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

Published on June 10th, 2008


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An interview with Tiffany Holmes by Annet Dekker

This interview was part of the urban screen project Visual Foreign Correspondents

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.

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

Tiffany Holmens [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 site.

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 activism.

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 opinion 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 travelled 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 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 drivers.

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.

References

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
and about Visual Foreign Correspondents (where the video FRESH can be viewed):

http://www.visualcorrespondents.com

Notes

[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): 12-27.
[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.


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