“Art communicates the topics of the time”: How Thijs Biersteker helps us visualise climate breakdown
In conversation with Ellie Brown, January 12, 2023
Art — Art, Design, Sustainability
There’s a line on the website of ecological artist, Thijs Biersteker, that reads: “If the research does not reach us, then how can the research teach us?” This, in a nutshell, summarises how Biersteker approaches the work he creates. The artist collaborates with scientists, and often with institutions like the National History Museum in London, UNESCO and Delft Technical University, to visually realise hard facts and figures that we should all really get to know. For Wither, Biersteker’s collaboration with UNESCO as part of the Dresden Biennale 2021, the artist worked with scientists at Indiana University Bloomington who were able to calculate the rate at which the rainforest is dwindling per second (641m2 - or just under 55.4 million m2 a day). In order to visualise this, Biersteker created an installation in which leaves light up and flicker - or wither - repeatedly to represent the continual loss of the rainforest. Visually, it’s a beautiful artwork to look at, even if what it represents is not.
But Biersteker does not always give his installations with such an aesthetically pleasing quality. In Pollutive Ends (2019), commissioned by Beijing Riverside Art Museum, the artist created an interactive installation which shows how quickly, and how much, a single cigarette butt pollutes water. The piece works by using algorithmic data to calculate the number of visitors in the museum at a given time, the likely number of smokers amongst them, and the quantity of pollution that would, therefore, be generated. It’s one of the more repulsive of Biersteker’s artworks to look at, but nonetheless captivating - not only in terms of how much pollution is created, but also in terms of how the artist conceptualises such installations. MB>CO2 (2022) uses a similar concept to demonstrate the physical impact of the digital carbon footprint. As part of the installation, the quantity of data used to carry out digital acts - a video call, watching a TV show, listening to music - is transformed into the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide which is then released into a tank containing plants. The installation is based out of Biersteker’s studio in the Netherlands, with users hoping to see the impact of their usage on the environment able to book time slots to test the artwork out.
If Biersteker’s work communicates an urgency, it is not hopeless. In Econario (2022), a collaboration with the National History Museum, a five metre robotic plant moves according to the data it is fed. Depending on how sustainable each scenario is, the robot will grow to a certain height - the maximum being five metres. In this way, Econario helps visualise the choices we make - collectively - in a way that feels more accessible than an infographic shared on social media (and MB data used!) might. It is also important to make mention of the Woven Studio, founded by Biersteker with studio director Sophie de Krom, in order to sustainably create the artworks that become the basis of his collaborations. A material passport is calculated, which charts the emissions as well as the recyclability of each work. These are small steps, but undoubtedly ones that the art world and beyond must take note of.
Though Biersteker’s work often takes a very technological approach, with a skillful mastery of reinterpreting machine-fed data, the artist also has a way of leveraging data to lend nature a voice. This is quite literally the intention behind Voice of Nature (2018), a collaboration with Delft Technical University, in which sensors are used to visualise how a tree might feel in realtime. It might sound speculative, but that could hardly be less true. Each year, as trees add another ring to their trunk, they record changes and processes over time - such as disease, pollution, fire and drought. In Voice of Nature, this annual record becomes a record in real time. By connecting sensors to the roots, leaves and branches of a tree, an algorithm was used to create a digital ring each second using data such as CO2 levels, temperature, and so on. It’s a concept taken further by Biersteker in 2020 with Econtinuum, a collaboration with botanist and neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso. For the installation, two large-scale root structures created out of recycled plastics were used to represent a conversation between two trees. Again, speculative or grounded in reality? Informed by research into plant communications, the installation uses Eco AI to recreate the ways in which tree root systems are used to share nutrients along a fungal network.
Through collaborative projects such as Econtinuum, Biersteker demonstrates how we can benefit from collective action. Practically, this means creative and visual interpretations of data and science that might provoke action. Emotionally, it might mean making us a little more thoughtful and careful of our surroundings. Trees, after all, only have a certain number of rings.
Interview ELLIE BROWN
Images MATIAS ALFONZO
Photographs of THIJS MATIAS BIERSTEKER
Grooming ANH NGUYAEN USING NARS AND KEVIN MURPHY
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