Testing the Waters

by Barent Roth, Professor of Sustainable Design, The New School

This week at the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) International Design conference in Seattle we will be trying something new, something called a Swarm. Borrowing elements of brainstorming, design thinking, and the intensity of a hackathon, designers will cluster in groups of eight to ten and try and harness the power of collaborative timed competition to create ______.

As a veteran of engaging, inspiring conferences that result in nothing more than digital handshakes in the aftermath, I will instead try to lead our group to take advantage of the incredible brain power in the room by creating something lasting and meaningful. It’s ambitious, and unlikely, but it can be done. In the fall of 2011 I started teaching Sustainable Design at The New School. The school and its collaborators at the Stevens Institute had just completed their entry into the Solar Decathlon, an amazing competition that challenges universities around the world to build a solar powered home. Seeing all of the entries at the National Mall in DC makes you feel like you are getting a little glimpse of the future, a stroll down an idyllic sustainability lane. Yet after proving their photovoltaic collectors can easily power the needs of a family by actually living in their new constructions, the students dutifully deconstruct the homes and take them back to campus limbo, all except for The New School’s entry, the Empowerhouse. The Empowerhouse is now a home for a family outside our nation’s capital. During the design process the post competition phase of the house was carefully considered and addressed. On a much, much smaller scale our Design Swarm will attempt a similar form of longevity.

The Empowerhouse (photo by Martin Seck)

The Empowerhouse (photo by Martin Seck)

During our 3.5 hour workshop, we will be creating an ocean trawl for 5Gyres to be created using Shapeways 3D Printing technology. A trawl is a simple tool pulled by a boat made to float atop the water’s surface and collect debris in a large net. The report last December that revealed the incomprehensible 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans was thanks to the 5Gyres organization pulling a trawl through the global seas.* This inspiring marine research non profit wants to make it possible for others around the world to build their own low-tech trawls in order to test their own waters. Shapeways not only allows 5Gyres to produce a trawl but equally important, Shapeways can deliver the Trawl parts directly to citizen scientists, or actual scientists, for assembly, helping to make this horrific submerged pollution problem more visible.

Trawl in Action (photo by 5Gyres.org)

Trawl in Action (photo by 5Gyres.org)

Details of the Design Swarm are being kept intentionally vague to keep the conference attendees and the Design Swarm moderators on their feet. What we do know is that we will work in thirty minute bursts and have design minions sketching, CAD modeling, and prototyping our ideas for us while we try to solve our chosen problem. Ideally we can follow the lead of The Empowerhouse and create something 5Gyres can actually use to help illuminate the scope of the worldwide plastic pollution problem.

Debris gathered from a 5Gyres trawl of the Hudson River NYC, June 2015. (photo by Marcus Eriksen)

Debris gathered from a 5Gyres trawl of the Hudson River NYC, June 2015. (photo by Marcus Eriksen)

There will be a follow up post after the Design Swarm to report on the results.

* PLOS One (Public Library of Science) http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111913

Taxidermy in art

Alexis Bittar Staff with Frank J. Zitz taxidermy, image from taxidermymuseum.com/

by Brad Silk

Nature Versus Man is a literary and visual art trope that continues to inspire artists. It is well traversed in written work, paintings, and sculpture, but it’s not always explored in a humane manner. The question is, does this end justify the means? Does the materials used in work ever discount the work and can man-made materials truly replace natural materials in this exploration? Animal byproducts have long been used in the of making art: Tempera paint used egg and most canvases were stretched with rabbit skin glue–not a cute euphemism, it is an adhesive made from the refined collagen of rabbit skin. Both of these materials have largely been replaced by synthetic counterparts, but continue to be used. They have some debatable positive and negative attributes that determine the quality of finish, but my focus is more on the philosophy and ethical use.

