Brundtland Report, sustainable development involves: “Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs3.” The historic context of the term sustainability thus links robust economic development with inventive resource management. Canadian environmentalist and scientist David Suzuki provides a “pop” definition of sustainability for his television audiences that perhaps mistakenly encourages conservation without evident sacrifice:

Quite simply, sustainability means living within the earth’s limits. It means living in a world where feeding people does not necessitate polluting groundwater and coastal shorelines. Where transporting people and goods does not mean polluting our air and changing our climate. Where heating our homes and powering our industries does not require vast amounts of polluting fossil fuels. Sustainability means doing things better – not doing without4.

Geographer Dan Harvey rejects the term “sustainability” because of its supposedly positive endorsement of capitalism that “lessens the force of more purely moral arguments” to engage in conservation behaviour5. Historians like Victor Margolin discuss the need for sustainability to include a social and environmental component of justice6. Cultural theorist Tony Fry believes that the term “sustainability” is oxymoronic and ill defined:

Increasingly one sees and hears sustainability evoked as if its meaning were self-evident…What exactly is demonstrated to be unsustainable, and what needs to be sustained, generally is not specifically addressed7.

(6) My own definition of sustainability addresses Fry’s concerns and expands the Brundtland’s limited goal of meeting present and future human needs8. In this paper, the philosophy of sustainability is rooted in how humans manage and maintain natural resources like water for future use by all cultures without compromising ecological diversity. Here, sustainability calls for a localized resource management strategy that promotes harmony among organisms from all types of ecosystems – both urban and rural – and among individuals from different cultural and economic backgrounds. My own studio practice addresses the unsustainable water and electricity consumption patterns evident today in the United States. Other artists who deal with water issues are concerned with the declining habitat for aquatic organisms due to human activity and the effects of climate change on aquatic organisms. Practitioners of eco-visualization explore many varied themes, but the overarching goal is to promote sustainability. What must be sustained is public consciousness of patterns of resource usage and the long-term effect of those patterns on local and global ecosystems.

(7) Eco-visualization is an interdisciplinary practice that involves collaboration and sharing of data – creative strategies common in the arena of media art. The practice of eco-visualization synthesizes knowledge and asks questions from three primary arenas of research: media art, information visualization, and sustainable design. Media art incorporates art made of analog electronics, digital software and hardware. Despite media art’s reliance on electricity to power the medium, there are surprisingly few precedents for media art that promote the general principles of sustainability or resource conservation. Why are there so few examples of media art that are exclusively concerned with improving the environment and enhancing attitudes toward nature? Eco-visualization is also related to the field of information visualization. The field of information visualization can include media art that uses animation to represent numerical facts – often such numbers are dynamic, or delivered over the Internet in real time. Information visualization, a term coined in the early 1990s, incorporates the use of computer-generated visual representations of abstract data9, such as stock market volatility. Many accomplished media artists such as Casey Reas, Golan Levin, and Ben Fry have pioneered animations that visualize large datasets; however, the purpose here is to focus exclusively on media artists who use data to communicate issues of resource conservation or other environmental concerns related to water. Mathematicians like Martin Wattenberg define new territory in the arena of information visualization by exploring “social data exploration” or “ new visualizations to let people understand their data10.” Eco-visualization also is a kind of social data exchange that promotes environmental stewardship; this emerging field has the potential to provide new strategies to increase our ability to conserve valuable resources like electricity and water.

(8) In attempting to define the eco-visualization field, I will identify the linkages and crossovers in the sustainable design field. Sustainable design is an interdisciplinary approach to creating items that embrace practices of resource conservation as well as a commitment to the general philosophy of sustainability as previously defined. “ Sustainable design” is the contemporary term for a rapidly growing area that extends across the fields of architecture, industrial design, and interior design11. Sometimes referred to as “green design,” the broad principles of sustainable design focus on resource conservation12. Sustainable design chooses energy efficient methods wherever possible. Sustainable design works to harmonize and not disrupt the natural assets surrounding the project site. Sustainable design uses materials made from renewable resources or recycled goods. Leading theorists in this field believe that our dependence on non-renewable resources is a design problem disguised by the industrial revolution and politics13. Architectural theorist McDonough and chemist Braungart suggest that global reliance on oil and natural gas is a problem to be solved through creative enterprise and green design: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, rather than bemoaning human industry, we had reason to champion it? If environmentalists as well as automobile makers could applaud every time someone exchanged an old car for a new one, because new cars purified the air and produced drinking water14?”

(9) Is eco-visualization a form of sustainable design or art? The enormous field of eco-art, art of all media with an ecological theme, is well represented in art historical literature since the 1960s15. But eco-art tends to focus on singular works that occupy or reclaim a particular geography for a specific reason, such as designing a park on a public landfill. This paper will bring together the existing and potential contributions of media artists that explore interdisciplinary methods of raising environmental awareness with portable software and technology. Many curators and theorists are just beginning to explore the question of how sustainable design of the 21 st century merges art, technology, and environmental stewardship into mobile forms that have the potential to reach wider audiences16. Stephanie Smith, curator of the Beyond Green exhibition, distinguishes the hybrid practice of sustainable art and design as one that is eminently portable and thus easy to proliferate. Smith refers to this author’s defined practice of eco-visualization, or building-based, easily transferable software that encourages environmental stewardship:

Such works might have a generative connection to a particular spot, but they can mutate and adapt over time and in new places. Additionally, many address the contested spaces of contemporary cities and towns and thus might be seen as extending that strand of environmental work that emphasizes populated places rather than remote ones. Such projects chip away at perceptions that ‘the environment’ is not something ‘out there’ and that cities are not as deeply connected to other ecosystems as they are to global trade networks17.

Defining the theoretical and practical field of eco-visualization is complex given the overuse of the generalized term of sustainability and the multiple disciplines that inform such research. Because eco-visualization software is portable, and thus it has the power and potential to affect a much larger audience if replicated and distributed to other locales. As an eco-visualization practitioner, I hope to see more such work infiltrate both public and private spaces – lobbies, airports, kitchens, bathrooms – in the next decade and beyond.

2. Standing up: 1960s Art and Activism

(10) Perceptions of nature changed radically in the middle of the 20th century primarily due to shared community concerns about public health. Of particular interest was water pollution caused by acid rain, chemical dumping and pesticide use. Rachel Carson’s controversial book, Silent Spring (1962), proved the destructive effects of the pesticide DDT on the reproductive capacity of waterfowl; b y 1972, DDT was banned in the US, though other more toxic chemicals were not18. Artists and activists developed new methods to create art to educate the public about the negative environmental impacts of industry: water pollution, chemical dumping and pesticide use. Art historian Grant Kester suggests that the early practitioners of art and cultural activism produced an entirely new type of social awareness, or “knowledge that aesthetic experience is capable of producing19.” Early experiments in generating environmental awareness through art were conducted in projects from the 1960s through the 1980s using a variety of strategies to be introduced here: real-time clean up, outdoor performances, community engagement, scientific collaboration, and perhaps most importantly, public education.

(11) The German artist Hans Haacke provided an early example of how site-specific art works could produce unique learning situations, including unusual collaborations with science and industry, new resource conservation technology, and most importantly, local education about resource contamination. In 1972, Haacke created a durational installation for the Museum Haus Lange that purified polluted water. In a room with a large window, the artist placed glass bottles filled with contaminated water from the Krefeld sewage plant collected from the nearby Rhine River. Resembling a laboratory, the installation featured a custom pump paired with a filter that sanitized the tainted water for release into a large tank filled with live goldfish. Surplus water was discharged from the window to irrigate the museum’s gardens20. In transforming the Krefeld Sewage Plant’s murky effluent to clean water that supported fish, Haacke brought public attention to the sewage plant’s role in degrading the river. Most importantly, by pumping the polluted water through an additional filtration system and using the excess water to water the museum’s garden, he introduced grey-water reclamation. Gray-water reclamation is a technique still used today by urban planners to reduce strain on drinking water supplies by recycling water from domestic showers and sinks to water plants outdoors21.

