The Energy Issue is a Columbia University GSAPP initiative to make energy a cultural issue, launched in partnership with Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope®.

Hong Kong’s “Cubicle Dwellers”: Exposing Life in One of the World’s Most Densely Packed Cities

In light of the current political protests in Hong Kong, showcasing a project from the Hong Kong-based Society for Community Organization (SoCO), a non-governmental and human rights advocacy group, seems fitting. SoCO has organized community social actions and civic education programs to encourage political participation since 1972, and it recently brought attention to the unacceptable living conditions of many of the city’s poorer inhabitants in a disturbingly illuminating ad campaign. “Cubicle Dwellers” shows the tiny apartments, averaging only about 40 square feet and too small to be shot from anywhere but above, that over 100,000 people occupy. In these spaces, individuals and families must rest, cook, and store all their personal belongings. Due to Hong Kong’s lack of buildable space, the city has come to be one of the world’s densest, resulting in increasingly tall, tightly-packed dwellings. Indeed, thirty-six of the world’s 100 tallest residential buildings are in Hong Kong, and more people live or work above the 14th floor than anywhere else on Earth, making it the world’s most vertical city. The project highlights how the disparity between industrial growth and human needs can rapidly transform environments, and how an imbalance in the way we distribute our energy resources can paradoxically create places of enormous wealth and widespread poverty. 

Clouds Crashing Over Nebraska

Storm chaser Alex Schueth captured timelapse of a rare cloud formation called undulatus asperatus during a storm over Lincoln, Nebraska earlier this summer. The term, which translates to “roughed or agitated waves,” describes the bizarre rolling pattern formed by the clouds. Observers have noted that the phenomenon gives the impression of being underwater looking up at the surface at waves. Margaret LeMone, a cloud expert with the National Center for Atmospheric Research has taken photos of asperatus clouds for 30 years, and considers it a likely new cloud type.

The Mining Project: The Otherworldly Landscapes of America’s Most Toxic Sites

Photographer David Maisel's work often focuses on the landscapes that have been transformed by industrial activity. Through aerial images, he has captured sites like Lake Owens, the dustiest place in the United States; forests uprooted by “whole-tree harvesters”; and borox mines. For his series The Mining Project, Maisel explored open pit mines across the United States which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, have become our largest source of toxic pollution. The photos above are all from the Berkeley Mine in Butte, Montana, whose open pit is filled with severely poisoned water a mile deep and nine hundred feet wide. The Its bizarre terrains could almost be mistaken for distant nebula, tropical beaches, or Martian landscapes. Yet their surreal beauty also underscores their unnatural alterations, transformations in which we, as consumers, are complicit. As Maisel notes, “our infrastructure, our technology, our transportation systems, and even the medium of photography itself, are all reliant on metals extracted from the Earth’s crust in methods both brutal and complex.” Indeed, the energy—and the means by which we produce and consume it—which supports modern society is often hidden. By literally making it visible, Maisel offers viewers a way to understand and these processes. 

Signs of the Times: The NYC People’s Climate March

More than 400,000 people reportedly joined the People’s Climate March in New York City this past Sunday. It was held just days before the United Nations Climate Summit, where many of the world’s leaders were expected to debate environmental action. Along with the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, other high-profile environmentalists and policy-makers joined the march including Bill McKibben, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jane Goodall, Vandana Shiva, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and former Vice President Al Gore. Over 1,500 groups and 50,000 students representing a variety of interests and cultures, ranging from scientific communities to religious organizations, took part in the march. Their signs, emblazoned with exhortations, puns, and hashtags along with messages about fracking, e-waste, desertification, and more, attest to the diversity of participants and the growth of a culture united under a collective banner. 

Pharrell and G-Star RAW Collaborate on Jeans Made from Recycled Ocean Plastic

Producer, singer-songwriter, and fashion designer Pharrell Williams can now add energy advocate to his long list of descriptors. The unofficial arbiter of cool has teamed up with Dutch fashion brand G-Star RAW and Bionic Yarn, a New York City-based startup that transforms fibers made from recycled plastic into durable textiles, to create a denim line made from plastic pollution pulled from the ocean. Bionic Yarn’s patented fibers are made of three layers: a core that gives the fabric strength and stretch, a middle layer of recycled material that makes up 45% of the yarn, and a top coating of any fiber—be it cotton, wool, linen, or nylon—to give the fabric the desired feel. So far, the RAW for the Ocean collection, currently being sold in stores and online, has made use of about nine tons of ocean plastic. The project is particularly significant in that it presents a novel and accessible image of “sustainability,” one which treats energy consciousness as constituent with fashion, aesthetics, and lifestyle. Indeed, what if we made caring for the environmental less about sacrifice and more about the positive opportunity to effect change and re-imagine cultural paradigms?

