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Beyond the Surface

On May 31, 2013 The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education presented Beyond the Surface: Environmental Art in Action – A conference of ideas and innovative thinking about the relationships between art and nature.

This unique, first time conference brought over 100 professionals from the region and beyond (as far as Maine and North Carolina) to hear from the Advisory Team about their own individual practices, and then to join them in conversations.  Below are each team members’ presentations, for those of you who wish to hear from them directly.

The afternoon sessions were  titled “Activate,” Integrate” and “Engage.” Undoubtedly, this one-day conference has sparked ideas and ways forward to attendees from the cultural and environmental communities. We look forward to continuing the conversations.

Below, are each advisory team member’s morning presentations. Each were asked to speak on the work they do, have done, and speak to the issues pertaining to ecological art.

Lillian Ball

on how she became an ecological artist, focusing on water.

Sam Bower

on things that changed his life: Andy Goldsworthy, Deborah Small, Art as part of a system.

Stacy Levy

on a new kind of art, her own work, and the importance of collaboration and approaches, how artists make nature more visible.

Amy Lipton

see more about Amy Lipton’s work with ecoartspace

Eve Mosher

on participation, interruption and interaction in her work. Watch her have the audience reflect on their first encounters with nature. See her nine concepts about her practice.

Frances Whitehead

on her work in sustainability, her practice: personal, pedagogical and professional.


This conference was made possible by the generous support of the Pew Center for Arts And Heritage Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative and The National Endowment for the Arts.


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Land Lab Program

Stacy Levy, Kept Out, 2009

We are very excited to announce our new residency program, The LandLab Program.

As a collaboration between The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education (SCEE) and The Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA), The Landlab program invites professional artists to create projects which operate on the multiple platforms of artistic creation, ecological restoration and education. Specifically, four paid residencies of $3,000 each, taking place from April – October 2014, will grant selected artists resources and space on SCEE’s 340-acre property to engage audiences in the processes of ecological stewardship through scientific investigation and artistic creation. Our residency provides large outdoor spaces and limited indoor workspace, but does not provide living spaces. Artists will be expected to provide their own housing. Having a vehicle is recommended.

LandLab projects will result in innovative, art-based installations that prevent or remediate environmental damage conditions while raising public awareness about our local ecology.

LandLab seeks artists engaged in environmental exploration and discovery, who work well collaboratively across disciplines, have a working understanding and/or awareness of the ecology of Eastern Pennsylvania region, and are committed to deepening public awareness of environmental issues through their artistic practice. LandLab projects will prioritize time spent on site and a process of investigation.

The Schuylkill Center creates connections between people and nature by using our forests and fields as a living laboratory. The Center for Emerging Visual Artists provides career development services for professional visual artists, helps artists reach their audiences, and promotes interest in and understanding of the visual arts among citizens of the Philadelphia region. Together and through this first program of its kind in Philadelphia, we invite all professional visual artists who fit these criteria and are able to work on-site at SCEE for the summer of 2014 to apply before October 15, 2013.

For more information & to apply online, please visit

LandLab is supported by The Knight Foundation


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Collaboration As a Means, Not an End

By Amy Lipton

In my work with ecoartspace over the past 12 years focusing on ecological artists and their projects, the term collaboration has been frequently evoked. The intention behind much of this work is to restore, remediate or transform damaged landscapes and also to educate the public about specific environmental problems or challenges. Artists taking on this imperative seek to inspire modification of human behaviors that have negatively impacted the earth’s ecological systems. Their work embodies what German artist Joseph Beuys coined as “social sculpture” over 50 years ago to illustrate art’s potential to shape society and the environment.

Joseph Beuys planting 7,000 Oaks for Documenta 7 (1982)

Ecological art demands forms of collaboration that are still rare in studio art practice in 2013. Collaboration in visual art (as opposed to design and architecture as well as performance-based art) is antithetical and contradictory to the position of the lone, iconoclastic artist of modernist/20th century ideals. Art schools continue to train artists to work independently as solo agents, emphasizing preparation for the entrenched market system of gallery and museum exhibitions and the art fair circuit to produce name brands. Ecological artists work from a different mindset, one which mirrors natural systems. Collaboration is not only a worthy goal or desire, but also a necessity in order to further community-based/public/infrastructure projects and to learn from needed specialists in other disciplines including science and engineering. Often the goal of these projects is to function (this word confronts all notions of art as useless) as components in ecological systems, operating outside of art spheres altogether. In order to succeed with their projects ecological artists must take into account the needs of specific communities with all constituents of these communities – human and non-human. Collaboration (and by implication participation) is a current art world buzzword. Used in terms of relational aesthetics, social practice art, and community based art projects, the word risks losing all meaning as just another trend for the art world to absorb. However collaboration is difficult and not for all artists – nor should it be.

