Straight Talk with Elizabeth Demaray, by Danielle McCloskey, SciArt Magazine, February Issue, 2015, full text with images can be purchased at http://www.sciartmagazine.com/uploads/6/0/8/9/6089526/screen_shot_2016-05-17_at_9.43.37_am.png
Danielle McCloskey (DM): From encasing plants and rocks in knits and upholstery fabric, culturing lichen to live on the sides of New York City buildings, exploring the effects of a diet of fast food on ants, and – but not limited to – working with a team to design robots that give plants mobility, your artwork and projects are very multidisciplinary. When did you start taking your work in the direction of eco-art and forming art/science project collaborations?
Elizabeth Demaray (ED): I don’t have a traditional art background. I began my art-making career when I took a ceramic sculpture class taught by Richard Shaw at UC Berkeley, as a break from my major course of study, which was cognitive psychology. I was never formally trained in any one medium, except perhaps ceramic sculpture and ceramic mold making, which I focused on intensively till graduate school. When I began to consider branching out from clay, I wanted to work with materials that carried a lot of information. I soon found myself interacting with physical objects the way I imagine a poet might assemble words to create an unexpected image. I also wanted to do something to help the natural world, but felt ineffectual and powerless to accomplish this. In graduate school, I started knitting sweaters for plants, as shown in “Giant Sequoya” (figure 1, Giant Sequoya), to communicate the emotions I was feeling.
Once I began using plants in my work, it was a natural progression to considering how my culture interacts with nature. I became interested in biotopes, which are small environments that are shared by multiple species, including humans. My work also began to involve the notion of “trans-species giving”—the idea that the commonalities between humans and other life forms are such that we humans may be able to give other creatures a “hand up,” however misguided or conceptually hamstrung we may be by our beliefs about the natural world.
(DM) One of your current undertakings, The Hand Up Project, aims to create biodegradable plastic housings for hermit crabs, addressing a shell shortage linked to pollution and human collection. Have you tested any of the plastic shells yet on actual hermit crabs? How did they respond?
I am glad that you asked about this project. Also begun when I was in graduate school, it is perhaps the first of my artworks where I directly address the concept of “trans-species giving.” The project is dedicated to land hermit crabs, small crustaceans with thin exoskeletons that must adopt abandoned shells from marine gastropods to remain housed and protected from predators. The problem is that because there are not enough shells left on global shorelines for this animal to use, biologists routinely find them living in broken glass jars (figure 2, crab in broken jar), plastic bottle tops and any other form of refuge that they can get their pincers on.
Based on what we know about the new needs of these animals, The Hand Up Project is dedicated to producing alternative forms of housing specifically designed for use by land hermit crabs. The project utilizes an adaptable AutoCAD design and a stereo lithography process for fabrication. The key to this new design is that it minimizes the spiral in the middle of a traditional shell, reducing the overall weight of each house and increasing its internal volume-to-weight ratio, which is something that the animal likes (figure 3, multiple houses).
In its beta version, The Hand Up Project was a great success. Twenty-five percent of the initial crab population chose to move into new, fabricated homes when presented with the structures for a period of two months. Figure 4 shows the strength testing we conducted at Rutgers University in 2007 on novel shapes for hermit crab shelters.
As might be expected, the project produced what may be the most expensive hermit crab houses ever created and the funding needed to manufacture and distribute them is significant. Although this effort is a minor, genuine attempt to give a struggling life form a hand up via design, the “art part” of this endeavor centers on the way we propose to pay for the new dwellings. The Hand Up Project is currently soliciting corporate sponsorship to fund manufacturing and distribution—by licensing the houses for advertising. In exchange for financial support, the project will print a corporate logo on each alternative shelter before placing it in the wild (figure 5, crab on hand).
(DM) Do you have anything coming up for The Hand Up Project?
(ED) I’m very excited about advances in materials. In the 1990s, we had to utilize rapid prototyping to fabricate the alternative designs, but we are now researching ways to organically produce our forms directly out of calcium carbonate.
(DM) Your IndaPlant team is growing and now includes a biologist and a computer scientist. Could you explain what you have in store for what you’ve addressed as your “super sensory IndaPlantV2 (IPV2)?”
Originally begun as a collaboration between myself and the engineer Dr. Qingze Zou, the IndaPlant Project: An Act of Trans-Species Giving is designed to facilitate the free movement and metabolic function of ordinary houseplants. In this effort, we have successfully created a floraborg, a term we coined to describe an entity that is part plant and part robot. This work has recently led to the creation of a larger team, which now includes the biologist Dr. Simeon Kotchoni and the computer scientist Dr. Ahmed Elgammal. Our group is currently working on fabricating a floraborg biocyber interface, or super sensory IndaPlant, that will close a positive feedback loop between the plant and robotic support. We envision that this interface, by accessing the super sensory capacities of plants, will allow humans to decipher plant-based information. Through a floraborg sensory system, we intend to be able to collect data on ecosystem health, the effects of climate change, and airborne pollutants. In this capacity, the IndaPlant may allow us to model and support environments that can sustain humans and plants alike (figure 6, single IndaPlant).
