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Natalie Jeremijenko: The art of the eco-mindshift

October 9, 2009

Natalie Jeremijenko's unusual lab puts art to work, and addresses environmental woes by combining engineering know-how with public art and a team of volunteers. These real-life experiments include: Walking tadpoles, texting "fish," planting fire-hydrant gardens and more.

Natalie Jeremijenko - Artist and engineer
Natalie Jeremijenko blends art, engineering, environmentalism, biochemistry and more to create real-life experiments that enable social change. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I was informed by this kind of
00:15
unoriginal and trite idea
00:18
that new technologies were an opportunity
00:20
for social transformation,
00:22
which is what drove me then,
00:24
and still, it's a delusion that drives me now.
00:26
I wanted to update what I've been doing since then --
00:28
but it's still the same theme song --
00:31
and introduce you to my lab and current work,
00:34
which is the Environmental Health Clinic
00:37
that I run at NYU.
00:39
And what it is -- it's a twist on health.
00:41
Because, really, what I'm trying to do now
00:43
is redefine what counts as health.
00:45
It's a clinic like a health clinic at any other university,
00:47
except people come to the clinic
00:50
with environmental health concerns,
00:52
and they walk out with prescriptions
00:54
for things they can do to improve environmental health,
00:56
as opposed to coming to a clinic with medical concerns
00:59
and walking out with prescriptions for pharmaceuticals.
01:02
It's a handy-dandy quote from Hippocrates of the Hippocratic oath
01:05
that says, "The greater part of the soul lays outside the body,
01:08
treatment of the inner requires treatment of the outer."
01:11
But that suggests the issue
01:13
that I'm trying to get at here,
01:15
that we have an opportunity to redefine what is health.
01:17
Because this idea that health is internal
01:20
and atomized and individual
01:22
and pharmaceutical
01:25
is largely an error.
01:27
And I would use this study,
01:29
a recent study by Philip Landrigan,
01:31
to motivate a different view of health,
01:33
where he went to most of the pediatricians in Manhattan
01:35
and the New York area
01:38
and logged what they spent their patient hours on.
01:40
80 to 90 percent of their time
01:43
was spent on five things.
01:45
Number one was asthma,
01:47
number two was developmental delays,
01:49
number three was 400-fold increases
01:52
in rare childhood cancers
01:54
in the last eight to 10, 15 years.
01:56
Number four and five were childhood obesity
01:59
and diabetes-related issues.
02:02
So all of those -- what's common about all of those?
02:05
The environment is implicated, radically implicated, right.
02:08
This is not the germs
02:11
that medicos were trained to deal with;
02:13
this is a different definition of health,
02:16
health that has a great advantage
02:19
because it's external, it's shared,
02:22
we can do something about it,
02:24
as opposed to internal, genetically predetermined
02:26
or individualized.
02:29
People who come to the clinic are called, not patients,
02:31
but impatients,
02:33
because they're too impatient to wait for legislative change
02:35
to address local and environmental health issues.
02:38
And I meet them at the University, I also have a few field offices
02:41
that I set up in various places
02:44
that provide an immersion
02:46
in some of the environmental challenges we face.
02:48
I like this one from the Belgian field office,
02:50
where we met in a roundabout,
02:53
precisely because the roundabout iconified
02:55
the headless social movement
02:57
that informs much social transformation,
02:59
as opposed to the top-down control
03:02
of red light traffic intersections.
03:04
In this case, of course, the roundabout
03:07
with that micro-decisions being made in situ
03:10
by people not being told what to do.
03:12
But, of course, affords greater throughput,
03:15
fewer accidents,
03:17
and an interesting model of social movement.
03:19
Some of the things that the monitoring protocols have developed:
03:22
this is the tadpole bureaucrat protocol,
03:24
or keeping tabs, if you will.
03:27
What they are is an addition of tadpoles
03:30
that are named after a local bureaucrat
03:32
whose decisions affect your water quality.
03:34
So an impatient concern for water quality
03:37
would raise a tadpole bureaucrat
03:40
in a sample of water in which they're interested.
03:43
And we give them a couple of things to do that,
03:46
to help them do companion animal devices
03:48
while they're blogging and doing their email.
03:50
This is a tadpole walker
03:52
to take your tadpole walking in the evening.
03:54
And the interesting thing that happens --
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because we're using tadpoles, of course,
03:59
because they have the most exquisite biosenses that we have,
04:01
several orders of magnitude more sensitive
04:04
than some of our senses
04:06
for sensing,
04:08
responding in a biologically meaningful way,
04:11
to that whole class of industrial contaminants
04:13
we call endocrine disruptors
04:15
or hormone emulators.
04:17
But by taking your tadpole out for a walk in the evening --
04:19
there's a few action shots --
04:22
your neighbors are likely to say, "What are you doing?"
04:24
And then you have to introduce your tadpole
04:27
and who it's named after.
04:30
You have to explain what you're doing
04:32
and how the developmental events of a tadpole
04:34
are, of course, very observable
04:36
and they use the same T3-mediated hormones that we do.
04:38
And so next time your neighbor sees you
