Natalie Jermijenko's Eyeo Presentation

I was only able to attend one of the evening sessions tonight at the Eyeo Festival (because things got started pretty late and will end even later), so I am missing Golan Levin and the Seed-sponsored afterparty.  Yay to Seed Media Group, and Adam Bly for sponsoring this conference.

LISA alum Natalie Jeremijenko began her presentation by posing the question: “What are the opportunities for social change as technology changes over time?”

There were lots of giggles during Natalie’s presentation – and her work does have humor in it.  In fact if you don’t take it too seriously and let yourself enjoy her word play and mockery of human behavior it makes it better.  Of course, by this point most people had had a beer or two…and about an hour later people were starting to get antsy, probably for the same reason.  Not sure 8:30 is the best time to give a conference presentation… but Natalie was up to the task, as usual.

Natalie founded the environmental health clinic, which takes environmental issues and views them as heath issues, and vice versa.  She says: I’m working to rebrand environmental issues, though I’m certainly not the only one.  We all know we have big global issues which we can’t do anything about.  Media makes things not local enough to be actionable.

The environment is implicated in most childhood problems… not germ theory.  Asthma, obesity, autism.  We’ve created the perfect context for pathogenicity, a cauldron.  The environment is here and we can act on it and we might as well.  So I set up the environmental health clinic at NYU.  It operates like a normal health clinic in that people come in with their environmental health concerns, as opposed to their medical health concerns. They walk out with prescriptions about what they can do.

We appropriate tangible reality as one of our resources.  The roundabout is a powerful icon of headless social movement… it’s not a red light intersection where you delegate your capacity to make a decision to some other authority.

The Bush “Clear Skies” – a disassembling of the Clean Air act – represented a 17-fold increase in mercury… they sound the same, this is doublespeak.  We made a mask that allows you to read off the particulate matter you would otherwise have been breathing against the greyscale printed on the mask.

What do you learn with robots, interactive toys like dogs?  To interact?  We learn that by 9 months old.  Pre-Arduino in 2003,  we altered these robotic dogs to apparently sniff out pollutants.  It would be easier now.  The media comes when you release a pack of working robotic dogs on a school built on a superfund site.  The media had to ask: what are you doing?  They appeared on every talk show radio and then were invited to every ConEd public hearing and are not invited to speak with environmental consultants about these sites.  The importance of these mediagenic evidence-driven events is that it’s legible to diverse audiences.  From 2 to 92.  Even the TV news journalists can understand what we were doing here.

Many of us don’t realize that the tech industry is the most toxic industry yet created.  Using the dogs in this way changes it from an interactive toy into a toy with which to participate.

Do you know that the air quality is getting worse, as we seal our buildings better and make them more green?  We spend a lot of energy flushing indoor air with outdoor air, on the untrue assumption that outdoor air is better than indoor air.  My greenlight light fixtures improve indoor air quality.

We made a solar awning, 5×5 feet, enough to power about 6 or 7 laptops or lights.  We need distributed participation, because you lose 40% just distributing, 40% going from DC to AC…  The biggest pollution burden on the Hudson is no longer the big industries, we have sued the deep pockets.  Now it’s the massive network of roads that collects oily waste and cadmium neurotoxin.  We “prescribed” the removal of asphalt to make a garden that grabs the heavy metals and contaminants to keep them from washing into water, and also creates leaf area index in an urban setting, in the stroller-height area (babies at exhaust level get 1000 times worse air quality). 3 species of butterflies appeared at our NoPark within 15 minutes of setting it up.

Fallout shelters were built by civic action.  Churches, hospitals, people put them up.  They are still around though the world is over.  What should we do?

Can anyone in the audience tell me what you have that you know how it was made and what it was made of?  (there is no answer).  Anyone?  (One woman says she has a wallet made overseas out of recycled newspaper as an economic development initiative – at least I think that’s what she said, I could barely hear her).  OK great, one thing from this entire audience of designers.  The American flag is made in China, while Fortune Cookies are made in Chicago by Latinos.  I have my students research and document how something is made.  It’s a way to actually tell the story so it’s legible to a diverse audience.  My students are still updating their essays from seven years ago.  Producing information for the information commons is something that we all care about and like to do.  If this generation isn’t picking how to transform our manufacturing and labor processes, who is going to do this?

I invite you to come to the How Stuff Is Made website and consider participating in the community that is thinking through this to make things better.

We had a project of 1,000 cloned trees exhibited in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and planted throughout the San Francisco area.  There’s a biennial bike ride between the trees.  We have two trees that are clones, they are 10 feet from each other.  One is much larger.  Why are they different?  I’ve been talking to people about why they are different.  The best thing I heard was from a construction worker.  He said look behind the trees.  A beautiful Victorian house behind the little tree and a modern structure behind the fat tree.  Water is the big limiting factor in an arid environment.  The water mains are all cracked, so the trees are subsidized by the water system.  Building code had changed, foundations had changed, and what I was seeing was probably a result of this.  We need the whole community participating.

Natalie then talked about the rhinoceros beetle and some of her fish projects, and later her wetlanding plane project, and you can learn more by watching the Leaders in Software and Art video that we took of her Connected Environments museum show last summer.  Wetlands are the key resource of the 21st century, she says.  Natalie later posits that urban agriculture is the “space race” of the 21st century.

Her AgBag produces arable urban territory out of thin air by allowing you to hand a garden out of any double hung window or parapet or railing.  They have grown black pansies which she encases in beet-sugar-isomalt-spun cotton candy held by an edible LED wand that lights up the cotton candy.  The isomalt helps gut bacteria thrive, Natalie says.