This article was first published for the Australia Council for the Arts online magazine, Artery on 04 June 2014
As our computers ping one another from opposite sides of the world, contemporary interdisciplinary artist, Tega Brain initially emerges as a Sesame Street Martian icon, the kind of muppet that goes, ‘Yip! Yip!’. It’s not the first image you might expect of an environmental engineer and educator turned artist whose work sounds so earnestly serious; described on her website as rethinking ‘the infrastructures, interfaces and institutions that structure our relationship with larger environment systems’.
When she appears on screen, Brain is effusive and engaging despite being holed up in her New York studio against the bitter winter cold. A recipient of a two-year Creative Australia Fellowship for an Emerging Artist, Brain is about to return home after eight months in New York taking part in residencies, artist-led workshops and generally throwing herself into the cultural richness and energy of the city.
One of her main reasons for going to New York was to take part in a residency with The Environment Health Clinic and work with Australian-born artist Natalie Jermijenko. As part of the residency she has been collaborating with another artist developing the software for The Phenology Clock, an online tool that allows people to compare local observations of their environment against historic temporal cycles.
Brain has created several previous works drawing on phenology, which is the study of recurring biological events in the animal and plant world, such as plant flowering cycles or migratory patterns. It’s an area now getting a lot of attention as a way of mapping how the biosphere is responding to the effects of climate change.
While in New York, Brain was also lucky enough to take part in the first residency program of the School for Poetic Computation, where she created Weather Instrument #1, the first in what she plans to be a series of works looking at weather data and records and how that information can be conveyed and realised in evocative ways.
Investigating the intersection of artistic expression, databases and computation to enable environmental information to be experienced differently is another theme in Brain’s work. ‘I’ve been in conversation with a couple of artists here [in New York] who call their process data visceralisation,’ Brain says. ‘…making the experience [of data] bodily and emotive.’ It’s a nice description of her own approach, she says, as shown in works such as What the Frog’s Nose tells the Frog’s Brain, which transposed increasing levels of electricity use in the exhibiting building as an acrid, smoky smell.
New York has been just one part of how Brain is using her Fellowship to develop her artistic practice and international networks. On returning to Australia she will undertake a three-month research residency with the herbarium of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens researching how their collections are formed, what goes in, what gets left out, and why.
Later this year she will be working with Jodi Newcombe of Carbon Arts to present a work as part of Strange Weather at the Dublin Science Gallery. She will also use her Fellowship to take part in a residency with Austrian based new media collective Time’s Up and to develop a work with New Zealand’s FESTA, the Festival of Transitional Architecture, which presents public work that responds to Christchurch’s earthquake recovery.
Brain has created a considerable body of work since graduating in 2012 from QUT with her Masters of Arts. ‘So that’s why this Fellowship has been so amazing, because I still feel quite fresh to the art world.’
For Brain, interdisciplinary art practice provides a unique space for experimentation and reflection on engineering that was not possible when she was within the field. As an artist however, she is free to critically explore the assumptions, values and politics behind how we design our infrastructure.
‘Generally, the way we relate to non-human systems is driven by this very instrumental perspective on them,’ Brain explains. We look at non human systems as providing ‘ecological services’, whether its pollination or water treatment. We design our cities around how the environment can provide for us; not what the ecosystem needs to sustain itself.
‘I really try in my work to reconfigure that and think about how we might design systems and infrastructures around better ecological relationships where non human systems and natural systems are attributed more value and more space.’