04:43
they'll say, "How is that tadpole doing?"
04:46
And you can let them social network with your tadpole,
04:49
because the Environmental Health Clinic has a social networking site
04:52
for, not only impatients, humans,
04:55
but non-humans,
04:58
social networking for humans and non-humans.
05:00
And of course, these endocrine disruptors
05:02
are things that are implicated in the breast cancer epidemic,
05:04
the obesity epidemic,
05:07
the two and a half year drop in the average age of onset of puberty in young girls
05:09
and other related things.
05:12
The culmination of this is if you've successfully raised your tadpole,
05:14
observing the behavioral
05:17
and developmental events,
05:19
you will then go and introduce your tadpole
05:21
to its namesake
05:23
and discuss the evidence that you've seen.
05:25
Another quick protocol -- and I'm going to go through these quickly,
05:28
but just to give you the material sense of what we're doing here --
05:31
instead of asking you for urine samples,
05:34
I'll ask you for a mouse sample.
05:36
Anyone here lucky enough to share, to cohabit with a mouse --
05:38
a domestic partnership with mice?
05:41
Very lucky.
05:43
Mice, of course, are the quintessential
05:46
model organism.
05:49
They're even better models of environmental health,
05:51
because not only the same mammalian biology,
05:53
but they share your diet, largely.
05:55
They share your environmental stressors,
05:57
the asbestos levels and lead levels,
06:00
whatever you're exposed to.
06:02
And they're geographically more limited than you are,
06:04
because we don't know if you've been exposed
06:06
to persistent organic pollutants
06:08
in your home, or occupationally
06:10
or as a child.
06:12
Mice are a very good representation.
06:14
So it starts by building a better mousetrap, of course.
06:16
This is one of them.
06:19
Coping with environmental stressors is tricky.
06:21
Is anybody here on antidepressants?
06:23
(Laughter)
06:26
There's a lot of people in Manhattan are.
06:28
And we were testing if the mice
06:31
would also self-administer SSRIs.
06:33
So this was Prozac, this was Zoloft,
06:36
this was a black jellybean and this was muscle relaxant,
06:38
all of which were the medications that the impatient was taking.
06:41
So do you think the mice
06:44
self-administered antidepressants?
06:46
What's the -- (Audience: Sure. Yes.)
06:48
How did you know that? They did.
06:51
This was vodka and solution, gin and solution.
06:54
This guy also liked plain water and the muscle relaxant.
06:56
Where's our export?
06:59
Vodka, gin --
07:01
(Audience: [unclear])
07:03
Yes. Yes. You know your mice well.
07:05
They did, yes.
07:08
So they drank as much vodka as they did plain water,
07:10
which was interesting.
07:12
Then of course, it goes into the entrapment device.
07:14
There's an old cellphone in there -- a good use for old cellphones --
07:17
which dials the clinic, we go and pick up the mouse.
07:19
We take the blood sample
07:22
and do the blood work and hair work on the mice.
07:24
And I want to sort of point out the big advantage
07:26
of framing health in this external way.
07:28
But we do have a few prescription products through this.
07:31
It's very different from the medical model.
07:34
Anything you do to improve your water quality or air quality,
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or to understand it or to change it,
07:40
the benefits are enjoyed by anyone
07:43
you share that water quality or air quality with.
07:45
And that aggregating effect,
07:48
that collective action effect,
07:50
is actually something we can use to our advantage.
07:53
So I want to show you one prescription product in the clinic
07:56
called the No Park.
07:59
This is a prescription to improve water quality.
08:01
Many impatients are very concerned for water quality and air quality.
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What we do is we take a fire hydrant,
08:07
a "no parking" space associated with a fire hydrant,
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and we prescribe the removal of the asphalt
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to create an engineered micro landscape,
08:15
to create an infiltration opportunity.
08:17
Because, many of you will know,
08:19
that the biggest pollution burden
08:21
that we have on the New York, New Jersey harbor right now
08:23
is no longer the point sources,
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no longer the big polluters,
08:27
no longer the GEs,
08:29
but that massive network of roads,
08:31
[those] impervious surfaces,
08:33
that collect all that cadmium neurotoxin that comes from your brake liners
08:35
or the oily hydrocarbon waste
08:38
in every single storm event and medieval infrastructure
08:40
washes it straight into the estuary system.
08:43
That doesn't do a lot of good.
08:45
These are little opportunities to intercept those pollutants
08:47
before they enter the harbor,
08:50
and they're produced by impatients
08:52
on various city blocks
08:54
in some very interesting ways.
08:56
I just want to say it was sort of a rule of thumb though,
08:58
there's about two or three fire hydrants
09:00
on every city block.
09:03
By creating engineered micro landscapes to infiltrate in them,
09:05
we don't prevent them from being used
09:08
as emergency vehicle parking spaces,
09:10
because, of course, a firetruck can come and park there.
09:12
They flatten a few plants. No big deal, they'll regenerate.
09:15
But if we did this
09:19
in every single --
09:21
every fire hydrant
09:24
we could redefine the emergency.
09:26
That 99 percent of the time
09:29
when a firetruck is not parking there,
09:31