The collaborative process itself is intrinsic to the art making and the results of art interventions in ecological systems usually improve over time. Time itself is a key component. Meaningful dialogue and discussion towards a shared goal takes a long time. Ecological art projects can take several years of planning before implementation. Aside from the vision of the initial collaborative team and the work that went into achieving consensus, projects often require a lengthy permission process from bureaucratic government officials and agencies, business and private interests as well as community support, involvement and at best citizen participation. In recent years emerging artists have been addressing environmental issues and sustainability on a smaller, more immediate scale. This comes from a desire to create work in less time by doing more temporal public art works and bypassing the need for permits. These artists have developed ways of working that are performative and include direct engagement by the artist with the public.

A recently completed curatorial project of mine titled TRANSported has been exemplary in demonstrating this collaborative participatory process. Habitat for Artists, an evolving collective of eighteen artists (they were included in my 2009 Schuylkill Arts Center project Down to Earth: Artists Create Edible Landscapes) created a self-sustaining artists studio and shared space for discussion and engagement held for one month by the Hudson River in Battery Park City, NY. Changing on a daily basis, artists and partnering organizations worked both inside and outside of a shipping container – converted into art studio space. The container was powered by the use of solar roof panels and included a square foot roof garden. Exterior sides included a vertical green wall, rain barrel collection for water, attached hoop greenhouse for growing seedlings and a blackboard for drawing and changing communications. Over the course of 30 days the container became a hub for workshops, an ecological information and education center, after-school art space, artist in residence program – one huge interactive social sculpture.

Artists working inside the habitat
photo credit: Mario Mohan

Artists working inside the habitat (Pictured: Marion Wilson, Michael Asbill and Michele Hersh)
photo credit: Mario Mohan

The elements that went into making this collaborative project successful included:

1. The artists having a shared purpose over and beyond their individual expression.
2. A non-hierarchical decision making process with no specific leader.
3. Process over product- viewer engagement was the goal.
4. An interest in crossing disciplines and working with partners to learn.
5. A willingness to accept unpredictability and flexibility including limitations of weather and last minute changes in personnel.
6. Understanding that evolving daily changes to the space over time were a key component of the overall project.

The Habitat for Artists participants each contributed a different component, working within their unique methods and styles for the benefit of a larger shared art/ecosystem and demonstrating that collaboration is a means and not an end.

The collaborative approach to art-making that is inherent in ecological art calls into question some of the most basic premises of the contemporary art world and artists.  However, both the pressing ecological issues and the need for broad social co-operation in global society necessitate the shift to a collaborative sensibility.  Following on Beuys’ idea of social sculpture, art can point society in meaningful directions.

Amy Lipton, Curator and SCEE advisory panel member, 2012-2013

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Post Normal Art

by Frances Whitehead

“All that was ‘normal’ has now evaporated; we have entered postnormal times, the in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have not yet emerged, and nothing really makes sense… We will have to imagine ourselves out of postnormal times—with an ethical compass and a broad spectrum of imaginations from the rich diversity of human cultures.”

– Ziauddin Sadar, Welcome to Postnormal Times, 2009

So prevalent are the terms “post” and “post-normal” as signifiers for the shifting ground of contemporary thought, that we must ask: What is post-normal art?”

Thomas Kuhn’s term “paradigm shift” has entered the popular vocabulary, but recently we have seen a resurgence of interest in Kuhn’s thinking, including a reassessment of his ideas about “Normal Science” and the importance of “Post Normal Science”, especially to climate science and policy.   Broadened still further by the economic events of 2008-09, the discourse around the “Post Normal” (or New Normal) is being addressed by thinkers from many sectors. The prefix “post” is frequently used to describe the current state of ecological, economic and social-cultural affairs, and implies that we are indeed living in the future of a past era.  We invoke our past as part of our current paradigm –Post-carbon, Post-industrial and Post-colonial are inherited cultural landscapes. Interviews with a wide variety of such thinkers can be heard online at The Conversation: In Search of the New Normal.

Undoubtedly, Kuhn did not intend the term “Normal Science” to be understood ironically. However, in today’s usage, the idea of the “normal” functions as a trope, an ironic metaphor for the deep fissures and uncertainties in the cultural at large. Given the legacy of the avant garde and artistic experimentation, we sense this irony immediately when we transpose Kuhn’s model to Art practice.   In this context, “normal” is an indictment of sorts, a failure to contend to what is all around us.  We are faced with the curiously problematic proposition of “Normal Art” or the uncertainties and possibilities of “Post Normal Art.”

