An Interview with Sean Lally & Matthew Wizinsky

By Amy Brady

This month I have for you an interview with Sean Lally, Associate Professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Matthew Wizinsky, Assistant Professor in the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati. They’re the curators of an exhibition called The Long Now, on view now through December 1, 2019 at Exhibit Columbus in Columbus, Indiana. The exhibition features augmented reality that helps viewers to imagine what the outdoor exhibition space might look like in 120 years as a result of climate change. In our interview below we discuss what inspired the project and what the curators hope visitors learn from experiencing it.

Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired your exhibition, The Long Now?

Sean: The starting point was to question some of the environmental and technological pressures affecting public space. There is no shortage of headlines about the existence of climate change or the impact of wearable and trackable technologies that may be of use, but I think it’s important for architecture to demonstrate and foreshadow the implications, to engage these complex issues beyond simple problem solving.  With The Long Now, our intention was to create a public space that engaged the pressures of a changing environment and evolving healthcare system, and see what that could mean for our public spaces. In much the same way that fountains changed the temperature of publics spaces and street lighting made public parks safer and available into the evenings, there might be opportunities that exist today to help us rethink the needs of public space and health. To open up this conversation, the project needs to not only exist as a physical space for visitors to engage, but include the use of augmented reality to help them see into the future and past environments of that particular location.

Matt: This project is an attempt to see how interacting with data, information, and physical representations of “other” possible realities can create a deeper connection to site or place. To encourage closer attention to the warmth of the ground we touch, the air we breathe, the foliage that’s there today and may be gone tomorrow. The physical installation marks out a small patch of the Earth and modifies its micro-climate. Augmented reality attempts to demonstrate that, just like every little patch of the planet, this one is comprised of its own very long and specific temporal arc of “environment.” When we walk into these spaces, our human interactions with that environment are a tiny piece of the bigger story.

What do you hope visitors take away from the installation?

Sean: Most importantly, I would like people to come away with a broader appreciation for roles available to architecture when engaging the environment. The dichotomy that our environments and lands can only be preserved or destroyed isn’t productive. Earth exists on a very long timeline and for humans to continue to live here, and in a responsible manner, it might just have to look a bit different than it did yesterday. We can design for a volatile and changing future, but we’re also going to have to question some of our ingrained assumptions about what our future environments should look like.

Matt: My hope is that visitors re-think the time horizons of their everyday lives and everyday actions. That’s a huge ambition, but it’s also something that I think is immediately practicable. The project doesn’t presume to instruct visitors what they should do, but I hope the experience creates a springboard for visitors to do their own imagining of alternate ways of being in the present, past, and future.

The Long Now. Photo by Hadley Fruits.

This exhibit is a great example of how science, art, and design can merge to create something that’s both artful and impactful. What are your thoughts on the value of interdisciplinarity, especially when it comes to projects focused on climate change?

Sean: I might reframe the question a little and discuss the importance of collaboration. I only make the distinction because when people hear the word collaboration, I think it more quickly brings to mind the importance of working together towards a shared goal: “Collaborating on a song,” “collaborating on a book.” Too often the idea of interdisciplinarity brings to mind the need for collecting difference – the idea that bringing people of different specialties and expertise together even without a clear end-goal can produce something significant. Getting a consensus on goals that align across interdisciplinary collaborations is ironically another difficulty to be tackled. Architecture today not only continues to collaborate with more traditional relationships like building or material science, but is increasingly engaging a growing list of specialists tied to climate change, human physiology, or sociology, who together, increase the complexity of its delivery.

Matt: A couple of years ago, sci-fi author Margaret Atwood wrote a great essay titled, “It’s Not Climate Change – It’s Everything Change.” It was a long and in-depth essay, but the title alone has stuck with me because it really says it all. We’re talking about the complete re-orientation of our relationship to the material world we inhabit. There are really no “disciplinary” divisions to be drawn when it comes to this scale. Instead, I think any effort’s success – whatever the goals are – will hinge on human accessibility. We would do well to get the facts right, but creativity, wit, beauty, and even humor all have roles to play.

