Land Art Generator: Renewing Energy through Public Art
An Interview with Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian
By: Kaitlin Bundy
Issue 13 Fall 2014
Renewable energy is an exciting and continuously budding focus these days, it presents new, clean alternatives in creating energy that will not deplete. As such, the usage and incorporation of renewable energy sources has been gaining momentum and today we easily recognize many of the attempts to harness it. With this insurgence of renewable energy technology, art and design has gleaned the opportunity to pair with it to create further value.
The Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), is an international initiative activating interdisciplinary teams to conceive of large-scale public artwork for specific sites that artfully provide utility-scale clean energy to the city grid. The project combines renewable infrastructure design with international cultural exchange, and community educational outreach. The Land Art Generator Initiative is providing artists, designers, engineers, and more the opportunity to show that renewable energy can be both functional and beautiful.
CATALYST: Please describe the Land Art Generator Initiative; its goals, purpose, and the origin of the Initiative.
LAGI: The Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) is a worldwide public arts initiative that offers the opportunity for collaborative teams of artists, architects, landscape architects and designers, working with engineers and scientists to create new ways of thinking about what renewable energy generation looks like.
It begins with the statement that renewable energy generation can be beautiful at the same time that it is functional. It broadens public awareness of renewable energy’s promise by inspiring and educating through public art and the potential for a sustainable future.
The LAGI project calls on design teams to conceive of large-scale public artworks for specific sites that, in addition to their conceptual beauty, also have the ability to harness clean renewable energy from nature, convert the energy to electrical power, and safely distribute the power for use by the city electrical grid.
The goal of the Land Art Generator Initiative is to enable the construction of a series of public art installations that uniquely combine aesthetics with utility scale clean energy generation. The works will serve to inspire and educate while they provide renewable power to thousands of homes around the world.
It seems to us that resistance to a transition from fossil fuel and nuclear dependence all too often takes refuge in arguments that hinge on questions of aesthetics. These questions pertain to both our public visual and audial environments, and they are most relevant as installations come into closer proximity with urban centers and residential and commercial districts, giving rise to the not-in-my-backyard reaction to proposed renewable energy installations.
LAGI is providing creative alternatives, and by combining energy generation with art—also serving to provide a testbed for the application of new technologies in a context where efficiency (capacity factor of the renewable energy conversion) is not the primary criterion for project success.
CATALYST: What inspired you to bring together artists, architects, scientists, and engineers to tackle the problems of the 21st century energy crisis?
LAGI: We were living in Dubai at the time that we conceptualized LAGI (2008), surrounded by ambitious projects springing up around us. Inspired by the landscape, we began to work on concepts for large-scale net-zero architectural projects that made the most of the United Arab Emirates climate through active and passive solar power systems—making use of aggressive integration of renewable energy technologies that are more often found in open field sites, utility-scale power generation installations—such as heliostats, concentrated solar power parabolic troughs, evacuated tubes, concentrated photovoltaic modules, and solar updraft.
It occurred to us that the design of distributed and urbanized energy infrastructure could be given great momentum if it were to be promoted within the genre of public art. Art has the power to speak to the heart and inspire people to collective action. The LAGI project could set a path for creative individuals to engage in pragmatic solutions in addition to creating thought-provoking reactions to the problems that face us (global warming, resource management, environmental pollution).
We sat down in front of the Ski Dubai slopes one evening and brainstormed the concept of the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), sketching ideas on napkins of what the project would look like. We quickly got to the root of the questions, “Can renewable energy be beautiful at the same time that it is practical?” and “how can artists, designers and architects work in harmony with scientists and engineers to solve the pressing issues of our time?”
Dubai offered the first competition—LAGI 2010—a context of expansive Arabian landscapes, a thriving art scene, avant-garde architecture, a receptivity to cultural innovation, and an overabundance of renewable natural resources (solar, wind, and wave) set so intriguingly against a petroleum-export economy with the second highest per-capita carbon footprint.
We are currently working towards the construction of WindNest, which was a submission by Clare Olsen and Trevor Lee for the 2010 competition for a site in Abu Dhabi. We are in the early stages of fundraising and we have some strong partners on board. It will be built for two sites in Pittsburgh, which is an entirely different context than it was designed for originally. So the artist team will be working to adapt the design to the new context. WindNest will present a model for what renewable energy generation can aspire to be within urban landscapes. More information can be found at http://landartgenerator.org/blagi/archives/3091
CATALYST: How would you describe the meaning of a ‘creative city’?
How does your work support the creation of such a city?
LAGI: Interdisciplinary collaboration and partnerships are very important when engaged in an endeavor that combines the creative processes of design and the arts with the objectives of emerging applied science, engineering, architecture, and public policy. To us it seems critical that creatives sit at the table with policy makers, and vice versa. Solving big issues takes big teams with multidisciplinary perspectives.
