Midwest Energy News recently mentioned a quirky art project sponsored by Commonwealth Edison, an Illinois electric utility. To promote its refrigerator recycling program, the utility paid artists to take its message to the streets by recycling refrigerators.

The reworked refrigerators were on display in Chicago on Michigan Avenue during the summer of 2012. The photos below are from a Fast Company slide show.

Dream Engine Refrigerator Sculpture
Dream Engine refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)



Camperator refrigerator sculpture
Camperator refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)

To see photos of the other redesigned refrigerators, check out this article from Commonwealth Edison.

If you saw a fridge like this sitting in the middle of the street, would it make you think about recycling your own refrigerator? Would you have to read the plaque to realize what it was?

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Electronic waste often ends up in places where it isn’t appreciated. Sometimes, it ends its life cycle in fiery pits in China and other countries. MIT students have tracked urban trash and found that e-waste ends up in all kinds of unexpected spots.

Today, Electronics Takeback Coalition posted photos of another possible destination for our computer chips: an art exhibit in Berlin, Germany. At the Electronics Goes Green 2012+ conference, artists Muharrem Batman, Ayse Batman and Judith Brun displayed these gorgeous compositions of resistors, plugs, circuit boards, connectors, wires and other electronic fragments.

Electronic Sculpture 1

Electronic Sculpture 2

Electronic Sculpture 3

I paid for part of my college education by building electronics. During my first year working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s physics department, I thought the colors of resistors were attractive. I brought some of the discarded resistors home to add to art projects, but never figured out what I wanted to do with them.

Since then, I’ve seen electronics recycled in many ways – as jewelry, business card holders, bookmarks, coasters and clipboards. But the artwork above is the most inventive reuse of electronics I’ve found yet.

Cuff links made out of circuit boards

Have you seen any interesting reuses of electronic scraps? If so, what were they?

It takes an artistic eye to look at an ordinary wall and see potential spaces for art in the fissures between the bricks. Some artists see the blank spaces between objects as zones where new ideas can emerge. M.C. Escher used white space as a central part of his artwork.

Now, in cities around the world, artists are using plastic bricks to fill in empty spaces and “patch” broken walls and monuments. These “dispatchers” have collected their handiwork on a website which includes their manifesto:

I don’t enjoy living in dull and grey cities. Do you? Have you noticed that toys for kids are generally very shiny and colorful? I wonder why that is, given that they are to be brought up to live in mostly dull and gray cities as adults. Since I lived in many of such cities, I am seeking to improve the appearance of public spaces in different ways, in terms of what I consider improvement. Dispatchwork aims to seal fissures in broken walls worldwide, completing the material compilation in urban constructing and adding color to the urban greyscales.

Like Buddhist sand mandalas, the repairs are intended to be temporary. Because the plastic will end up in our water systems eventually, I’d like to see this group experiment with biodegradable LEGOs. Unfortunately, the only biodegradable LEGO-style bricks that exist are a dull shade of brown. Only their scent is attractive; apparently, they smell like green tea.

Since living in Chicago, I have been interested in art projects that reclaim damaged parts of city landscapes. There are many ways to introduce art into cities, including turning vacant lots into parks and yarn bombing.

I participated in a Dispatchers project in Beverly, Massachusetts this weekend. We decorated the entrance of a graffiti-covered building with LEGO-shaped stickers.

A Dispatchers event in Beverly, MA.
Dispatchers standing next to an entrance covered with LEGO-style stickers.

We also inserted LEGOs into the foundation of a building at the Montserrat College of Art, as well as some other buildings including the Unitarian church on Cabot Street. We used friction and a small amount of silicone caulk to hold the LEGOs in place.

Inserting Lego bricks into the foundation of the Montserrat art school's Hardie Building
Inserting LEGO bricks into the foundation of the Montserrat College of Art’s Hardie Building.

Curious about whether Dispatchers have been at work in your city? Explore the Dispatchwork website for more details and photos of the installations. Many of the installations are in Europe, but some are in Asia, the Middle East, and North America.

Leatherback sea turtles are tough, but waterborne plastic can kill them. See Turtles, a nonprofit organization, says “hundreds of thousands of sea turtles… die each year from ocean pollution and ingestion or entanglement in marine debris.” Many of these pieces of plastic come from landfills.