(12) Rhinewater Purification Plant was immensely significant to environmental artists though limited in its scope of impact. Art historian Miwon Kwon admires Haacke’s ability to expand the content presented in the standard white-box space of the museum – this “cultural framework defined by the institutions of art” – to incorporate an ideological critique of the sewage plant’s damaging activities22. Despite such praise, only the small audience of museum visitors actually visited Rhinewater Purification Plant. Within the art world, Haacke’s unconventional work inspired others to introduce social content into the pristine space of the museum. For example, Allan Kaprow encouraged young artists to reinvigorate the practice of art making by devising new strategies of engaging new content related to local environments and everyday activities: “Lifelike art holds that art is connected to life and everything else23.” Theorists like Noah Wardrip-Fruin believe Kaprow’s writings are a touchstone for contemporary new media artists as they not only promote a non-hierarchal formulation of art but also provoked a “desire to break down distinctions between creator and audience24.” Artists like Haacke and Kaprow were surely influential in promoting artwork with site-specific content, yet both artists were utilizing freedoms typically granted to artists. Art historian Kester notes that the art world provides a “relatively narrow” space for work like Haacke’s that critiques powerful entities like the sewage treatment facility. Kester claims the moment the artist attempts to bring the work out into the real world the “level of toleration diminishes rather rapidly25.”

(13) Like Haacke and Kaprow, the German artist, Joseph Beuys provided a historical precedent for today’s ecologically minded media artists by breaking down barriers between high art and everyday activity. Beuys was even able to engage a population outside the limited confines of the art world. In later works like 7000 Oaks (1982), Beuys inspired an entire community in Kassel to plant oak trees to not only protest deforestation via acid rain but also promote urban renewal26. Beuys recognized that performance artworks outside the museum’s confines could function as a gesture of environmental activism and that nature was in and of itself a readymade work of art27. In his early performance Eine Aktion im Moor (Bog Action) (1971), Beuys celebrated the natural diversity of wetlands that were to be drained by developers:

Bogs are the liveliest elements in the European landscape, not just from the point of view of flora, fauna, birds and animals, but as storing places of life, mystery and chemical change, preservers of ancient history. They are essential to the whole eco-system for water regulation, humidity, ground water and climate in general28.

Beuys called attention to the destruction of European wetlands by personally enveloping himself in the endangered waters. In the performance, Beuys ran through a bog, bathed in the mud, and then swam through a swampy trench. Eine Aktion im Moor resembles an earlier performance in 1962 in which Beuys proposed an “action” to clean up Elbe River in Hamburg, Germany29. Beuys’ immersion in the pungent mud and murky waters of the polders was meant to literally portray the connection our own bodies have with these non-romanticized ecosystems. Unlike mountains and rivers, tourists did not visit wetlands, the great natural filters of our water resources. Live outdoor performance in the form of the artist bathing in a bog or Kassel residents planting oak trees (7000 oaks, 1986) helped focus public attention on an underappreciated natural space. Art historian John Grande praises Beuys’ conceptual experiments as proof that artists can help their audiences develop a more evolved relationship with nature: “Art could play a leading role in the future of our society if our artists accepted the importance of studying nature, and recognized their own place within an ecosystem30.”

(14) Artists like Beuys and Haacke contributed to a wave of environmental interventions performed by citizen activists that characterized the whole decade of the 1960s and 1970s. The same year that Beuys performed his Eine Aktion im Moor, a group of Canadian citizens set sail from Vancouver to protest the USA’s underground nuclear testing on Amchitka – a tiny island off the coast of Alaska that was a refuge for endangered sea otters, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons. The venture sparked a public outcry with positive results: nuclear testing on Amchitka was discontinued, and the island became a bird sanctuary. The activist team that initiated the preservation of the avian refuge is known today as Greenpeace. Based in Amsterdam, Greenpeace has expanded to support 2.8 million members worldwide, with offices in 41 countries31. While Greenpeace has become a global symbol for promoting conservation through nonviolent actions, the group has been heavily criticized for its one-sided protests that focus on only one side of an issue that involves a precious resource such as the seal population. Cultural historian Alexander Wilson points out that although Greenpeace successfully facilitated the collapse of the commercial market for seal fur in the early 1980s, the group’s campaign enraged aboriginal groups for whom hunting seals is part of a local subsistence economy32. Greenpeace halted their campaign proposing the banning of seal hunting, an action that commercial fisherman also appreciated, as the seals are the primary competitors for valuable cod.

(15) Compared to activist groups like Greenpeace, artists display slightly better records when it comes to fully understanding the multiple effects of ecological stresses to instigate change without negative feedback. Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison’s 1989 multi-faceted proposal to restore the polluted Sava River valley in Yugoslavia met with widespread acceptance and the potential to alter land use policy33. Art historian Eleanor Heartney cites the unique ability of the artist to transcend socio-political boundaries: “They refuse to be bound by the rules of any specialized field or the political needs of any special-interest group34.” Art historian Kester notes that although artists lack the knowledge of the specialist, artists are better able to “grasp and represent the interactions of vast ecosystems as well as a form of temporal imagination that allows them to envision the long-term impact of current human and environmental processes on an ecosystem35.” If, as Kester suggests, artists – not necessarily activists or scientists – possess unique abilities to visualize and halt the effects of ecological stressors, which projects made by artists working 1960-1980 employ innovative aesthetic strategies to display or even offset the lasting impacts of human activity on the planet? Which projects had demonstrable environmental consequences? Below is a short overview of projects that use media tools and new technology as well as collaborative work techniques to obtain significant results.

(16) The examples of Haake’s Rhinewater Purification Plant, Beuys’ Bog Action, as well as Greenpeace’s conservation activism, are only a few of hundreds of influential art-related events that occurred in the last half of the twentieth century during the birth of the modern environmental movement. It is no wonder that artists wanted to leave the limiting world of the museums to explore environmental issues because evidence of global air and water pollution was everywhere. In 1962, over 750 people died in London smog36; three years later a weather event created a black fog in New York City that killed 80. On March 18, 1967, a Torrey Canyon oil tanker crashed off the coast of England resulting in a spill of over 29 million gallons of oil devastating the British and French coastline. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River, the primary source of drinking water in Ohio, spontaneously burst into flames from sheer chemical saturation. On the western coast of Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island, a whole town contracted a devastating disease that slowly disabled the nervous system. Cats writhing in the streets of Minamata were the first indication of the clandestine mercury dumping by the Chisso Corporation37.

(17) Artists responded immediately to the various ecological crises in the 1960s and 1970s, and used a variety of aesthetic strategies to facilitate environmental learning and inspire environmental clean-up . Many experimented with old and new visualization techniques that would expose the polluters. Some artists went so far as to make art to motivate a clean up; Haacke’s water purification system that allowed goldfish to live in effluent is a good example. Some utilized print media to communicate their socio-political messages – a simple but effective technology. In 1972, W. Eugene Smith completed his photographic essay about Minamata, Japan and the crippling effects of mercury pollution on the children of the town. Published initially in Life magazine and then as a book, the deeply moving images would become icons of the environmental movement and the havoc wreaked by powerful corporations38. In the mid-1970s, the French filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau began making films such as Cries from the Deep (1981) that utilized new underwater camera technology to document the demise of the North Atlantic fishery. Historian Wilson criticizes the inclusion of overtly aesthetic content such as “rhapsodic shots of jellyfish” because the visuals can mask the complexity in displaying the severe impacts that commercial fishing has on marine ecosystems39. Yet Wilson and others celebrate Cousteau as a creative environmentalist who opened up a new frontier in helping to educate a global audience about the health of marine ecosystems with captivating undersea photography.

(18) The artists exploring various creative strategies to facilitate environmental clean up produced new knowledge by collaborating with scientists; Cousteau accomplished this feat through site-based conversations with experts in his films. Unlike Cousteau, who merely engaged the problem of fish scarcity in conversation, artists like Betty Beaumont actually co-created a reclamation technology to provide new forage for the diminishing Atlantic fisheries. Beaumont’s Ocean Landmark (1980) created new underwater habitat for then diminishing populations of marine organisms from industrial refuse40. In collaboration with a team of scientists, Beaumont recycled 500 tons of processed coal waste into 17,000 coal fly-ash blocks that are insoluble in water. These blocks were hauled into the ocean on a barge and dropped 40 miles from the New York harbor on the continental shelf. The blocks provided an enormous amount of solid surface area that attracted all kinds of plants and animals to create new homes. Fish were drawn to the marine sculpture due to the increasing concentrations of food. After twenty-five years of growth, Ocean Landmark is now a vibrant underwater garden on the floor of the Atlantic. The only problem is that due to its remote location, no one can appreciate the ever-changing beauty of this rare installation that is simultaneously all of the following: sustainable art, ecological landmark, reprocessed waste, and food source.

