Sustainable Computing meets Ecologically Engaged Art

Posted on May 6, 2009


Carl diSalvo talk at CHI09

As I am reminded several times a day via  gmail’s pop-up, my friend Lloyd Godman describes himself as an “Ecological Artist”.  At CHI this year, Carl DiSalvo (along with Kirsten Boehner, Nicholas Knouf and Phoebe Sengers) explored what sustainable HCI can learn from such ecologically engaged art.  

They argue that radical shifts in design are needed for technology to both be “more green” and “improve green behaviour”:

Nurturing a change towards maintainable, accountable, and respectful relationships with the environment requires questioning and re-imagining how we perceive and understand society, and our role in it as consumers and makers of things. Consequently, what we need in HCI is to question and re-imagine our design of and interaction with interactive systems.

“End of pipe” (reduce, recycle etc) solutions, they say, are necessary but insufficient.   They examine ecologically engaged art as a means to better understand the fundamental shifts in thinking required. 

The authors explore three areas of work which illustrate three interwoven themes:

Carl diSalvo talk at CHI09Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty:  “the negation of the artificial division between culture and nature and an exploration of the possibilities that exist once we see the two as fundamentally interrelated”.

Joseph Beuys   Social Sculpture eg 7000 oaks: “everybody is an artist” and  “engaging the political as art practice”. 

Natalie Jeremijenko:    “investigating the potentials for public engagement with environmental matters by reimaging the relationships between technology, the environment, and the public”.

In addition to these themes, the authors identify shared qualities

– longitundinal work with time measured on the scale of years and decades, highlighting the formal and conceptual position of temporality
– projects exist outside the controlled space of the lab or gallery and within the messy and unpredictable space of “nature”, variously defined
– science and technology are not erased in a Luddite move or heralded as a panacea, but rather are seen as practices for interrogation and change
– the works fundamentally involve the community on the continuum from the dialogic to the activist
– the works are often deeply connected to the identity and history of the artist (or artists) themselves.

These themes and qualities are compared with HCI and Sustainable Interaction Design (HCI).   DiSalvo and co argue that despite a shared focus (the environment) there are substantial differences, primarily over the artificial division between nature and culture – emphasised by the technology, and in not addressing political aspects.   But, they argue, these difference are so great that we cannot simply borrow some ideas from the artists.  Instead, we need

an appreciation for how to approach and assess projects that take on such qualities…how members of the art community analyze, contextualize, and attribute value to ecologically engaged art practices

So, we need a way of articulating together two different discourses.     Three works are described as “representing scientific data in compelling aesthetic forms,  primarily to a lay audience…and embody the ecologically engaged art theme of investigating public engagement with environmental matters through technology”.  The authors describe Malcolm Miles’ Eco-Art and use this model:

Superfund365 can be framed as art that represents the natural world: “the critical aspect of this work, then, is what data is selected for visualization and the form of this representation”.

Mori can be classified as “work that enters into a discourse of the natural world and our apprehension (i.e., perception and understanding) of it”. Mori “explicitly and reflexively calls into question how we perceive and understand the natural world and how this perception and understanding is technologically mediated”.

7000 Oaks and Counting is considered an example of “testing methods
of environmental salvage or contributing to sustainable forms of living”. The work has the intention of motivating behaviour change but in a scripted way (ie user is expected to identify power use and reduce it). Mile’s fourth category “a dialogic interchange” suggests the “discussion and transformation is open ended”.

Why is this important for HCI? DiSalvo says that a standard HCI approach to assessing these works would be to determine whether the user could interpret the environmental data from the visualisations. A critique from an arts perspective the questions would be quite different:

For work that enters into discourse of the natural world and our apprehension of it, the critical questions revolve around the choice of discourse the project calls upon. The subsequent questions ask how the work advances and/or contests such histories, assumptions and belief systems. These projects question what it means to represent nature or the environment.

Again, while the HCI perspective might look for pre and post energy footprints, the arts perspective

might rather ask how an individual’s behavior is called into question and accounted for and how people make sense of this experience. Does the piece spark debate and reflection about one’s own behaviors and that of others? The work in this category is measured by the potential or idea of behavior change – as opposed to the prediction or enactment of behavior change.

Carl diSalvo talk at CHI09

The dialogic ongoing conversation of Miles’ fourth category is expanded with a consideration of Kester’s Dialogical Aesthetics.  Kester describe works as dialogic or littoral (ie shore to evoke the hybrid or in-between nature of these practice) that extend beyond ecological concerns to include any art employed by local communities as a vehicle for conversation and change. Kester distinguishes such work as multidisciplinary, typically operating in multiple registers “the local community defines the piece”, and the artwork is indeterminate in the nature of the conversation.

DiSalvo then examines his own work Neighborhood Networks and asks how the learnings from this dialogic aesthetics discourse might help.    The project involves members from a community in a participatory learning about robotics and sensors and then collaboratively developing “prototypes of robitic devices that might intercede or mitigate local environmental issues”.    Participants present the concepts to community members and local officials – thereby prompting a deeper awareness of local environmental conditions and attempts to support citizen led interventions to improve the quality of the environment.

The key point is that instead of a traditional HCI perspective where the emphasis and validation of the process would be on the finished product, the dialogic process places importance on the process:

a frame of dialogic practice focuses attention on the character of the exchanges that occur. That is, what is of concern and held for judgment are the ways in which the exchanges model and aesthetically mediate new social and power relations amongst the participants.

On a wider application of HCI and interaction technology, DiSalvo suggests that we should look beyond the tools themselves to being means for supporting and shaping the exchange between participants and researchers. Technology should be seen as discursive props rather than as instrumental devices.

So, in summary DiSalvo concludes that looking through a dialogic aesthetic lens would help us see through a sustainable design lens.  In bumper sticker terms:  dialogue is sufficient; character of exchange is critical; transformations of social relationships rule. 

Seen through these lens, the Network Neighborhood project is remarkably similar to our own SimPa project.   Tomorrow we’re working on the final reports for SimPa, these lines have a strong resonance for us:

When designing in support of a dialogic aesthetic the primary role of the researchers is not to produce a final product. Rather, it is to produce processes and material mechanisms that enable productive and meaningful exchange with and between individuals and groups. As the processes and material mechanisms are not the final outcome, but a means to achieve one, the projects may remain speculative, challenging HCI assessment methods.