An unsettling paradise of our own design

by Joanna Nurmis

Artist Tamiko Thiel ‘79 has brought her augmented reality installation, entitled Gardens of the Anthropocene, to Stanford. You can now follow these easy steps to see it (almost) with your own eyes: through your smartphone’s camera.

  1. Download the Layar app
  2. Open this page on your phone and scan the QR code with the Layar app
  3. Go to the fountain in front of Hoover tower

You will be enchanted by what you see: supernatural plants appearing in familiar places. What does it all mean? Thiel explains that the artwork, first commissioned last year by the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, was created in collaboration with climate scientists who study the impact that future climate change will have on plants.

These flowers developed drought resistant leaves, their petals respond to the presence of mobile devices by enlarging

This installation is related in two ways to the research and activity conducted by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. First, researchers affiliated with Woods just last year completed a 17-year long experiment at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve near campus, where they measured 16 future climate scenarios and their impact on grasslands. They found that plant growth will diminish as a result of rising average temperatures and wetter conditions, which are likely to occur within our lifetimes. This fact dispels the hope that as CO2 in the atmosphere rises, plants will grow at a higher rate an absorb more of it, acting as carbon sinks.

Bullwhip kelp now floats above your head like a drone, since everything you see will be under water

This artwork can be compared with other efforts to use virtual and augmented reality as a way of enhancing the public’s imagination when it comes to visualizing future climate change. Woods’ Environmental Venture Programs funds the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience, a virtual reality simulation that allows users to find themselves on the ocean bed, seeing and interacting with the progressive deterioration of coral and other marine life caused by rising acidity in the water. The idea behind using virtual reality in this case is that it allows people to experience the effects of climate change firsthand in a context they would likely never encounter in their everyday lives.

A frame from the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience, where the user has to pick up sea snails and evaluate their health.

Thiel’s artwork doesn’t offer the interactivity of Pokemon Go or Stanford’s virtual reality experiences. On the other hand, it is more widely accessible, since you only need a smartphone to experience it, and it keeps the user grounded with one foot in reality, while overlaying information that is invisible to the naked eye.

Serra mall is covered in a toxic red algae bloom, the likes of which have already caused damage to sea life — in the artist’s vision, they have become gigantic and overwhelming

Thiel noted in a presentation of her artwork that these are, of course, artistic imaginations, and that she deliberately made the plant mutations menacing so that people wouldn’t simply enjoy imagining their usual surroundings turning into a tropical paradise. She believes that her work is “one way that augmented reality can be used to give people a much closer emotional relationship to some of the dangers that will come from global warming in the future.”

Radar camas, a presumed climate-change induced variety of the blue camas

Researchers have found that the embodied cognition and interactivity provided by virtual and augmented reality experiences can have great potential in engaging the public and policy makers with the reality of climate change. Thiel’s artwork allows for an opening of the imagination beyond the present moment — and even if her mutant plants do not come into being, it causes one to stop and think about the inevitable changes to our familiar environments that are just around the corner.