(19) As evidenced here, artists tested new methodologies to communicate the plight of the environment to the public in the second half of the 20th century. These who pioneered unique modes of visualizing ecological issues – Hans Haacke, Joseph Beuys, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Betty Beaumont, and others – not only inspired a whole new generation of environmental artists working today to be discussed shortly but also increased public awareness of ecological issues41. While several historians like Lawrence Buell cited the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring42 as the primary generator of the contemporary environmental movement43, I wish to suggest that these small-scale art interventions played an equally active role. Historians like Mark Neuzil and William Kovarik argued that the multiple successes of the diverse media projects of the 1960s and even earlier catalyzed the formation of modern environmentalism44. Still others like Allan Schnaiberg traced the movement back to the nineteenth century, much earlier than Carson’s Silent Spring: “The ecological movement was never a singular or stable entity, but involved rather different social components45.” Because the early small-scale experiments by artists and activists contributed to producing ecological consciousness, we must now explore exactly how visualization of environmental issues might heighten public understanding and establish a collective memory. How might media art projects promote a shift in attitudes toward nature in the late 20th century and beyond? The potential trajectory of the environmental movement is quite vast, as is the history of environmental art. Thus, for the remainder of the essay, I will attempt to limit the discussion to the new media projects of the 1990s and later that develop effective educational strategies to preserve the state of the environment by combining art, science, and technology in public exhibition spaces both traditional and alternative.

3. Environmental art vs. land art: a comparison

(20) Eco-visualization is conceptually aligned with the arena of environmental art. Environmental art, or “eco-art” as described by Sue Spaid46, includes works made by artists from the 1960s and later that actively attempt to raise awareness about ecological problems, and possibly offer solutions. The particular area of study, eco-visualization, could be considered a subset of the larger field of environmental art. Environmental art is distinct from the fields of land art or earthworks due to its focus on creating work with a clear focus on issues of sustainability.

Prima Lingua
Jackie Brookner, Prima Lingua (2001). Materials include: concrete, volcanic rock, mosses, ferns, wetland plants, fish, and steel.

(21) Land art or earth art is a form of art that came to prominence in the late 1960s and 1970s. Land artists were primarily concerned with using materials from the natural environment – not to promote sustainability, but rather to feed an aesthetic curiosity based on a general appreciation for natural forms. Artists like the British photographer Andy Goldsworthy were absorbed in a private process of hand-building ephemeral installations in nature. Displayed in galleries and museums, large-scale color photographs illustrate the beauty of Goldsworthy’s remote icicle sculptures in Canada or his floating leaf installations in Scottish streams. His recycling of organic matter into the work demonstrates an indirect commitment to the usage of salvaged materials, though of course the photographic process used to document the works employ a variety of toxic solutions.

(22) In contrast to Goldsworthy’s rather subtle pledge to sustainable design, environmental artist Jackie Brookner creates large-scale public sculptures such as Prima Lingua (2001) pictured here. This giant sculptural tongue employs plants – a truly sustainable technology – to filter and clean polluted water. Brookner’s trademarked Biosculptures form natural water treatment systems, and teach a vital ecological concept: no waste exists in healthy ecosystems. The excrement of one organism becomes food for another. As water flows over the sculptures, the plants and associated bacteria transform pollutants and toxins into life sustaining nutrients. Fish, snails, and other aquatic organisms live in the water and enrich the Biosculptures over time.

(23) The goals and working methods of land artists like Goldsworthy and environmental artists like Brookner remain markedly different. In the film Rivers and Tides47, Goldsworthy states his own personal commitment to a healthy relationship with nature: “I want to understand the stone.” Goldsworthy’s process of comprehending his connection with nature is quite private. For example, the above-mentioned documentary film features Goldsworthy engaged in solitary walks in the misty landscapes of his beloved Scotland. Brookner, on the other hand, claims that her artistic practice raises “community awareness of the urgency of restoring health to aquatic ecosystems.” It is this difference, the focus on public education through a shared experience – that differentiates the environmental artist from the land artist. In Brookner’s case, the collective viewing of a time-based phenomenon – the live filtering of filthy water – focuses viewers on dynamic solutions to a common environmental problem. Land artists as a group were not investigating ecological solutions to environmental problems. Rather, these artists, like Goldsworthy, used the outdoor environment as a space in which to create work that celebrated natural phenomena: colored leaves that float and stick together aided by water’s surface tension. Both Goldsworthy and Brookner produce fascinating artworks, however the purpose of this paper is to focus on contemporary environmental artists who are not only engaged with their communities, but who also position conservation solutions first in their studio practice – unlike the more solitary land or earth artists pursuing more formal aesthetic goals.

4. Contemporary eco-visualization

Eco-visualizations – artworks that imagine ecological data with software and technology – further expand the mushrooming field of media art and design. Like Jackie Brookner’s biosculptures, eco-visualization artwork promotes sustainability through a shared experience of a real time event that is controlled by a computer or associated electronic technology – as opposed to organic materials like liverworts that filter water in Brookner’s Prima Lingua. Much of this work is quite new. Due to technical complexities, some installations remain permanently in the prototyping stage. Conceptually, the work is strong due to the innovative exploration of new educational strategies made possible by new media forms: computer algorithms, online databases, or even heat sensitive inks. The list goes on and on. Overall, the eco-visualization artworks incorporate a message of positive environmental stewardship as a primary focus – often through display in a public place to facilitate community dialogue. But do the viewers receive and process the message? This is a point to debate – particularly in the context of my own studio practice.

Software and technology for resource conservation

(25) Prior to 2002, there were very few artworks that electronically visualized a resource in short supply – but some exemplary pieces have been produced in the last few years. Sustainable (2004), a dynamic robotic sound installation creatively displays a water resource-sharing algorithm48. The installation’s pulsing lights and jarring clangs characterize the constant water shortages in the American West.

(26) Built by a collaborative team of David Birchfield, David Lorig, and Kelly Phillips from Arizona State University, Sustainable consists of a network of seven robotic gongs suspended over large tanks with varied amounts of water. Each tank is linked via water tubes to an upstream and downstream neighbor. The network is closed. There is a finite, or limited amount of water to share. A computer runs a custom water resource-sharing algorithm that simulates a fluctuating water demand for each tank. The tanks are greedy but assign temporary water allotments via the eco-visualization software. The artists want viewers to compare the artwork to a “group of farmers or golf courses that have high demands for water usage, but must share and negotiate for the rights to use water49.” In Sustainable, water demand is visualized organically in both image and sound. The lamp below the gong is illuminated when the current water level does not meet the desired level. Also, tanks that have less water have gongs that clang louder. The water held in full tanks muffles the sound of the gong. Bright illumination and cacophonous sounds thus visualize resource scarcity.

STATIC! Interactive Institute in collaboration with Front Design, Disappearing Pattern Tiles. Hot water causes patterns to fade over time52.

(27) Overall, the Sustainable installation is quite complex – I recommend downloading the online videos to hear the effects of the struggle for water equity50. The collaborative team discovered that the system displays non-linear, or unpredictable, sharing behavior despite the simple rule-structure of the algorithm51. In other words, each tank selfishly tries to keep its tank full. The interaction of the tanks creates new sequences of sharing. The installation provides a way for viewers to imagine the water shortage in the West without having to read a detailed scientific paper or journal article directed at an audience of specialists. Yet Sustainable is not intended as a substitute for academic publications. Rather, the piece provides an exciting audiovisual space that illustrates the potential for volatile conflict in communities without adequate freshwater resources. While the installation is accomplished technically and offers great visual interest, it does not directly suggest solutions for the water crisis. Sustainable offers viewers a sophisticated audiovisual experience that illustrates sample data behind a typical water shortage problem with a poetics of light and sound.

