Assistant Professor, Department of Visual Arts,
University of California at San Diego xdesign.ucsd.edu
Not just any robotic dogs: These hounds are equipped with sensors to sniff out hidden toxics in old landfills.
Natalie Jeremijenko attributes her environmental ethos to having grown up in the "subtropical vividness" of Queensland, Australia, where tree frogs congregated around the rim of the toilet and geckos scampered across the walls. But it was her training as an engineer and scientist (she holds degrees in neuroscience and biochemistry, computer science and electrical engineering, as well as in history, art, and philosophy) that awakened her to the subversive potential of technology.
"The problem with technology," she says, "is that in general it's developed by people with resources for the benefit of those with resources. It's a profoundly conservative social force. Another interesting aspect is that it's too complex to control. Technology bites back, but its unintended consequences present an opportunity to redress the environmental crisis we're facing."
Consider, for example, robotic dogs — those high-tech toys that sell for a few hundred dollars and are programmed to bark the national anthem, walk in circles, or beg for plastic bones. Working with her visual arts students at the University of California at San Diego, Jeremijenko reengineered the toys into a "feral robotic dog pack," providing them with all-terrain wheels, noses that can sniff out toxics, and an ecological mission.
In March, a crowd of reporters, politicians, and bystanders watched the dogs patrol San Diego's Mission Bay landfill, a 115-acre former military and industrial dump site adjacent to SeaWorld, a public park, and the San Diego River. While the dogs didn't find the volatile organic compounds they had been programmed to sense, they did get eight television crews interested in the discussion.
"The dogs provide information in a way that's legible to diverse participants — scientists, grandmothers, schoolkids — anyone can tell what's going on," Jeremijenko says. The average citizen isn't likely to read a 400-page toxics report, she notes. "By making this public spectacle, you're giving people a license to have an opinion and to participate."
Reengineering the relationship between scientific "experts" and the rest of us is part of Jeremijenko's artistic mission. In the San Francisco Bay Area, she planted pairs of genetically identical walnut trees at diverse locations around the region, so that people could see living indicators of their own neighborhoods' environmental health and note that even clones can show marked differences. (Jeremijenko organized a bicycle tour of the various San Francisco sites last fall.)
Related creations include a particulate-sensing "Clear Skies" mask bicyclists can wear to find out what's in the air they breathe, a virtual tree that can be grown on a computer desktop (its rate of growth is determined by a CO2 meter plugged into the computer's serial port), and a "printer queue virus" that counts the number of pages consumed by
a printer and spews out a cross section of a tree stump when it's used up a tree's worth.
But Jeremijenko is interested in something more radical than simply documenting ecological ills — she wants to "rescript" our interactions with the
environment. For instance, she has proposed building interactive aquatic installations at polluted sites like San Diego's Mission Bay and New York's Hudson River. Her "amphibious architecture" designs would enable people to stand below the water's surface inside a flexible membrane and troll for floating garbage, or dispense fish food through one-way valves, perhaps introducing chelating agents that would help the fish clear their bodies of PCBs. The idea is to harness curiosity about nature and use it for environmental remediation.
"People want to interact with animals," she points out. "At every aquarium there's this sign that says, ‘Do not tap the glass' — and yet everyone does." Her inventions run counter to the usual environmental injunction to "leave no trace." "Here we are changing the whole damn climate, and we're supposed to tiptoe around these little cut-off areas that we're pretending are pristine," she argues. "The idea that we're not interfering is the one we have to get over."