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<nettime> the future and the fight against climate change
annet on Wed, 11 Jun 2008 22:04:52 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> the future and the fight against climate change

"What are the future possibilities to reduce GHG emissions that cause 
climate change in a multilateral framework?" In the light of this 
question, posed by the Globalised Crystal Ball (a discussion organised 
by De Balie, Amsterdam), non-profit organisation Visual Foreign 
Correspondents asked artist Tiffany Holmes to reflect on the issue by 
means of a video that will be screened on various urban screens in 
Amsterdam. Following is an interview with Tiffany about her work and her 
view on environmental issues.

The fight against climate change takes effect through creative design 
and green consumerism

When we moved from the countryside into walled cities our relation with 
nature changed into a relation to nature. Maybe not surprising but 
nevertheless striking was the reflection of this process in the visual 
arts. With the relocation from nature to city, painters in the 
Renaissance started to present the landscape through the arches of 
windows – trees, streams and meadows could be viewed from secluded 
interior worlds. In the 18th and 19th century, the era of Romanticism, 
nature was considered as sublime, outside civilization and a mystic 
counterpart of man. The industrialisation that started at the end of the 
19th and early 20th century brought an end to the glorification of wild 
and untamed nature. With the increasing rule of man over nature the 
‘authentic' relation to the natural environment disappeared.
In the last fifty years, various artists tried to overcome the imbalance 
between man and nature. Artists made the most prominent efforts after 
the war in the 1960s and 1970s from the Land Art and Ecoart movements. 
Nature and landscape became once again objects of art. The predominant 
view was that industrialization and technologisation had thrown nature 
off balance. To restore this balance some artists tried to get as far 
away from civilization as possible, but in due course others started to 
engage in more research related projects and social criticism. They 
believed that man with the help of science could get a grip on the 
problems of society and the environment. In the 1980s and 1990s, looking 
back at the failed visions of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the hope for change 
turned into skepticism.
Many artists now exhibit a renewed interest in ecological issues. This 
development was accelerated by the possibilities in new pictorial 
technologies that changed traditional concepts of nature. A new 
eco-aesthetics was born that connected previous ideals with fresh 
energies. But will this effectively change our attitude towards 
environmental problems? At the moment we have come to the point that we 
are afraid to drink water from a standard tap. Instead, we put our trust 
in expensive bottled water, a product that causes environmental pressure 
and damage.
In 2005, Tiffany Holmes coined the term eco-visualisation, to describe 
an emerging art movement that is devoted to using information 
visualization techniques to get the general public interested in 
ecological issues. Eco-visualisation is the practice of reinterpreting 
environmental data with creative imaging and sound to promote 
stewardship. For Visual Foreign Correspondents Holmes adapted an earlier 
version of FRESH—a custom software piece that generates fictitious 
landscapes from nature imagery found on bottled water labels. With this 
project Holmes wants to raise awareness for the perils of drinking 
bottled water, especially in countries where tap water is of high 
quality. In most of her work, Holmes explores the potential of 
technology to promote positive environmental stewardship.

AD: To start with the beginning: Could you tell me about your activities 
as an artist?

TH: Right now my work explores the potential of technology to promote 
positive environmental stewardship. For example, the recent public art 
commission, 7000 oaks and counting, is a kiosk that displays the real 
time consumption of electricity in a building via image and sound. My 
new piece, World Offset, is a net art piece that asks individuals to 
make a carbon promise online to change a graphic visualization 
(http://worldoffset.org). The new version of FRESH, made for VFC, is a 
piece dedicated to raising awareness about the hidden perils of 
consuming bottled water in places where people have access to high 
quality tap water.

AD: Next to making your own work you are also a writer/researcher in 
what way does that influence your art practice and vice versa?