In the last few years, many artists have opted for the latter, shifting their creative practices away from “The Normal” towards a deeper engagement with systems, complexity, and context, a decidedly “Post-Normal” perspective.  While some work with ecological themes of water, landscape, soil, food systems and remediative strategies, much of this new work connects ideas and sites in ways unimaginable a decade prior, bringing the art historically recognized genres of “earthwork”, “eco-art”, and environmental “activism” into connectivity with socio-cultural, rural and urban, art + design practices, principally through collaboration. Meanwhile, the global discourse in this area has adopted the theoretical framework of “sustainability” (even “Post-Sustainability with its focus on adaptation).  These multifaceted perspectives see “Post” landscapes as actualizations of cultural paradigms and sites of intervention as Post Normal Art, connecting emerging critical, spatial and civic media and practices, further shifting the cultural quo.

Working through my collaborative studio identity ARTetal, my Post Normal practice has been focused primarily in urban sites.  Emerging from the question, What do Artists Know?”  ARTetal has developed entrepreneurial strategies for artists to work at the urban scale and partner with equally adventurous civic partners.

SLOW Cleanup moves Post-Carbon environmental remediation into the territory of Post Normal Science as it engages the Chicago community and leverages underutilized capitals (assets) of space, time, and human capacity.

Environmental Sentinel is a three mile climate monitoring work planned for Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail, a Post-Industrial adaptation project.  Embedded within the landscape design, atop a repurposed railroad embankment, this phenologic planting will reveal the temperature moderating effect of Lake Michigan with a flowering spectacle, and signal micro-climate changes over the next century. The science will be conducted by citizen scientists and citizen artists, Post Normal “Art + Science”.

ARTetal Studio + The Bloomimgdale © 2012

Understanding that communities of artists and designers are themselves under-utilized resources barely tapped, a Post Normal creative opportunity brings SAIC faculty and students to the service of the City of Lima, Peru with new urban agriculture programs.  An open source response to Lima’s colonial legacy –a redistribution of capacity– this Post Colonial intervention is also Post Normal Cultural Heritage, as the site for the work is the Cercado, or historic district.

Spatially efficient hex-shaped growing modules for social housing rooftop garden, Lima Peru © The Lima Project 2012


Frances Whitehead © 2012


Introduced to the City of Lima through potato research at the Centro Internacional de la Papa, the global diaspora of the potato and its relationship to colonialism, tacit and explicit, connects these civically driven, urban interventions to the rural countryside of west Ireland and the Post Agricultural work of artist Deirdre O’Mahony.

Like many post industrial “shrinking” cities, the west of Ireland has steadily lost population from economic policy and emigration, leaving an abandoned landscape and shifting paradigms.


Deirdre O’Mahony Abandoned Clare The Shed School. Roxton County Clare, Ireland, © 2009.

O’Mahony frames her work in this way:

“The landscape of the west of Ireland has immense cultural importance, serving a double function as a representation of the post-colonial nation state and as a signifier of alterity in Ireland.  My focus as an artist has been on reframing landscape as an active mode of cultural reflection, rather than a nostalgic reminder of a purer past“

Current (Post) rural development policies now promote the farmer as what O’Mahony refers to as “custodian of the landscape”, a paradigm shift from the rural as a site of food production to an arena of (Post Normal) cultural production.  Here O’Mahony initiated and collaboratively runs the public art project X-PO; a “Post” post office.

O’Mahony describes the project:

 “Re-imagined as “X-PO” the site is a functioning model of a reflexive space where the social, economic and environmental choices and problems of rural communities are visible and open for discussion. It is a space where different forms of knowledge: social, historical, agricultural and cultural, can make unexpected and transcendent connections and conjunctions. It also enables participants in a fragmented, dispersed social landscape to meet.”

Peter Rees X-PO Spring 2008, © Peter Rees 2008.

Much like policies in the US, European Agricultural subsidies have supported economically unsustainable small farms in the west of Ireland, paradoxically preserving much of the tacit, place-based, local knowledge around land cultivation. This knowledge is becoming increasingly redundant, forgotten, or outmoded in a “post- productivist” landscape.

Deirdre O’Mahony: SPUD © 2011

In this context O’Mahony has begun project SPUD, a pamphlet guide to making traditional Irish ‘lazy-beds’, a simple and effective way of cultivating potatoes that is also suitable for small urban gardens.