Cities are complex organisms with elaborate and interconnected distribution networks for energy, information, housing, transportation, resources, and much more. A city basks in the sunshine, it feels the movement of the air, and it intimately experiences the workings of the rain and water flows. A living city is nurtured by its inhabitants and by natural energies. A Creative city is one that recognizes the intricacies of these systems and integrates them into aesthetically considered environments.
One of the methods of accomplishing this integration is to consistantly challenge the common wisdom of what the individual pieces should be. What makes a park a park, a street a street, a power plant a power plant? How do these pieces serve the whole, and where are the overlaps that can create efficiencies and increase livability? Our work has been focused on finding overlapping interests between distributed renewable energy infrastructure and the other existing systems within the city.
CATALYST: In 2012, LAGI competition took place in Freshkills Park, the former Fresh Kills Landfill in New York City. Why did you choose this location?
What interested you about the former landfill?
LAGI: The choice of Freshkills Park in New York City’s Staten Island was a natural progression for the LAGI competition. As a “canvas” it provided teams with rich cultural, historical, and conceptual terrain within which to develop their design approaches.
The reclamation of Fresh Kills Landfill will continue to mark an era of healing and inspiration for Staten Islanders and New Yorkers, standing as a beautiful monument to restoration and ecological adaptation. It is a symbol of our collective ability to learn from our past and move beyond the status quo and towards a more sustainable ideal. This reclamation could be seen as a metaphor for the entire planet.
After many generations of inconsiderate consumption of non-renewable natural resources and the disposal of the synthetic byproducts of industry and commerce within our fragile biosphere, we have recently awoken from our slumber.
The 2012 LAGI design competition was an opportunity to juxtapose these important issues (our energy and waste infrastructures) and to conceive of solutions that could be adaptable to other landfill reclamation projects in cities around the world. In choosing Freshkills Park, we hoped to present viable models for sustainable and multi-purpose “public energy landscapes,” mindful of the fact that Freshkills Park is actively engaged in studying the feasibility of more conventional wind and solar installations within its landscape. We received 250 submissions from interdisciplinary teams (consisting of 2-8 members). The submissions represent 40 countries.
Freshkills Park has shown that the world’s largest landfill can become a great city park, and it seems fitting that the question be asked whether there is a capacity for our great city parks to artfully contribute to our sustainable energy infrastructure.
CATALYST: Did you find anything unique or interesting about holding the competition in New York City? What are your hopes in making New York a sustainable city?
LAGI: We were thrilled by the enthusiasm and support that we received from all corners of the city—from the early planning through the exhibition and public events. The support from the New York City Departments of Sanitation and Parks & Recreation was tremendous. What was more important though about holding the competition in New York City was holding it in the Borough of Staten Island. There was a lot of very personal interest from the community in the project and the idea.
New York City has the best chance of becoming the first major metropolitan area in the USA to achieve carbon neutrality, although still a distant future. The groundwork has begun to be set and while the PlaNYC goal is to reduce emissions 30% by 2030, it would be great to see an even more ambitious target.
CATALYST: 2014 will represent LAGI’s third competition, this year taking place in Copenhagen. What made you choose Copenhagen as the coming year’s competition location?
LAGI: We first visited Copenhagen in January of 2010 (simultaneous to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 15) to give a presentation about LAGI at the “Artwork between Technology and Nature” conference. We both felt that it would be an inspirational city to hold a LAGI competition, but at that time it was just a dream. In 2011 we met Lea Schick, a PhD student at IT University in Copenhagen at a conference in Istanbul at which we were all speaking. We stayed in touch with her throughout the process of LAGI NYC and she asked if we might be interested in Copenhagen for LAGI 2014. It seemed like the perfect choice for the site of the next competition for many reasons, not the least of which is the City’s embrace of renewable energy and sustainable development models. Copenhagen is being honored as the 2014 European Green Capital (of which we are an event partner), so the timing to bring LAGI 2014 to this city could not have been better.
CATALYST: How do you pick the locations for your competitions?
What is the criteria for choosing locations for the competition?
LAGI: The sites are chosen because they all fit the following three criteria: 1. they combine the perfect mix of adjacency to natural beauty and proximity to urban areas, 2. they have ample access to renewable energy resources, and 3. the LAGI artworks will be compatible with existing development plans.
We choose sites that will inspire the minds of the design teams, as well as the residents, local stakeholders, and decision-makers of the cities.
The central design site for LAGI 2014 can be seen across the harbor from the Little Mermaid. Refshaleoen at its height was a shipyard that employed 8,000 individuals and is poised to be an important area for new development within the city.
The rich historical context of the site, and its place in Copenhagen’s future will inform the design proposals. We are looking forward to very interesting results this year.
CATALYST: What do you think is the biggest value these competitions bring to a community and/or city?
LAGI: The competition model provides a platform that gives permission to participants to experiment and innovate. They are not bound to any predetermined outcome or expectation (within the design brief there is great latitude for creativity). It gives participants access to a new public sphere where they participate in lectures, exhibits, and publications.
Once the team presents their ideas to the LAGI community, the dialogue expands as their contribution becomes a part of the larger network of ideas, continuously building and evolving.