I have been vegan for half of my life, but I have been living in a society that defines masculinity by specific standards my entire life. I have been taught and have grown to love aspects of macho-manhood, though it often seems hypocritical to my ethical standards. One of these passions is taxidermy. My love of taxidermy began in art school, where we had an illustration library with bones, hides, and animals to study and reproduce in our scientific illustration studies. It brought up a lot of traumas of facing a failing grade or dissecting a frog in my earlier education, but I also had a strange fascination with these lifeless creatures. So, I stole them: Freeganism before Oprah talked about it, aka the rationalizing out of guilt. Beyond the joy of decorating with dead animals, I later began an interest in the actual study of taxidermy. Though I have never performed it, I have gathered found dead animals and bones to attempt the practice–a process inspired by the sculptures seen at Alexis Bittar stores around New York City. My MOZ loving, vegan baked good enthusiast friend, Alyssa, who worked at the store for a few years, informed me that the taxidermy was all “ethically sourced.” There were blog posts about it and official press releases by Bittar that stated the pieces were all ethically made, but nothing which defined what that meant. So I searched out the taxidermist, Frank J. Zitz & Co., Inc., and asked him directly. He promptly replied in an email, “…a lot of these skins came from animals that died from natural causes in zoos, or they come out of old collections. A lot of it is synthetic and cast.” It does not seem that all of Zitz work is created with these pieces, but many of them are. While I do not believe in the harvesting of skins or furs through murder, nor the industrial system of zoos, it could be debated that the acquisition and use of existing materials may be more environmentally sound than the creation of new materials, man-made or not. I believe it is always best to repurpose the old, rather than manufacture the new.

Head On by Cai Guo-Qiang

Many artists use materials as a function of expression, they work in the media that best depicts their conceptual intent. I love it. This allows artists to expand on their philosophy and create work that truly connects with the viewer. The down side is that many artist simply define their work as “mixed media.” While it might be annoying to read a list of materials longer than their artist statement, it does not allow for the archival and ethically conscious individual the information they need. Cai Guo-Qiang is one of the most dynamic artists of today, using explosives, florescent lights, cars, and basically anything he can to create the work he desires. Having only seen his work once in person, my memory is a bit hazy, but in remembering the textures of the fur used in his work is often matted and appears fake. Often they are even stated to be: the artist himself said that they are “realistically made, but they are completely fake.” Which is misleading as they are not real endangered tigers or a pack of taxidermy wolves, but they are made from sheep hide and sometimes real fur, painted and died
to resemble the replicated animal. When a material list is reduced to “Mixed Media” or “Life Size Replica” it creates the assumption that these are all faux furs or man-made materials. David Shrigley is another artist who uses whatever materials best represent his concept. His work is mainly sarcastic and blunt, but he is one of the only artist who work in dead-pan affirmations that are able to evoke a sincere reaction. His 2011 piece, I’m Dead, uses a taxidermic puppy which holds a sign reading, “I’m Dead.” There are earlier versions of the work which feature a taxidermy cat and dog, separately. I do not have information on where this puppy comes from or how the work came to be, but I appreciate the honesty in it’s materials. Would the work be less valuable or important when ethically made? What are the boundaries of ethics in the use of animals in art?
I'm Dead by David Shringle
Not all artists rely on natural skins and furs to create their work. I came across the haunting work of Erick Swenson at James Cohan Gallery of New York, which use all man-made materials to provoke empathy and sorrow of watching an animal in its last moments. His work seems to balance the turbulent line of the artist’s own childhood passion for taxidermy and scientific illustrations. Though his work is all man-made materials, it evokes as much, if not more a visceral reaction than any artwork that uses natural pelts. Another artist who uses man-made materials in their art is Lisa Dillin. Where Swenson’s work is often morose, Dillin is playful. Her piece Bear hug Sleeping Unit is made of all faux fur. Her piece is interactive, when inside the bears pouch you can hear the soft breathing a grunting of a docile animal, giving comfort and joy one might get from their own animal friends. These artists may not be using man-made materials to fulfill ethical decisions, but these works are evidence that the materials may not determine the value and response.

Untitled by Erik Swenson

These artists may not be using man-made materials to fulfill ethical decisions, but these works are evidence that the materials may not determine the value and response.

