Stephanie Rothenberg’s “Reversal of Fortune: Garden of Virtual Kinship” is part of “The Artist’s Creative Process” series, produced by curator Xiaoying Juliette Yuan, that explores the practice of internationally known artists who reveal their creative process step by step and the relationship between their lives and their art. Other artists in the series include John F. Simon, Jr. and LoVid.
Stephanie Rothenberg’s “Reversal of Fortune: Garden of Virtual Kinship” is an interactive garden that explores the intersection of social media, philanthropy and finance. The garden takes the form of 3-dimensional data visualization that uses plants to represent human lives, creating a more physical, sensorial experience with data.
The lifelines of the plants are dependent on micro lending transactions happening in real time on the Internet. Successful exchanges trigger an automated watering system that feed and nourish specific plants. Whether viewed for a few minutes or several days or weeks, the live and virtual garden in its struggle to survive illuminates the complex relationships between human life and economic growth.
“Reversal of Fortune: Garden of Virtual Kinship” evolved out of earlier works that explored new forms of online, digital labor and virtual economies. These projects existed in both the physical world and the virtual and examined what is known as “crowdsourcing” – the outsourcing of a particular task or job to an online “crowd” of geographically dispersed people. A few of these projects, collaborations with artist Jeff Crouse, include a virtual “sweatshop” that made physical designer jeans and an adult entertainment website that outsourced your fantasy to anonymous online workers.
Images above: “Invisible Threads”, 2008 and “Laborers of Love/LOL”, 2013, both created by Jeff Crouse and Stephanie Rothenberg
“Garden of Virtual Kinship” looks at the next phase of this emerging technology –crowdfunding. With crowdfunding, a geographically dispersed group of people lend small sums of money (micro-lending) to fund a common goal. The most popular example of this is the Kickstarter platform and the collective funding of creative projects.
The artwork examines crowdfunding enabled through social media for humanitarian aid and economic development. On these social media websites such as www.kiva.org and www.globalgiving.org, you can choose a loan borrower in a developing country and help fund a small-scale, local or personal business project. This type of funding is part of a larger financial system called microfinance that emerged in the mid 1990’s. The goal is to help extremely poor people but what often results is an over indebtedness from the high interest rates and fees that loan borrowers pay. “Garden of Virtual Kinship” makes visible these inherent contradictions.
As I work with social and economic issues my process is very research-based. I have a shelf of books on economic development alongside pages of notes from interviews with people in the field relating to the project such as financial analysts. “Garden of Virtual Kinship” is also very technologically complex so I collaborated with coders to create the interactivity.
My artworks always begin with a vision that melds a theoretical idea or issue with a particular form. My last few projects were screen-based and I wanted to create something more tactile and visceral, to really underscore this relationship between the real and the digital, the organic and the cultural. A recent trip back to New Mexico during the summer inspired the idea for a garden. The plant as a symbol for human life was also the perfect metaphor for the piece.
The artwork is also an homage to artist Ken Goldberg’s groundbreaking “Telegarden” launched to the world in 1995. It enabled a global community of online users to virtually care for a live garden. For me, I saw how his garden foreshadowed what was to become crowdsourcing and crowdfunding in the way it outsourced the growth of the garden through people anonymously working together on the Internet.
I start with very rough sketches and doodles that usually emerge when I’m actually doing something else, like waiting in a line or in transit. I then create a more detailed digital drawing of the piece that helps me think it through further. The next step is to create a prototype to figure out how to meld the concept with the technology and physical structure.
My idea for the piece was to create the effect of a real garden that one could walk through. The garden would take the form of a world map with the continents serving as the plant beds. I worked with two graduate students from my art department, Byron Rich and Bobby Gryzynger, who helped me create a water pumping system that could be activated by real time data from the social media microfinance websites.
For the next version I worked in collaboration with artist Brian Clark to design an overhead automated watering system. This design allowed for more flexibility with the real time data. I decided to shift the concept from a walk-thru garden to reference more of an architectural model that I felt underscored the economic development aspect of the overarching idea.
I also wanted to maintain a feeling of something still in progress and in development that would also emphasize flow and circulation. I found that many of the DIY hydroponic and aquaponic systems conveyed the tone I was looking for so I incorporated that unfinished aesthetic into the physical structure.
The world map was created as a dot matrix grid of over 650 1” holes representing micro loan borrowers. When a loan received funding, the computer controlled watering head could move to that borrowers location on the grid and water the plant.
A lot of online research goes into finding the right parts for both the technology and the physical structure. For example, I needed to find small containers that could hold the seed and soil for the 650 holes. I ended up using specimen containers from a medical supply.
This second version was exhibited at the Buffalo Central Library in downtown Buffalo as part of the Echo Art Fair. The artwork was next to the small business development section which I thought was very appropriate!
The “Reversal of Fortune” series is supported by a Creative Capital in Emerging Fields, a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace Residency and the University at Buffalo Humanities Institute and Technē Institute for Arts and Emerging Technologies.
Stephanie Rothenberg is an interdisciplinary artist using performance, installation and networked media to create provocative public interactions. Mixing real and virtual spaces, her work explores the power dynamics between contemporary visions of utopian urbanization and real world economic, political and environmental factors. She has exhibited throughout the US and internationally in venues including LABoral in Gijon, Spain, MASS MoCA, the Sundance Film Festival and Transmediale. She is a recipient of numerous awards, most recently from the Harpo Foundation and Creative Capital. Residencies include the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace and Eyebeam Art and Technology. Her work is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and has been widely reviewed including Artforum, Artnet, The Brooklyn Rail and Hyperallergic. She is Associate Professor in the Department of Art at SUNY Buffalo where she teaches courses in design and emerging technologies.
Curator, Juliette Yuan
Xiaoying Juliette Yuan is a curator based in New York. She has curated numerous exhibitions, conferences, and workshops for international biennials and festivals and worked with international art fairs, academies, and institutions. As a trilingual scholar, she has widely published in art magazines and journals and lectured at conferences and academies. In 2012, she was appointed the curator for Syncretic Cybernetics, the first retrospective of Roy Ascott, the British pioneer in the telematic art within the 9th Shanghai Biennale in China. In 2013, she accomplished a large publication project, “Media Arts Collection” introducing a group of Western media art pioneers’ writings to China. In 2013, she curated for Havestwork’s New York Electronic Festival (NYEAF) a screening program presenting a series of sound works from a group of emerging artists from China Mainland. In 2015, she collaborated with Harvestworks and the NYEAF again to showcase in New York the sound projects of five pioneer artists from Taiwan and Hong Kong. The project received significant support from the Ministry of Culture in Taipei, TECO Taipei Cultural Center (New York), and the Museum of the Moving Image (New York). As a researcher focusing on curatorial aesthetic and methodology, she is interested in artists’ creative processes as well as the curators’ role in such processes.