This inversion (or equation) of culture and agriculture, of post rural and post urban, of artist and agri+culturist, connects O’Mahony to urban sites through culturally driven knowledge transfer and the urban forager artist, Nancy Klehm.  Both Deirdre O’Mahony and Nancy Klehm work with literal and metaphoric Shifting Ground by action research, a principal methodology of “Post Normal Art”.

Nancy Klehm ventures into the remote areas of cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angles, leading groups on foraging tours to discover and collect the comestibles of the post urban wilderness, replete with resilient species, native and non-native alike.

Writing under the moniker of Weedeater, Klehm brings decades of plant knowledge from her extended family of plantsmen and horticulturists to the service of what Klehm calls “homegrown counterculture”.  Motivated by a fierce autonomy and deep respect for complex natural processes, Klehm hybridizes art practice with horticulture, direct experience, and deep community in equal measure.


Klehm explaining vermiculture at the Pacific Garden Mission greenhouse, 2008
Photo: F.Whitehead © 2008

Similar strategies are employed by urban arts groups such as Carbon Arts of Melbourne, Australia, and the rural development organization Littoral in the UK.

We can understand these projects as a constellation of diverse urban and rural practices, which utilize top down, bottom up and hybrid collaborative strategies and partnerships.  In this way, Post Normal Art practitioners, including those cited here, work both within and outside of irony, both within and outside of experimental art models, and embrace the “chaos, contradiction, and complexity” that typifies life in Post Normal Times.

© Frances Whitehead 2013

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Below is the information about our upcoming conference, a large part of this planning project. Online registration is available here!

Beyond the Surface: Environmental Art in Action

Hosted by the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

May 31, 2013

Stacy Levy, Pier 53

Join us for a day of ideas and innovative thinking, investigating relationships between art and nature.



Conference Description

How can environmental art engage the environment and the individual, activate awareness, and integrate perspectives that result in unexpected and innovative approaches to environmental literacy?

While the natural world has captured the imagination of artists for centuries, more and more of today’s artists are thinking beyond the studio, blending art, science and social practice with a fresh sense of immediacy, connecting art to nature and environmental issues.  No longer content with scratching the surface of environmental problems, these artists want to move beyond the surface, engaging audiences to become part of the solution.

This conference brings a team of cutting-edge environmental artists and arts professionals to Philadelphia to share this work with you, to discuss ways art can create environmental awareness while restoring ecological systems.

Jenny Sabin, Greenhouse and Cabinet of Future Fossils

The artists presenting at the conference have been working with these ideas for much of their careers. To call attention to climate change, for example, Eve Mosher painted a high-water line across Manhattan, showing people where the water would rise to if sea-level projections occur. Stacy Levy’s artwork in the Schuylkill Center’s Sensory Garden remediates our building’s stormwater, which had been compromising our own forest.  Lillian Ball projected a shifting, multicolored map of the Arctic circle onto a sphere of ice, the ice melting even as the projected image showed a vanishing Arctic.

The Schuylkill Center’s Art Department has brought artists to its 340 acre site since 2001. This year, the Center has gone further, examining how art intersects with other disciplines –education, ecology, architecture, engineering and planning, to name a few, to create fresh innovations and exciting experiences for the public. Our project has brought together an Advisory Team of the artists and curators who work in the field of environmental art.  (Please visit for more information about this project, the team and to read their blogs).

We believe art can help to repair a broken relationship between humans and nature and simultaneously transform audiences from passive observers of art to active participants in ecosystems.

Lillian Ball, WATERWASH® ABC

We are re-thinking how art exists at nature centers, and are eager to share these findings with our colleagues in the art and environmental communities.   We welcome artists, educators, environmentalists, scientists, designers, landscape architects, teachers and students of all ages to this groundbreaking event.



Conference Schedule 

Morning Session: 9 am – 12 pm

1. Welcome by Schuylkill Center Executive Director Mike Weilbacher

2. Introduction by Jenny Laden, the Schuylkill Center’s Director of Environmental Art, and Deenah Loeb, SCEE trustee and chair of the Environmental Art Committee

3. Environmental Art Advisory Team Presentations:

Lillian Ball

Sam Bower

Amy Lipton

Eve Mosher

Stacy Levy

Frances Whitehead


Lunch: 1 – 2 pm

Optional site visit:  Take aninformal walk throughout SCEE lands with SCEE staff to the pine grove or Penn’s Native Acres


1. Breakout Groups: 2 – 3:30 pm

Afternoon Breakout groups will delve more deeply (guided by members of Environmental  Art Advisory Team)

I. Engage              Eve Mosher/Amy Lipton

II. Integrate        Frances Whitehead/Stacy Levy

III. Activate         Lillian Ball/ Sam Bower

2. RainYard presentation by Stacy Levy:  4 – 4:45 pm

Levy discusses rainwater, and creating a permanent ecovention at SCEE.

