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Art + Technology = Happy Spinning Trees

the above is a still from the animation at a point when there are no offsets.
7000 oaks and counting, Tiffany Holmes (2006-08)

Tiffany Holmes is a media artist and an Associate Professor of Art and Technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and as part of her doctoral thesis she developed and deployed an eco-feedback tool for the workplace. 

With the piece 7000 oaks and counting (2006-2009) Holmes looks to answer the question “Can creative visualizations of real time energy consumption patterns trigger more ecologically responsible behavior?” The name of the project is a nod to the iconic Joseph Beuys‘ piece called 7000 Oaks.

7000 oaks and counting was a public art piece created for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and makes use of real-time energy data to educate on and encourage reductions of resource consumption. Like many modern buildings, the home of the NCSA has a building control system that tracks usage of resources such as steam, chilled water, and electricity. The aim of this project was to make obvious the information that was otherwise kept hidden from most of the building occupants to see if this might elicit a change in behavior. The communal display was a brushed stainless steel kiosk with a computer screen, and was placed in the in the main lobby of the building. 

Every minute, custom software gathered information from the building monitoring system on electricity, condensate, and chilled water usage figures, which was then transferred to the artist’s server. With this the building’s real time carbon footprint could be calculated, and this was converted into a figure that represented the number of trees that would be needed to offset the carbon emitted due to the use of the building (a pound of carbon dioxide can be offset/absorbed by planting seven trees). The author suggests that trees are easier for average people to relate to than kWh or pounds of carbon, it also has the effect of making a link between human behaviour and environmental degradation. 

This information was then used to interact with an animation playing on public display. In brief, the animation on the screen is of a ring of trees which changes over the course of the day in response to energy usage. If carbon loads are low, the rings are composed a pleasant, slow-spinning green trees. However, as loads peak, the trees disappear and are replaced by electrical appliances and objects that are decidedly less pleasant – such as Hummers and hair-dryers. Building occupants had the option to make individual public commitments to reduce their own carbon footprint, by filling out a web form related to the piece. With this, the person’s name is incorporated into the animation and the carbon offset is applied to the building’s total output. 

I haven’t been able to dig up the results of the study, but will post it the moment it arrives. As the piece is somewhat removed from the point  of action in terms of individuals use of energy, it would be interesting to know if a reminder upon entering and exiting the building is sufficient to lead to measurable behaviour change. The location of the piece is very practical from a building perspective, while also being cost and energy efficient, compared to eco-feedback tools directed at specific behaviours. Further, art pieces such as this one might very well be suitable for funding in new construction projects where 1% of the total construction costs is often set aside for public art projects. 

Holmes had a website that looked into eco-visualization, called http://ecoviz.org/, however it appears to be down for now. I’ve left the link in the event that it eventually comes back on-line, as it’s certainly worth a looksie. 

the above is a demonstration of how the animation changed in response to increased activity in the building.
7000 oaks and counting, Tiffany Holmes (2006-08)

Holmes, T.G. (2007). Eco-visualization: combining art and technology to reduce energy consumption. In Proceedings of the 6th ACM SIGCHI Conference on Creativity and Cognition. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 153-162, web: http://tiffanyholmes.com/current-ecoart/7000-oaks-and-counting/
Images source: http://tiffanyholmes.com/current-ecoart/7000-oaks-and-counting/ 


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