The Yale Alumni Magazine is owned and operated by Yale Alumni Publications, Inc., a nonprofit corporation independent of Yale University.
The content of the magazine and its website is the responsibility of the editors and does not necessarily reflect the views of Yale or its officers.
On a rainy Saturday morning in room 112—114 of the Dunham lab building on Hillhouse Avenue, two lab assistants armed with soldering guns are hovering over circuit boards. Strewn around them on the work benches are wheels and chassis and plastic toy dogs in day-glo cherry and orange. Laptops whir. Shelves above hold plastic dragons, three-horned triceratops, and about a dozen versions of Monopoly. Large model airplanes hang from the lights. There’s a life-size plastic goose on one bench, disemboweled and hot-wired with electronics, a tiny propeller mounted under its tail feathers. What’s that? “Oh, it’s for the ooz project in the Netherlands,” one of the assistants responds. “Ooz is zoo spelled backwards,” he offers, as if by way of explanation.
Then Natalie Jeremijenko bursts into the room. She is dressed in a black shirt, black trousers, and ankle-high canary-yellow rubber booties, and she’s holding a fistful of navy blue pencils stamped with the words “Yale Engineering.” “I found them!” she says, in a melodious Australian accent, handing a couple of pencils to each of her assistants. She reaches behind her head, rolls her hair into a bun, and jabs in two of the navy blue pencils. They jut out behind her like rabbit-ear antennas.
Jeremijenko is a techno-artist with a high profile among new-media art circles—people who explore how technology shapes culture. At Yale, she’s a lecturer in the mechanical engineering department and director of the Experimental Product Design Initiative. She’s also a hit with a new breed of engineering students who grew up mouse in hand, more apt to carry skateboards and iPods than to wear pocket protectors. Room 112–114 is her high-tech Romper Room.
The phone rings, and Jeremijenko dashes past the remains of her breakfast, a half-eaten scone and a croissant, to the gray Steelcase desk against the far wall. From here she holds court for the rest of the morning, juggling simultaneous meetings and constantly interrupting herself—leaping to her feet to weigh in on a technical issue or verbalize her latest bolt of creative inspiration. At one point, a student squeezes through the door with a stool made entirely of large lavender and lime-colored drinking straws—thousands of them glued together in smooth curves—seeking advice on how to make it strong enough to support a human. Other students sit patiently or mill around the lab, eager to work with her even if it means waiting.
“She’s always this busy,” says one of the lab assistants, who are known in Room 112–114 as “Natalie’s elves.” She’s constantly crashing deadlines on an endless array of art projects, the material manifestations of her frenetic imagination. The elves try to help her handle the workload. “Once, when we desperately needed to meet with her, we found out she was going rollerblading,” the elf tells me. “So we followed along on our bicycles and held the meeting on the road.”
On this Saturday morning, groups of alumni shuffle periodically through the lab on a guided tour of the engineering building. Whenever a new group arrives, Jeremijenko pauses to demonstrate the plastic robot dogs strewn about the room. The dogs, which were starring in a course called Mechanical Engineering 386, Feral Robotics: Information Technology in the Wild, appeared in the New York Times last summer and also scored Jeremijenko a Wired Magazine Rave Award nomination. Each dog started life as a mere toy, available for a few dollars on the Web and programmed for tasks Jeremijenko calls “inane”—barking the national anthem or begging for plastic bones. Their engineering is so crude that they’re barely able to walk on carpeting. When Jeremijenko’s students finish rebuilding them, they’re capable of conquering the typical suburban landscape, and they’re equipped with sensors for sniffing out several common toxic industrial waste products.
“We’re upgrading the raison d’etre of these dogs,” Jeremijenko tells the alumni. The students release their robo-dogs at a decontaminated industrial site at the end of the class. The dogs’ reprogrammed brains tell them to go wherever the concentration of toxic vapors is highest, so they will naturally gather at any remaining polluted hotspots. But in a site that is truly clean, they will prowl aimlessly. “Many people complain that engineers are very narrow in their focus,” Jeremijenko says. “This class not only poses technical challenges but involves the students in real social and political problems as well. They are rethinking the role of technology in society.”