3. Closing: 4:45 pm

4. Outdoor reception:  5 – 6 pm

Celebrate Levy’s new installation with refreshments in the Sensory Garden.




Conference Registration

Conference admission fee $80
Schuylkill Center member discounted admission $60
Students, artists, educators discounted admission $40

Early Registration Special: Until March 31, a 20% discount will be applied at checkout

Register online HERE

For more information, call our art department 215 482 7300 x 113  or visit our website:

Or email

This even is funded in part by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage and The National Endowment of the Arts.

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Time Frames

by Sam Bower 2013














Standing in the woods near the pond at the Schuylkill Center, we can look out and see a range of time scales. The brown and golden leaves under our feet from the Fall- the leftovers of a year’s work by the trees above us. Perhaps there’s snow still on the ground from a recent storm, itself the result of the vast cycles of evaporation off the ground and from lakes and oceans into the atmosphere and clouds and back down again. Some of the trees around us are decades, maybe hundreds of years old. Frogs and fish and insects hidden underground or inside vegetation, birds in their nests chirping and flitting about, grasses, flowers each have their lifespans and carefully timed cycles to support, prey on or evade each other – evolved over thousands, even millions of years.

Changing urban land use patterns offer opportunities for shifts in paradigm, innovation and art: (

When we think of culture and public art, we have an opportunity to think along similar time scales. Humans also have their cycles of productivity, lifespans and fleeting passions. These interests also evolve over time to reflect our knowledge, context and the resources at hand.

Sometimes an artwork arrives with a bang and loud trumpets and just as quickly fades into the day or week or month only to live on in memory and documentation. Like sighting a rare Blue-winged Warbler in the forest, or waking up to an overnight dusting of snow that makes the line of every tree suddenly visible, or the miracle of a drop of dew on a leaf in the Summer that reflects a world upside down, these brief events delight and remind us of the preciousness of the present moment. Some things are simply best communicated ephemerally. A song. A performance. A rain shadow.

On the medium scale, we have most plants and animals and planted crops and, alas, most human projects. We tend to think in terms of months or years or at best decades. A hundred years without regular maintenance is long for a built structure, long for most outdoor sculptures, too, even those meant to be “permanent”. It’s the lifespan of an exhibition, a person, a raven, a grove of Sassafrass (albidum) and it serves to ground us in the familiar. We can see it and know it because it’s us. Within a century, with the strategic accumulation of such medium scale projects, we can make major improvements or changes to a place and set things in motion that can last a lot longer.

It’s the larger time frame that gets the least attention and is often more difficult to wrap our heads around. The scope of generations. Climate change. Geological time. Too often, these big shifts elude us. We claim not to know. A sudden revolution or a storm or an accident can thwart the best laid plans. Ultimately, we know that a focus on the specific is often too limiting a scale for something long lived and significant.

At the Schuylkill Center, the increasing flow of voracious and unmanaged deer over and across the land, and the invasive Asian earthworms (Amythas hilgendorfi and agrestis) under it, are regional and even continental challenges. To encourage specific changes here, we would need to plan and coordinate with those working within much larger areas to be effective. To set in motion a resilient set of processes that truly begin to nudge us and the natural areas under our trust towards a future that can address a world in flux is an enormous challenge. At a time of massive species extinction and global changes in climate, we need a flexible and directed multi-timescale approach to culture and ecological stewardship.

The environmental art advisory team at the Schuylkill Center in 2012.

This is the challenge ahead for the Schuylkill Center. Most art, even ecological art is a flash in the pan, a tasty snack. They generate attractive catalogs and press releases and perhaps valuable discussion, but will the worms and watersheds really notice? We have large institutions for pickling great paintings and sculptures, but outdoor work designed to heal the earth and support our communities is a different animal. While a project can have representative images and installations at these museums (usually as part of a temporary exhibition), the real work gets done on the ground and in context.

Like in an ecosystem, we need the dew drops and temporary projects to delight and attract. We also require specific medium term artful initiatives to control erosion, channel rainwater, educate people longer term and connect current and future generations to the land. It falls to the long term, multi-generational projects, however, to provide a long term vision that considers the implications and resilience needed to cope with, say, a 2-6 degree rise in global temperatures over the next few hundred years. It seems we’d want to look at rising water levels – how would this affect the Schuylkill River? What local conditions will we need to ensure maximum biodiversity and habitat support for migrating species seeking more favorable habitats?