(28) In contrast, the Swedish research group, Static, is only involved in creating sustainable ways to conserve water resources. Static solves the water conservation problem with innovative product design. The design collective has invented a plethora of home decoration products that visualize energy or water consumption. Their project, Disappearing Pattern Tiles: Expressing Daily Hot Water Routines, enables individuals taking a shower to determine when to turn the water off. Static created custom bathroom tiles that are decorated with floral patterns made with thermo-chromic ink. This extraordinary ink responds to heat by fading. Installed in a home bathroom, the floral patterns fade away as steam from a shower fills the space. In their design statement, the group claims: “The longer the shower, the less decoration on the wall! The architectural surface acts as a subtle reminder of personal energy use over time, reflecting the duration and waste of water during a shower53.” The Static eco-visualization also references the connection between hot water used in the home and energy consumption. Hot water is the biggest consumer of power in the home after heating and cooling. Nearly twenty percent of home water usage occurs in the shower54. Most water used in the shower is heated by an external device and uses energy. By encouraging people to take shorter showers using visually dynamic tiles, Static promotes both energy and water conservation.

(29) One variety of eco-visualization that deals with water actually celebrates the medium’s unique chemical properties. Created in Dublin with Medialab Europe, Jonah Brucker-Cohen’s software, H2O/IP (2002), uses the conductive properties of ionized water to encode streams of data sent over a liquid network55. Streaming media of live video literally streams through water instead of cables. In the initial demonstration, a video image of a person’s head is transmitted through a water network to another monitor as a converted grayscale image (see image below). The installation is composed of computers, monitors, a video camera, valves and, of course, buckets. Brucker-Cohen describes the project:

StreamingMedia is an interactive data sculpture that employs a new Internet protocol (H2O/IP) I’m developing that uses water to transmit information between computers. H2O/IP functions in a similar way as TCP/IP but focuses on the inherent viscous properties of water that are not present in traditional packet networks56.

StreamingMedia (H2O/IP), by Jonah Brucker-Cohen (2002)
How Stuff is Made, interactive wiki
Natalie Jereminjenko, How Stuff is Made, interactive wiki. Available at: xdesign.ucsd.edu/wiki/index.php/Image:Water-bottle.jpg

Though still in the prototyping stage, H20/IP offers a future sustainable solution to the problem of bulky wires and throwaway plastics that constitute current network hardware. Imagine a day when our plumbing systems could carry both organic waste and network traffic!

(30) Another theme explored by environmental artists interested in resource conservation is the cultural and social effects of commodity production . Many such projects use database technology to collectively expose hidden aspects of industrial processes or consumer behavior that could impact our ecological and cultural environment. These projects often have an online component where the artists investigate and map the production of products like milk57, oil58 and 59, or fruit60 to raise awareness about labor conditions, corporate alliances, and environmental impacts involved in the manufacture of contemporary goods. Once such project, How Stuff Is Made, resides online as a wiki (websites that allow multiple users to add or revise content dynamically61). How Stuff is Made is an editable database that demystifies the production of water bottles, Ethernet cables, and fortune cookies62. The site is designed to provide visitors with an interactive photographic essay that visually displays the step-by-step manufacturing process of the product under scrutiny.

(31) Directed by Natalie Jereminjenko63, the How Stuff is Made website has multiple authors. This is a project that not only performs as a database but also engages young artists directly in the classroom to confront the origin of everyday utilitarian objects. Annually, Jereminjenko asks her design students to make a photographic essay about a product’s manufacturing history64. One of the first entries on the How Stuff is Made website is for spring water. Palomer Spring Water is a large company that supplies fresh water to a variety of water brands found in a variety of mass retailers, including Albertson’s, Ralph’s and Costco65. The site explains that in the last several years “ it has been the lower classes that were concerned with pre-packaged water due to the poor municipal supplies, but the desire for good tasting water has been sought out more recently by the upper and middle socioeconomic classes.” Unfortunately, the website does not offer any information about the global desire for spring water nor the economic interests that are competing for rights to this resource in short supply. Those topics are perhaps too broad for the purposes of the site, yet it seems critical to engage the students and visitors to the website about the far-reaching consequences of manufacturing decisions that are guided by corporate interests. What this wiki does provide, however, is an alternative format for graduate students to critically examine the manufacture of mass-produced items. The wiki has the potential to get design students accustomed to asking deeper questions about industrial processes rather than accepting them as status quo. Inspired by the popular “How Stuff Works” website66, the How Stuff is Made site is a unique form of pedagogy that also represents a useful, though limited, informational database.

(32) In 1972, the land artist Robert Smithson prophetically argued for the artist’s role in communicating vital information from industry and science to the public: “The artist, ecologist, and industrialist must develop in relation to each other, rather than to continue to work and to produce in isolation”67. Most of the works discussed above were collaborative, and involved direct or indirect participation with scientists. All the works involved a public outreach through eco-visualization that helped to stimulate interest in water-related issues – Sustainable illustrates water resource management, Disappearing Pattern Tiles promote water conservation, How Stuff is Made motivates students to explore camouflaged manufacturing processes. These interdisciplinary art works are highly accessible. It’s easy for viewers to comprehend a fading picture on a tile or a photographic essay about spring water. The simplicity of these works is their greatest strength. These works are engaging and illuminating for a general audience without specialized knowledge in the field.

Art visualizing biodiversity in sustainable aquatic environments

(33) This section provides a contrast to the previous one, introducing eco-visualization projects that are far more technically involved and thus require more sustained collaboration between artists and scientists. Betty Beaumont, Char Davies, and Brandon Ballengée have taken on long-term visualization projects that promote sustainability and environmental stewardship. Some have lasted as long as twenty years; many of the projects are still in development. All of the artists surveyed in this section are dealing with issues of biodiversity primarily in aquatic environments.

(34) In 1980, artist Betty Beaumont completed Ocean Landmark, one of the most widely acclaimed eco-art projects. Described previously as an example of positive art-science collaboration, Ocean Landmark project created a new underwater habitat for aquatic organisms by repurposing industrial waste68. Ocean Landmark has become a productive new ecosystem over the years and continues to evolve. The work is recognized as a “Fish Haven” on the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s coastal navigational map69. In 2000, Beaumont received a grant from the Creative Capital Foundation to create Decompression, an eco-visualization of the dynamic growth around the Ocean Landmark site. The artist explains her concept:

Decompression is a developing cyberworld, electronically collaging multiple stories and images of the contiguous worlds of technology, …Decompression will dynamically image- for the first time – Ocean Landmark in its life-sustaining form with technologically mediated images of this underwater oasis. As Ocean Landmark is a flourishing ecosystem, Decompression will develop into the Living Laboratory, a thriving information-system in cyberspace70.

(35) Today, Beaumont wants to use new technologies to creatively visualize dynamic growth on her deep-sea sculpture. There are few images of the current state of the marine installation on the continental shelf; underwater photography is not practical for documenting the entire piece because of the limited visibility at such depths. Instead, Beaumont is working to use global positioning satellite technology to locate the work and create abstract images of growth through the use of underwater remote sensing and side scan sonar. The artist intends to create a virtual reality version of the aquatic sculpture, Decompression. Virtual reality (VR) is an environment that is wholly simulated by a computer71. Beaumont imagines that her VR prototype could help to imagine other sorts of invisible spaces:

Through physicalizing space currently ‘unmarked,’ Decompression highlights the politics of invisibility as related to gender, the environment, and other disciplines that the Living Laboratory encompasses, and it creates a virtual landscape in which people can explore their own and other’s way of ‘seeing’72.

(36) In 2000, Beaumont completed an intermediary stage in the visualization development. Working with graduate students from the New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, Beaumont designed a web site with three-dimensional graphics to represent the fly-ash forms underwater73. Due to the intricacies of the technologies involved, the more advanced version of Decompression, the Living Laboratory, is still a work-in-progress. This website, created in 2000, is a productive start for this highly ambitious VR project. Yet the three-dimensional animations are not accessible for users with Macintosh computers and require PC users to download and install a special piece of software. The current version is difficult to navigate and, today, the graphics look dated. Beaumont planned the advanced version, the Living Laboratory, to be a permanent web installation that could be interactively used by researchers from a variety of fields:

A research physicist could parallel invisible scientific phenomena with the invisibility of the underwater project to discuss how our knowledge of the ‘invisible’ is constructed, in contrast to a religion scholar who would elaborate on how the invisible parallels the spiritual. As our oceans become over-fished to near depletion of specific species, activists might use the cyberspace laboratory to articulate the underwater project as an intervention that would affect policy and revive the off-shore fishing industry74.