it's infiltrating pollutants.
09:34
It's also increasing fixing CO2s,
09:36
sequestering some of the airborne pollutants.
09:39
And aggregated,
09:42
these smaller interceptions
09:44
could actually infiltrate all the roadborne pollution
09:46
that now runs into the estuary system,
09:49
up to a seven inch rain event, up to a hundred-year storm.
09:51
So these are small actions
09:54
that can amount to a significant effect
09:56
to improve local environmental health.
09:58
This is one of the more ambitious ones.
10:01
What the climate crisis has revealed to us
10:03
is a secondary, more insidious
10:06
and more pervasive crisis,
10:08
which is the crisis of agency,
10:11
which is what to do.
10:14
Somehow buying a local lettuce, changing a light bulb,
10:17
driving the speed limit, changing your tires regularly,
10:20
doesn't seem sufficient
10:22
in the face of climate crisis.
10:24
And this is an interesting icon that happened --
10:27
you remember these: fallout shelters.
10:29
What is the fallout shelter
10:32
for the climate crisis?
10:34
This was civic mobilization.
10:36
Churches, school groups,
10:38
hospitals, private residents --
10:40
everyone built one of these in a matter of months.
10:42
And they still remain
10:44
as icons of civic response
10:46
in the face of shared, uncertain, collective threat.
10:49
Fallout shelter for the climate crisis,
10:51
I would say, looks something like this, or this,
10:53
which is an intensive urban agriculture facility
10:56
that's due to go on my lab building at NYU.
10:58
What it does
11:01
is a very simple idea
11:03
of taking --
11:05
80 to 90 percent of the CO2 produced in Manhattan
11:07
is building related --
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we take, just like a commercial greenhouse,
11:12
we take the CO2 from the building --
11:14
CO2-enriched air --
11:16
we force it through the urban agriculture facility,
11:18
and then we resupply oxygen-enriched air.
11:21
You can't actually build much on a roof, they're not designed for that.
11:23
So it's on legs,
11:26
so it focuses all the load on the masonry walls and the columns.
11:28
It's built as a barn raising,
11:31
using open source hardware.
11:33
This is the quarter-scale prototype
11:35
that was functioning in Spain.
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This is what it will look like, fingers crossed,
11:39
NYU willing.
11:41
And what I want to show you is --
11:43
actually this is one of the components of it that we've just recently been testing --
11:45
which is a solar chimney --
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we have got 17 of them now put around New York at the moment --
11:50
that passively draws air up.
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You understand a solar chimney.
11:54
Hot air rises.
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You put a bit of black plastic on the side of a building,
11:58
it'll heat up, and you'll get passive airflow.
12:00
What we do is actually
12:03
put a standard HVAC filter on the top of that.
12:05
That actually removes about 95 percent
12:08
of the carbon black,
12:10
that stuff that, with ozone,
12:12
is responsible for about half of global warming's effects,
12:14
because it changes, it settles on the snow,
12:16
it changes the reflectors,
12:18
it changes
12:20
the transmission qualities of the atmosphere.
12:22
Carbon black is that grime
12:25
that otherwise lodges in your pretty pink lungs,
12:27
and it's associated with.
12:29
It's not good stuff, and it's from inefficient combustion,
12:31
not from combustion itself.
12:34
When we put it through our solar chimney,
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we remove actually about 95 percent of that.
12:39
And then I swap it out
12:42
with the students
12:45
and actually re-release that carbon black.
12:47
And we make pencils the length of which measures the grime
12:49
that we've pulled out of the air.
12:52
Here's one of them that we have up now.
12:54
Here's who put them up and who are avid pencil users.
12:56
Okay, so I want to show you
12:59
just two more interfaces,
13:01
because I think one of our big challenges
13:03
is re-imagining our relationship to natural systems,
13:05
not only through this model
13:08
of twisted personalized health,
13:11
but through the animals
13:14
with whom we cohabit.
13:16
We are not alone; the animals are moving in.
13:18
In fact, urban migration now describes
13:20
the movement of animals formerly known as wild
13:22
into urban centers.
13:25
You know, coyote in Central Park, a whale in the Gowanus Canal,
13:27
elk in Westchester County.
13:29
It's happening all over the Developed World,
13:31
probably for loss of habitat,
13:33
but also because our cities are a little bit more livable
13:35
than they have been.
13:37
And every green space we create
13:39
is an invitation for non-humans to cohabit with us.
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But we've kind of lacked imagination
13:43
in how we could do that well or interestingly.
13:45
And I want to show you a few of the technological interfaces
13:48
that have been developed under the moniker of OOZ --
13:50
which is zoo backwards and without cages --
13:53
to try and reform
13:56
that relationship.
13:58
This is communication technology for birds. I looks like this.
14:00
When a bird lands on it, they trigger a sound file.
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This is actually in the Whitney Museum, where there were six of them,
14:06
each of which had a different argument on it,
14:09
different sound file.
14:11
They said things like this.
14:13
(Whistling)
14:15
Recorded Voice: Here's what you need to do.