In nature, we can see the extraordinary interplay of finely tuned life cycles working together to support the system as a whole. As these delicately synchronized dances grow increasingly out of synch with pollution, temperature and weather changes, what we know and have studied over the past hundreds of years will require new interpretation. It will become less about restoration of past conditions and more about our capacity to surf these changes. Our notion of what art is will also need to change.

For ecological art to be effective, we will need to think along multiple time scales and beyond the individual artwork, towards a future-oriented cultural system as a whole. How can the brief delightful moments support the larger arc of history? Can we begin to layer and combine artworks to support each other, much like the shift from unicellular to multi-cellular life? I’m looking forward to the role the Schuylkill Center can play in this civilizational shift. It is a precious opportunity to contribute to our times and help develop new cultural patterns for generations to come.

©Sam Bower 2013


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Ecological Design Thinking

by Jenny Sabin


Figure 1 – Sabin’s myThread Pavilion for NYC Nike FlyKnit Collective; featuring a responsive Whole Garment knitted structure; image courtesy of Nike Inc.


Sustainable building practices should not simply be technical endeavors. They should include the transformation of existing built fabric into sustainable models that inspire both positive socio-cultural change and innovation in design, science, art and technology. Professor and architect, Michael Hensel at a recent symposium hosted by the Department of Architecture at Cornell University titled Sustaining Sustainability, underscored this notion (see full review by Sabin in The Architectural Review Issue #1381, March 2012). The symposium featured lectures by a diverse group of researchers and practitioners spanning multiple disciplines from biology to architecture who share a common concern for what Hensel has labeled ‘sustainability fatigue’. This symposium was not centered upon exhausted issues including energy, optimization and performance, which tend to dominate most conferences on sustainability in architecture today, but was instead focused on re-thinking the entire conceptual foundation for the project, one which fundamentally examines our relationship with nature and nature’s relationship with humans. Important to this shift, is a move away from purely technical solutions to environmental sustainability and a move towards an understanding that our built and natural environments are equally becoming the contexts for thriving hybrid ecosystems. How might architecture and art respond to issues of ecology whereby buildings and environmental interventions behave more like organisms in their built environments? And further, what role do humans play in response to changing conditions within the built environment using minimal energy consumption?

My work investigates the intersections of architecture and science, and applies insights and theories from biology and mathematics to the design of material structures. I am Assistant Professor in the area of Design and Emerging Technologies at Cornell University in the Department of Architecture, co-founder of LabStudio and principal of Jenny Sabin Studio, an experimental architectural design studio based in Philadelphia. I am interested in looking to nature for design models that give rise to new ways of thinking about issues of adaptation, change and performance in architecture.

Intersections between architecture, environmental art, materials science and biology offer fruitful models for ecological design thinking where collaborative pursuits offer new approaches to how we interact with nature in the built environment and to long term sustainable solutions in each of our individual fields.

Buildings in the U.S. alone account for nearly 40% of the total national energy consumption. Therefore, the design and production of new energy efficient technologies is crucial to successfully meet goals such as the Net-Zero Energy Commercial Building Initiative (CBI) put forward by the U.S. DOE, which aims to achieve zero-energy commercial buildings by 2025. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a rating system launched by the U.S. Green Building Council for new construction and existing building renovations. The LEED green building certification program is the industry standard for accelerating global adoption of sustainable green building and development practices. While this certification program serves as a positive and productive report card for assessing a building’s impact upon its environment, it ultimately enforces a short-term ‘check box’ mentality over long term and systemic ecological design thinking. Ecological design thinking requires a radical departure from traditional research and design models in architecture, art and science with a move towards hybrid, trans-disciplinary concepts and models for collaborating. Although there have been tremendous innovations in design, material sciences, bio- and information technologies, direct interactions and collaborations between scientists, architects and artists are rare. All of this is regardless of the fact that science, engineering, art and architecture all share the need to comprehend key social, environmental and technological issues. One approach is to couple architectural designers with engineers and biologists within a research-based laboratory-studio in order to develop new ways of thinking, seeing and doing in each of our fields.

Since the official public launch in the fall of 2010 of our National Science Foundation (NSF) Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) Science in Energy and Environmental Design (SEED) project titled, Energy Minimization via Multi-Scalar Architectures: From Cell Contractility to Sensing Materials to Adaptive Building Skins, I (Co-PI) along with Andrew Lucia (Senior Personnel) have led a team of architects, graduate architecture students and researchers in the investigation of biologically-informed design through the visualization of complex data sets, digital fabrication and the production of experimental material systems for prototype speculations of adaptive building skins, designated eSkin, at the macro-building scale. The full team, led by Dr. Shu Yang (PI), is actively engaged in rigorous scientific research at the core of ecological building materials and design. Our project contributes to an area within architecture called responsive architecture while also presenting a unique avant-garde model for sustainable design via the fusion of the architectural design studio with laboratory-based scientific research.

