Art enhances the cultural environment and clean technology improves the physical environment. It’s inevitable that the two were to collide at some point. LAGI, or Land Art Generator Initiative, is a project intent on making that connection happen by creating cleantech art. They host a biennial design competition to source the greatest looking, most functional clean energy public art installations.

The 2012 competition will be searching for ideas to help transform New York City’s Freshkills Park, formerly the largest landfill site in the world, which is now undergoing a major restoration project with an emphasis on environmental sustainability. Kiva Bottero spoke with Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Ferry of LAGI about cleantech art, their initiative, and this year’s competition.

Your website mentions that LAGI is the first initiative of its kind. How did you get the idea?

We both share a fascination with land art and with considering art and design from new contexts and social perspectives. We also share a passion for ecology and sustainability and so we wanted to develop a project that would not only provide relevant discourse on contemporary global issues, but could also exist as an innovative solution to the problems of energy generation and environmental stewardship.

When we arrived to the UAE in the summer of 2008, we were impressed by a few things: the vastness of the landscape, the ambitious nature of the infrastructure projects, the availability of natural energy resources (particularly solar), and the effect that fossil fuel resources have had on development and public understanding of energy.

We first conceived projects that aggressively integrated renewable energy generation systems with architecture—designing buildings that can double as clean energy power plants for cities by generating up to 15 times the energy that they consume—and thinking about ways in which energy generation can be all around us and be designed with intention beyond utility. This process led to the idea of the fusion of functional power plants with the genres of land art, new media, and public art. We still consider LAGI applicable to energy generation solutions at any number of scales and urban densities.

What does clean energy art mean to you?

Those three words as a phrase encompass much more than just the LAGI project. To us, clean energy art also includes new media art that powers itself with integrated renewables. A great catalog within this genre as it pertains to solar power can be found at www.solarartworks.com. Wind can also be used to power art installations, from simple kinetic sculptures, to sound art installations that use wind blown over pipes or reeds, to works like the Windmill Project by Patrick Marold that we wrote about recently on our blog. Infrastructural remediation projects such as Betsy Damon’s Living Water Garden or artwork that naturally generates clean water for drinking can also be considered clean energy art, because fossil fuel energy that would have been spent for the same purpose is offset by the sustainable processes at work within the artwork itself.

Our specific focus with the Land Art Generator Initiative is to look at ways in which we can generate energy for cities at a utility scale (to power between ten and ten thousand homes) in complete harmony with natural and human ecologies.

As the results of the 2010 competition have shown, the idea of substantially offsetting carbon emissions with public artwork is one that can really capture the imagination. Since these artworks will pay for their own construction cost over time via the actual megawatt-hours of electricity that they generate, it also makes them an attractive option for long-term urban growth strategies.

What’s your energy literacy project all about?

Education is a primary focus of the Land Art Generator Initiative. Our energy literacy project, Renewable Energy Art & Design (R.E.A.D.), intersects art, design, science, and sustainable technologies. The objective is to educate people about the great potential that exists for integrating renewable energy infrastructure into the fabric of the constructed environment in ways that increase livability and the aesthetic quality of public spaces.

It includes a seven step process that guides the reader through art genres outside of the gallery, the basics of sustainable architecture and urban design, the science of energy, sustainable technologies, as well as the social and environmental impacts of conventional energy generation. It then concludes with a design brief based on the Land Art Generator Initiative model, which allows the reader to synthesize their new understanding of sustainable design into their own conception of an energy-generating artwork. The reader can then upload their designs to the LAGI website to be included in a growing portfolio.

What’s the status of the 2010 competition winner? Will that design materialize anytime soon?

We represent all the LAGI participating artist teams and as such, we are actively pursuing actualization in a number of ways. The decision of which project to pursue through detailed design and construction will lie solely in the hands of the owner entity/investment group. In both the 2010 and 2012 competitions, the winner as determined by the jury is not guaranteed first consideration for construction since the jury criteria may not be the same as the criteria that would be used by the developer of the built work. As of this interview, there are no firm commitments yet towards construction by any party, but we are working towards that end with a number of entities in the UAE and other countries.

Can you tell me about your 2012 design competition?

We are delighted to have partnered with New York City’s Department of Parks & Recreation to develop the 2012 design competition for a site within Freshkills Park (the former Fresh Kills Landfill) in New York City. We have been working closely with the Freshkills team to develop the design guidelines, which will be released to the public on January 1, 2012. The competition will remain open for entries until July 1, 2012 and there will be $20,000 in prize award money. We should also note that the competition takes place completely online. Teams will upload their designs through the Land Art Generator website.

LAGI 2012 is an ideas competition to design a site-specific public artwork that, in addition to its conceptual beauty, has the ability to harness energy cleanly from nature and convert it into electricity for the utility grid.

The expansiveness of the design site at Freshkills Park presents the opportunity to power the equivalent of hundreds or even thousands of homes with the artwork. Freshkills Park offers the perfect environment to showcase the immense potential of aesthetically interesting renewable energy installations for sustainable urban planning.

A community event will be held in New York City during the summer of 2012 in collaboration with project partners. The event will include panel discussions on the artful integration of renewable energy infrastructure and urban ecology. Participants will get a sneak peek at the submitted designs (anonymously attributed by code identifier) and will provide input that will inform the process of jury shortlisting. The competition will then conclude with an award ceremony in New York City in October of 2012.

The Freshkills Park project has been called the poster child for PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg’s sustainable growth initiative for New York City. The city seems to be on board as far as clean technology. Do you think they’ll fund the construction of the competition winner?

PlaNYC was a driving force behind our decision to focus our attention on New York City for the 2012 LAGI design competition. We first discussed the idea with the Department of City Planning and learned in some detail about their desire to integrate renewable energy into the five boroughs. It was from those conversations that we were recommended to consider Freshkills Park as the 2012 site.

Since the early days of the reclamation of Fresh Kills Landfill into a public park, renewable energy has been seen as an important aspect of the design and has been consistently promoted by the Staten Island Borough President’s office.

It is our hope that by presenting innovative and aesthetic solutions to the City and to Staten Islanders and stakeholders, the decision will be made in the future to pursue funding towards construction. It’s important to note that each Land Art Generator proposal is site-specific and completely innovative and unique. It is therefore not possible to adequately consider the feasibility of construction until the ideas come in from the 2012 competition.

Constructing a building as a work of art costs more, which is why city skylines are filled with bland skyscrapers. Do you see either art or technology as primary, or do you view them equally? If the technology is not seen as primary, can you foresee the winning technologies being implemented given the competitiveness of the cleantech industry and the propensity towards cost effectiveness?

The LAGI installations will be the only works of art that can pay back their carbon footprint and their installation cost through their utility. The particulars of the return on investment on energy production will vary according to the details of each proposal, but would likely be on the order of 10 to 20 years. Compared to a strict utilitarian installation of solar panels or a farm of Siemens wind turbines, the return on investment for a land art generator may occur over a longer period of time.

However, it is important to consider that these artworks pay back in more than just megawatt-hours. They serve as inspirational objects of city beautification. They provide a place for educational programming about renewable energy and ecology. And they will generate increased economic development and revenue for the cities in which they are constructed through increased tourism and foot traffic in the localities in which they are built.

From another perspective, by incorporating emerging renewable technologies into the medium of public art, the LAGI project has the potential to provide an additional track for product development and market viability in ways that may benefit the cleantech industry as a whole.

image: “Caveman Chuck” Coker (Creative Commons BY-ND)