An Artist, Engineer and Environmental Activist

Natalie Jeremijenko, NYU professor and Environmental Health Clinic founder, bridges disciplines to promote social and environmental change.

January 26, 2009
Natalie Jeremijenko speaks at a program held in the Netherlands about art and agriculture [Credit: Rene Passet, flickr.com].
Natalie Jeremijenko speaks at a program held in the Netherlands about art and agriculture [Credit: Rene Passet, flickr.com].

Natalie Jeremijenko has a pigeon in her office. Not a stuffed toy, not a drawing, but a real, live pigeon that flutters up and down among the high shelves. There are also plants growing out of her desk and a tadpole that swims around in a makeshift water bowl. This is not your typical academic office, but then again, Jeremijenko is not your typical academic.

While her background is mainly in the sciences — she has a doctorate in engineering, with training in chemistry, physics and neuroscience — Jeremijenko is really an artist. She uses her engineering skills to set up public art projects that highlight social issues and focus on the relationship between humans and our environment. The result is a creative cross between technology and art that may be unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Take her robotic dogs, for example. She redesigns toy robotic dogs to “sniff out” environmental hazards. The canines are fitted with pollutant sensors so that they can detect surrounding toxins, then set loose on a potentially contaminated site. Her purpose is not simply to point a finger at polluters, but to create discussion and get people involved in changing the world around them.

“I’m interested in changing who produces knowledge, who has an opinion, who can interpret the information,” she says.

Now a professor of visual art at New York University, Jeremijenko feels that artists should be involved in scientific and technical issues. “Artists are qualified by absolutely not being qualified,” she says. “By not being qualified, by not being experts, they stand in for the everyman.”

Lack of expertise, says Jeremijenko, often prevents everyday people from believing that they can have a say in critical issues, such as climate change.

Her most recent project at NYU, the Environmental Health Clinic, was created to address precisely this problem. This unusual “clinic” is designed to deal with people’s environmental concerns. The clients, called “impatients” because “they’re too impatient to wait for legislative change,” make an appointment with Jeremijenko to discuss their particular anxiety, and they “walk out with prescriptions for design interventions,” she explains.

Some people come to the clinic with concerns about water quality. To these impatients, Jeremijenko prescribes the “tadpole bureaucrats.” Impatients put the tadpoles into water samples for monitoring and name the tadpoles after bureaucrats whose decisions affect water quality. For example, one of the tadpoles is named James Gennaro, after the chairman of New York City’s Council Committee on Environmental Protection. Tadpoles are very sensitive to contaminants and hormone-mimicking substances that may be in the water. As a result, the water affects tadpole development. “Frogs are the canaries in the industrial coal mine,” says Jeremijenko.

At the end of the project, impatients introduce the tadpoles to their namesakes and explain what they’ve found and what they think should be done about their water quality. In this way, impatients become involved with the political process, and learn about the bureaucrats who make these environmental decisions, according to Jeremijenko.   

One of the impatients, Rachel Rosenstein-Sisson, an NYU student studying studio art, got involved with the clinic through the Environmental Monitoring class that Jeremijenko teaches at the university. When asked to describe her teacher, Rosenstein-Sission is brief. “She’s crazy, but definitely good crazy,” she says. 

Jeremijenko meets with her clients in some unusual places, including on the East River in New York City. For floating clinic sessions, she uses a raft made out of two-liter soda bottles from NYU recycling. “It’s the best consultation room in all of New York,” she says.

Another product to come out of the Environmental Health Clinic is the GreenLight system, an indoor lamp that is intended to remind users of the fundamental relationship between humans and plants. The lamp contains solar-powered LED lights that promote plant growth. The plants, in turn, diffuse the light, collect carbon dioxide and improve indoor air quality by removing common pollutants. Certain plants naturally “scrub” the atmosphere and remove hazardous compounds, according to Michael Lin, an advisor to the Environmental Health Clinic who has worked with Jeremijenko on a number of projects. The clinic specifically chose these types of plants for the lamp, he says.

The lamp’s power comes from a “solar awning” — a stretch of solar cells that can be fitted above a window, forming a canopy like a normal awning. Making the solar cells into an awning, rather than hiding them on rooftops, provides a way for people to show that they are using solar power, “like putting out a flag,” says Jeremijenko.

Anyone can have the GreenLight system installed at home. However, users must first become impatients, and they must be willing to participate in the project development and understand that the system is an experimental process, according to Jeremijenko. Currently, most of these systems — about 60 — are installed at museums and exhibitions. Four are installed at NYU, and several are set up in private homes and offices in Brooklyn.  

Jeremijenko also teaches a course at NYU called “How Stuff Is Made,” which addresses what she considers one of the main causes of our environmental problems: the fact that, in many cases, people do not know the origin of the clothes, food, technological gadgets and other everyday items that they use. Students in the class are required to find out how something is made and document their findings. They look into the manufacturing process, the labor conditions and the environmental costs involved in producing the product of their choice, says Jeremijenko.

Once students look behind the scenes of a manufacturing facility, they can really understand the production process, and even figure out ways to make it better. Past projects have examined how the American flag is made in China, and how a fortune cookie is made.

Jeremijenko hopes that products from her Environmental Health Clinic and assignments like “How Stuff Is Made” will get people thinking about what we can do as a society to address environmental problems.

“It’s about doing something bigger than taking a reusable bag to the shopping center,” she argues. “It’s exploring, ‘How could this be different? How can we redesign our systems? How do we structure diverse participation in the environmental movement to have measurable, real change?’”

Related on Scienceline:

Tidal power — an alternative energy for New York City’s Roosevelt Island.

A community garden in the Bronx helps educate high school students about eating healthy foods.

Environmental education in New York City schools.

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1 Comment

Adam Glenn says:

The “how stuff is made” concept is so important — we’re in a world where it’s not enough to just buy something off the shelf. We need to know, as consumers, what goes into it, and how it can be made more efficiently, more cleanly. Thanks for bringing that work to light!

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