Best in the Viz

By Adam Brock

Superfund365Last Saturday I attended “Environmental Awareness through Ecovisualization,” a panel talk put on by Eyebeam as part of last weekend’s Conflux fest in Williamsburg. Defined by panelist Tiffany Holmes as site-specific, often dynamic displays of environmental data, ecovisualizations present the often obtuse statistics of sustainability in an easily understandable manner – and many of them are damn cool to look at, too.

Tiffany began the proceedings with a brief rundown of some of ecoviz art’s influences, from Richard Long‘s earthworks to Jackie Brookner’s Prima Lingua, a sculpture of a giant tongue covered in moss that cleans polluted water. Next, she introduced her current project, 7000 Oaks and Counting, which uses the combination of an interactive website, a kiosk animation, and sculptures of trees to raise awareness of the environmental impact of everyday action in an Illinois research center.

Next up was Michael Mandiberg, creator of the Real Costs Firefox plugin I covered a few months back. Michael used most of his alloted fifteen minutes to introduce Eyebeam’s Ecoviz Challenge, an open contest to create graphic icons or ecovizualizations to raise awareness about an environmental issue.

Brooke Singer of Preemptive Media spoke next, introducing a couple projects of her own: Air, which gathers data from portable air-quality monitors roving the city and sends it to a centralized database; and Superfund365, a website that profiles the backstory of a different superfund site every day.

By this point, I’d noticed a conspicuous pattern: nearly all of the examples from the panel were grassy to the max. Of course, with Eyebeam’s mission at the nexus of art and emerging technologies, this makes a certain amount of sense. But the way I see it, there’s no reason why ecovisualization has to entail GPS, air sensors or plasma displays – objects that can incur significant environmental impacts in their own right.

Which is why I thought the best ecovisualization presented was the last: Eve Moscher’s “High Water Line“. As the name implies, the brilliantly simple project involves drawing a chalk line at the 10-foot-above-sea level point throughout the entire five boroughs, to highlight the impact climate change will have on the city.

Interestingly, Mosher described it as a perfomance piece, with passerby as the audience. While the chalk might only last a day or two, the psychological impact Mosher incurs on pedestrians by explaining the piece lasts far longer. That’s why, to me, “High Water Mark” is so successful: the understanding that the ground beneath your feet will one day be submerged is something that no website, no matter how slick and interactive, can replicate. Here’s to hoping the other panelists, and the participants in Eyebeam’s contest, will take note.

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