The overall goal of Decompression and the Living Laboratory would be to create an interactive website to immerse visitors in information that would assist in visualizing the invisible seafloor, stimulating their awareness of marine diversity and promoting good environmental stewardship. Beaumont’s past and present work demonstrates the capacity of art to raise awareness about nature through the unique visualization techniques that remain in development.

(37) Other media artists like Char Davies have succeeded in moving beyond a prototype of a virtual environment to stimulate awareness of nature. Davies, in collaboration with programmer John Harrison and others, has created two interactive three-dimensional VR environments: Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998) . Both installations allow viewers to navigate the environment using their breath. Osmose directly challenges the way that three-dimensional graphics favor Cartesian spaces and introduces a new spatial aesthetic to evoke natural environments using the computer. Art historian Susanne Ackers explains the gist of the interaction:

For Davies, Osmose is trying to create an environment of being still and just being – allowing things to come to you – rather than always doing, getting, conquering and moving forward. That stasis is so antithetical to our culture of doing75.

The key element of this eco-visualization is the unique interaction design that allows participants to navigate a virtual river through controlled breathing and a focused gaze – alluding to practices of Eastern meditation. Participants in Osmose must don a modified diver’s costume consisting of an interface vest and a stereoscopic viewing helmet, know as a head-mounted display (HMD). Inside the helmet are two small LCD screens that create a stereoscopic effect, as well as stereo headphones. The vest and HMD connect to a computer and sound processor. As the fully wired participant looks around – left, right, up, down – the computer calculates the participant’s exact point of view within the virtual scene via motion-tracking sensors in the interface vest and helmet. The Osmose software generates three-dimensional virtual environments with corresponding audio in real time in response to the participant’s head position and breathing patterns that are measured by the vest. The artist describes the interactive interface as follows:

The experience of breathing in to rise and out to fall facilitates a convincing sensation of “floating”, as if the participant’s body were gravity free. This un-usual sensation is intimately known by scuba divers, who use breath and balance to subtly control body buoyancy and maneuver in oceanic space…The sensation of floating tends to evoke euphoric feelings of disembodiment and immateriality, which we intentionally amplify through our enabling the participant to see through and virtually float through everything around them. At the same time however, we deliberately confound these sensations by paradoxically grounding the experience in the participant’s own body, i.e. in his or her own breath and centre of balance76.

(38) The visuals for Osmose are not based on real time data. Only the interaction, the participant’s breathing rate and head position are measured in real time. In fact, the graphics were inspired by the artist’s long time experience as a painter and as a nature lover. Davies developed her sketches for the visuals at her own woodland retreat in Quebec. The most amazing component of this visualization of ecological topography is precisely its connection with the body. Imagine the experience – we breathe trees; we breathe water. The participant inhales to rise and float through a forest. Exhalation speeds descent into a mountain stream animated with glowing water bugs. With the interface, the artist portrays her philosophy that life is “a river with infinite rivulets pouring through time.” The artist intends the unique visuals of the virtual reality piece to raise questions about contemporary definitions of nature:

This land is but a microcosm: worldwide, wild places of the earth are being dramatically altered due to a litany of human attitudes and actions. Meanwhile, public attention is being directed to the virgin, untrampled territory of cyberspace. And what of virtual reality? Can virtual representations of nature return our attention to the nonhuman living world – conversely increasing our appreciation of the complexities of the natural environment? Or will virtual environments proliferate at the inverse rate of the disappearance of the real – as some sort of psychic compensation? Perhaps the very act of creating virtual environments such as Osmose and Ephémère point out the danger that soon computer-generated simulations may be all we have left77.

Tree Pond
Tree Pond, above, is a digital frame captured in real-time through HMD (head-mounted display) during the live performance of Char Davies’ Osmose (1995), an immersive virtual environment.79
American Bullfrog with third leg
American Bullfrog with third leg, Fairfield County, Ohio. Collected by Brandon Ballengée, August 199882
Brandon Ballengée, Species Reclamation, Detail of a Hymenochirus Morph
Brandon Ballengée, Species Reclamation, Detail of a Hymenochirus Morph, 2000

On a philosophical level, Davies hopes that her virtual environments, through their use of transparency and ambiguity as well as the body’s breath, can enable an experience for the viewer whereby the various elements within the works become de-objectified. In so doing, it is her intention to renew our sense of perception of nature, evoking a ‘questioning’ of that which we habitually take for granted78. Immersion in VR works like Osmose could also have powerful effects on the psyche of the viewer due to the kinesthetic connection that the artist creates between the body of the viewer and the spaces of nature.

(39) Creating a sympathetic connection between human bodies and nonhuman ones is an important step toward communicating the need for equality between all living creatures. Davies attempts to forge new bodily experiences with an imagined nature in virtual reality. In comparison to Davies, artist Brandon Ballengée immerses us in the real reality of deformed frogs and their wetland habitats. He uses state-of-the-art digital photography to raise awareness about the effects of water pollution on declining amphibian populations. While artist Joseph Beuys ran through a bog in 1968, Ballengée literally brings the bog inside the museum. Data gained from the artist’s collaborative fieldwork – sometimes with scientists and occasionally with school children – becomes art. Ballengée transforms the field specimens into a visual display of digital prints: high resolution scans of amphibians and plants. According to Ballengée, field specimens printed using high-tech technology and displayed in a gallery become a “conceptual form of environmental outreach80.”

(40) Ballengée is not merely an image-maker. This artistworks as a scientist to help reinsert indigenous frogs and lizards back into reclaimed wetlands. Operating as artist, activist, and scientist, Ballengée completed a recent project with The Gaia Institute and The New York State Museum to “populate newly created waste water management sites throughout New York City with native amphibians. The amphibians will not only control mosquito populations but will act as environmental flags to help monitor the health of the wetlands81.”

Ballengée’s current practice is innovative and varied; the artist is a f ield observer for the North American Reporting Center for Amphibians Malformations, he teaches a field biology course for college students in Costa Rica, and cares for a pet iguana he rescued from Central Park83. Like Beaumont, Ballengée labors to create large-scale environmental change through art that combines scientific research with conceptual practices. Currently, Ballengée is networking to create a database project to record the declining amphibian populations around the world as well as frog deformities84. While still in development, this project, when visualized online, could be a groundbreaking piece if paired with wiki technology to encourage global participation. The artist continues to explore new methods of visualizing his own amphibian research to create interest in frog deformities and the science behind the data. A few years ago in conjunction with the Fragile Ecologies exhibition, Ballengée broadcast a dissection experiment online to promote public understanding of scientific research.

(41) Ballengée experiments with regressive breeding to reclaim vanishing species. The artist claims an interest in biotechnology as a potential method to recreate amphibian species that are disappearing due to limited or polluted aquatic habitats. In an ongoing project, Species Reclamation, the artist attempts to aggressively breed original genotypes into hybridized African clawed frogs. According to Ballengée, “one of the most exciting aspects of genetic research may some day be the ability to re-establish animal and plant species that we are now losing to extinction85.” While Ballengée is not specifically interested in eco-visualization as defined in this paper, his practice is related to the discussion. As an artist, Ballengée experiments with nature’s software, DNA, to re-visualize and re-instantiate amphibians on the decline.

5. Eco-visualization case study: Art generated with dynamic water quality data

Floating Point
Tiffany Holmes, Floating Point (2004) web site (center) and photographs from sampling at the River Spol.

(42) My own artistic practice generated this paper’s investigation into eco-visualization strategies to promote healthy environmental stewardship. This next section will describe my own work as an artist. In December of 2004, I completed an eco-visualization prototype made during a residency through the Swiss Artists-In-Labs program that paired media artists with working scientists86. The prototype dynamically animated various parameters associated with water quality in order to raise public awareness about conservation of freshwater resources. The general goal of the prototype was to convert water quality statistics into art, and along the way educate the viewers about the interpretation of ecological data.

Project Narrative, Floating Point

(43) While based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, I created a series of online eco-visualizations about water pollution. This web project allowed me to conceptualize and test a practical work that would operate in real time. I created eighteen prototype animations that used custom software to draw dynamic water quality data. The final animation used to test a variety of water samples employed sensors to monitor the following parameters: dissolved oxygen, conductivity, temperature, turbidity, and nitrate concentrations.