Figure 2 – eSkin project, sponsored by NSF EFRI SEED, UPenn & Cornell; our emphasis rests heavily upon the study of natural and artificial ecology and design, especially in observing how cells interacting with pre-designed geometric patterns alter these patterns to generate new surface effects.

Responsive architecture, a term first coined by Nicholas Negroponte, is a type of architecture that has the ability to alter its form in response to changing conditions, particularly at multiple scales. Popular examples include Galleria Hall West (Seoul, South Korea), Institut Du Monde Arabe, Aegis Hypo-Surface, POLA Ginza Building Façade, and SmartWrap™. Most of these examples, however, rely heavily upon the use of mechanically driven units that communicate through a mainframe, and they have to be nested within a building façade system. A building’s envelope must consider a number of important design parameters including degrees of transparency, overall aesthetics and performance against external conditions such as sunlight levels, ventilation and solar heat-gain. SmartWrap™ by Kieran Timberlake architects, integrates currently segregated functions of a conventional wall, and combines them into one advanced composite system. In contrast to these examples, our emphasis rests heavily upon the study of natural and artificial ecology and design, especially in observing how cells interacting with pre-designed geometric patterns alter these patterns to generate new surface effects. These tools and modes of design thinking, are then applied towards the design and engineering of passively responsive materials, and sensors and imagers.

The synergistic, bottom-up approach across diverse disciplines, including cell-matrix biology, materials science & engineering, electrical & systems engineering, and architecture brings about a new paradigm to construct intelligent and sustainable building skins that engage users at an aesthetic level with minimal energy consumption. We hope that our interdisciplinary work and modes of ecological design thinking not only redefine definitions of research and design, but will also address pressing topics in each of our fields concerning key social, environmental and technological issues that ultimately impact all humans in our built environments.

©Jenny Sabin 2013



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Making Room for Rain

Stacy Levy



The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education is working to investigate the intersection of nature and the city. The role of rain in the landscape is being actively explored in programs and planning around its buildings. As a nature center, SCEE is at the forefront of solving site issues through art based intervention. On May 31, 2013 a conference on New Environmental Art will be held at SCEE to look at ways that art and science can collaborate to solve ecological problems in urban nature, and enlighten citizens to find new solutions in their own lives.

Rain is usually given a long narrow space to inhabit: gutters, downspouts, underground pipes. People can walk practically anywhere in a building and on the surrounding landscape. What if this paradigm got turned on its head? 
Give people a more narrow path of movement around a site while rain gets plenty of space to spread out and linger? How would our built environments change? And how would it change our relationship to rain?As an eco-artist, I want art to be an advocate of rain. Art is good at giving meaning to the leftover or abandoned aspects of the world—and rain is one of those abandoned elements. Though a yardstick worth of rain falls every yearin this region, we hardly register rain’s presence. In urban settings, architecture and engineering have generally kept rain invisible to us. The relationship between rain and the built environment needs to be changed, and art is well positioned to alter that relationship.At SCEE, I am working with ecologists, engineers and educators to create an artwork that gives the rain room to spread out while keeping people in a defined space. But people do not lose out in this design— both rain and visitors get a dynamic space to co-exist.Rain Gardens create spaces that can get wet and stay wet while the water infiltrates into the soil.

Instead of becoming a muddy soup, the rain garden holds the rain within the permeable soil and the roots of a diverse community of native plants . These plants also make good habitat for other species like insects and food for birds and other small mammals.


This new artwork deals with two types of visitors to the site: rain and humans. A grated metal catwalk prevents the plants from being trampled while also keeping people’s feet dry. ‘Staying dry’ and ‘soaking in’ are two incongruent activities—one of the reasons that rain has no place to go in the built world is the hierarchy of the dry human foot!

We want to demonstrate ways to change rain’s journey in the built environment. We also want to give visitors a chance to test out the very materials of the city: the surfaces we spend our lives walking on like asphalt, concrete and grass. How do these materials work with or work against rain?

How this art works: Some of the rainwater will be diverted and stored in an above ground cistern. Then during dry days, our visitors can pump this contained water into 5 different troughs. Each trough contains a different familiar surface materials from the landscape: concrete, asphalt, gravel lawn and meadow. People can direct the rainwater onto these different surfaces to see how the water responds— by soaking in or running off.

At SCEE rainwater will be given both the time and the place to act the way rain should act. And people will be given a place to interact with the falling rain while staying out of its way as it soaks into the soil. The idea of rain needing a refuge is a new idea to most of us. We hope people learn about rain, and the surfaces it meets in our world. This piece gives people a new angle on rain and its relationship to our built environment.