The results of the competitions provide the communities surrounding the design sites with new ways of imagining their home. And it shows that we do not need to settle for an either/or scenario between providing renewable energy and preserving the beauty of our natural and constructed environments. We can do both at once.
CATALYST: What is your current level of involvement in the communities you develop after a competition has occurred? Do you think that will change at all in the future?
LAGI: Events being organized in conjunction with LAGI 2014 are a perfect example of our integrated community involvement. Throughout 2014 and beyond we will be organizing master classes and community workshops throughout Denmark with the following themes:
How can Denmark establish a network and fertilize collaboration across municipalities and across decision-makers, industry, and utility companies around the conversation of renewable energy?
How can all communities (academic, political, industry, citizens) within Denmark actively participate in the discussion of renewable energy?
How can energy production move into the city space and help create more livable cities?
How can future renewable energy be aesthetically shaped?
CATALYST: What types of projects do you foresee exploring in the future and how might they be different than what you are currently working on?
LAGI: We are very interested in expanding the LAGI project to include dense urban environments and air filtering (we would love to take the project to China to tackle this issue). We are always looking towards new design solutions that can further the aesthetic integration of sustainable systems into our everyday lives and that can better the lives of those who are experiencing energy poverty around the world. We are working to provide a global platform for idea generation, and to help to communicate art through the criticality of enacting corrective environmental policies.
CATALYST: How can we make the public interested and engaged in a green transition into a future based on renewable energy?
LAGI: We are concerned with the disconnect between the general public’s interest and engagement (which seems to be already there) and the lack of initiative and transparent decision quality from the vested interests and policy makers. The failure of the last few COPs makes evident this failure of our leaders to reflect the majority opinion of their stakeholders and the science of climate change.
But we are optimistic that the tipping point is near. For our part, we see that art has the ability to empower movements. One way to further engage the public is to help engender a collective frame of discourse that can stir imaginations about what is possible.
CATALYST: Are there any ways in which you feel you can serve as a role model for the global community in the development of creative and sustainable cities? Do you foresee collaborating with global partners?
LAGI: Land art generators are both working models of renewable energy infrastructure and teachable works of ecological art. By helping to create places that people can point to as examples of how a green transition can occur, we hope that these will provide planners with another tool in their kit of sustainable place making. LAGI is already collaborating with global partners and we hope to be a part of the construction of land art generators in cities around the world over the coming decades.
CATALYST: Can you speak to how Land Art Generator’s projects advance equality, maintain the environment and stimulate economy through design?
What is Land Art Generator’s relationship to “culture” in the cities you work in?
LAGI: Public art serves many purposes. It teaches, inspires, and adds pleasure and interest to our days. It generates tourism and increased economic development.
It gives us the ability to question our assumptions about place, space, materials, and the meaning of things, and it generally strengthens our communities in ways that are innumerable and defy explanation. Can public art do these things and more?
Land Art Generator public artworks pay back both their carbon footprint and their installation cost over time, making them the perfect investment in our future.
The capacity of public artwork (especially large-scale and high-profile works) to increase economic activity is well documented. According to the NYC Economic Development Corporation, NYC Waterfalls by Olafur Eliasson, cost $15.5 million to install (privately funded) and brought an estimated $53 million in incremental spending from visitors who came to see the installation over the nearly four months that it was in operation. That is an extra $483,000 per day to Manhattan businesses as a direct result of a public art installation.
Imagine a permanent work of art of a similar scale and with similar economic stimulus benefit.
And now imagine that this work of art educates hundreds of visitors every day about the technology that it employs, while contributing clean energy to the electrical grid.
Art and design have the power to express beauty and function, which can unite a vision and inspire people to collective action. Creative individuals play a vital role in the ecosystem of the city. They can bring pragmatism to complex solutions, as well as create thought-provoking reactions to the problems that face us in the 21st century.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Activate interdisciplinary teams to conceive of large-scale public artwork for specific sites that artfully provide utility-scale clean energy to the city grid.
Increase economic activity through public artwork. It is proven that planned, urban artwork can have a direct and measurable positive impact on businesses in the artwork’s vicinity.
Neutralize the carbon footprint of an artwork installation over time to gain true triple bottom line sustainability.
Stir imaginations about what is possible. Art can be the vehicle and the driver to change.
About the Author:
Robert Ferry, RA, LEED AP BD+C, is the founding co-director of the LandArt Generator Initiative and Studied Impact Design. His focus is on designing net-positive environments that achieve complete harmony with their local and global environments and with the people who use them. The Land Art Generator Initiative project has been featured in numerous international press outlets, including The New York Times and Dwell Magazine.
Elizabeth Monoian is the founder and director of Society for Cultural Exchange, a non-profit organization that is developing international exchanges between communities, academics, and artists. Under SCE she is the founding co-director of the Land Art Generator Initiative. Elizabeth is an interdisciplinary artist and designer whose work has been screened and exhibited in venues throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the United States.