TED Blog: “Exploring The Creative Overlap” With Janet Echelman

TED Blog: “Exploring The Creative Overlap” With Janet Echelman

American artist Janet Echelman talks about the ideas and inspiration she's had since receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship.

Valentina Park
  • 9 june 2011

While Janet Echelman was at TED in March, she got word that she was being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. (And in fact, Echelman wasn’t the only new Guggenheim winner speaking at TED — her fellow Session 9 speaker Fiorenzo Omenetto also won the award). The award offers her a year of time off to think and explore. The TED Blog spoke to Janet last week to find out how that’s going so far…

Let’s talk about your life since your talk at TED. What’s changed?

The Guggenheim gives me the pleasure and privilege of a sabbatical year. I’ve known that academics get sabbatical years, but as an artist, I had to figure out what that would mean for me, how I can push boundaries and take this as a time for growth. I made progress right away at TED — I was inspired by several of the people I met here. I began exploring this with the co-presenters in our TED session, “Threads of Discovery,” curated by the visionary Juan Enriquez. In our session, there were two scientists I got to know from very different fields. Fio Omenetto, who’s a silk scientist, invited me to visit his lab to meet the mechanical engineer who builds his automated silk looms. We are exploring a creative overlap that wouldn’t happen otherwise between his work and mine. And then Ed Boyden from MIT, who is working with living brain cells that can be turned on and off with light! He invited me to come over and explore collaboration. We talked about ways we could make sculpture with living cells that move and change color.

Through Ed I met several of his colleagues at the Media Lab and MIT, one of whom is Neil Gershenfeld, who’s doing some new research with a modular building technique he calls “digital composites.” And he asked me, “How could this be useful to you in doing your urban sculpture at the scale of architecture?” So we have been going back and forth, laser-cutting different shapes, bringing them to my studio, where I’ve been playing around with their potential for volumetric sculpture shapes.

I like that a meeting of different minds at TED has become a creative fulcrum.

At TED I also met Vice-President Al Gore, and we had a conversation about how ideas about the environment could take form at an urban scale, be made physical in a sculpture that people could interact with. He mentioned the climate change impact of water vapor in the atmosphere — the Clausius-Clapeyron relation. He calls it the “bathtub effect”. As the atmosphere gets warmer, it can hold more water vapor, actually pulling moisture from the soil, and then releasing it in these larger downpours. That’s a conversation that couldn’t have started anywhere else, and next week, we’re going to meet again to explore this further.

At TED, even Jason Mraz asked about my work — he asked, Could that be a place where we shoot a music video, under one of these sculptures? We’re exchanging ideas and exploring new ways for my sculpture to interact with life, through ideas and through additional cultural streams. It’s just very exciting how all these possibilities have a life of their own.

Janet Echelman

Is this the first time you’re using laser cutting and other Fab Lab techniques in your work?

Yes! One thing I really liked about the Media Lab and Neil and his grad student Kenny Cheung — they agreed with me that the best way to explore was to make something. So we laser-cut a whole bunch of components and I’m playing with them right now in my studio. Whether it moves in the wind or becomes a new kind of armature out of which something else could billow, I don’t know.

(Continue reading here.)

[Reprinted with kind permission from TED Blog]

TED is a nonprofit organization where experts with any idea worth spreading are asked to talk at conferences. TED, which stands for Technology, Education, Design, has several branches such as TED Talks and TED Conferences. TEDBlog, the official blog for TED, updates readers on the latest TED speaker videos and news. Read more about TED Blog.

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