14:17
Go down there and buy some of those health food bars,
14:20
the ones you call bird food,
14:23
and bring it here and scatter it around.
14:25
There's a good person.
14:27
Natalie Jeremijenko: Okay. (Laugher)
14:30
So there was several of these.
14:33
The birds were able to jump from one to the other.
14:35
These are just your average urban pigeon.
14:37
And an early test
14:40
which argument elicited cooperative behavior
14:42
from the people below --
14:44
about a hundred to one
14:47
decided that this was the argument
14:49
that worked best on us.
14:51
Recorded Voice: Tick, tick, tick.
14:53
That's the sound of genetic mutations
14:56
of the avian flu
14:58
becoming a deadly human flu.
15:00
Do you know what slows it down?
15:02
Healthy sub-populations of birds,
15:04
increasing biodiversity generally.
15:06
It is in your interests that I'm healthy,
15:09
happy, well-fed.
15:12
Hence, you could share some of your nutritional resources
15:14
instead of monopolizing them.
15:17
That is, share your lunch.
15:19
(Laughter)
15:22
NJ: It worked, and it's true.
15:24
The final project I'd like to show you
15:27
is a new interface for fish
15:29
that has just been launched --
15:31
it's actually officially launched next week --
15:33
with a wonderful commission from the Architectural League.
15:35
You may not have known that you need to communicate with fish,
15:37
but there is now a device for you to do so.
15:40
It looks like this: buoys that float on the water,
15:42
project three foot up, three foot down.
15:45
When a fish swims underneath, a light goes on.
15:47
This is what it looks like.
15:50
So there's another function on here.
15:57
This top light is -- I'm sorry if I'm making you seasick --
16:00
this top light is actually a water quality display
16:04
that shifts from red, when the dissolved oxygen is low,
16:06
to a blue/green, when its dissolved oxygen is high.
16:09
And then you can also text the fish.
16:12
So there's business cards down there
16:15
that'll give you contact details.
16:17
And they text back.
16:19
When the buoys get your text, they wink at you twice to say, we've got your message.
16:21
But perhaps the most popular has been
16:24
that we've got another array of these boys in the Bronx River,
16:26
where the first beaver --
16:28
crazy as he is --
16:30
to have moved in and built a lodge in New York
16:32
in 250 years, hangs out.
16:34
So updates from a beaver.
16:37
You can subscribe to updates from him. You can talk to him.
16:39
And what I like to think of
16:42
is this is an interface
16:45
that re-scripts how we interact with natural systems,
16:48
specifically by changing who has information,
16:51
where they have it,
16:54
who can make sense of that information,
16:56
and what you can do about it.
16:58
In this case, instead of throwing chewing gum,
17:00
or Doritos or whatever you have in your pocket at the fish --
17:03
There's a body of water in Iceland that I've been dealing with
17:06
that's in the middle of the city,
17:08
and the largest pollution burden on it
17:10
is not the roadborne pollution,
17:12
it's actually white bread
17:14
from people feeding the fish and the birds.
17:16
Instead of doing that actually, we've developed some fish sticks
17:18
that you can feed the fish.
17:20
They're delicious.
17:23
They're cross-species delicious that is,
17:25
delicious for humans and non-humans.
17:28
But they also have a chelating agent in them.
17:30
They're nutritionally appropriate,
17:32
not like Doritos.
17:34
And so every time
17:36
that desire to interact with the animals,
17:39
which is at least as ubiquitous
17:42
as that sign: "Do not feed the animals."
17:46
And there's about three of them on every New York City park.
17:48
And Yellowstone National Park,
17:51
there's more "do not feed the animals" signs
17:53
than there are animals you might wish to feed.
17:55
But in that action, that interaction,
17:58
by re-scripting that,
18:01
by changing it into an opportunity
18:03
to offer food that is nutritionally appropriate,
18:05
that could augment the nutritional resources
18:08
that we ourselves have depleted
18:10
for augmenting the fish population
18:12
and also adding chelating agent,
18:14
which, like any chelating agent that we use medicinally,
18:16
binds to the bioaccumulated heavy metals and PCBs
18:20
that are in the fish
18:23
living in this particular habitat
18:25
and allows them to pass it out as a harmless salt
18:28
where it's complexed by a reactive,
18:30
effectively removing it from bioavailability.
18:33
But I wanted to say that interaction,
18:36
re-scripting that interaction,
18:38
into collective action, collective remediative action,
18:40
very different from the approach
18:43
that's being used on the other side on the Hudson River,
18:46
where we're dredging the PCBs --
18:49
after 30 years of legislative and legal struggle,
18:52
GE's paying for the dredging
18:56
of the largest Superfund site in the world --
18:58
we're dredging it, and it'll probably get shipped off to Pennsylvania
19:01
or the nearest Third World country,
19:04
where it will continue to be toxic sludge.
19:06
Displacement is not the way to deal with environmental issues.
19:10
And that's typically the paradigm
19:14
under which we've operated.
19:16
By actually taking the opportunity
19:18
that new technologies,
19:20
new interactive technologies, present
19:22
to re-script our interactions,
19:24
to script them,
19:26
not just as isolated, individuated interactions,
19:28
but as collective aggregating actions
19:31
that can amount to something,
19:35
we can really begin to address
19:37
some of our important environmental challenges.
19:39
Thank you.
19:41
(Applause)
19:43