Domestic Erosion: Reading the Energy of Everyday Objects

English artist Tim Taylor investigates new ways to understand the banal objects in our daily lives as a way to expose their hidden or overlooked features and meanings. In “Domestic Erosion,” Taylor takes three familiar devices from the domestic sphere—a hair dryer, iron, and tea kettle—and allows them to take on a life of their own as energetic objects. After plugging in the devices, Taylor places them, respectively, in front of, on, and under a massive block of ice and films the interaction. In a sense, the objects “create” the artwork: their generic factory setting dictate the form and outcome of the piece. Taylor’s work not only highlights the hidden energy of our everyday objects, but proposes ways in which we might question our accepted understanding of their function and logic. 

For What It’s Worth: Dillon Marsh Shows Big Mines and Their Precious Yields

For his exhibition For What It’s Worth, artist Dillon Marsh combined photography with CGI elements as a way to visualize the output of a mine. Marsh looked specifically at the mines of South Africa, juxtaposing these landscapes with spherical scale models of the material extracted. Above, the artist inserts a copper sphere in the empty pit of Jubilee Mine in Concordia, where 6,500 tonnes of the material were extracted between 1971 and 1973. By visualizing the landscapes of mines, which represent a colossal scale of geologic extraction, with their surprisingly limited yields, Marsh allows the viewer to instantly grasp the relationship between what we produce and how we produce it.  “Whether they are active or long dormant,” Marsh notes, “mines speak of a combination of sacrifice and gain.” Ultimately, however, the images seem to suggest that the sacrifices may outweigh the gains.

FLIR One, an Infrared Camera for the iPhone, Allows You to See the World (and Your Dog Relieving Itself) with Heat Vision

Wired just posted a review of the newly released FLIR One, an an infrared (IR) camera that fits onto your iPhone 5/5s and adds heat vision. With it, users can see in the dark Predator-style by detecting the heat radiation emitted by objects or pinpoint previously hidden areas of unusually high thermal energy. Like drones, thermographic imaging technology has made leaps and bounds in recent years, moving from purely military applications to civilian use. Equipped with dual cameras, the FLIR One takes both IR and visible light images, combining the two to form the final image. As Richard Baguley points out in Wired, the IR camera is much lower in resolution (80 x 60 pixels) than the visible-light one (640 x 480 pixels), so the dual camera approach produces an image that looks sharper than the pure IR image. Now, along with identifying camouflaged humans in the rainforest and finding overheated circuits, we can use thermal imaging for useful applications like filming our dog going to the bathroom. Who knew so much energy lay in so many unexpected places?

Tele-Present Water Simulates a Spot in the Pacific from Halfway Around the World

Artist David Bowen is known for his kinetic sculptures that are driven by real-world data from natural phenomenon. For his work “Tele-Present Water,” first exhibited at the National Museum in Wroclaw, Poland, Bowen pulled real-time wave intensity and frequency data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) buoy station 46246 (49°59’7″ N 145°5’20″ W) located in the remote Shumagin Islands of Alaska. This information was scaled and transferred to a mechanical grid structure, resulting in an uncanny live simulation of the movement of water from halfway around the world. The piece, along with Bowen’s other works, speaks to the way technology and telecommunications can both alienate us from and unite us with the natural world. While technology has enabled us to control and model phenomena with unprecedented precision, it may also provide a means to understand the world in a more intimate, visceral way. 

Moon Museum: Smuggling Thumb-Sized Art Into Outer Space

Moon Museum is a small ceramic wafer three-quarters of an inch by half an inch in size containing artworks by six prominent artists from the late 1960s: Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg, Forrest Myers, and Andy Warhol. The wafer, considered the first Space Art object, was supposedly covertly attached to a leg of the Intrepid landing module, and subsequently left on the moon during Apollo 12. Though it cannot be proven whether or not Moon Museum successfully made its trip unless another lunar mission occurs, many other personal effects were in fact smuggled onto the Apollo 12 lander and hidden in the layers of gold blankets that wrapped parts of the spacecraft. Forrest Myers, the artist who initially conceived of the project, gathered the other artists’ contributions and was helped by a scientist from Bell Laboratories, Fred Waldhauer, who etched the drawings onto ceramic wafer using techniques normally used to produce telephone circuits. Waldhauer also knew a Grunman Aircraft engineer who was working on the Apollo 12 landing module, and following NASA’s vacillation on the project, convinced him to secretly place the wafer on it. The Robert Rauschenberg’s piece is a single line in the top center. To its right is a black square with thin white lines intersecting, resembling a piece of circuitry, by David Novros. Below it is John Chamberlain’s work, a template pattern which also resembles circuitry. In the lower middle is Claes Oldenburg’s geometric variation on Mickey Mouse, a popular motif for the artist at the time. Myers created the work in the lower left, a computer-generated drawing of a “linked symbol” called “Interconnection.” Andy Warhol’s piece in the top left-hand corner, though ostensibly a stylized version of his initials, bears certain resemblance to a a crudely drawn penis.