(DM) How has it been working collaboratively in an art-sci team?
It has been a pleasure to work with this team. I never cease to be surprised, amused and enlightened by what different disciplines bring to the table. Within this context, what makes you unique is truly your value. And when everybody’s viewpoints, opinions and deficits are appreciated, the ability to think and function innovatively seems limitless.
Though the original impetus behind the idea of the IndaPlant was mine, I believed that my roll in the research that would lead to its creation would be minor. Sol Lewitt once said in his sentences 2 and 3 from Sentences on Conceptual Art, “Rational judgments repeat rational judgments. Irrational judgments lead to new experience.” I used to think that the task of an artist was to create new experiences in an idiosyncratic, irrational way. I now understand something that Buckminster Fuller used to stress. He said that artists are generalists. The degree of specialization within disciplines today is such that experts from different practices have trouble communicating. Within the IndaPlant group, I find that if everybody can explain their thoughts or the current research in their field to me, I can help the forum as a whole understand. This past summer, I was designated the principal investigator for our group on a grant to support the creation of a cyber-physical interface. Now that we are completing the grant-writing process, I feel that if you are trying to create deeply collaborative work across distinctly diverse disciplines, you should have an artist, or a highly involved translator, or very patient participants, or maybe all three on your team (figure 7, multiple IndaPlants).
(DM) Since each robot in your IndaPlant project is programmed to cater to the specific needs of the different species of plant and has simple adaptive behavior, you’ve mentioned the possibility of seeing emergent behaviors from the robots/plants. Has any odd or notable behavior come from the floraborgs?
My initial motivation in creating this work was to enable an immobile object, like a houseplant, to move so that it could potentially become a free agent. I was interested in the way that each IndaPlant, depending on its programming or circumstances, may end up exhibiting cooperative or even competitive behavior. The project is also based on a series of thought exercises by the Italian/Australian Cyberneticist Valentino Brattenberg, who designed something called Brattenberg vehicles. These are simple devices, based on the neuronal architecture of insects, that utilize basic schematics for attraction to and avoidance of stimuli. Brattenberg was interested in the ways that people who watch these simple avoidance and attraction behaviors often attribute them to much more complex motivations. So, with the IndaPlant Project, I also want to see how I and other observers may assign objectives and even personalities to the different IndaPlants.
At the beginning of this project, I intended to mount the plants on light-seeking Brattenberg vehicles. However, once theIndaPlant team began considering the possibilities inherent in the creation of a floraborg, we realized that we could instead wire the vehicle through an Arduino board. This configuration not only allows for species-specific programming, but can also support simple adaptive behavior in the form of machine learning. Right now, each IndaPlant performs sun- and water-seeking functions. Each unit is equipped with six sonar sensors for motion planning and carries three solar panels that allow the robot to recharge its battery packs when the plant is sunning itself. These solar panels additionally function as the unit’s light sensors, allowing it to find the sunniest spot within a lit area. We may program each floraborg as belonging to the photosynthesis classification C4, C3 or CAM, depending on the amount of light it needs. Our three original IndaPlants were all in the same category. We recently swapped in one plant that is a different classification, so we now have to recalibrate its support system.
The artwork is currently housed in the engineering department at Rutgers, where the floraborgs have become part of the daily routine. When Dr. Zou comes to work in the morning, he is greeted by three IndaPlants, which jostle one another to exit his office in search of sunlight in the adjacent hallway. When an IndaPlant is thirsty, a moisture sensor sends a signal through the unit’s central processor that may decide that the plant needs water. If so, the unit will locate a water dispenser in the hallway via an infrared sensor. If a floraborg is in the immediate vicinity of a watering station, passers-by are invited to give it a drink. People who have interacted with the IndaPlants in person or watched them online do see different personalities in each unit. At this point, though, this is probably due to slight variations in the design of each floraborg. A video on the project can be seen at:https://vimeo.com/90457796.
(DM) You have a few projects where you pad or swaddle natural materials, such as rocks or plants, in upholstery fabric or knits. Could you explain those projects for us a little?
When I cover a three-dimensional shape, it enables me to generalize the form. In addition to knitting sweaters for plants, I upholster stones and culture lichen on the sides of buildings in New York City. In Lichen for Skyscrapers, which has involved handing out baggies of lichen culture to people who live in high-rises so that they can perform “lichaffiti,” my ultimate goal to completely cover and generalize a modernist building. I look forward to organically transforming the ninety-degree angles of this kind of architecture with something that will become an exoskeleton and is alive (figure 8, Lichen for Skyscrapers project).
(DM) You’ve said that you make works that are not aimed at being sold and are extremely context specific; however, the plants that make up the floraborgs are house-type plants. Could you ever see your team bringing the IndaPlant project into a home-like setting?
