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Snapshot

Hiding In Plain Sight

By: Victoria Anstead


For: The Sallan Foundation
Date: March 2, 2010
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Snapshot
Hiding In Plain Sight

On an ordinary day in 2007, I had a professional epiphany when I was drawn to a presentation at
the American Museum of Natural History entitled “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Graphs: The
Psychology of Environmental Decision Making.” Delivered by Dr. Sabine Marx of the Center
for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University, it detailed the ways in which
the human brain processes complex bits of information leading to decisions that either ensure an
individual’s survival or spells their demise. How information is delivered, argued Marx, makes a
world of difference.

We can have a high awareness of something but not be motivated to do anything about it. Climate
change is a perfect example. This is in part because the mind has two different processing
systems: the experiential, the source of emotions and instincts, and the analytic, which controls
how we process factual or scientific data. The former is the more powerful motivator provoking
us to take action but it can be short-lived so needs to be supported by facts from the analytic side.
To effectively communicate an issue, both systems need to be engaged.

Here is where the epiphany comes in. Having spent more than twenty years in the art world as an
advisor and curator, I am thoroughly aware that art is one of the most powerful forms of
communication, a fact Marx’s research confirmed. Art, however, flies under the radar. Its vivid
imagery, metaphors and personal narratives appeal to the experiential system evoking deep
emotions. Art needs to be combined with facts to maximize its power to effect sustained
behavioral change.

What drew me to Marx’s talk, and ultimately to collaborate with her, is what drives my work
today: the opportunity to genuinely affect the decisions individuals make that impact the
environment.

Today’s art offers a trans-disciplinary model able to deliver on both the emotional and the factual.
Its creations are often collaborations of minds from interactive media and gaming, physical
computing and science as well as traditional art. It can be immersive, participatory and a potent
force in the drive toward sustainability. This is no mere hypothesis.

People are more apt to care about a problem if they feel they have an active role in solving it —
even more so when they feel part of a group. Exactly for these reasons, participatory art that
incorporates interactive and social media is potent. One example, SEED, by the artists collective
of the same name, is a web-based interactive public art project that does just this. Created for
multiple users who engage with its large-scale surreal imagery via a cell phone, players “plant”
and design virtual trees with their keypads. The amount of time each participant is engaged in
play is matched by sponsorship dollars that go to planting real trees in the places from which the
caller come. In 2007, 4,067 virtual trees became 407 actual trees.

Every green building — or one in the process of becoming greener — represents an opportunity
to increase its occupants’ understanding of the technology and their emotional embrace of the

© 2010 The Sallan Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved. http://www.sallan.org 1


Snapshot
Hiding In Plain Sight

philosophy of resource-efficient building. These buildings should engage and enable users to
become part of the process. When available at all, typical approaches to educating occupants can
be dry and didactic. While brochures, websites and even dashboards enumerating a building’s
energy saving statistics are informative if they are read, they do not always accomplish true
engagement and sustained behavior change on the part of occupants.

While cutting-edge green design is increasingly able to circumvent the “human factor” in energy
waste through automated systems, these buildings do not always perform as planned. As
important, most buildings’ energy systems are just not this sophisticated. They still rely on human
behavior, which is notoriously unreliable. If we were totally rational beings we would be doing
all the “right” things all the time. So tapping into a more effective way to influence occupant
behavior is key to successful green building.

Energy is largely invisible, apparent only in the devices that support and enhance our lives. Make
this power visible, particularly the balance between what comes in and what goes out, and we
have something we can grasp. This is the function of technology-enabled feedback devices such
as dashboards and smart meters that have proved effective in reducing domestic consumption.
But their efficacy is difficult to sustain since people often loose interest after the initial novelty of
knowing where the power goes wears off.

Research on effective designs for these tools is on-going, but


the answer may lie in enlarging the experiential potential of
these feedback systems. In other words, add art into the mix:
art that employs sensoring technologies and is able to deliver
real-time data in forms that engage our aesthetics, curiosity and
sense of wonder. Such is Balance by Jeff Feddersen, a large-
scale kinetic sculpture, elements of which reveal energy coming
into the building, others that show energy being used. When
Balance is in balance, the building is as well.

Matsukaze, by architect and artist Yumi Kori


is a series are xenon-filled glass tubes
stimulated by an electrical current, creating in
essence, lightning. Each glass element reflects
the energy use on a building’s floor: the more
intense the glow and the more frenetic the
lightning, the less energy is being consumed
there.

© 2010 The Sallan Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved. http://www.sallan.org 2


Snapshot
Hiding In Plain Sight

While Matsukaze, and Drop by Rebecca Bray, which reflects water use, illustrate the power of
making the invisible visible, they also engage another powerful motivator, competition.
Entertaining and edifying interactive games can take advantage of this tendency by having
offices, floors, entire buildings or cities face off against each other in the drive to reduce energy
consumption.

Making the results and activities public increases the potency of their potential impact and here’s
why. Making the invisible visible in an artful way raises occupants’ sense of responsibility and
accountability and can make a forceful public relations statement that a building, tenant or
metropolis is actually walking the talk.

With a stronger focus on energy and resource conservation and carbon emissions, benchmarking,
building labeling such as Energy Star, ASHRAE BEQ and LEED 3.0 emphasize actual and
ongoing sustainable results beyond the completion of construction.

Building owners and occupants should realize that now, more than ever before, is the time to truly
engage in their sustainability efforts as a matter of course. It’s also an opportunity to use creative
strategies to communicate compellingly to the public about how buildings function. And here’s
the secret hiding in plain sight, art, with all its emotive and experiential impact, is, in fact, a
rational strategy.

Victoria Anstead, LEED-AP, is founder and principal Tactical Aesthetics a consultancy that
produces creative projects focusing on the human factor in the drive toward sustainability.

© 2010 The Sallan Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved. http://www.sallan.org 3