Jeremijenko’s appointment is part of a trend for Yale’s engineering program. “In the past few years we’ve added well over a dozen young, highly motivated faculty to all of our departments,” says Paul Fleury, dean of the engineering faculty. “All of them are inherently interdisciplinary. They all bring a new way of looking at things, and they are adding excitement to the program.”
“The real difference between engineering at Yale and other good schools is that here, the students are more broadly educated,” adds Marshall Long, chair of the mechanical engineering department. “Because of this, Yale engineers end up having an impact disproportionately greater than their small numbers.”
The late Robert Apfel, who chaired the Yale Council of Engineering, recruited Jeremijenko from New York University’s Center for Advanced Technology, where she was a research scientist. At around the same time, Jeremijenko won a Rockefeller fellowship, and the MIT Technology Review named her one of the top 100 innovators under 35. Her résumé also includes time at Xerox PARC, the San Francisco Art Institute, and RMIT (the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology).
Jeremijenko is probably the first member of the engineering faculty to have her work shown at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum and Museum of Modern Art, as well as the Whitney Biennial, a survey of contemporary art put on every other year at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her projects have garnered broad media coverage; in 1999, a New York Times critic wrote that she “has made some of the most abstruse and provocative works of techno-art over the last decade.” A year later, in a New York Times Magazine interview, Jeremijenko proclaimed that “the art world is a very prissy little thing over in the corner, while the major cultural forces are being determined by technoscience.” The accompanying photo shattered all stereotypes of engineers: she had her hair in pigtails and was wearing a midriff-baring orange shirt and black moon boots. A massive tangle of computer cables dangled over one arm.
Jeremijenko lives in Manhattan’s West Village with her husband, Dalton Conley, a professor of sociology at New York University who has taught at Yale as well, and two daughters and a son whose names haven’t escaped her creative urges. The son is named Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles, part of which the four-year-old added himself, though Jeremijenko helped him with the paperwork to make it legal. The middle child, a daughter, is named E, after the mathematical constant. The name is interactive, Jeremijenko says; the girl can choose what E stands for. Now five, “she’s been Excellent, Empress, and Extravagant—although at two, she was Entropy.” Being 16, the oldest daughter, Mister Jamba-Djang, doesn’t use the Mister much anymore.
In the lab, after the alumni depart, someone explains what’s up with the disemboweled plastic goose and the ooz project. Ooz is an attempt, commissioned by an arts organization in the Netherlands, to create a place where animals interact with humans by choice rather than because they’re caged. The project explores whether science has learned how to design habitats attractive enough to entice voluntary fur- or feather-bearing tenants. The wildlife, in essence, are the judge of the design. The ooz also provides opportunities for humans to interact with the animals—via, for instance, the plastic goose on the workbench. It will float in the water alongside real geese, while human visitors manipulate it by remote control, watching the reactions of the real geese on a video screen. “We have a kind of schizophrenic relationship with ’sub-humans,’” Jeremijenko comments. “It’s either ’Let’s protect the cute, fuzzy animals’ or ’Let’s shoot them.’ Ooz is a way of exploring other options.”
The ooz is one of what Jeremijenko calls her “weapons of mass instruction.” There have been many of these. Each typically makes its point by hijacking an innovation that has been foisted upon society with little debate. For example, as a commentary on surveillance infrastructure, she shot a documentary of Silicon Valley from a remote-controlled spy plane. (In 2002, it won her the German Video Prize, a major international award.) In an attempt to research how people relate to interactive toys, she has concealed cameras in teddy bears. She has also produced software that prints an image of a stump every time the user has consumed enough paper to kill a tree. And in her widely known OneTrees project, she planted 80 genetically identical trees throughout the San Francisco Bay area. Each of these clones exhibits unique characteristics—evidence, says Jeremijenko, that refutes the popular notion of genetic determinism.
