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temporary expert: anthropocene

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Swimsuit for the Anthropocene is a project about water. It exists at the intersection of wearables, citizen science, and speculative design.

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Swimsuit for the Anthropocene asks if we can find imagination in contamination. Imagine a world where everything around us is toxic. Where your plastic bottle contains carcinogenic compounds and your air is full of dirty particles. Where your water is a source of life and a source of death. Where contaminants are becoming part of you, by way of your body.

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The Drinkable Book

It feels like I’m hitting a series of dead ends with my project in a way that is frustrating, but I’m also learning a lot from it. Following my East River experiments last week, I learned a number of things: first that perhaps the East River is not actually that polluted (from what I’ve read, it’s not, which makes sense since it’s a flowing river). I also learned that I need to give some further consideration to what I’m testing for / sensing in water since there are a *huge* number of things that can contaminate water — from bacteria, to human sewage, to PCBs, nitrates, heavy metals, the list goes on — and it’s usually location-specific.

I keep coming back to this question about what does toxicity actually mean, and how can I think about it as a spectrum. I also still have doubts about the viability of the human test strip model (aka swimming), since nobody wants to go in water that is incredibly contaminated and I would never subject a human body to that. I have a hunch that it’s the water in that in-between space (not the Gowanus Canal or Newtown Creek, but the East River or your run-of-the-mill stream) that I’m interested in. My idea is less about extreme toxicity and instead about closing the gap of our cognitive dissonance, even if what you’re finding out is that something is, in fact, not actually that toxic.

My test kit from last week, which had the basic water tests such as pH and dissolved oxygen, wasn’t really telling me anything. So I decided to research other ways to test for general “pollution” in water and came upon conductivity. A conductivity meter can test for salt, but it can also detect the concentration of things like nitrates, and heavy metals. And so, I decided to experiment with making my own analog conductivity meter using some basic electronics and an LM555 chip.

Using a tutorial from Public Lab, I built the circuit and immediately encountered a lot of trouble getting it to work the way I wanted. Luckily, Eric Rosenthal came to the rescue and was immensely helpful in adapting the circuit and changing the wiring. The basic idea is that with two metal probes in the water, the LED will blink proportionately to the conductivity of the water; the higher the conductivity (aka the more crap in it), the faster the LED will blink.

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Activist and distance swimmer Christopher Swain is going to swim the length of the Gowanus Canal later today on the occasion of Earth Day. Swain’s public performance is incredibly timely given the things I’ve been thinking about and working on for the past semester (I wish I could go watch him but I’m going to be in class).

I find so many things interesting about his gesture, in particular how it draws attention to questions around pollution, toxicity (what does toxicity mean? what are the ways in which we endanger our bodies?) and performativity. ALSO I’ve been thinking a lot about the aesthetics of hazard (how to do we signal hazard to ourselves, our bodies and the environment?) so the fact that he is wearing a hazmat suit — rightfully so — is also interesting.

I’m very curious about the public dialogue around this event (I mentioned it to a friend and he didn’t totally understand what message Swain is trying to send), so I collected some headlines about it that I found online:

Activist to Swim Brooklyn’s Toxic Gowanus Canal on Earth Day

Yes, This Man Is Really Planning to Swim Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal for Earth Day

“It may be crazy to swim in the canal,” says Christopher Swain. “But what’s crazier is that the Gowanus Canal is so messed up.”

Activist Plans To Swim Super-Polluted Gowanus Canal For Earth Day

Toxic avenger! Activist to swim Gowanus

MAN TO SWIM EXTREMELY POLLUTED GOWANUS CANAL ON EARTH DAY

Don’t do it! Feds warn this guy not to swim in Canal

Activist Will Sacrifice Body, Swim In Gowanus Canal Tomorrow

Clean Water Activist Planning To Swim Length Of Gowanus Canal For Earth Day

NYC man to swim dirtiest U.S. waterway for Earth Day

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This past week was full of experiments, and more dead ends and questions. Plus a really great conversation with Eric Rosenthal, who knows a ton about testing water quality!

