research narratives in artistic ecology
Ecosystems services are defined by the Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity Initiative (TEEB, 2016) as the provisional, regulative, cultural, and supporting services provided by nature for the benefit of human and non-human recipients. Flowering plants provide a host of ecosystem services in cities, such as climate regulation, the source of nectar and pollen for insects, and the purification of air, water, and soil. Flowers are also a source of aesthetic pleasure, cultural symbolism, and mental well-being. Dust Blooms investigates the ability of flowers to not only provide beauty but to help filter atmospheric particulate matter (PM), otherwise known as dust, from natural sources such as pollen and anthropogenic sources such as industrial and vehicular emissions and tire abrasion. PM presents a huge threat to human health, especially in cities where there is relatively more pollution and less vegetation to filter it (WHO, 2007; UNEP, 2007).
While the filtering capacity of herbaceous plants has previously been linked to morphological features of leaves (Litschke and Kuttler, 2008; Wang and Shi, 2011; Weber et al., 2014), there is very little known about the filtering capacity of flowers. Because the presence of plant leaves (required for photosynthesis) is much greater than the presence of flowers (required for reproduction), and the bulk quantity of leaves exceeds that of flowers, leaf structures have previously been singled out for study in determining the dust filtering capacity of urban plants. However, the complex, three-dimensional structures of flowers make them interesting allies in dust filtration. Dust Blooms juxtaposes the beauty and function of urban flora using a synthesis of artistic and scientific methods to create awareness about the every-day importance of ecosystem services in cities. Results of the project will be featured in the exhibition, Lasst Blumen Sprechen – Artificial Nature from 1960, at Museum Schloß Moyland from June 25 to October 15, 2016.
Dust Blooms evokes the aesthetics of data collection using multiple methods. By studying phenomena using multiple types of data and methods of analysis, drawing insight from multiple theories, and including perspectives from multiple researchers, a depth and richness of understanding can be achieved. In addition to printmaking, sculpture, and photography, a measuring campaign was carried out to examine dust from the flowers of several species at multiple locations in the city of Berlin from April to July 2016. Ten flowers per species were picked from major roadways in Berlin with an average daily traffic rate of more than 50,000 motorized vehicles (SenStadt 2011). Five petals were then examined from each flower. Using light microscopy, it was possible to quantitatively estimate the surface area of a flower and qualitatively describe the morphological characteristics of individual flowers, as well as determine the type and amount of dust particles captured on petal surfaces. Each step of the process was documented in photographs, field and lab reports, and species profiles.
Dust Blooms at street scale, plant scale, and petal scale: Achillea millefolium (common yarrow), Artemisia vulgaris (mugwort), Chelidonium majus (greater calendine), Geranium robertianum (Red Robin), Hypericum perforatum (St. John’s Wort), Plantago major (broadleaf plantain), Taraxacum officinale (common dandelion):
In a second step, sculptural prototypes can be seen as instruments of data visualization. The dandelion is featured as a ‘model species,’ widely referenced in ecological research because of its highly adaptive morphological and genetic properties. Dandelions can adjust their size, shape, and metabolic properties to better deal with stress factors such as being grazed in rural locations (Fujita and Koda 2015) or dealing with pollution in urban ones (Vorobyev et al. 2014). To model the dandelion is to honor 30 million years of subtle evolutionary shape shifting through sculptural research. The materials used here are sourced from the very world they seek to understand. Unique inventions of contemporary consumer society – plastic dental brush-sticks, microfiber cleaning wipes (e.g. Swiffers), polycarbonate screws, plastic modeling clay, and polyester textiles – are fused together as glorified bricolage of the Anthropocene. What is in other contexts used to clean, decorate, or hold things together can be repurposed to measure environmental phenomena. In the meantime, actual atmospheric dust levels are being measured with Arduino-powered dust sensors integrated into the dandelion models with the aim of transferring data to an open knowledge lab for urban air quality (work in progress).
Finally, in a series of etchings made from street dust and gold, Dust Blooms links past representation to present context, former value to future value. Artistic representation of nature has always mirrored scientific and philosophical thought. While pictures of roots were prominent in the medicinal herbals and pharmacopeia of the 16th and 17th centuries, later illustrative works often excluded roots to focus on flowering and fruiting parts essential to taxonomic systems from Linnaeus (1707-1778) onwards. Meanwhile, contemporary flora atlases emphasize geographic species distribution and biodiversity, often replacing botanical illustration with detailed maps.
Author of Picturing Plants: An Analytical History of Botanical Illustration, Gill Saunders (2009), has remarked, “how and what we see depends crucially on what we know … as botanical science has developed it has dictated to the artist as to what an illustration should include, and how it should represent what is included”. Here common weeds are visually grafted together from the observations of numerous botanical illustrators over the last four hundred years into a series of intaglio prints made from dust. Roots from medicinal herbals, flowers and leaves from historic flora atlases and pattern books are brought together as excerpts from a new fictitious atlas. Original engravings are digitally remixed and engraved with new scientific interest – ecosystem services in cities. As atmospheric dust is immobilized in the hairs and wrinkles of the actual specimen, so is its image fixed indefinitely on the surface of a blank page of paper.
Thanks to Dr. Ina Säumel of the TU-Berlin, whose research on urban ecosystem services and dust filtration of roadside plants significantly inspired the development of the project; to Prof. Dr. Gerd Wessolek and members of the TUB Dept. of Soil Protection, Joachim Buchholz, Dr. Michael Facklam, and Dr. Björn Kluge, for the use of their microscopes, prep laboratory, and traffic research station; to Prof. Dr. Ulrich Szewzyk and the TUB Dept. of Environmental Microbiology for generous support with macro- and microscope photography; to urban ecology students of the TU-Berlin, Lion Lapse and Lars Noack, and UC Berkeley grad student Anna Bee, for support with data collection and documentation; to Ulf Kypke-Burchardi and luftdaten.info for support with dust sensor instrumentation and development; to plantgenera.org for multiple image sources, and to the staff of the print studio of the Kulturwerk BBK in Kreuzberg for their practical wisdom.
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