Eye To Eyebeam: A Conversation With Maria Michails


Eye to Eyebeam is a series on Eyebeam's artists in residence and fellows that includes interviews, photos, and other information on Eyebeam’s artists and creative technologists. It is authored by Eyebeam intern Katherine DiPierro.

At a time when “sustainable” and “environmentally friendly” are the latest marketing buzzwords, Maria Michails creates projects which invite both meditation and participation in the processes of ecology and the consumption of energy. Her interactive sculptures relate the exploitative effects of human consumption of energy (past projects have highlighted the effects of industrial agriculture and fracking) and graft natural materials with precise electronic instruments and participant-powered mechanisms. Eyebeam intern Katherine DiPierro sat down with Maria to talk about her past and current projects.

Katherine DiPierro: This fall and winter you’ll be completing an honorary residency at Eyebeam, after spending the first half of the year as a resident. As part of your experience here, have you incorporated new forms of technology into your projects, or mastered newer ones?

Maria Michails: Yes, and that is exactly why Eyebeam has been a great place to develop this project. For the first time since making human-powered mechanisms I was able to incorporate a micro-controlled system and LCD monitors as well as living plants. We can now monitor the moisture level in the soil, read this data to calibrate the solenoid valves that control water flow and to have a visual feedback via colored LED lights. Additionally, and a surprising new component, we are working on incorporating the Botanicalls module that will also monitor soil moisture and tweet people to have them come water the plants by pumping the handcar. The experimentation that was and is still being conducted here enables me to understand how much power the handcar can actually produce. Turns out we haven't even reached the maximum.

KD: You’ve created human-powered installations for some time - Emergy, one of your earlier works, utilized a rowing mechanism. What led you to use a mechanism modeled after a handcar for your latest set of projects?

MM: I had read a book, called Natural Capitalism: The Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins, and in many of the chapters it talked about how technology can be applied to modify existing industrial processes so that they can be closed-loop systems, meaning the outputs (waste) are reused as inputs and monitoring is through a feedback loop that then regulates the process. Generally, nature works that way. I was intrigued and wondered what mechanism I could use as the aesthetic trigger to emulate such a system. I chose the train, following on the idea of transportation using boats, since it was pivotal to the expansion of the industrial revolution, urbanism and particularly, agriculture.

KD: Your Handcar Projects are novel interactive sculptures that involve participants in the process of bringing the work literally and metaphorically to light. Are you planning to develop future Handcar Projects, or are you developing a new series of human-powered sculptures?

MM: As I worked with the concept of the train and started to develop the railway handcar, ideas started to take shape. I wanted to look at all industrial processes that affected the five different ecosperes of the planet. I began with the biosphere and focused on the resource in crisis: topsoil. So I began researching industrial agriculture. The project I am developing here is called S*OIL. It looks at topsoil erosion through monocropping and the growing of corn as a biofuel while also growing experimental hybrid plants from seeds developed by The Land Institute. These perennial grains have the potential to give us a sustainable type of agriculture. Future projects will include the hydrosphere (water/desalination); geosphere (minerals/mining); atmosphere (air) and cryosphere (ice). They may or may not be part of the Handcar Projects series but the idea is that an industrial process will be created that reflects both the current mode of operation and potential sustainable methods being developed by researchers. It is a way for me to, as you say, bring to light industrial processes and juxtapose them to natural systems in a way that resonates physically and emotionally to the user.

Thanks so much, Maria! For more information on her latest projects and exhibitions, visit Maria Michails’ Eyebeam page and personal website.

Projects: Eye To Eyebeam, Residencies, S*OIL, The Handcar Projects
People: Katherine DiPierro, Maria Michails
Tags: fall 2011, fellowships, interview, residents