Thinking Art and Bio Remediation

Thinking Art and Bio-Remediation an American perspective.

T.Collins, In a conversation recently with Tim Joye  in Flanders, we got to talking about remediation art.  2012, July

First a few references:, and

There is a lot of potential for artists to work on these issues, although I have argued in the past that it got significantly more difficult in the 1990’s with increased regulation driving much of the work into engineering firms, undermining major art and design projects (that were not able to bring in the engineering expertise) around the US.

I think it is important to differentiate what we do – from what scientists do. The artist’s job (as I understand it!) is to mobilize human values. To create the potential for new ideas to reshape human perception and normative experience – from here new values emerge. Artists give form and shape to ideas through text, images, symbols, narrative and material objects. Artists engage the world from a critical cultural perspective, revealing constraints and at times real opportunities. Scientists on the other hand solve problems with facts and intentional certainty.

Remediation is a complicated bio-science. There are plants that ‘transform’ toxicants into other compounds which is great, real bio-magic! There are many others that are bio-accumulators (Much of John Todd’s work is done this way.) In his case the plants in his ‘living machines’ can accumulate heavy metals and precious metals, which then need incineration or possibly post-processing.

As you know artist such as Mel Chin and Buster have touched on terrestrial approaches in the past, Georg Dietzler was deeply into it. On the aquatic side John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd are pioneers, with their ‘living machines’.  Some of this work has been applied at the level of a small city in Eureka California. Jackie Brookner and Betsy Damon (amongst others) work in variations on this theme.  Various landscape architects groups such as James Corner’s group ‘Field Operatons’ are noted for some of this work. Keith Bowers of ‘BioHabitats’ takes a science/engineering approach to restoration and remediation.

We (Reiko and I) have spent a good bit of time with scientists (and some of these artists and designers) and have a good sense of what can and cannot be done. Much of the work by artists ends up being demonstrators or prototypes that help the general public and local decision makers see a different way of working. However… the ‘real work’ needs to be done with scientists with few exceptions.

For artists there are many ‘practical’ constraints (regulations) on the toxins and processes,  making this hard work to sustain. When we worked at Nine Mile Run what we thought to be a plant toxicity question, proved to be a problem of material condition. The ‘soil’ was dark, very hard, with little vegetative matter and a low pH. The sunlight would heat this ‘soil’ very quickly so that any moisture would evaporate and surface temperatures were significantly higher than ‘natural soils’; this made it very difficult for seeds to sprout or small plant to survive the first year.