michael nagle about large projects personal projects

summer 2012 - winter 2013

with deb todd wheeler, bec conrad

funded by the Barr Foundation

This is another project whose initial inspiration I trace back to getting to spend a few days with Natalie Jeremijenko. I was struck by her project, Amphibious Architecture. One of the elements I remember her talking about was this question of how to draw people into engaging with the river in NYC. She has designed fish food which had chelating agents in it, so it would remove some of the toxic metals and chemicals that fish ate in the river. You feed the fish, the fish become less toxic, win win.

But then to engage with the river itself -- you wanted to see some feedback of the river itself becoming healthier. You could look at measures of fish being in the river -- how much respiration there was and display a visualization of those chemical values. There's still a lot of interpretation there: is someone likely to connect to a numeric measure of say oxygen released in the water? Her thought was to simply make it possible to visualize the fish being present in the river. Build a buoy that lights up when a fish swims by. More lights, more fish, and you have a simple way to see and appreciate more life in the river.

This notion -- of direct, unmediated representations of environmental properties -- stayed with me. A year or so later I met Deb at an Artists in Context workshop, and we started talking about how to make questions of energy usage tangible (and not "the thing I feel I should do but don't actually find important.") We came to this idea of how in some schools, there were kiosks which gave numerical displays of energy usage -- what were the ways to make that more tangible?

We started designing ways to map energy usage directly to color -- using the intuitive chromatic scale (with its traffic light associations of green as good and red as high) as a way to see how to make an immediately, viscerally impacting color gauge, as a way of having an assessment of how your whole building was doing. We thought this was particularly in contexts like offices or universities -- where often no one individual feels like they have a sense for a large building's energy use.

We were also interested in the idea of a drawing a viewer into the piece -- rather than a kiosk that stands on its own. A glass tube was used to that effect for the first installation.

My work in this project was cut short by mom's illness in late 2012, and Bec Conrad started working with Deb to help with some of the engineering pieces. I was able to help out in small visits during trips to Boston. Ultimately we had an initial piece running at Brandeis University, and later a second piece mapping energy usage to sound at Babson University, both in Boston.