While there's no known cure for people lost in the augmented reality of Pokemon, Tamiko Thiel's “science fiction future” exhibition, Gardens of the Anthropocene, brings a much-needed dose of reality to the hypermedia sphere. It turns the Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park into an AR landscape, or ecosystem, where “native aquatic and terrestrial plants have mutated to cope with the increasing unpredictable and erratic climate swing.s”
Thiel tells The Creators Project she consulted with climate change scientists at the University of Washington Center for Creative Conservation to understand how climate change would impact the Seattle ecosystems. The future plants in the AR installation all derive from real plants in and around the Olympic Sculpture Park—ones that are tolerant to droughts and warming oceans, and are expected to adapt with increasing temperatures.
“The predictions for the Seattle area were that they would have an arid climate more like Northern California or Eastern Washington,” Thiel explains. “And some articles mentioned a number of land and sea plants that would be able to deal with the changed climate and increased fire danger."
“Beyond this actual scientific basis, however, the artwork takes artistic license to imagine a surreal, dystopian scenario in which plants are ‘mutating’ to breach natural boundaries,” she adds. “From photosynthesis of visible light to feeding off of mobile devices' electromagnetic radiation, from extracting nutrients from soil to feeding off man-made structures, and to transgressing boundaries between underwater and dry land, between reactive flora and active fauna.”
As users walk through the park IRL, they tread through virtual flowerbeds and plants. Since the GPS is “inherently erratic,” according to Thiel, “the plants to seem to wander around and visitors have to actively look for them— perfect for creating an unstable, erratic mood for my dystopian sci-fi climate change scenario.”
Thiel created the futuristic virtual ecosystem in 3D modeling programs 3ds Max and Blender. She used petal and leaf textures from a wide array of photographs, along with a lot of Photoshop processing, to get the colors and textures she wanted.
To create Gardens of the Anthropocene, Thiel used the Layar platform to place augmentations at selected GPS coordinates in the park. The Seattle Art Museum set up tall kiosks at both entrances to the V-shaped path in the upper park with images and instructions for the piece.
“The plants are arranged in copses and flower beds along this path,” Thiel says. “Layar has simple animations that I use to give the plants a sense of life without overloading the processors of older or less powerful smartphones. The total size of each augment has to be kept small (under 1 MB) so that they can be downloaded and viewed on a wide range of visitors' smartphones.”
What Thiel learned during the research phase of the project, when she consulted with Center for Creative Conservation co-directors Josh Lawler and Julian Olden, is that scientists were discovering that we were consistently reaching our worst-case climate change scenarios.
“I realized—and Josh and Julian confirmed—that temperatures have already started to go non-linear,” says Thiel. “They are not climbing at a steady rate. Instead, the rate at which they are climbing is increasing. It's now clear the changes the studies were predicting for mid-century will be here within 10 years, not 35 years.”