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Natalie Jeremijenko - Artist and engineer
Natalie Jeremijenko blends art, engineering, environmentalism, biochemistry and more to create real-life experiments that enable social change.

Why you should listen

Bridging the technical and art worlds, Natalie Jeremijenko creates socially conscious experiences that make change, both directly and indirectly. As director of the xDesign Environmental Health Clinic at NYU, she helps prescribe creative health solutions for the environment that are carried out by enthusiastic volunteers. As a professor in NYU’s Visual Art Department, she creates and supervises real-life projects for her students like HowStuffIsMade (a website that details how everyday objects are created) and Feral Robots (packs of robot dogs that have been hacked to monitor pollution or even act as breathalyzers).

Her individual work has been exhibited in the MASS MoCA, the Whitney Museum, and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, and she is part of an artists' collective called the Bureau of Inverse Technology. Past projects include the Despondency Index -- a motion detector camera was installed on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge to record suicides, which were then graphed in relation to stock market data. Jeremijenko was named as a 1999 Rockefeller Fellow, one of the 40 most influential designers by I.D. Magazine and one of the Top 100 Young Innovators by MIT Technology Review. She was included in both the 2006 Whitney Biennial of American Art and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Triennial 2006-7.

Read a profile of Jeremijenko in the New York Times >>

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