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‘When the research doesn’t reach us, how can it teach us?’

06 April 2021

©Thijs Biersteker
Thijs Biersteker is an artist whose Pollutive Ends installation was nominated for a 2020 Dutch Design Award in the category Service & Systems (recently renamed to Data & Interaction). Here he talks about the role of artists like him in bringing important issues to the public’s attention in a captivating way – with the help of digital and adapted reality technologies.

Artists ask questions and raise awareness

“First things first,” says Thijs Biersteker, “I’m not a designer. I’m an artist. For me, the main difference between the two is that artists ask questions and raise awareness, whereas designers generally come up with solutions and envision the future. I was flattered when I was scouted and then nominated for a Dutch Design Award, and I like the category my work was included in. I find it kind of weird, in a good way. There’s something of everything in there. Actually, I think it would be great if even more [digital] artists could be involved in Dutch Design Week. We take a lot of the big issues of the day and make them accessible.”

Pollutive Ends
© Thijs Biersteker

Pollutive Ends

All of Thijs’s work is concerned with environmental issues and climate change. Pollutive Ends is a perfect example. This dynamic installation visualises the impact a single discarded cigarette butt has on the environment by pumping a foul-looking liquid – made using actual cigarette butts and ink – through a tangled mass of transparent tubes. The installation reacts to the number of people in the room: when it’s busier, more liquid is pushed through the system.

Pollutive Ends
© Thijs Biersteker

Going on ‘Fact safari’

Most of his work is triggered by facts he uncovers when reading research papers or science-based journals like Nature. He also teaches at the Delft University of Technology (NL) and has a fellowship at the VU University in Amsterdam. “I can tap into knowledge pretty quickly there as well,” he says. He refers to his exploration as going on ‘fact safari’, hoping to unearth a little gem of information that can be visualised in a way that has an impact. The next step is usually to link up with scientists to further develop the idea and explore ways of creating something iconic. “I see my job as translating facts into feelings, to link data to emotions, to speak to the imagination,” he says. “People, in general, become numbed by numbers, so I try to come up with a way of making them visually intriguing.”

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Giving nature a voice

Giving nature a voice Another of his most striking pieces of work is Voice of Nature. “A tree will produce a new ring every year, and the size of that ring reflects the climate conditions during that period,” says Thijs. “I came up with the idea of producing a tree ring every second, based on the ambient conditions at that moment.” Using 12 sensors and 1600 data points, Thijs and his team – he generally works together with scientists, engineers, programmers and other specialists – created a 30 m high projection screen connected to a tree in the Chinese city of Chengdu. When, for example, the CO2 levels around the tree would go up because of traffic on the road, the rings would change. In this way, it becomes possible to visualise the effect in real-time.

“When you touched the tree you overrode the pollution data and calmed it down,” he says. “This is really important, because it demonstrates to people that their actions matter, even small ones. In essence it’s the same as what we do with Pollutive Ends: show the impact human behaviour has on the natural world. Visualising things in this way can be very confrontational, but that’s exactly what I want to do.”

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Technology as paint

The dynamic aspect of Thijs’s installations is always powered by some kind of technology, although he emphasises that he’s not fixated on any particular type. “I use whatever is most appropriate for expressing the message I want to communicate and to get people involved closely in my work,” he says. “In that respect, technology is my paint. Sometimes it’s about creating data streams to let trees ‘talk’, or presence sensors the register the number of people in a room. For me, these kinds of mixed realities are tools to play around with.”

“We just released a work at the NXT museum called Econtinuum, which uses Algorithms to recreate how trees communicate with each other through their root systems. The accompanying soundscape is generated by AI.” Econtinuum monitors various parameters in the room, like humidity, pressure, temperature and oxygen levels, just like real trees.

Art that constantly evolves and is always unique

“We set the parameters and the installation then surprises us, over and over again,” he says. “Adapted reality technologies make this possible. That’s what keeps it interesting for me. It’s not a repeating pattern; everything you see is unique. I once visited it for the first time in two days and couldn’t believe my eyes. It turned out someone had been glueing the carpet, and the air quality was so affected that the installation looked completely different. That’s great. Basically, each time I see it again I have no idea what it will look like.” Sustainability is another central theme in Thijs’s work. “The ‘tree roots’ that makes up Econtinuum have been created from recycled bottles,” he says. “The tubes in Pollutive Ends had previously been used in hospitals for intravenous drips. Every installation we build also comes with a material passport, so future generations will know how to recycle them.”

When the research doesn’t reach us, how can it teach us?

Helping bridge the gap

Although his work is primarily created for the physical domain, it also works well online. “Our movies have been viewed something like 90 million times in Germany,” he says. “That’s great because we want to get our message across to as many people as possible. I have this saying: ‘When the research doesn’t reach us, how can it teach us?’ I like to think that the way we visualise information can have an impact. There’s a big gap between the data generated and people acting on it. I hope I’m helping bridge that gap.”