TH: My research guides which ideas I choose to make into artwork and 
also impacts how I design a piece. For example, my recent works World 
Offset (2008) and 7000 oaks and counting (2007), invite people to 
conserve resources by making carbon offset promises on a website. The 
idea of asking people to make a public committent to conserve came 
directly out of a literature review I conducted in the field of 
environmental psychology. I wanted to see if dynamic data displays could 
encourage people to conserve energy. Research by others indicated that 
when people were confronted with daily feedback it reduced electricity 
consumption in the home.[1]

Despite these encouraging results, some studies also showed that social 
influences could be more powerful motivators to conserve than the 
dynamic feedback from a data display. Social factors are even more 
influential than financial incentives. For instance, a study by 
psychologists Katzev and Johnson indicated that a written commitment by 
individuals to conserve is far more successful than monetary incentives 
in inducing conservation behavior.[2] I guess it does make sense that 
people want to honour their own promises. After analyzing all of the 
research findings, I started to build into my energy visualization art 
works a capacity for people to make public pledges to conserve. So in 
7000 oaks and counting, my visualization shows dynamic power usage but 
it also uses the power of public commitment to encourage conservation on 

AD: Part of the FRESH project was a public performance of testing 
different water samples, was this also a means to get people more 
involved? What were the reactions you received?

TH: FRESH was first exhibited as part of a public art festival in 
Chicago. Fictitious landscapes derived from bottled water label imagery 
scrolled slowly on a street-side projection in a local restaurant. I sat 
outside by a small table and invited passerby to taste two water 
samples, one bottled and one tap. The tasters were to identify the best 
tasting sample. Of the 76 persons who took the test, 38 chose the 
bottled as best tasting and 38 chose tap water. For the people who chose 
tap, the test proved to be a success as each individual assumed the 
bottled water would taste better. The most interesting part of the art 
installation was the dialogue that was generated by the taste tests that 
happened in front of the animation. Inevitably, the conversation would 
turn to the imagery and people were often quite surprised to learn that 
the images in the animation came from bottled water labels.

AD: You also work(ed) a lot with scientists especially for your 
eco-visualization prototype, out of all the data you gathered you create 
your work, why is it important for you to 'get the statistics right'?

TH: For artists working in the information visualization arena, an 
informal relationship of trust must be established with the viewer. This 
trust allows viewers to believe that the artist's moving blobs or 
animated squiggles actually represent content. When I was working on 
Floating Point (2004), a portable water quality visualization toolset, I 
worked with Dr. Christopher Robinson from the Swiss Federal Institute of 
Technology to learn scientific methods of water quality testing. 
Although my visualization of dissolved oxygen turned out to be quite 
abstract, I felt that having performed the standard tests with 
professional equipment actually contributed greatly to my own 
understanding of the dataset.

Statistics are not necessarily always accurate, and again, with the goal 
of establishing trust with my viewers, I have included a disclaimer link 
for my research methods for World Offset (2008). Here visitors can 
choose to conserve energy by submitting a carbon offset. One might 
choose, for example, to save 250 pounds of carbon a year by unplugging 
one's computer at night. Yet carbon offset savings are very tricky to 
compute accurately—and thus this 250 pounds is a rather arbitrary 
number. Most carbon load data does not take into account the 
manufacturing process. Enormous amounts of energy are used to produce 
common office items such as laptop computers—often more energy that the 
devices themselves consume. I do hope the web links near the offsets 
help to identify my sources and that the disclaimers link explains why 
the quantitative collection of carbon offsets is mostly good guesswork, 
as opposed to exact statistics.

AD: Could you describe the eco-visualization process, what are you 
trying to visualize exactly and how do you present this or what do you 
think are the best ways to present this?

TH: Eco-visualization offers a new way to display ecological data to 
promote environmental stewardship. Generally, an eco-visualization can 
be defined as a data-driven animation that displays ecological 
information of any sort in real time using sound and/or image. 
Eco-visualizations are more creative than scientific.

As an artist, I make highly subjective visualizations that promote 
environmental stewardship. The subjectivity is often the fun part, or 
the "art" component. But I still hope that my animations are somehow 
legible, because then the stewardship component gets a bit lost. FRESH, 
the piece for VFC, is actually one of my most abstract pieces; many 
people who look at it may not recognize the imagery immediately as being 
appropriated from bottled water label designs.

AD: How do you situate your work in a broader art context, as animation, 
Mapping, Database aesthetics, social activism or ..?

