Experiments In Motion Blog

The Curator's Blog


Mapping Ocean Swells with Marshall Islands Stick Charts

Until World War II, Marshallese islanders mainly used stick charts to navigate canoes between the islands of Oceania. Lacking astrolabes, sextants or even a compass, they instead constructed maps from the midbribs of coconut fronds. Lashed together to form an open framework with islands represented by shells, the maps encoded complex information about ocean swells, the prevailing ocean surface wave-crests, and the directions they followed to approach an island. In this way, the stick charts captured data not traditionally included in navigation maps, but integral to safely navigating the seas. Furthermore, each map was unique, interpretable only by the navigator who made it. The maps were not taken along during navigation, but studied and memorized prior to a trip. Once on board, the navigator would would crouch down or lie prone in the canoe to feel how the hull was being pitched and rolled by underlying swells. 


The “Bomb Ponds” of the Vietnam War

Between 1964 and 1975, 2,756,941 tons of explosives were dropped by the U.S. military across Cambodia. As historian Thomas J. Campanella notes in Design Observer, “in Quang Binh and Vinh Linh provinces (just north and south of the former demilitarized zone) the landscape resembles the face of the moon, with craters 30 to 50 feet in diameter and several yards deep.” The massive pock marks, today called “bomb ponds” in Cambodian, testify to the ambiguous heritage of these war scars. On the one hand, they have become a naturalized part of the landscape: villagers have transformed the bomb craters into ponds for growing fish, a staple of the Vietnamese diet, and in the south, bomb craters are favored sites for houses with a replenishable source of protein at the doorstep. Yet the water in these “ponds” are often still toxic, a reminder of their violent origins. In fact, a culture of silence has left this history largely unspoken. In America, there is little recognition of the bombing and in Cambodia, a reluctance to educate its youth about the history surrounding the Khmer Rouge regime. In order to bring attention back to this era and its looming effects, self-taught photographer Vandy Rattana documented these sites in 2009 as physical evidence of a history kept silent. The resulting series, “Bomb Ponds,” was exhibited at Documenta13.


The Bio Intelligent Quotient (B.I.Q.) Building is the First Fully Algae-Powered Architecture

Operating successfully for over a year, the Bio Intelligent Quotient (B.I.Q.) building in Hamburg, Germany is the first to be fully powered by algae. The building is covered with 0.78-inch thick panels—200 square meters in total—filled with algae from the Elbe River and pumped full of carbon dioxide and nutrients. The panels, which display the bright green algae, are not only aesthetic, but performative. When sunlight hits the “bioreactor” panels, photosynthesis causes the microorganisms to multiply and give off heat. The warmth is then captured for heating water or storing in saline tanks underground, while algae biomass is harvested and dried. It can either be converted to biogas, or used in secondary pharmaceutical and food products. Residents have no heating bills and the building currently reduces overall energy needs by 50%. 


Narrowly Avoiding Global Blackout: Earth Just Missed the Most Powerful Solar Flare Ever Recorded

According to a new report from NASA, the Earth barely escaped a massive solar storm that could have knocked “modern civilization back to the 18th century.” On July 23, 2012, two giant plasma clouds, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), erupted from the sun to form an unusually large solar storm. At the time, the earth was facing away from the blast of the CMEs. However, if the flares had occurred one week earlier, the electromagnetic ejections would have caused trillions of dollars of damage to the planet. NASA reported: “Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket. Most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.” Physicists were particularly surprised by the strength of the CME given that the sun is in its weakest solar cycle in a century


The Industrial Sublime: Edward Burtynsky’s Manufacturated Landscapes

Using photos and videos from photographer Edward Burtynsky's trip through China, Jennifer Baichwal created a feature length documentary which surveys the landscapes that have been altered by large-scale human activity. Manufactured Landscapes portrays these industrial terrains with very little commentary, allowing the viewer to focus on the contents of the images. Burtynsky’s photos, which combine vast scales, high resolution, and repetition, reveal environments that seem too large and too complex to fully grasp. Indeed, a sense of the sublime, and the uneasy tension between beauty and horror it invokes, is a continuous strain throughout Burtynsky’s work. The images raise questions about the interplay of environmental ethics and aesthetics, and ask Western viewers to consider their complicity in a industrial culture on which their societies rely.


Rain Dances of the Jemez Pueblo

The rain dances of the Jemez Pueblo people are documented in a 1947 film from Dudley Pictures Corporation’s “This Land is Ours” series of educational travelogues. Rain dances are a form of weather modification that span a number of cultures across the world. The ritual has deep historical roots and is still practiced in areas, including Zimbabwe, Slovakia, and Native American communities. While many Native American rituals involved only men, the rain dance was unique in that women also participated—an indication of the importance of rain to the entire community. The dance was more common to Native American tribes who lived in dry, Southwestern regions which received little rain. Indeed, the Pueblos, who have historically resided in a very arid region of New Mexico, have a particularly intricate rain dance. 


