Natural Talent: Art Prof Named Featured Artist for National Environmental Science Conference

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For as long as she can recall, Elizabeth Demaray has been preoccupied humans’ interactions with the natural world – a preoccupation that has emerged time and time again in her art.

In her graduate-school days at the University of California–Berkeley, Demaray “wanted to figure out how to give a living thing a hand up.” So she planted sculptures with native grasses and tried to get them to grow. When the sculptures didn’t grow as she had hoped, she did the next thing that occurred to her out of frustration – she started knitting a sweater for one of the plants.

“I wanted to do something to help the natural world, but felt ineffectual and powerless to do so. The plant sweater was my way of communicating that sentiment,” recalls the associate professor of fine arts at Rutgers University–Camden, who also maintains a photograph collection of nothing but people holding potted plants.

Fast forward to the present day, as Demaray – who works in sculpture, digital media, and eco-art – was the featured artist at the 2014 Association of Environmental Science Studies (AESS) national conference, titled “Welcome to the Anthropocene: From Global Challenge to Planetary Stewardship.” According to the organizers, this year’s theme focused on the argument advanced by many scholars that Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. This perspective maintains that humans have become a global geophysical force capable of disrupting the grand cycles of biology, chemistry, and geology.

_DLG5385Demaray’s work was displayed at the Peter Fingesten Gallery at Pace University throughout the conference held this June. The exhibition featured multiple works that consider the relationship of the built to the natural environment, and included a live webcam broadcasting her “IndaPlant Project: An Act of Trans-Species Giving” each morning.

A collaboration between Demaray and Rutgers colleagues, Qingze Zou, an associate professor of engineering; Simeon Kotchoni, an assistant professor of biology; and Ahmed Elgammal, an associate professor of computer science, the project involves creating robotic supports for ordinary potted houseplants, which allow the plants to freely seek sunlight and water. These floraborgs – a term that she coined – utilize wireless communication and machine learning to exchange information and map space.

The IndaPlants currently reside in Zou’s New Brunswick office. According to Demaray, when he arrives at work each morning, the floraborgs jostle with one another to exit his office in search of sunlight in the adjacent hallway. When an IndaPlant is thirsty, a moisture sensor in the soil sends a signal through the unit’s central processor, which may determine that its plant species needs water. If so, the unit will locate a water dispenser in the hallway via an infrared sensor. If a floraborg is in the immediate vicinity of the watering station, passersby are invited to give the plant a drink.

“Watching remotely from webcams, audience members at the Peter Fingesten Gallery were able to observe how the IndaPlants responded to one another, and thrived,” says Demaray, who oversaw the live webcam from the gallery at Pace each morning of the AESS conference.

_DLG5357The project has recently led to the creation of a “floraborg biocyber” interface, says Demaray. “It turns out that, having evolved for millions of years as sessile organisms, plants can sense and manipulate their environment in ways that eclipse those of existing human-made devices,” she says. Addressing the super-sensory capacities of plants, this new interface allows humans to decipher very specific plant-based information on environmental gas composition, while closing a positive feedback loop between plant and robotic support.

“We are calling this super-sensory floraborg the IndaPlantV2 (IPV2) and anticipate that it will allow us to gather unprecedented information from plants on ecosystem health, hazardous conditions, and the effects of climate change,” she says.

For a video detailing the creation of the first IndaPlant to the current IndaPlant community of three floraborgs, visit vimeo.com/90457796.

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