In both art and decoration, does the source of the material matter in it being ethical when there are realistic faux-furs and pelts being produced? The look and touch of a piece may severely alter the perception and damage its impact. Skins erode much faster and may prove more difficult to keep archival, yet we also live in a culture that allows leathers, fur, and skins to define luxury. Synthetic materials are inherently cold, they lack the warmth of natural fibers, which creates a distance between the viewer and the work. If there is not a visceral or emotional connection the intent might be lost, but at what cost. In researching the role of taxidermy in art, it became obvious that the materials are secondary to the artists intention and skill, which none of

Bear Hug Sleeping Unit by Lisa Dillin

these artists are lacking. Cai Guo-Qiang uses real hide and furs to create his work, which is no less intense and interesting than the man-made work of Erick Swenson. Lisa Dillin is able to make humorous and thoughtful work just like David Shringley, but without any natural skins. All four artists make wonderful work; the presentation is strong and the intensions are met, but the artists’ materials may alter the perception and value of these works.

There is no easy delineation of ethics in art, it is as complex as the art itself. Either way, we must all justify our choices and attempt to live our lives as humanely as possible… So, as it is in every other aspect of your life, the power is yours.

Apolis, Join the Club & Gilt Sale

Apolis: Global Citizen is the future of garment production – and it’s a necessary future. From Bangledesh to Nepal and Uganda, “Apolis connects developing economies to the global marketplace through seasonal stories and tracks our tangible social results… Although Apolis is heavily inspired by philanthropy, we are a for-profit social enterprise wherein our customers act as benefactors, allowing Apolis to grow as a sustainable business instead of depending on fundraising for support. We have found this model of social business to be the most valuable and effective way to accomplish our ambitious long term goals of “advocacy through industry.”

While I wish (and I find myself doing this too often) that more of the items were free of livestock products, considering the immense ecological toll and inherent cruelty of raising animals to use their skins and hairs (leather & wool), from a human-rights and labor standpoint, I still think this is a very important business model to point out. Here are some of the cruelty-free items from the website:

• 90% off at GILT MAN’s Holiday Sale! Here are some vegan jackets and blazers I’ve selected from the options. If you’re not a GILT Member, get your invitation by clicking HERE.



Join the club. Point collars and spread collars are not the only options out there. Club collars are rounded, smaller, and offer a soft but sophisticated alternative. They were popular in the first few decades of the twentieth century – and likewise, offer the wearer a subtle antique-gentleman  or dandy appeal. The shirt on the right, from Patrik Ervell, does not even require a tie. When wearing a shirt like this, it is best to button up all the way, and layer under a blazer, cardigan, or sweater-jacket. Getting sick of super-skinny ties? (me too!) The club collar is a great excuse to pull out a medium or wide, striped tie.

SDN, Collapse & Great Ape protection

SDN’s Spring/Summer ’11 collection features patchwork blazers in reclaimed fabrics, hemp denim jackets with wood buttons, and vintage African fabric trunks for the beach and pool.

• Prophet, or Conspiracy Theorist? Meet Michael Ruppert, a different kind of American. A former Los Angeles police officer turned independent reporter, Ruppert predicted the current financial crisis in his self-published newsletter, From the Wilderness, at a time when most Wall Street and Washington analysts were still in denial. Now, the radical thinker spells out the impending energy, environmental and economic crises he sees ahead.

Don’t miss the premiere of Collapse, Saturday at 10 p.m. on Planet Green, and decide: is Michael Ruppert a prophetic genius or just an average guy?

• The Great Ape Protection Act is designed to address the approximately 1,000 chimpanzees who languish in research laboratories across the United States. The vast majority of these endangered animals arehttp://t3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:MvVH03nnBd8IHM:http://i202.photobucket.com/albums/aa144/Primate_bucket/koko-chimpanzee.jpg&t=1 not being used in research experiments, but instead are being warehoused, costing taxpayers millions of dollars each year. The few chimpanzees who are used may be subjected to painful and stressful procedures such as those documented in our undercover investigation at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, where more than 320 chimpanzees now live lives of deprivation and misery.

The Great Ape Protection Act (S. 3694/H.R. 1326), which was recently introduced in the Senate and already has more than 150 cosponsors in the House of Representatives, will phase out harmful research on chimpanzees in laboratories, retire all of the approximately 500 federally-owned chimpanzees to permanent sanctuary, and strengthen the government’s ban on breeding chimpanzees for harmful research.