“It is hard to do justice to Natalie Jeremijenko’s accomplishments,” says Ken Perlin, director of the Media Research Laboratory at New York University. “She is serving a very important role, weaning technology away from the illusion that it is somehow culturally neutral.”
One of her weapons of mass instruction used the technique of quantitative risk analysis to compare the levels of compensation paid to sperm and ovum donors. Jeremijenko calls this project the Half-Life Ratio. (“It measures the value of half a life,” she says.) As a graduate student, she herself was tempted by the large sums of money offered to egg donors. But, being a scientist, she looked into the risks. “People think women get a good deal because they can earn six or eight thousand dollars per donation,” Jeremijenko says. “But if you calculate everything—the labor costs, the hours of lost work, the risk of sterility, the legal risks—women actually lose $38,000 when they donate. Men come out six cents up per sperm.” The Half-Life Ratio exposes egg donation as “a very new technology reflecting old gender inequalities.”
Jeremijenko has consciously used “mediagenic” tools in her work. A handheld sensor might sniff out pollution just as effectively as a feral robotic dog, but it probably wouldn’t get a mention in Wired. Sometimes, she has collected notoriety as well as press coverage. For the Suicide Box project, she stationed a motion detection video system near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which captured vertical motion on tape—that is, the moment whenever someone leaped from the bridge. (Technologically, she says, the difficult part was distinguishing death leaps from diving birds; both show up as only a few pixels on a computer image of the bridge span.) The videotape has been exhibited at more than a hundred venues, including the Whitney Biennial in 1997.
Many viewers were shocked and angered by the project, and Jeremijenko was asked why she didn’t try to prevent the suicides. (She doesn’t have a way to intervene somehow mid-fall, she explained.) New York University’s Perlin says the critics were trying to shoot the messenger. “The power of this work comes from the important questions it raises,” he says. “For example, why do we go to such expense to employ surveillance cameras to protect property, yet we do not go through the trouble of using the same technology to protect lives?”
From the Suicide Box, Jeremijenko has created another work, known as the Despondency Index. This installation generates a running graph indexing the Golden Gate Bridge suicide rate to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The aim is to provoke viewers into rethinking the Dow’s significance in U.S. culture. “After September 11, newscasters repeated the fall in the Dow Jones stock index as if that measured the impact of the attack,” she observes. But nobody knows about the suicide rate, although she has identified one or more suicides per week over a hundred-day period. The Despondency Index, she says, “contrasts an economic indicator that is taken to be comprehensive against a very real tragic phenomenon that is not represented, and therefore not addressed.”
Natalie Jeremijenko’s interests may seem at odds with the traditional culture of engineering, but there is a social philosophy behind them. “I try to underscore the fact that we are complicit and responsible for our technology, to dispel the notion that it is a foreign object,” she says. “We’re not being passively impacted by these technologies. Rather, we are actively designing them, and we can use sociotechnical analyses in generating new designs.” Her melding of art, social theory, and technology is not the norm at Yale, where engineering may well be multidisciplinary but is rarely politicized or avant-garde.
Jeremijenko’s drive is to tear down the walls between science and culture. Much of her work redesigns technology to make human participation easier. Take the robotic dogs. Traditionally, given a cleaned-up toxic site, civic authorities commission experts for an assessment, and the experts compose a dense report that few, if any, interested laypeople can understand. In contrast, anyone can understand Jeremijenko’s robotic dogs. This is an important point for her students: technology doesn’t have to be alien; it should be designed for actual people in their actual contexts.
Ultimately, her work underscores the importance of engineering: how pervasive technology has become in our everyday lives, and how great is our need to understand it. She paraphrases Columbia University’s vice dean of engineering, Morton Friedman: “Engineering is the liberal arts of the twenty-first century.”
©1992–2012, Yale Alumni Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.
Yale Alumni Magazine, P.O. Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org