To show passersby how plastic threatens leatherback turtles’ survival, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is getting ready for the Revere Beach National Sand Sculpting Festival next week by making a wire sculpture of a leatherback turtle. I helped to build the turtle’s flippers and head this afternoon today in a back yard in Revere.

Leatherback turtle sculpture
Leatherback turtle sculpture. Photo credit: Matthew Nash.

At the festival, Visitor Services Supervisor Matthew Nash will invite people to pick up plastic trash from the beach and use it to decorate the turtle’s wire structure. At the end of the festival, he expects, the turtle will be covered with pieces of plastic. Each piece of plastic the visitors retrieve will reduce the beach refuse that turtles – or other animals and birds – might ingest.

When they aren’t dining on dangerous plastic debris, leatherback turtles are very tough. Their range extends all the way to northern Canada; they don’t object to cold weather. Their shells are made of flexible pieces which help them decompress when they are surfacing from deep water. A medium-sized leatherback turtle is about six feet long.

John Maeda spoke at the MIT Media Lab this week about how art can energize science, technology, engineering and math. The event posting says “artists and designers make information more understandable, products more desirable, and new invention possible.”

Even though I missed the talk, the event inspired me to write about visual communication and science. Visual communication’s effectiveness isn’t just smoke and mirrors. Andrew Revkin wrote a post for the New York Times Dot Earth blog on the science of engaging the whole brain. The gist of the message: multimedia and visual communication help us grasp concepts and information that we might not understand otherwise. Revkin challenges data visualization experts “to find ways to envision, literally, that vague but vital concept called public health.”

Patterns of paper pollution
Paper pollution image by J. Henry Fair

Here are some examples of eye-catching visual communication:

Visual Science depicts patterns of paper pollution

Information Is Beautiful asks why the Wall Street protesters are angry

Breathing Earth shows global warming, birth and death rates

John Kyrk animates cell biology

Keep an eye on the Information Is Beautiful contest, where designers are developing ways to show the world’s non-renewable resources in multimedia format.

Several years ago, someone asked me to tell a group how I became interested in environmental issues. I said I grew up in Chicago, where I could smell steel mill pollution and see signs of water contamination.

When people talk about “environmental justice” in the United States, they’re referring to our collective tendency to put pollution in places where people of color will encounter it.

There are many possible reasons for the close relationship between pollution and communities of color – including economic realities, community history, and the location of jobs. Where working class jobs are available, pollution is often nearby.

The National Museum of Mexican Art, which I visited in May, has some powerful pieces related to environmental justice.

The final room in the museum begins with an installation about César Chávez, who organized a boycott to oppose toxic pesticides on grapes in the 1980s.

In the gift shop, I saw a reproduction of “Sun Mad.” This controversial painting shows Ester Hernandez‘s anger about the chemicals workers face in the grape industry.

A painting showing a skeleton and pesticide warnings on a Sun Maid raisins box
Sun Mad (photo from the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

In the painting “Blue Collar,” Oscar Moya depicts a worker in a safety mask and gloves surrounded by an ominous red glow. It isn’t clear that the piece is related to chemical safety, but the atmosphere suggests it.

Salvador Vega’s “Mother Earth” reminded me of Salvador Dali’s depiction of the Spanish civil war – but the subject is our planet.

A reviewer from The Onion describes this exhibit as depressing. It did not have that effect on me. When I see art like this, it motivates me to think about social change. People shouldn’t be afraid to go to work because of concerns about chemical safety.

It’s easy to assume other people learn the same way we do. If we are used to explaining ideas verbally, we may forget the value of pictures.

Studying learning styles is valuable for people who are interested in mass communication.

Eye tracking studies show how audiences read images in the news. Poynter’s online class on color in news design quotes some of this research: readers look at 80% of the artwork on a page but only read 25% of the text.

This article from the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media demonstrates how graphics can clarify stories about climate change. The image of how shorelines change when sea levels rise could be very eye-catching for local readers.

Part of the communication appeal of science graphics is their “just the facts” approach.  But even though a science graphic may be matter-of-fact, it’s important to remember there is uncertainty in the data.