(44) The future of the world population depends on the availability of safe drinking water87. In some countries, water is a scarce resource, while in others vast reserves exist. Freshwater supplies are easily contaminated. Common pollutants include pesticides, fertilizers, petroleum products, and industrial solvents. Professionals typically assess water quality through site visits with electronic monitoring equipment. Scientists regularly test water to monitor concentrations of dissolved solids and chemical pollutants – like mercury or lead. Specialists identify patterns and changes in watersheds by building visual models that process enormous amounts of data. Literature shows that scientists use graphing techniques such as colorful maps, bar graphs, and x-y scatter plots with geographic data to visualize water quality data88. In Floating Point, I used the same water quality statistics to create colorful animations that attempt to communicate environmental information to a non-scientific audience. The aim of the five-month project was to develop eco-visualization software to promote a general knowledge of local water quality issues.

Floating Point (2004)
Tiffany Holmes, Floating Point (2004); still from dynamic animation that tested dissolved oxygen, pH, and temperature in water sample from the River Limmat in Zurich, Switzerland.
Floating Point (2004)
Tiffany Holmes, Floating Point (2004); still from dynamic animation that tested a scientist’s daughter’s foaming bubble bath. Changes in dissolved oxygen due to the effervescent liquid are visible in the many circles drawn.

(45) During my residency, I sought out scientists with projects in local stream ecology at EAWAG – the Swiss Federal Institute for Environmental Science and Technology. In October of 2004, I accompanied stream ecologist Dr. Christopher Robinson and limnologist Dr. Urs Uehlinger on a research expedition to the Swiss National Park to take water samples from the River Spol. Through their research, Robinson and Uehlinger have proved that controlled flooding can keep a dammed river healthy. Their findings are of great importance to hydroelectric power managers who manage outflows to maintain the ecological integrity of the river downstream from the dam. Robinson and Uehlinger were interested in the eco-visualization project because, as scientists, they publish papers that reach an audience of specialists and were curious about how I intended to communicate water quality issues using art. They saw potential in reaching a larger audience by using art to discuss water quality issues. However, both were quick to point out that my work was advancing water quality research in the arena of education and outreach, not pure science. Overall, the trip with Robinson and Uehlinger to the Swiss National Park was helpful to learn sampling techniques. In total, I tested water at three sites near the dam, two experimental sites and one control site. The water quality data gathered included: stream flow rate, conductivity, temperature, and turbidity.

(46) After several weeks of testing both visual strategies as well as hardware, I made an important conceptual decision: use a 32-bit one-pixel square to create all of the guiding imagery in the eco-visualization. Water is an essential resource for life; the pixel is the basic unit of the screen. Data gathered over time can create complexity out of this very simple form. At the beginning of the final prototype animation, a small square draws a horizontal line at the bottom of the simulation. The concentration of dissolved oxygen determines how much of the blank canvas the square can occupy, as well as how large the square is and how fast it moves. The circles drawn in the image show points where the dissolved oxygen level increased by more than .05 mg/L. The level of conductivity, or the amount of dissolved solids in the water, determines the color of the pixel. Higher concentrations of dissolved solids create pixels with bright synthetic colors while low concentrations create pixels with aquatic hues: blue and green. High conductivity levels often indicate the presence of foreign substances like sewage in water samples. If temperature goes above 25 degrees Celsius, a conceptual “algae bloom” occurs with rows and rows of bright green boxes lining the top of the drawing. In December of 2004, I invited 15 computer scientists to bring a water or liquid testing sample to test with the visualization software during an informal performance and demonstration of the prototype. At the event, we tested liquid samples from a variety of sources. One visitor brought water samples from Lake Zurich. One computer scientist brought a sample of his daughter’s bathwater; another wanted to test Rivella, a Swiss beverage made from milk serum, a reclaimed dairy waste product. After the testing sessions, I administered short surveys to determine the ability of the eco-visualization to communicate the water quality content.

Results from Floating Point

(47) In general, the survey results indicated that the amount of content communicated by one animation should be decreased to facilitate easier interpretation. In other words, the computer scientists thought the eco-visualization should be simplified to enhance the communication of specific water quality information. Many found the animations too challenging to interpret due to temperature and oxygen levels working in tandem. For this reason, several suggested that I focus on a single water quality parameter, such as dissolved oxygen or perhaps conductivity. The audience of computer scientists asked questions about ways to improve water quality. A few scientists suggested that it would be far more interesting to choose a topic that the viewers could actually control through immediate individual or collective action. Because so much water pollution comes from non-point sources like agricultural runoff, it is difficult to imagine a quick way for individuals to have an impact on their watersheds though direct action with visible results.

(48) The Floating Point eco-visualization thus inspired awareness of ecological issues but did not provide a ready way for viewers to perform or enact any specific conservation action. Interestingly, this critical feedback generated the proposal for my current project that dynamically visualizes electricity consumption in the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). This piece does in fact allow viewers to influence visual feedback from the eco-visualization – by powering down desktop computers and monitors. In developing the NCSA design proposal, I focused on power consumption instead of water quality because individuals may have more direct control over the usage of the electricity in their workspaces. Building residents can turn lights on and off, but they cannot easily remove nitrate from a nearby river. This eco-visualization is scheduled to be up and running by in the NCSA lobby by September 30, 2006.

6. Conclusion

(49) The planetary depletion of fossil fuels and freshwater reserves is an enormous problem89. Resource management is possibly the greatest challenge of our collective future mainly because of the negative effects of global warming on industrial and agricultural production90. Environmental analyst Lester Brown explains: “Modern civilization is in trouble. We have created a bubble economy, one whose output is artificially inflated by overconsuming the earth’s natural capital91.” Ready supplies of electricity and clean drinking water are rapidly diminishing all over the world, perhaps most alarmingly in the Middle East. Yet nearly every known manufacturing process utilizes water and electricity92. In other words, water and electricity are inextricably linked to habits of human consumption. Worse, the production of clean drinking water requires enormous amounts of electricity.

(50) New and old technologies are being used in innovative ways to encourage conservation of resources. Low-tech devices such as solar cookers are slowly being introduced to the developing world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, supply inexpensive drinking water, and encourage use of renewable energy93. Increased usage of hybrid cars in the developed world curtails emissions and trains drivers to conserve fuel through a very simple eco-visualization on the dashboard. This eco-visualization dynamically displays how driving behavior influences gasoline consumption. Journalist Jamais Cascio advocates for dynamic displays in all motor vehicles: “ One important reason why hybrid cars result in better mileage is that drivers suddenly have an indication of how various aspects of their driving habits shape mileage94.” Dynamic feedback can immediately increase the driver’s ability to conserve gasoline. So why aren’t such meters in all automobiles?

(51) There are no easy solutions and no clear paths toward collaboratively addressing the complicated issues of resource conservation to promote sustainability. The artworks evaluated in this paper all represent successful attempts to raise environmental awareness in the general public. But we need to do more. Scientists like McCalley and Midden cite the need for further research into the capacity of dynamic feedback to improve behavior in their own study of what they term eco-feedback:

By focusing on the interaction between the product and the user it is possible to generate responsible conservation behavior using eco-feedback. Eco-feedback is information presented during the product-user interaction which prompts the user to adopt energy saving strategies, however, little is known about how such feedback works and thus how it can best be applied for optimal effect95.

Design improvements and innovative artworks are one way of educating the general public about sustainable resource management. Though there is no question that environmental improvements are linked not only to product design but also to global social reforms, sustainable design improvements like the Disappearing Pattern Tiles or the hybrid car’s mileage display help the cause of the environmental movement – perhaps more powerfully than the art works described. The environmental movement is also aided by reports that sustainable design generates profits. Recent award-winning publications by designers, economists, and scientists alike argue that practicing resource conservation and sustainable design can generate money and feed the desires of even the most committed capitalists96 and 97.

(52) As an artist, I continue to refine my data collecting techniques, as well as strategies of creating effective visual feedback. The greatest challenge in my own eco-visualization practice is to make an abstract drawing communicate something poetic, understandable, and potentially educational – without being overtly didactic. This is the central experiment of the practical component of my own research: how to effectively communicate environmental information through art to a large audience with varied backgrounds and levels of interest in conservation issues.

