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“in terms of success, it really became more than just the art project that’s sitting on the wall. It became something that people wanted to engage in and talk about the wider implications.”
“we actually wanted to give our work to the audience and let them play with it.”
At the time of our interview Britta Riley and Rebecca Bray were residents at Eyebeam, the art and technology center in New York. Their work has been featured in ArtNews, on the Discovery Channel, at the Venice Biennale, and the A+C gallery in Chicago. They own an interactive design agency in New York, Submersible Design.
The Meatrix was an animated movie, spoofing The Matrix while educating viewers about the problems with factory farming. It went viral, was translated into 30 languages, and directs viwers to a website where they can learn to become advocates of family farms. DrinkPee is a project about “the role our bodies play in larger ecosystems”and includes an installation and a DIY kit for turning urine into fertilizer. DrinkPee was featured in both ArtNews, and on the Discovery Channel’s Planet Green. R&D-I-Y is project designed to crowdsource solutions to environmental problems. It’s first project was the windowfarms project.
S&S: Tell us about a project you felt was effective.
Bray: I was working for a nonprofit concerned with food issues and factory farming. While trying to educate people we realized we were showing people all these horrific pictures of factory farms. We were telling people how horrible they were and nobody really wanted to hear it. Everybody was disturbed and they didn’t want to listen.
So, we realized that we needed another angle, and decided we could use humor – as strange as that seemed – to talk about factory farming. It was 2002 and we realized there could be a fun angle on this if we did an animation and based it on The Matrix because of the crazy parallels with this very strange, alternative world of agriculture. Working on that script, we had a lot of conversations about how we didn’t want to be preachy. It was difficult because coming from the nonprofit world there was a lot of preachiness. And there were also a lot of facts, you know, “how many facts can we get in?” It could have been very long and very preachy, but we managed to pair it back to something which was just getting basic information, but trying to bring characters into it, and some sort of personality and humor. That was the Meatrix.
The first Meatrix was 3.5 minutes and we just started disseminating it online, and it was amazing. It was a million hits in the first month or something. It was crazy. We had tons of people all over the world who had never seen The Matrix and they still loved it.
I think it was so well received because it was refreshing. It wasn’t preachy but it wasn’t glossing over the issue. It was still disturbing, but it provided a kind of entry point for people. Also people could explain it in one sentence – and i think that’s really important. It’s really important to be able to describe something in one sentence because people can get ahold of it, remember it, and pass it on.
We also knew it was successful because we had so much feedback. People who wanted copies and wanted translations of it and things like that. And we had the web stats, so we knew it was successful in that way.
S&S: I remember seeing this at the time – it was huge. But factory farming isn’t really over is it?
The thing that’s different from my work now is that it was putting something out there, but it wasn’t providing a direct avenue for action. It wasn’t participatory.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PARTICIPATION
I think the work that we do, one of the things that we think of as being successful or is just integrated completely into our work, is that we want people to participate in it, and that’s crucial to what we do. It is not just about disseminating information.
S&S: Why did you guys make the decision to move from “well, we’ll just get the message out there, the facts…” Why isn’t information enough?
Riley: Let’s take our Drink Pee project – we love the ocean and we want to solve ocean pollution problems. We decided that we really want to come up with a solution that was not just “oh, here’s some information! And, over the next forty years, you people should change your ways.”
So, we looked at ways to solve the particular problem of urine, which comes from our bodies and makes it out to the ocean and the waterways and basically, the two major effects it has are: it overfeeds algae, because of the richness of the nutrients in urine and creates these harmful algae blooms in waterways; and the other thing that happens is the medicine from our bodies that goes undigested makes its way into waterways and starts showing up in our drinking water supply. We are actually being dosed by one another’s medicine from our drinking water.
So we set out to come up with a solution to this. First, we researched a lot of what was out there. The big science R&D environmental solutions to this, well, the one very popular one, is a big, separate, sewage treatment plant changed to capture only urine so that urine goes through a chemical reaction and becomes agricultural fertilizer. But the problem with the big R&D solutions is that they always have to take a big mass approach – they always have to fix the problem for everyone, and that inevitably requires a lot of infrastructure, which defeats the whole point of doing an environmental project if you’re just creating another environmental problem –
S&S: If the treatment plant ever gets built at all.
Riley: Yeah. So instead, we figured out essentially how to do this chemical reaction and we are disseminating that knowledge to people.
Bray: We did it through DIY kits so people can turn their own urine into fertilizer at home.
Riley: We also did a series of workshops. At one, fifty people showed up on a freezing cold New York City night and they had to do part of this project outside in the cold. They turned their pee into fertilizer. They were like smelling each other’s pee and asking, “Did it change? Do you think it changed? Yeah!” It was amazing.
S&S: We must of have missed that workshop….
Bray: And so in terms of success, it really became more than just the art project that’s sitting on the wall. It became something that people wanted to engage in and talk about the wider implications. For example we had a whole conversation about composting and food waste and that felt really insightful and successful because it went beyond people reacting to an art project and bringing their point of view and their own concerns to it.
S&S: It sounds like it worked pretty well, but what happens after the workshop is over?