Also, one can change audience perceptions of a science story by choosing how one presents graphics. One can alter audience reactions by changing the scale of an axis, adjusting how one compares data sets, moving a zero point, or even changing the color of a bar.

Graph showing two contrasting lines: "dream" and "reality"
If this red line was green, would that change how you respond to the graph?

Some academics spend their careers writing papers about how to present statistics effectively.

Although there are real differences between art and engineering, the social gap between them may be due to misconceptions. The impersonal and equation-oriented image of engineering doesn’t reflect what engineers do at work.

As I commented on an article in The Atlantic:

Since I spent so much time in machine shops and garages during engineering school, I’m not sure that there really is a solid line one can draw between engineering and hands-on activities.

When I took art classes, students there were doing the same activities that I was already doing at the machine shop. Math classes use visualization and design skills frequently. And engineering is much more about problem-solving than memorization.

In other words – art and theater tech majors do many of the same things engineering and math students do…. but they end up with different jobs later.

The article encourages educators to value 3D design skills. I agree that 3D skills matter – but not just to designers and architects.

As a college freshman, I realized I would need shop skills that went beyond anything I learned before college. I’d been using art supplies and building small objects since grade school. As a high school student, I’d learned more about woodworking and auto repair.  But that wasn’t enough. To expand my experience, I began working in electronics and machine shops.

The day-to-day life of a mechanical engineer involves building and visualizing products continually. Having solid math and computer skills is only one part of that equation.

Design and construction are some of the building blocks of engineering. Intermediate art-related fields like architecture and product design require similar skills and experiences.

Occasionally, I hear people say engineering isn’t creative. But brainstorming is integral to industrial design. Engineers know that if they spend more time and energy in the design phase of a project, that will prevent costly retooling later on.

So, yes – engineers are creative. But the field’s impersonal image doesn’t match that reality. In college, I saw women taking theater tech and art classes and learning to solder, weld, and use shop equipment. My male friends took engineering classes, learned to use exactly the same equipment, and had relatively good job security after they graduated.

I’d encourage other women who are interested in design to consider engineering. My engineering degree gave me access to many resources. Those doors might never have opened if I had an art degree.

After writing the post “Subverting the Plastic Bottle” a few months ago, I began thinking about recycled art. I left the art show at the Peabody Essex Museum with an idea: if I did start making art again, I would use recycled materials.

Before studying mass communication, I had physically active jobs for around eight years. So I knew from experience that metal was my favorite medium. At first, when I started thinking about potential projects, I wanted to learn blacksmithing. But then I looked in my tool box and realized that I had everything I needed for making jewelry, except for the soldering and forging equipment.

That’s how my “remixed jewelry” project was born. I may think of a better name for it if I decide to sell any pieces. So far, I’m collecting contributions from friends – earrings without mates, broken necklaces, and other things – and “remixing” them by combining them with disassembled necklaces from a local thrift store.

Trash Menagerie, a show in the Art and Nature Center at the Peabody Essex Museum, uses recycled materials to tell the story of our view of objects and our choices about what is disposable. If we saw these objects differently, what would happen?

The artists bring this question to life in many different media. On walking into the exhibit, I was confronted by a green-eyed dragon made of bundt cake pans and bicycle brakes. Each section of a pan was part of its body; each brake had become a leg. I can imagine how much welding it took to get that right.

Behind the dragon, visitors meet a pair of mechanical insects – built from drafting tools and sewing machine parts – and their sister sculpture, a squid made of small electronics.

Mechanical stinger insect from the Peabody Essex Museum

Ironic uses of plastic are a central theme of the exhibit. A shimmering trout turns out to be a composite of layered plastic. An ethereal crowd of hovering jellyfish and other sea creatures reveal their past lives as plastic soda bottles.

A statement by Nnenna Okore, the artist who rolled magazines into a roving band of large spiders, says that seeing poverty in Africa gave her a different perspective on what reused materials are worth.

Seeing ways to reuse everyday items we throw away – magazine covers, plastic bottles, newspapers – is a creative act. When we reframe what a plastic bottle means to us, that’s when the sea creatures start emerging. Literally.