(53) As demonstrated in the paper, eco-visualization, while an emerging field, has great potential to distill complex ideas for the general public. Statistician Edward Tufte inspires my own practice of eco-visualization with this declaration: “Information consists of differences that make a difference98.” The information revolution has left us with more data than we are capable of ever seeing due to increased processor speeds and expansive storage capacities in computers – not to mention limited attention spans. The data problem we face today is not a lack of technology. We need more human filters to make sense of the sea of information that surrounds us. We need people with the means and ability to manipulate and decipher the data in ways that make it meaningful to the non-specialist audience. Artists and designers can assist in the process of information demystification. Eco-visualization is one way to create ecologically relevant artwork with environmental data. Look for it in the lobbies, automobiles, and bathrooms of our collective future.


  1. Sustainability is a systemic concept, relating to the interconnectedness of economic, social, and environmental aspects of society. Sustainability is intended to be a method of reorganizing human activity so that all of the world’s cultures can express their greatest potential in the present, while preserving current levels of biodiversity and resource availability. Sustainability affects every level of organization, from a tiny village to the planet as a whole. Sustainability is an evolving framework of ideas that, in conjunction with new technologies, can help us preserve resources. Available at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainability (December 1, 2005).^
  2. In 18th century Europe, forests were clear-cut for wood needed for fuel, furniture, and construction. But the forests that grew back after clear-cutting did not always provide the quality of wood fiber needed for the European economy. The foresters, particularly the German foresters, thus invented sustainable forestry. The idea was straightforward. If enough trees were planted to replace the wood from the trees that were harvested every year, and the growth rate of the entire forest was scientifically monitored to ensure effective planting strategies, then the forest would be sustainable. Historically, sustainable meant that an over-utilized resource must be replaced by growing additional amounts of that resource. In the modern context of the word, resource replenishment is an impossible concept because there are many resources, such as oil or iron ore, that cannot be grown. Still, these resources, like the trees in Europe’s forests, are finite. If all the oil is extracted, there will not be any more oil. Still, if humanity is to survive with a civilization for another 1,000 years, we are still going to need to heat our homes and fulfill many of the same purposes that oil now fulfills. This information is detailed further in Thomas Davis, “What is Sustainable Development,” available at: www.menominee.edu/sdi/whatis.htm (December 1, 2005).^
  3. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future: World Commission of Environment and Development (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 43. Also available at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainability (December 1, 2005).^
  4. David Suzuki’s expanded definition of sustainability is available at: www.davidsuzuki.org/WOL/Introduction.asp (December 12, 2005).^
  5. Dan Harvey as quoted in “Global Commons as Resource and as Icon: Imagining Oceans and Whales” in Lawrence Buell’s Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the US and Beyond, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 197-198.^
  6. Victor Margolin, “Reflections on Art and Sustainability,” in Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art, Stephanie Smith, ed. Smart Museum Of Art, The University Of Chicago, 2006, p. 11-12.^
  7. Tony Fry, “The Sustainment: a reiteration and elaboration,” Archizine, January 20, 2003, Available at: www.archizine.com/tony_fry030120.htm (December 14, 2005).^
  8. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future: World Commission of Environment and Development (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p.65.^
  9. Martin Wattenburg, “Introduction to Visualization, From Data to Pictures to Insight (2005).” Available online at: www.alphaworks.ibm.com/contentnr/introvisualization (December 1, 2005).^
  10. Wattenburg’s concept of social data exploration seems linked to the concept of eco-visualization, to use visuals to communicate vital ecological information to the public. Wattenburg explains further: “ In social data exploration, a visual display becomes the catalyst for conversation and collective data mining, analysis, and conversation.” Martin Wattenburg, “Introduction to Visualization, From Data to Pictures to Insight (2005).” Available online at: www.alphaworks.ibm.com/contentnr/introvisualization (December 1, 2005).^
  11. Available at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_design (December 1, 2005).^
  12. Available at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_design (December 1, 2005).^
  13. William A. McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press, 2002, p. 18-26.^
  14. McDonough and Braungart, p. 90 .^
  15. Spaid, Sue. Ecovention,Current Art to Transform Ecologies, Ram Publications, 2002.^
  16. Stephanie Smith, ed. Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art. Smart Museum Of Art, The University Of Chicago, 2006.^
  17. Smith, p.12.^
  18. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. First Mariner Books Ed., 2002. A good overview of the controversy that the book instigated is available at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Spring (February 21, 2006).^
  19. Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, p. 9.^
  20. Barbara C. Matilsky, Fragile Ecologies, New York: Rizzoli Publications, 1992, p. 41.^
  21. Gray water reclamation has numerous benefits to the environment: reduced fresh water use, less strain on failing septic tanks or treatment plants, highly effective topsoil treatment. Source available at: www.graywater.net (November 8, 2005).^
  22. Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002, p. 13.^
  23. Allan Kaprow, “The Real Experiment,” in The Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley, University of California Press, 1993, p.201.^
  24. Noah Wardrip-Fruin, “Introduction, ‘Happenings’ in the New York Scene” in The New Media Reader, eds., Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montford, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003, p. 83.^
  25. Kester, p. 68.^
  26. More available in Lynne Cooke’s online essay, “Joseph Beuys, 7000 Oaks,” available at: www.diacenter.org/ltproj/7000/ (February 21, 2006).^
  27. Alan Kaprow pays homage to Beuys’ bog performance in his seminal essay, “The Real Experiment” in his memories from the 1960s: “We were invited to participate in Environments that could be altered and re-created by each of us. We were presented with idea art to be read and were encouraged to complete the artist’s initiating propositions in our minds. We were sent to the deserts, pointed to the sky, and submerged in water. We went to ‘school’ where statistics, graphs, and maps instructed us in science, ecology, and sexual mores.” Kaprow in The Blurring of Art and Life, edited by Jeff Kelley. University of California Press, 1993.^
  28. Joseph Beuys as quoted in Caroline Tisdale, Joseph Beuys, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1979, p. 39.^
  29. For a clear timeline of the artists of the 1960s who contributed performances to further environmental change see Sue Spaid’s timeline in Ecovention. Available online at: greenmuseum.org/c/ecovention/sect8.html (December 14, 2005)^
  30. John Grande, Balance: Art and Nature . Black Rose Books, 2004, p. 38.^
  31. Available at: www.greenpeace.org/international/; a personal account of the history of Greenpeace is available at: archive.greenpeace.org/30th/gerd.html. Another useful text on this topic is Greenpeace: How a group of ecologists, journalists, and visionaries changed the world; by Rex Weyler (Raincoast Books in Canada, Rodale Press in US, UK, NZ, Australia, Sept. 2004).^
  32. Alexander Wilson, The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1992, p. 139-140.^
  33. The Harrisons proposed a variety of solutions to restore the Sava River: installation of a buffering nature corridor, a reed-bed water purification system, introduction of organic farming to reduce fertilizer runoff and others. More information is available in Eleanor Heartney, “Ecopolitics/Ecopoetry: Helen and Newton Harrison’s Environmental Talking Cure,” in But Is It Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism, ed. Nina Felshin. Seattle: Bay Press, 1995, p. 155.^
  34. Heartney, p. 162-165.^
  35. Kester, p. 66.^
  36. More information available at: www.metoffice.com/education/secondary/students/smog.html (December 13, 2005).^
  37. Excellent timelines of environmental history are available here: www.radford.edu/~wkovarik/envhist/timeline.text.html (December 13, 2005) and here: www.ecotopia.org/ehof/timelinetext.html (December 13, 2005).^
  38. W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith, Minamata. Center for Creative Photography, 1981.^
  39. Alexander Wilson, The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1992, p.140.^
  40. More information available at: www.nyu.edu/classes/beaumont/collaboration/ (December 24, 2005).^