Both of you are professors. How does climate change impact your work more generally? 

Sean: As educators we have a responsibility to engage these topics in the classroom. It’s unavoidable. But we must also demonstrate to the students that new creative opportunities exist. Balancing these distinctions is important. If students see the issues intertwined with climate change and evolving healthcare as only technical (or even social) issues just to be “solved,” architecture will fail to deliver what it actually does best – questioning assumptions through the design of new spaces.

Matt: Climate change looms as both one of the biggest threats and opportunities for the creative careers of students today. Teaching Communication Design students, I’m challenged to engage them in the impossible-to-comprehend scale and complexity of the issue. But since it’s everywhere, it’s also right here – wherever you are. Local action is possible, but communication design can only ever be one part of an effective intervention. With so much information available on what’s happening, what’s at stake, and both big and small opportunities for adaptation, intervention, or mitigation, how is it possible that so little change is actually happening? It seems like a failure of imagination and maybe a failure of determination. Seen cynically, that’s a bit depressing. Seen optimistically, there’s much to be done, and most of the young people I work with are aware of the risks and are highly motivated!

The Long Now. Photo by Hadley Fruits.

Both of you currently live in the American Midwest, which isn’t discussed as much in the media as, say, the coasts when it comes to climate change. What is media coverage of climate like where you live?

Sean: As we know, the Midwest is quite large and issues across this large area range. When you live somewhere like Los Angeles, which is dealing with increased wildfires, or the Gulf and east coast that have increased hurricanes and flooding, it’s difficult to forget the continued urgency. However, if you’re fortunate to live in a city like Chicago that hasn’t experienced an increase in frequency of something so destructive, I actually think it’s possible for the issues to remain less scrutinized. Reminding people that the issue is intertwined across our lives is critical. I think the mass refugee migration we’ve seen in the Middle East reminds us all that local water shortages and environmental degradation have both regional and global implications.

Matt: In a landlocked and, generally, hurricane-free city like Cincinnati, climate change can still sometimes seem like it’s happening somewhere else. Then again, we’re sitting in the agricultural heartland of the country, and we just had one of the hottest summers on record. We’re lucky to have many of the resources and buffers we take for granted in the Midwest, but this doesn’t protect the region from damaging effects of change nor, as Sean mentioned, the potential influx of refugees. Last month, I met a young woman from the University of South Carolina, who was in town to evacuate Hurricane Dorian. It’s already happening. Some of my students recently interviewed the Sustainability Officer for the City of Cincinnati, and he’s prepared to promote Cincinnati as a welcoming haven for domestic climate refugees. However, I think he’s one of very few people who is really even thinking about the future like that, let alone doing anything to prepare.

The Long Now. Photo by Hadley Fruits.

What’s next for the both of you?

Sean: There’s always the next project just on the horizon that’s the most exciting, so keep an eye out for that in mid-2020. I also have a podcast called Night White Skies that discusses many of these topics as they pertain to architecture by bringing on a diverse range of guests from other disciplines including scientists, authors, social anthropologists, and science-fiction writers. This is an ongoing project.

Matt: For the past few years, I’ve been teaching and doing research projects at the intersection of participatory design and speculative design. In plain terms, this means I’m interested and invested in how designers can engage public communities in methodical processes of studying, imagining, and articulating alternative visions of the future. The goal is to create material, tangible visions of the future that they find preferable to the “future visions” on offer by tech companies, governments, or other interests. Over the past two years, I collaborated with researchers at the University of Chicago and University of Illinois at Chicago, to engage over 20 teenagers from Chicago’s South Side on this kind of project. The results were fascinating, and we were able to exhibit the outcomes at various local venues to encourage ongoing discourse on a changing climate and local health implications. To continue this work, I recently co-founded a network of similarly interested creative professionals and researchers called the DEEP Futures working group. Hopefully, you’ll see more of our projects in the coming years.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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