Bray: This was one of the points when we realized what was unsuccessful about the project. A surprising number of people came back to us and were trying to give us ideas about how we should do it differently, or how we should start a business, or how they would want it done. And some of them were even excited about doing that themselves, but we noticed that they felt like they needed to ask our permission because it was “our project.” And that’s where we realized that it wasn’t successful – having it be totally dependent on us and branded as ours. If we were really interested in having an environmental solution, what we want to harness is those people’s interest and their ability to design something that they will use.
Bray: We realized, while people did want to do their own thing, they also wanted support and they wanted information. Because we’ve already done some research, we can provide starting points. From there, they can definitely go off in their own direction, and our research can inform them. So they want support and they also want to know that they are involved in something bigger. So, you know, “I’m not just tinkering in my garage by myself, but I’m contributing to a larger solution and helping other people do it as well.”
S&S: That’s exciting – in a way, you want to open up ownership of the project. Well, how do you do that?
Bray: We needed to create whole structures to collaborate and help people come up with a variety of solutions based on their own situation. So we built a social networking site where people can share information and processes and test out solutions. Also, when somebody discovers a question on the site, they are able to contribute relating to their own particular skill or interest. They are able to contribute by maybe answering one little question in part of this bigger problem. They are able to participate and see how their solution contributes to the whole.
S&S: You’re creating knowledge communities.
Bray: Not only knowledge, but actually leading to things and solutions.
Riley: We’re working on a crowd sourcing model for environmental research and development by total amateurs, but amateurs who know what they want and need and what works for their particular situations.
S&S: So success would be: people that you have not met with a sense of autonomy, participating in this group and out on their own.
Riley: Yes, and actually working together, so that it’s not just one person. I mean there are already places online where people come up with solutions and they post it, but that stuff is distributed all over the place. If you want to respond to something somebody started, you have to do it in the comments or go somewhere else. But it’s not really organized as a collaborative effort. Again, it’s about me and my project.
Bray: It also becomes more product oriented than process oriented. We are interested in revealing the process and making it transparent so that people can step in, learn from what was done before, and fork off it.
S&S: What do you call this?
Bray: It’s R&DIY– research and develop it yourself.
THINKING ABOUT THE AUDIENCE
S&S: It sounds like, more than most people we’ve talked to, you are thinking your audience and how they engage with your work. It’s really an essential part of your projects. What do you think about that?
Bray: What happened through the DrinkPee project is that we relealized we wanted to think more about the audience and we actually wanted to give our work to the audience and let them play with it. It’s so much about spreading something and having people bring it into their own space and make it their own, so it’s not about us owning something and presenting it to people.
Riley: When we were really dealing with the actual chemistry of this reaction that turns your pee into fertilizer, we got so psyched about the particular chemicals and stuff like that, but you have to realize that someone who is just coming to this process is not going to be able to be there with you yet. So being able to pull ourselves away from our own attachment and bring it back to the audience is this constant revision process that we are going through every time we present work to somebody else.
Bray: And we increasingly meet with our brain trust – our friends and colleagues who we ask to just have dinner with us and we ask if we’re crazy.
Riley: And sometimes they tell us we are.
S&S: So this thing about audience and the brain trust and testing, where did you learn that? When you were painters at art school, did they tell you: “Think about audience, think about who’s looking at this.” I mean, I don’t know if you were painters, but were you taught this?
S&S: Were you painters?
Bray & Riley: No.
Bray: The art training that I got in undergrad was pretty traditional – video and multimedia – but there was nothing about the user, it was all about the internal processes of the artist. I don’t know why that is.
S&S: So where did you learn to to think about the user?
Bray: Certainly at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Progam. You’re constantly doing quick iterations and prototypes and presenting them to people and collaborating a lot. Now I tell my students, and they are probably sick of hearing it, “You have to do user testing at the very beginning for your concept.”
Riley: Yeah, we are totally influenced by software development and the fact that every good piece of webware these days goes through so many iterations. The fact that people are used to the terms alpha and beta has given us a lot of permission to take that approach in our own work.
S&S: Are you ever worried that you might err too far the other way and think too much like a software engineer thinking about “the user” and their hoped for experience?
Bray: It’s something that we talked about, especially while we were working on DrinkPee and when we worked in the science aspects. When DrinkPee went to the museum space, we thought, “Is this getting too much to be like a science exhibition?” But as artists we were separating ourselves from that, we felt like we had more freedom. When it’s art, there’s more freedom for our interpretation and also for our personality, in that we were able to bring ourselves to it and also leave questions unanswered. It’s the same thing with R&DIY. We are interested in pushing for more questions, and I think of that as a creative process, a good role for artists, to find the questions and compel people to look at it and ask questions themselves.
Contrast that with a scientist’s approach. Maybe you do come out with questions in the end, like, “What still needs to be tested?” But you’re not asking the public what needs to be questioned. And you know, science is very elitist and very much trapped within in its own sphere. I think of art as being something that approaches the public and reaches out to them.
Riley: That’s basically what we’re wrestling with right now. We are going to be looking more at how we collaborate with others and how we structure or don’t structure things. How much are we going to present to people, and how much we’re just going to say, “figure it out yourselves.”