  41. Kester, p. 9.^
  42. Carson’s influential book proved the destructive effects of DDT on the reproductive capacity of waterfowl: by 1972, DDT was banned in the US, though other more toxic chemicals were not. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. First Mariner Books Ed., 2002. Silent Spring was first serialized in The New Yorker in June 1962, and published that same year as a book. A detailed overview of the effect of its publication is available at: www.nrdc.org/health/pesticides/hcarson.asp (December 1, 2005).^
  43. Lawrence Buell, Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the US and Beyond. Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 35.^
  44. Mark Neuzil and William Kovarik, Mass Media and Environmental Conflict. Sage Publications, 1996, p. 4-5.^
  45. Allan Schnaiberg, The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity . Oxford University Press, 1980, p. 378.^
  46. Sue Spaid defines “eco-art” in Ecovention (2002), and there is a fascinating extended conversation about the term in the Green Museum’s online forum at: forum.greenmuseum.org/viewtopic.php?t=56 (December 29, 2005).^
  47. Thomas Riedelsheimer, Rivers and Tides (2001).^
  48. David Birchfield, Kelly Phillips and David Lorig, Sustainable, 2004-05. Available at: ame2.asu.edu/faculty/dab/sustainable.php (December 13, 2005).^
  49. Available at: ame2.asu.edu/faculty/dab/sustainable_dev.php (December 13, 2005).^
  50. See videos of the Sustainable installation. Available at: ame2.asu.edu/faculty/dab/sustainable.php (December 29, 2005).^
  51. Available at: ame2.asu.edu/faculty/dab/sustainable.php (December 29, 2005).^
  52. Available at: www.tii.se/static/disappearing.htm (March 31, 2006).^
  53. Available at: www.tii.se/static/disappearing.htm (December 26, 2005).^
  54. Available at: www.consumerreports.org/cro/personal-finance/50-ways-to-save-water-805.htm (December 29, 2005).^
  55. Jonah Brucker-Cohen, H2O/IP (2002) is available at: www.mee.tcd.ie/%7Ebruckerj/projects/streamingmedia or www.coin-operated.com (December 1, 2005).^
  56. Available at: www.coin-operated.com/projects (December 20, 2005).^
  57. Esther Polak, Ieva Auzina, MILKproject. Available at: www.milkproject.net (December 22, 2005).^
  58. Golan Levin, AxisApplet, 2002. Available at: www.whitney.org/artport/commissions/codedoc/levin.shtml and www.flong.com (December 1, 2005).^
  59. Josh On and the FutureFarmers, theyrule.net, 2001. Available at: www.theyrule.net (December 1, 2005).^
  60. The FutureFarmers’ FRUIT (2005) project is a good one to see. Available at: www.free-soil.org/fruit/protest.php (December 20, 2005).^
  61. A more extended definition of the form of websites known as wikis is available (appropriately) at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki (December 29, 2005).^
  62. Natalie Jereminjinko’s collaborative website detailing manufacturing histories. Available at: howstuffismade.org/menupage.html (December 1, 2005).^
  63. More information on Natalie Jeremijenko available at: xdesign.ucsd.edu (December 22, 2005).^
  64. I participated on a panel with Jereminjenko at the “Share, Share Widely” conference on New Media Education in New York on May 6, 2005 where she saw Jereminjenko present the How Stuff is Made website. More information is available at: distributedcreativity.typepad.com/participants/2005/05/natalie_jeremij.html (December 22, 2005).^
  65. Available at: xdesign.ucsd.edu/wiki/index.php/Image:Water-bottle.jpg (December 20, 2005).^
  66. Available at: www.howstuffworks.com (December 22, 2005).^
  67. Smithson, “Proposal (1972),” The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Jack Flann, University of California Press, 1996, p. 379.^
  68. More information available at: www.nyu.edu/classes/beaumont/collaboration/ (December 24, 2005).^
  69. Available at: greenmuseum.org/content/work_index/work_id-75__artist_id-37.html (December 27, 2005).^
  70. More on Beaumont’s project is available at: channel.creative-capital.org/project_61.html.^
  71. A more expanded definition of virtual reality is available at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_reality (December 30, 2005).^
  72. Available at: channel.creative-capital.org/project_61.html (December 25, 2005).^
  73. Available at: www.nyu.edu/classes/beaumont/collaboration/ (December 26, 2005).^
  74. Available at: channel.creative-capital.org/project_61.html (December 25, 2005).^
  75. Susanne Ackers, “ Consciousness, art and media: Reflections on mediated experience .” Available at: www.immersence.com (December 25, 2005). This article was also published in Dimensions of Conscious Experience. Paavo Pylkänen and Tere Vadén, eds. 
Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company (2001), p. 179-189.^
  76. Char Davies’ quotation is available online at: www.immersence.com/publications/char/CDavies-VirtualSpace_2004.html (December 27, 2005) and in Char Davies, “ Virtual Space,” SPACE in Science, Art and Society, François Penz, Gregory Radick and Robert Howell, eds. 
Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press (2004), pp. 69-104.^
  77. Char Davies, “ Landscape, Earth, Body, Being, Space, and Time in the 
Immersive Virtual Environments Osmose and Ephémère,” in Women, Art, and Technology. Judy Malloy, ed. 
London, England: The MIT Press (2003), p. 322-337. Also available online at Davies’ website: www.immersence.com/publications/char/CDavies-Landscape_Earth-N.html (December 26, 2005).^
  78. Davies’ intentions were communicated in an email exchange on January 5, 2006.^
  79. A video of the Osmose installation experience is available online at: www.mediaartnet.org/works/osmose/video/1/ (December 26, 2005).^
  80. The full artist’s statement is available at: greenmuseum.org/content/artist_content/ct_id-35__artist_id-19.html (December 22, 2005).^
  81. Available at: greenmuseum.org/content/artist_content/ct_id-35__artist_id-19.html (December 22, 2005).^
  82. More images available at: greenmuseum.org/c/vban/recent.php (December 22, 2005).^
  83. These colorful facts I gleaned from Ballengée when we met at an academic gathering on November 21, 2005.^
  84. More information on amphibian deformities at: greenmuseum.org/c/vban/ (December 28, 2005).^
  85. Available at: www.disk-o.com/malamp/species.html (December 22, 2005).^
  86. Available at: www.artistsinlabs.ch (December 14, 2005).^
  87. I got interested in water resource management at an early age. I fished from the age of four to fifteen on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, a watershed that saw a tremendous productivity decline due to diminished water quality in the 1980s primarily due to pollution from non-point sources. Non-point pollution is caused by an accumulation of contaminants from non-specific locations.^
  88. Sample maps are available in various places. A great introduction to mapping dissolved oxygen to time is Ruth Frances-Floyd’s “Dissolved Oxygen for Fish Production” ( University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences), available at www.iheartmypond.com (December 2, 2005).^
  89. An overview of the energy resource problem is available at: www.energybulletin.net/primer.php (December 15, 2005). An overview of the water resource problem as compared to the oil resource problem is available at: www.edie.net/news/news_story.asp?id=9562&channel=0 (December 15, 2005).^
  90. A detailed summary of the factors impacting climate change can be found on the United Nations’ website. Available at: unfccc.int/essential_background/feeling_the_heat/items/2917.php (December 14, 2005).^
  91. Lester R. Brown, Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. The citation is from the back cover.^
  92. Switch on a lamp; steam generated the electricity. Read the newspaper; water formed the paper you read by the lamp. Eat a hamburger; water pumped from an electric well sustained the cow. This article from the Australian government explains that the generation of hot water is the second biggest contributor to greenhouse gases. Available at: www.greenhouse.gov.au/yourhome/technical/fs42.htm (December 14, 2005).^
  93. Solar Cookers International (SCI) spreads resource conservation awareness and skills worldwide, particularly in areas with consistent sunshine and reduced sources of cooking fuel. SCI has enabled 30,000 families in Africa to cook and purify water with the sun’s energy, freeing women and children from the burdens of gathering wood and carrying it for miles. More information is available at: solarcookers.org (December 14, 2005).^
  94. Cascio as quoted in Michael Richard’s “ We Want Fuel Economy Feedback in All Cars.” Available at: www.treehugger.com/files/2005/07/we_want_fuel_ec.php (December 12, 2005).^
  95. McCalley, L.T.; Midden, G.J.H., “Computer-based systems in household appliances: the study of eco-feedback as a tool for increasing conservation behavior,” Computer Human Interaction, Proceedings, 3rd Asia Pacific 15-17 July 1998, p. 344.^
  96. William McDonough & Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things . North Point Press, 2002.^
  97. Stuart Hart, Capitalism at the Crossroads: The Unlimited Business Opportunities in Solving the World’s Most Difficult Problems, Wharton School Publishing, 2005.^
  98. Edward Tufte, Envisioning Information, Graphics Press, 1990, p.65.^


  • Tiffany Holmes is currently Associate Professor, and Chair of the Department of Art and Technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she teaches courses in interactivity and the history and theory of electronic media as well as environmental art.