“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

Bio and Background

On the seventeenth of April, Natalie Jeremijenko lectured at the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. She also participated in an OpenTable Discussion at OpenGrounds on the eighteenth of April.

NJ OG BWJeremijenko holds degrees in biochemistry, engineering, neuroscience and history and philosophy of science. She directs the Environmental Health Clinic and serves as an Associate Professor in the Visual Art Department at NYU, where she is also affiliated with the Computer Science and Environmental Studies program. Previously, Jeremijenko has served as faculty in Visual Arts at UCSD, faculty in Engineering at Yale University, a visiting professor at Royal College of Art in London, and as a Distinguished Professor in the Public Understanding of Science at Michigan State University. Jeremijenko grew up in Mackay, Queensland, Australia

Jeremijenko’s career has been a carefully choreographed intellectual and entrepreneurial journey between hard science (biochemistry, physics, neuroscience and precision engineering), the visual arts, and various social activism projects that meld these domains into practical solutions to major socio-ecological challenges and the instigation of non-violent social change.

Her most innovative work relates to developing modes of participation in the production of knowledge and change, particularly political and social possibilities of using emerging technologies. These efforts mostly involve open, entrepreneurial projects and public experiments. Some of her projects have included creating new statistical indices i.e., a Despondency Index (drawn from the suicide rate at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and the stock market). She has also sponsored the installation of cloned trees in pairs in various urban settings and innovative robotic “packs” that can survey and study environmental hazards.

Her other projects include a gallery installation of a set of model housing developments/communities powered by human food waste.  She enjoys contemplating philosophical aspects of our relationships with nonhuman organisms and how urban environments could be restructured to better meet human needs.

Environmental Health Clinic

As director of the the Environmental Health Clinic, Jeremijenko’s vision is to craft novel, locally-focused,  strategies for the remediation of ecological and environments using innovative applications of new technology. The clinic caters to “impatients” who are individuals who come in with environmental problems. They do not want to wait for legislation to be passed to before issues are addressed.

Fish Restaurant

Jeremijenko’s concept for the Fish Restaurant is considered a part of the Bronx OOZ, which provides technological interfaces to facilitate interaction with nonhumans. The goal of the project is to use the human desire to interact with other species as a way to improve our environment. Instead of discouraging the feeding of animals, she has created a way to feed the fish of the East River while also filtering the water of bio-accumulated heavy metals, PCBs, and other industrial contaminants. Instead of feeding the fish scraps of bread or other bits of human food (which are harmful to the fish and to the river), Jeremijenko and the Bronx OOZ, developed a block made of seaweed and PCB-chelating agents. The idea is that the fish will eat the seaweed blocks when tossed into the river. The fish food will absorb contaminants from the bodies of the fish and those heavy metals will settle to the bottom of the river once excreted by the fish. In this way, the processes of feeding the fish also makes the fish safer to eat.

The seaweed blocks become the media, the human an interface, and the fish serves as a signal to the polluted state of the East River. The medium of seaweed block conceptually cleans and transduces the river and fish from polluted to non-polluted.

Instead of dwelling on the overwhelming challenges of finding the best way to begin to improve the health of the East River, Jeremijenko begins to engage with a sense of conviviality. This project is particularly effective in the conversations that it can begin to create. In this project, Jeremijenko has found a way to take the simple joy of feeding fish and turn this inter-species activity into something that is mutually beneficial. The social transduction that occurs in this context, linking  individuals, families, and fish loving fans, through the shared act of feeding the fish creates a community with shared interests around a shared activity that is enjoyable as well as beneficial to the environment. When communities like this are built, ideas are transduced, values are shared and expertise are utilized to spread the endeavor.

In a crisis of agency, a crisis of knowing that we can do something, we struggle to find the ‘right’ approach. Jeremijenko turns toward the convivial. If a moment can be created that is joyful and improves the environment in anyway, then it is a double positive. Double happiness.

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Transduction diagram of signal, media, and interface within the Fish Restaurant Project.

Moth Cinema

If we walk through an urban environment, pausing at the few parks and green spaces that remain, it is not a revelation to observe that these venues hold far less biodiversity than larger forests and meadows in the countryside. It might be presumed that merely the small scale, mowed lawns and dogs and children playing deter the presence of a wider range of species. However, there are other signals that play a detrimental role: the presence of light from buildings draws important pollinators such as moths away from plant life and into the city’s concrete and brick canyons. Jeremijenko’s installation in the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, NY on the bank of the East River is an elevated 10×20 foot mesh screen, illuminated from the ground. The light shines up through a small garden casting changing shadows on the shimmering mesh screen. Moths are drawn towards the screen at night from a wide area. Mounted on the back and sides of the screen structure are innovative, flexible vertical planters (see below) of host and nectar plants that can also benefit from the pollination.

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Moth Cinema by day with associated planters.

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Moth Cinema at night.

The goal is to seduce the bugs using simple technology to improve the biodiversity and ultimately improve the quality of human habitat. In addition to enhancing the urban environment, given the challenges that agriculture is having with other pollinators such as honeybees (which are suffering “colony collapse” syndrome), moth cinemas might also be beneficial in rural biomes.

Response

Jeremijenko’s work has both philosophical and concrete implications. Within the urban park, her installations serves to re-introduce species to a space in need of biodiversity and to a space where humans can observe and interact. Her projects operate at multiple scales, drawing attention to the organisms and their behavior but also, by implication, to their non-presence prior to the project. Creating such works gives the visitor reason to pause and become aware of the contrasts – to what could be but isn’t in the rest of the city. Her designs also embody innovative strategies that integrate biological benefits and dependencies; for example, the moth cinema is in concert with a vertical planter that also serves to inform visitors of actions they can take to add plants to their own spaces.

Much of Jeremijenko’s work contemplates or employs concepts of agency. She considers ways in which the human interfaces with his or her environment. She creates various media to respond to signals of environmental degradation. By creating small “transduction experiments” Jeremijenko is able to create moments of conviviality as the expected and unexpected merge. She questions our assumptions of who (or what) has rights and agency. It is assumed that humans have both rights and agency, but what rights might a tree have? How might the world be shaped differently if rights and concepts of agency are relevant to non-human species as well as the human. Once we begin to imagine agency in other species, how will we shape our environments differently? If other species have rights, how might we have to behave or treat other humans and non-humans differently?

More Information

Report by Gwendolyn McGinn and Janet Rafner.

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