Fritz Kahn: Man as Machine and the Birth of Infographics

Fritz Kahn (1888–1968) was a German physician and prolific popular science writer known for pioneering infographics. He wrote on a range of topics, from the Milky Way to the atom, and often used startling metaphors, both verbal and visual, to make complex principles of nature and technology comprehensible to layman readers. In The Life of Man, an encyclopedic work of 1600 pages and 1200 illustrations, Kahn depicts biology as industrial and mechanical processes. Adopting avant-garde visual techniques and contemporary styles like Neue Sachlichkeit, Dada, Surrealism, and Constructivist photomontage, he draws comparisons between the energetic processes of the human body and those of automobiles, buildings, electric lights, furnaces, and more.


Nam June Paik’s “Lake Placid ‘80”

Nam June Paik (1932–2006) was a Korean American artist considered to be the founder of video art. Working at the cusp of a new era of telecommunications and digital technology, Paik’s video sculptures, installations, performances and single-channel videos captured the emerging links between the artworld and the media, pop culture and the avant-garde, and technology and philosophy. With the irreverent and playful sensibility of the Fluxus art group, he captured the frenetic energy of global communications in vibrantly textured audio and visual collages, combining emblematic motifs of Pop iconography, international avant-garde figures, multicultural performances and media appropriations. By literally manipulating the hardware of electronic media—most notably, televisions—Paik creates psychedelic and jarring distortions that tap into the kinetic energy embedded in telecommunications devices. In ”Lake Placid ‘80,” a piece commissioned for the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, Paik juxtaposes fragmented, accelerated and colorized imagery of high-performance sports, the dancers from Global Groove, and heat-seeking missiles with an audio reel of “Devil with a Blue Dress On.” The hyperbolic pace and rhythm of this energetic “music video” ends with Paik’s computer-graphic version of the Olympic logo superimposed over a chanting Allen Ginsberg.


Takashi Murakami’s Jellyfish Eyes: Sci-Fi, Anime, and Fukushima

Known for blurring the line between high and low arts, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami combines pointed critiques of post-war Japan with a colorful pop aesthetic. Indeed, his prints have adorned Louis Vuitton purses but also make regular appearances at Sotheby’s and international galleries and museums. He coined the term “superflat” to describe the two-dimensional quality of Japanese artsa characteristic of everything from wood block prints to manga—and the superficial nature of post-war Japanese culture and society. “Superflat” is also used as a moniker to describe Murakami’s own artistic style and that of other Japanese artists he has influenced. Jellyfish Eyes (2013) represents Murakami’s first foray into feature-length film, and it explores post-Fukushima Japan and the uneasy, ongoing relationship with nuclear energy in Japanese culture. Taking elements from sci-fi, traditional Japanese daikaju monster films like Godzilla, anime, and Japanese notions of kawaii, or “cuteness,” Murakami examines how his society has “flattened” serious questions, concerns, and fears into these “childish” cultural phenomena. In the film, schoolchildren are bestowed with Pokémon-like monster companions that they can summon with their cell phones. Unbeknownst to them, however, the nearby nuclear plant is harvesting their data and negative energy through these “F.R.I.E.N.D.s” to create a monstrous agent of destruction. As Murakami notes, this uneasy relationship with energy reflects a fraught reality:

Even now that popular sentiment has largely turned against nuclear energy, we still cannot stop its use. I can’t help but feel that this dilemma is much like that of a country that wants to end a war but cannot.


Masdar City, Abu Dhabi: Eco-City of the Future

Located in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Masdar City is planned city envisioned as an “arcology”: a self-sufficient, very densely populated habitat in which individual human environmental impact is minimized. A portmanteau of “ecology” and “architecture,” the term was coined and popularized by architect Paolo Soleri. Though he went on to influence generations of architects through his writings, drawings and models, Soleri was only able to partially realize his visions in the experimental town of Arcosanti in Arizona. Masdar City, which began construction in 2006, appears to finally promise the realization of Soleri’s arcology concept, albeit without the architect’s distinct formal treatment. Designed by the British architectural firm Foster and Partners, the city is being built at a cost of $18 billion by Masdar, a subsidiary of Mubadala Development Company, with the majority of seed capital provided by the Government of Abu Dhabi. As the world’s most ambitious eco-city, Masdar relies on solar energy provided by a 22-hectare field of 87,777 solar panels and other renewable energy sources. It will hold 40,000 residents in only two square miles and has replaced cars with driverless electric vehicles. Patrick Kingsley adds in Wired that the design of the walls of the buildings has helped reduce demand for air conditioning by 55 percent. In addition, sensors have replaced light switches, cutting electricity consumption by 51 percent, and water usage by 55 percent. The city is designed to be an internationl hub for cleantech companies, and its first tenant, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, has been operating in the city since 2010. As Kingsley notes, “Masdar is slowly helping to change attitudes about renewable energy and climate change in the Gulf and the Maghreb,” and may become the unexpected role model for sustainability in a region long-reliant on its oil reserves.

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This blog chronicles the project from the perspective of the curators. Be sure to follow the individual studio blogs for studio-specific updates, and the student blogs to follow individual's work.

Christopher Barley

Independent curator and partner in the firm Therrien Barley.

Troy Conrad Therrien

Partner in the firm Therrien Barley, and Chief Architect, Cloud Communication Software at Columbia GSAPP.