TH: I would argue that the eco-visualization work that myself and other 
artists are doing is fast becoming a part of a broader new media art 
context in environmental media. My work fits into a variety of genres: 
database aesthetics, generative art, community building, and social 

AD: Your projects are based on intervention strategies and creating 
awareness for ecological issues, what for you is the meaning of 
intervening in the art world? Does it still meet the art world, what is 
in your opnion the function of the art world?

TH: I tend to show my work in venues for public art—usually through 
commission or invitation. I have had the opportunity to exhibit my work 
in galleries and museums but I find that the more well traveled spaces 
allow the work to be seen by more people.

The contemporary art scene provides a context for my work. Generally 
speaking, the art world today is divided into two camps: commercial and 
academic. I think my work functions best as a conversation piece within 
the public sphere. Curators are mounting more and more "environmental 
media art" exhibitions and my work fits solidly into this context though 
it has not yet proven to be saleable to the individual collector.

AD: Going back to the ecological issues your raising, what got you 
interested in the topic?

TH: I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, a watershed that saw a 
tremendous productivity decline due to diminished water quality in the 
1980's. The problems started with recreational boaters uprooting the 
aquatic grasses to make more room for water sports. As I saw this 
happening before my eyes, I got interested in the issue of water 
resource management from a global perspective.

AD: What do you feel are the general concerns in the US around this 
issue after the statements made by Al Gore, which have also already been 
criticized, and how are other artist(s-groups) dealing with the issue?

TH: In the US, people now understand the problem of global warming, 
thanks to Al Gore's film. However, no one really wants to change his or 
her lifestyle. Americans do not want to live in small houses. However, 
people do want to help the environment if they can buy something. 
Everyone is installing bamboo flooring, purchasing organic cotton 
T-shirts, and driving hybrid cars. If you can shop and help the 
environment then I believe Americans want to help. It's a sort of a 
selfish contribution, but consumer preferences are working to change the 
workings of big companies. McDonald's now sells premium organic coffee 
at its New England restaurants now. This is helping to raise awareness 
and demand for good quality products and fair trade in a 
multimillion-dollar business.

There are many interesting artists and designers who are dealing 
creatively with visualizing environmental data to promote stewardship. 
Michael Mandiberg created a Firefox plugin called RealCosts that 
calculates one's own carbon loads through daily driving routes. Static, 
a Swedish design collective, creates household devices like the 
FlowerLamp that "blooms" only when electricity loads are low. Artist 
Beatriz da Costa targets the problem of air pollution with an outdoor 
spectacle: a pigeon wears a backpack with a hacked cell phone to 
transmit data about nitric oxide concentrations to a data visualization 
on a blog. There are many more artists of course, but I admire the work 
of these three very much.

AD: You also co-curated with Hicham Khalidi the exhibition 
‘ecoAesthetics' at <TAG> in the Hague (the Netherlands). Did you see a 
different approach by Dutch/European artists towards ecological issues? 
And was there a similar or different response from the audience 
(compared to US)?

TH: Curating "ecoAesthetics' with Hicham was a wonderful experience. The 
only difference I noted in approach is that many of the European artists 
that I met seemed really focused on getting to know specific communities 
or particular places via in-depth lengthy periods of investigation. For 
instance, I got to meet the artist Tjerk Stoop and view his amazing 
laboratory installation that visually documented the daily amount of 
carbon released as pollution on the street outside the <>TAG exhibition. 
But the European artists were not always focused on their home 
communities. In some cases, the work required extensive travel. I was 
very impressed with artist Juriaan Booij's documentary, The Sinking of 
Tuvalul which sketches the island residents' reactions to their grim 
future in 50 years: the disappearance of their country due to rising 
seas. Likewise, Esther Polak, a co-author of the MILK project uses video 
and GPS technology to record her travels to trace the route of milk 
products like cheese from their origins in Latvia to the Utrecht market.

Regarding the audience, I cannot make a comment as I was not in the 
Netherlands long enough. I was impressed with the level of interest in 
the environmental issues in the Hague. People seem less affected by 
marketing as the Dutch citizens have been thinking for longer about how 
to deal with environmental issues related to climate change.