The piece will be under construction over the early spring. Please come by and see it!

Want to know more about Rain Gardens?

The Philadelphia Water Department

The Rain Garden Network

The Groundwater Foundation

The Department of Environmental Conservation

Rain Garden Alliance

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Art/ist Roles

By Eve Mosher

October 29th, Hurricane Sandy made landfall. The eye of the storm passed over New Jersey but the hurricane winds, and worse, a massive storm surge hit New York City. The storm surge, combined with high tides and sea level rise created a superstorm that sent waters rushing into the coastal areas of New York.

As images of the floods began to circulate, I got a sense of eerie familiarity. The debris line near the 14th street power station (where an explosion knocked out power for lower Manhattan for almost a week), the flooded Battery Tunnel entrance in Manhattan and the water soaked communities of Red Hook and Dumbo.

Debris in front of the ConEd substation at 14th and Ave C.(Dan Lurie / Gothamist)

Debris in front of the ConEd substation at 14th and Ave C.(Dan Lurie / Gothamist)

These images and places were where I had walked, in 2007, slowly drawing a blue chalk line along the ten foot above sea level line.

Eve Mosher’s, HighWaterLine Project on 14th street

I knew the areas well, met community members and witnessed everything along that line. I was creating a visualization based on a report written by climate scientists in 2001, which forecast more frequent severe flooding (from stronger storms) with a worst case scenario of a devastating flood once every four years by 2100.

The intention of the HighWaterLine project was to create a spectacle around which people could gather to engage in a conversation about climate change and their role in changing future scenarios.

The project has now become a rally cry for what we knew then and what the challenges we face now.


What is the place and power of art at the intersection of science, the environment and policy? And what power does art have on participating in the ever changing urban landscape?

Public works have the power to disrupt our daily routine and in so doing, leave an indelible impression upon us, scientific study even upholds the notion of the power of the unexpected From this place, art becomes an entry point for a memorable experience that can inform personal and community decisions. Some works create a space for a deeper experience and contemplation – Agnes Denes’ “Field of Wheat,” at once informed and motivated consideration on the culture of development and displacement. The “I Wish this Was…” project by artist Candy Chang sought to spur greater action – creating a space for creative thinking about development by and for a community.

Artists have a distinct ability to approach a problem or visualize an issue in a way that might exist outside the rubric of peer-reviewed reports, bureaucratic infrastructure and other frameworks which seek to create impediments instead of inspiration. Artists use visualization and emotion to convey information that could elsewhere read as dry and uninspired.

What are the various roles inhabited by art or artists that might allow participation in global issues?

  • Art/ist as commentator. Not merely editorializing on contemporary issues, but translating the facts into a work that creates an emotional experience. A successful project can go beyond the act of re-stating an issue by inciting questions and action.
  • Art/ist as collaborator. Working with science & scientists to create works that make complex knowledge accessible, and can be taken into the wider community. Mary Miss’ City as Living Laboratory/1,000 Stepsproject engages local communities, artists, scientists, planners and other stakeholders come together to design and develop projects to address sustainability along the Broadway corridor in NYC.
  • Art/ist as witness.  Work can create a space for community reaction, or act as a method of observing and documenting those reactions.
  • Art/ist as storyteller. Stories as a tool for communication are jarringly powerful. The personal relationship to issues and information creates an emotional connection. Acting as witness is also a method of collecting and redistributing stories.
  • Art/ist as catalyst. Creating works that spark or inspire change in thought and attitude or act as instigator for discussion play an important role in transfer of knowledge and civic engagement.
  • Art/ist as innovator. Unhindered by existing frameworks, artists can restructure and reinvent  solutions and methods of engagement through artistic acts.
  • Art/ist as community builder. An artist can provide an object or event upon which people can focus, showing their support, enthusiasm or varied passion. Xavier Cortada‘s Reclamation Project, which engages communities in the act of nurturing and planting mangrove trees in Florida is a simple act in which participants gain knowledge and a sense of acting to reverse the devastating impacts of development on their own communities.

After Hurricane Sandy, my work was used by Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in The New Yorker, as setting the stage for comprehension of the great challenges that lay ahead for the city of New York in addressing future floods. It was also used by Bill Weir, on ABC Nightline News to create a local visual tie to global climate change impacts as documented by the Extreme Ice Survey time lapse documentation of glacial retreat.

For me, this is indicative of the great role that art can play of focusing attention and translating complex situations into powerful, visual statements.

©Eve Mosher 2013

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