Yes. I originally envisioned creating a self-sufficient houseplant that could exist in a domestic environment. The first video we made about the project actually shows a very sad-looking, dead houseplant. On top of this image, a voiceover says, “A team of artists and scientists at Rutgers University are attempting to change all of this.” Our group is currently looking at ways to create trans-floraborg assembly kits so that people can transform their potted plants into IndaPlants. I also like the idea of crowd sourcing the programming and potentially simplifying the unit so that schoolchildren can write and/or modify the code.
The work our group is currently doing on this project has diversified into all kinds of directions. We are designing self-watering systems that collect the plant’s own transpired water, which is a byproduct of the photosynthesis cycle. We are creating ways for the unit to use machine vision to monitor its health. Our engineer is even designing drone supports so that each plant can potentially be airborne. We are also interested in the possibility of creating a self-governing population of data sharers where the environmental information each IndaPlant collects is communicated wirelessly across the community and could be used for group decision making.
(DM) You’ve recently had a solo exhibition at this year’s Association of Environmental Science Studies (AESS) Conference at Pace University. How was it? What did you end up doing for it?
I created a plant sweater series and a number of other works for “Welcome To The Anthropocene,” an exhibition at this year’s Association of Environmental Science Studies (AESS) Conference at Pace University. The organization gave me a solo exhibition and dedicated a symposium to my artwork in recognition of the ways that the pieces I make have addressed anthropocene issues over the past decade. The exhibition showcased a number of recent works including a live web feed of the IndaPlant Project:https://elizbethdemaray.org/2014/07/21/indaplant-community-live-on-webcam/, the Endangered Species Recipe Book: https://elizbethdemaray.org/2014/10/30/the-endangered-species-recipe-book/, and a updated version of the Songs We Sing that I originally created for the Lloyd in Amsterdam: https://demaray.camden.rutgers.edu/2013/05/24/the-songs-we-sing-amsterdam-at-the-lloyd/ (figure 9, Endangered Species Recipe Book, installation from “Welcome To The Anthropocene”)
Upon learning of this honor form Jennifer Joy Pawlitschek, the AESS Art Director, I started to consider which pieces that I’ve been working on that might be relevant to the idea of the “anthropocene.” As an artist who works in eco-art, new media and art and science collaboration, I’m an oddball in the art world. I make works that are not aimed at being sold, are extremely context specific and utilize a wide range of mediums and technologies. My pieces, which are the result my preoccupations, may at first glance not look like a continuous body of work. In the past, I’ve sort of countered this issue by typically displaying only one large work per exhibition. However, when I considered the anthroposcene in the context of my work, I looked around my studio and I realized that everything I make is directly applicable to this concept. The degree to which my artwork belongs in this context was really the oddest and most wonderful experience for me at AESS. During this meeting of environmental studies people, I feel like I’d finally found my peers (figure 10, Endangered Species Recipe Book, detail of oil paint on paper).
The association allowed me to assist in curating nine other artists directly onto the environmental studies panels. Two other superb artist panels, put together by Peter Anderson, additionally added to the number of really extraordinary artists who participated in the conference. The interesting thing about these artists is that many of them had the exact same experience that I did at AESS; the feeling that we had finally found our family in a way that we never had in the art world.
The current call for artist presentations at AESS is now out. I’m not sure what date this issue of ArtSci in America goes to press, but the current call has be extended to 1/30 and can be found at: http://aess.info/content.aspx?page_id=22&club_id=939971&module_id=170587. Kimberly Smith and I are also moderating a round table panel at this coming symposium on creating a lifetime achievement award in the field of environmentally focused fine art. We really feel like it is time to recognize the achievements of artists who are the forebears of this movement (figure 11, plant sweater installation at AESS).
End of Interview, February, 2015
Figures from the online print publication:
(Figure 1) “Giant Sequoya.” Giant Sequoia sapling wearing a knit sweater, dimensions variable, 1997
(Figure 2) Hermit crab in broken jar, unattributed image from internet, 2007
(Figure 3) Multiple houses from The Hand Up Project,dimensions variable, 1999
(Figure 4) Strength testing test on alternative housing form The Hand Up Project, dimensions variable, 2007
(Figure 5) Crab on hand with alternative housing design form The Hand Up Project, dimensions variable, 1999
(Figure 6) Single floraborg from IndaPlant Project: An Act of Trans-Species Giving, dimensions variable, 2014
(Figure 7) Multiple IndaPlants from IndaPlant Project: An Act of Trans-Species Giving, dimensions variable, 2014
(Figure 8) Image from the Lichen for Skyscrapers project. Miniature skyscraper covered in lichen from in front of a large building in NYC, 2011
(Figure 9) Endangered Species Recipe Book, a collaborative work with the painter Hugo Bastidas, installation view at “Welcome To The Anthropocene” exhibition, 2014
(Figure 10) Endangered Species Recipe Book, a collaborative work with the painter Hugo Bastidas, detail of recipe with image, oil paint on paper, 8.5” x 11”, 2014