Data, Art and Environmentalism Collide at Cooper Union

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Data visualization and art combine in EMISSIONS: Images from the Mixing Layer, a two-part exhibition at Cooper Union that rejects the use of natural gas as a sustainable form of energy. With the sponsorship of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, curators Ruth Hardinger and Rebecca Smith commissioned independent methane data company Gas Safety Inc. to measure the levels of methane gas emissions throughout Manhattan. Gas Safety Inc. found severe leakage of methane gas—a highly potent greenhouse gas that’s the main component of natural gas—throughout Manhattan’s four thousand miles of aging gas lines, some dating to the 1800s. The result is a data visualization map that shows tall methane leakages, in red, all over Manhattan and rising high into the atmosphere. Curator and participating artist Ruth Hardinger says natural gas is marketed so that people don’t understand its consequences. Methane gas, which is at the center of our national fracking controversy, traps much more heat than other greenhouse gasses and thus contributes to global warming more heavily. “They say ‘natural gas is so clean.’ This is causing more damage than anything out there,” Hardinger said. She combined the visualization of the methane leaks with a print from her concrete sculptures “Envoys: Messengers of Methane.” The concrete above NYC’s layer of methane illustrates just how heavy the gas is. “We’re using visuals as information,” Hardinger told “We’re using the weight of the concrete to compare the weight of methane. You wouldn’t get it if you just walked in and saw this,” she said, pointing to a separate standalone piece of cast concrete that’s not yet applied to the data visualization. Artist Rebecca Smith, EMISSION‘s other curator, also blends data visualization and art for “Mixing Layer/Atmosphere,” a to-scale model of the Earth’s atmosphere made of colorful tape that shows the levels and movements of greenhouse gas emissions. Christy Rupp and Joe Lewis take more artistic license in demonstrating the effects of Manhattan’s leaking methane on the environment through humor and collage.  Coleen Fitzgibbons screens a documentary film called “‘Natural’ Gas Emissions in NYC.” The exhibition is part of Marfa Dialogues/NY and also includes a panel Wednesday, Oct. 30 with a number of artists and environmental organizations to further mix art and data. EMISSIONS: Images from the Mixing Layer Through Nov. 8 The Cooper Union  Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School and is the editorial producer at Gigaom. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.

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