TEDActive checks in with Lincoln House of Design artists Gilberto Esparza and Aurora Robson


The TEDActive 2013 House of Design, hosted by Lincoln Motor Company, featured the interactive work of three artists: Andy Cavatorta, Gilberto Esparza, and Aurora Robson. We caught up with two of them to hear about their new projects, from nomadic plant robots to breathtaking installations made of trash, and to reflect on their experience at TEDActive.

Gilberto Esparza is continuing his work on a project that began with the investigation of the history of contaminated water in Mexico. At TEDActive, he showcased his Nomadic Plant robot, a part of a series of his experiments that seek to highlight the ambiguous power of humans to destroy – but also to restore.

Gilberto Esparza’s beautiful Nomadic plant robots at the Lincoln House of Design

That may sound abstract, but the genius of Esparza’s work is the way in which he brings such heavy philosophical concepts to life. Here’s how his nomadic robots work:

Inside of the robot, bacteria from a polluted river and plants once native to the river live in symbiosis. When the bacteria require nourishment, the robot moves toward the contaminated river and sucks up water. Using a process known as microbial fuel cell, the pollution in the water is decomposed and turned into energy to fuel the circuits of the robot, allowing it to continue to move autonomously. The plants then use the excess energy to complete their own life cycles.

Esparza’s work provides us new paradigms with which to imagine our role in the world. The answer to our pollution may not lie in the question of how we stop. Like Esparza’s robots, we may need to shift our thinking entirely and use our capacity to destroy and create to live in symbiosis with the environment.

Gilberto Esparza shows how the machine makes music whenever you look at different bacteria underneath the microscope
Gilberto Esparza demonstrates his musical machine that creates sound based on microscopic bacteria.

Reflecting on TEDActive, Esparza was struck by how eager attendees were to expand and experiment with new ways of thinking – to communicate with him! Esparza doesn’t speak English, but said that when he would “start to introduce [myself] and what I want to communicate to the people that were there, they started to produce a new communication system in order to talk [to me].”

His latest project works with the same microbial fuel cell process to produce light within what Esparza describes as a “closed fish tank.” Can’t wait to see it!

Aurora Robson explains the different techniques for turning trash into art.

Some TEDActive attendees may have contributed to Aurora Robson’s sculpture at Lincoln’s House of Design. Robson is known for her otherworldly sculptures with humble past lives as plastic debris, excess packaging, and junk mail. At TEDActive 2013, Robson collected the glossy, seductive packaging found on everything from new smartphones to lunchboxes to create what her friends describe as “an alien space ship.” Its bulbous, teal tentacles definitely don’t look like plastic garbage – or anything else recognizably human! The ethereal, alien quality of her sculptures will make you consider how foreign everyday waste is to the environment.

Aurora Robson’s other-worldy sculptures.

Her next step is a teaching residency at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia. Robson will lead what she calls “an academic interpretation of Project Vortex” – an international collective of architects, artists, and designers who work with plastic debris. She will teach her students the process of sculpting and transforming debris into art, which will culminate in a pop up exhibit in downtown Staunton. All of the profits from the student auction will go to organizations dedicated to the cleanup of the Staunton River. Robson said that Project Vortex “aims to tighten these networks between the college, the public, artists, and environmental non-profits to make them more effective.”

A view from below of Aurora's intricate creation at TEDActive. Photo by François-Xavier Bodin. http://www.flickr.com/photos/fxbodin/8517202745/
A view from below of Aurora’s intricate creation at TEDActive. Photo by François-Xavier Bodin. http://www.flickr.com/photos/fxbodin/8517202745/

Like Esparza, Robson is interested in shifting traditional cultural and environmental paradigms. She hopes that her class can be implemented in academic institutions around the world. Robson said that the traditional gallery model is shifting and becoming less hierarchal and “if generations of younger artists start working this way instead of [adhering to tradition and] buying more chemicals mined from the earth, it could change the way we think about art and global issues.”

To learn more about Robson, check out her class syllabus at Mary Baldwin College and her show at Harlem Park to Park Earth Day.

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