I spent an afternoon at the Williamsburg waterfront (North 8th street and Kent Ave) performing different tests on the water that illuminated a lot of questions about my project. This site was perfect since it’s near my house and also has direct access to the river, so it’s not perilous to collect water samples.

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2015-04-07 10.44.22Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt very stuck with this project and unsure where to take it. I have big ideas that I’m very excited about; ranging from the more granular (pollution-aware wearables) to the more conceptual (can the human body be a biosensor?)

All of the things that I’d ideally like to detect, and visualize, about water (estradiol, BPA, environmental estrogens, low level pollution) are difficult to measure and at this point involve complex laboratory science with expensive equipment, precise conditions, etc. How on earth am I supposed to make a project that is impossible to make? This week, after a series of conversations (thanks Stefani and Marina!), I realized I bit off way more than I can chew — a five year project rather than a five week project. (It’s almost as if I want to fast forward, and have already worked with a nanotechnologist to create a wearable material to detect BPA in the water. Poof!)

So, I’ve decided to move away from environmental estrogens altogether (for the moment at least) and instead challenge myself with this: What can I measure about the water in a way that is cheap, easy, relatively instantaneous and which fits with my design model of swimming? What materials, tests, kits can I appropriate and use in the ways I want? How can I create what’s essentially a proof of concept to illustrate this idea of the body as biosensor for what is invisible in our environments?

Up to this point, I’ve been doing a lot of research, absorbing, thinking, writing, speculating, looking at related projects, but not a lot in the way of getting my hands dirty, being messy, prototyping, and making things that feel low stakes. My daily practice of doing dip-sticks on my water was producing nice images but was also feeling a bit feeble. So, this week, I decided to start having conversations, working with my hands, and doing some weird stuff. Here’s a recap of my progress.

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Week 8 Image Library

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My proposed final project is both a continuation of, and a departure from, the Estro-Suit that I worked on during the first half of the semester. As a conceptual proposal, I love the Estro-Suit and feel incredibly attached to the idea. There’s a lot in there that really excites me: the notion of a wearable test kit, using a visual cue to signal levels of pollution, conflating the body and environmental destruction by quite literally mapping it to the human form, the banality of a bathing suit, making visible what is invisible and toxic in our environments.

But for all that is interesting and worthwhile to me about the project, there is a big road block in terms of feasibility. All of the scientific feedback I’ve gotten on the idea has been (unanimously) that it’s not physically plausible to do a wearable application given the current methods of testing water for estrogen (which involves culturing yeast, petri dishes, specialized equipment, monitored temperatures, etc.)

Even though the project is speculative, I want it to be grounded strongly in real science. I also want to actually make the thing rather than just propose it. So now I have to use this dead end to shift gears. For my next project, I’d like to design a wearable water filter — essentially, a bathingsuit that filters pharmaceutical contaminants out of the water as you swim in it. (In this way, it’s a filter less for humans and more for the aquatic ecosystems that are impacted so tremendously by this pollution). By wearing the bathingsuit and swimming in it, the human body, in a way, becomes a water filter. I see the project as being speculative and critical and almost poetic (maybe even performative?). But it also does something that tackles a real problem, namely removing pollutants from the water that can’t be removed by our current wastewater treatment technology and infrastructure.

There are two main questions I’m hoping to explore (and problematize) with this project:

  1. In the Anthropocene, where does your body end and the environment begin? What are some new ways of imagining the skin, thinking about borders, barriers between us and the outside world? (we are what we eat, what we breathe, what we consume, etc.)
  2. How can we assume roles of other things from our environment? Ie. by swimming through the water we filter it? What is our relationship to ecosystems and species, especially when the job gets so big they can no longer do them? Is this project related at all to questions around biomimicry?
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Human Harp is a wearable instrument for suspension bridges by artist Di Mainstone. I came across the project in my research about wearable projects and their expressive potential.

As part of the early stages of my final project, I’ve been thinking a lot (loosely, conceptually) about the relationship between the body and the environment as a central question I’d like to explore. This project seems to deal with this question on a deep level (although in a very different way than I hope to). I love the parallel that it makes between the body and the bridge, almost as if the body and the bridge become one. The project also makes me think about sound as material, and this idea of giving visibility and material form to that which is often invisible around us.

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