AD: For VFC you have adapted an earlier piece FRESH that was a public 
commission by the City of Chicago, and raises awareness for the hype of 
drinking bottled water in a time when water supply in the future will 
become problematic. A similar situation is happening in Amsterdam where 
quotes from ads like "SPA pure, the purification water" and "so few 
calories before you drink it you have lost them" are very popular. In a 
country where there is an abundance of water it is very difficult to 
imagine there will ever be a shortage. Do you see a trend of people 
getting too much involved in following the mass coordinated hypes and 
forgetting what is actually in front for them, even free of charge?

TH: Absolutely, advertising influences people; it works! Here in 
Chicago, people have no idea that our city has the top rated tap water 
in the US. It makes me angry to see people on a hot day buying bottle 
after bottle of Evian when a water fountain is available just outside 
the door of the shop.

AD: Do you think it is possible to change people's behaviour (by using 
art or in general) and if so, what would be your preferred method?

TH: What stimuli if any, actually inspire people to conserve? Peter 
Crabb, a behavioural psychologist, points out that people don't use 
energy, they use products, which use energy; the way that these products 
are designed determines how we use them, which in turn determines the 
rate of energy consumption.[3] Crabb says that the redesign of familiar 
objects is a better tactic to promote environmental stewardship than 
behaviour modification. So art and design could dramatically impact our 
capacity to conserve resources.

As I mentioned previously, Americans, and most citizens of developed 
countries, are happy consumers. If a hip new product or artwork directs 
their attention to environmental issues, or better, helps them to save 
money, then that product would be far more helpful as an agent of 
behavioral change then a more didactic mandate to do something like 
"bike, don't drive to work."

The best product example I can give is the massive success of the Toyota 
Prius. This hybrid car arrived in California in May of 1999. The car's 
dashboard contained a graphical display that dynamically showed how much 
gas drivers were saving every time they took their foot off the 
accelerator and allowed the car's electric system to take over. Today, 
there are hundreds of blogs that contain posts from Prius converts who 
host competitions to see who can drive from one place to another using 
the least amount of gasoline. In this example, Rabbs' theory proves 
true: the Prius inspired a behavioural shift in a whole population of 

AD: What in your opinion is the "future of the climate change"? And what 
could potentially be the role of artists?

TH: Artists of all sorts are working actively to generate dialogue about 
climate change, now an inevitable occurrence according to the 2007 
intergovernmental report.[4] There are no easy solutions and no clear 
paths toward collaboratively addressing the complicated issue of slowing 
global warming.

As you outlined before, environmentalism in art is not a new phenomenon. 
Joseph Beuys and Hans Haacke were inspirational progenitors to 
contemporary artists and designers devising creative visuals and sound 
to give form and meaning to our environment. In fact, 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 producing [5]." Both 
the progenitors and our contemporary artists promote a social agenda as 
a goal of their work. The primary difference between the two generations 
of artists is that today there is a massive amount of environmental data 
available online as well as a plethora of cheap highly sophisticated 
technology. So the content and means of production for artists is quite 
expanded now. I do think that many of the technology-based pieces, 
including my own, focus more on consumption issues and turn the focus 
away from the beautiful elemental forms Beuys and Haacke used: water, 
trees, and wetlands.

Anyone who is interested in "taking action" and solving our 
environmental problems please visit Tiffany's website http://worldoffset.org
more information about Tiffany Holmes: http://www.tiffanyholmes.com
about Visual Foreign Correspondents (where the video FRESH can be 
viewed): http://www.visualcorrespondents.com
and about the Globalised Crystal Ball http://www.debalie.nl

[1] Scientists McClelland and Cook used a visualization device called 
the Fitch Energy Monitor, a tool that displayed the amount of money 
spent per hour consuming electricity Energy use in homes with the 
monitor was lower in all 11 months of the study.
[2] Katzev, R., and T. Johnson. 1984. Comparing the effects of monetary 
incentives and foot-in-the-door strategies in promoting residential 
electricity conservation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 14 (1): 
[3] Crabb, Peter B. 1992. Effective control of energy-depleting 
behaviour. American Psychologist 47 (6): 815-816.
[4] Juliet Eilperin, "Humans Faulted for Global Warming, International 
Panel of Climate Scientists Sounds Dire Alarm," Washington Post, 
February 3, 2007.
[5] Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in 
Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, p. 9.

by Annet Dekker (May 2008)

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