Natalie Jeremijenko on feral robotic dogs, texting fish and inverted trees

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

NJ              Natalie Jeremijenko


NJ              The world is complex but understandable. And every single delightful moment I think communicates a sense of you’re okay. You can keep going.

AL               My name’s Andrew Leigh and welcome to The Good Life. A politics-free podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers, about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell your friends or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.

                   In 1959, CP Snow wrote an essay titled Two Cultures, bemoaning the gap between science and the humanities. Seven years later, a woman was born whose life work seemed to be about proving him wrong. Natalie Jeremijenko was born in Mackay, Queensland, in 1966. The second eldest of ten children, she grew up in Brisbane, where she cofounded the Livid Festival, which ran from 1989 to 2003.

                   Natalie holds a startling array of degrees, including bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and physics, a master’s in English, and she’s done PhD work in neuroscience, computer science and mechanical engineering, graduating with at least one doctorate.

                   In the 1990s, Natalie moved to the United States, working as an artist-in-residence at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto. She now divides her time between Barcelona, New York City and Hanover, New Hampshire, where she’s an associate professor of art and art education in New York University Steinhardt School, and artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College.

                   Natalie’s kind of a mad scientist. A maverick environmentalist. And a radical artist. She’s the kind of person who plants trees upside down, sets up systems that allow us to communicate with birds and fish and creates feral robotic dogs. She is quite simply one of the most unusual and fascinating people I’ve ever met. Natalie, welcome to The Good Life podcast.

NJ              Wow, thank you. I’ll try and be fascinating and unusual.

AL               So, you grew up in a household of ten. Five boys, five girls. What were your parents’ strategies for raising such a large number of children?

NJ              I think it was an invitation to autonomy. Let’s see how they can do it themselves.

                   There’s no way to manage ten children in the way that parenting, as I understand it now, the helicopter parenting as it’s called, is done with a mob of ten, all with the kinds of demands that any child has. Which are formed in opposition to the siblings, so that it really does create an array.

                   I think my parents were gleefully observant of what madness could these children get up to. And so, they herded us more like a mob. I mean it’s not exactly true that we didn’t get the kind of individual attention. I, for instance, I think at about five, went on a suicidal streak where I couldn’t live any longer without a horse. And convinced my father that in order for continued life I’d had to have a horse. And we lived in a tiny, little, three-bedroom house in suburban Wavell Heights, Brisbane.

                   It was totally impractical to get a horse, but we got a horse. And in fact, then we eventually got 17 horses. And they were kept behind the old people’s home at Chermside Shopping Centre, where it’s now a parking lot. And tucked away in strange, little, lost spaces in suburban Queensland, where I spent most of my life, as far as I can recall. I think I went to school, but most of the time I was horse riding. So, 5 AM every morning, horse riding.

                   And it was my father who would shuttle me there. And after that would have to go and do his rounds in the old people’s home and then through the hospital.

AL               He was a doctor?

NJ              He was a doctor. And I think that experience of essentially predeceasing, apprenticing with him.

                   Sitting in room with every very frail, centenary, what are they called? Centenarians?

AL               Centenarians

NJ              Anyways, centenarians. And, in reflection, I realise that he probably took me along as one of these strategies. I was always up late at night. And when the phone call came in at midnight. And my father would attend. He was that kind of doctor that house calls. My father would attend a domestic violence situation where they were carrying wife and children and a drunk man. But this, my father knew in his other guises as well. Because being a family doctor, he’d probably delivered the children.

                   And to turn up with a seven-year-old little girl has a way of diffusing a situation. And when I’d seen the subsequent ways that police are brought into domestic violence situations, I much prefer the sitting down and eating toast and hot tea with my dad and this family that, of course, were going through a terrible trauma. But needed a kind, attentive person who knew all of them and knew them in his guises.

AL               So, your parents were clearly willing to take risks in the way in which they raised children. And it seems to show up in some of the things your siblings have done.

                   You’ve got a brother who is a stuntman. Somebody else is a commercial pilot. There’s teachers. And is it true that your mother was the first person in Australia to have a microwave?

NJ              That’s what I remember. She got this big, commercial microwave. She was a techno-fetishist, which I am probably guilty of. She was interested in all of the convenience items that were being marketed and being talked about, because I think she needed them. She needed the labour-saving devices that were around.

                   But also tremendously hopeful in that way. There was a belief that both my parents held that you would have to hold to have a mob of children like that. That we can make it better. It is getting better. My father was a refugee. My mother was first generation Australian. Had grown up in poverty because her family landed just as the Great Depression hit Australia.

                   And they had a belief that it was going to get better. And they invested everything they had in the private school education of this mob of children. And, again, with this idea that education was going to give them a good life.

AL               And you then, when you were high school, got interested in the alternative music scene. It was The Go-Betweens I think were quite important in the founding of Livid. Tell us the story of how you and Peter Walsh ended up founding Livid.

NJ              Well, yes, that’s a very interesting story. What does one do when one leaves school? You really don’t have any idea of what one could do or what needs to be done or what is going to work.

                   And I had actually started my first degree but then taken a year off to go and work as a ball catcher in Arnhem Land, which was interesting and exciting. The traveling through Australia. And I had a baby with my high school boyfriend, quite deliberately. I decided I wanted to have a baby. And that was actually the thing that made me think, oh, I should make some money.

                   So, I went back to university with an infant, Jamba. And this was at that time I was doing some neuroscience doctoral work. Mapping the early immediate gene expression of rats, their olfactory cortex. Which was very exciting but had no palpable way to make money. That was not… And I suddenly felt responsible for this beautiful little girl.

AL               How interesting. So, I’d always assumed Livid was artistic expression first and cash second. But, actually, for you, you saw it as a commercial enterprise. As that being one of the important aspects of it.

NJ              Not exactly. I thought, contrary to any kind of wisdom, that the music industry was an expression of alterity and exploring political and romantic ideas of all sorts. And that it was a commercially successful area. That you could actually explore, have this artistic exploration and make money. Not many had that idea.

AL               So, back then, when you say not many other people had this idea, Big Day Out is the only other big music festival of this kind at that stage, in the late 80s?

NJ              And it didn’t exist. Nothing existed. Big Day Out was modelled on Livid. In fact, it was… I have to assert that it was the guys who organised Big Day Out who I went to with Peter. And Peter, he was very shy because he was much more of a fan of music. And I liked music, but he idolised these people. So, I would do the… I wasn’t nervous speaking to any of these people.

                   But Steve and Vivian, who were the biggest promoters, who sent bands around, who then later organised Big Day Out. When I went to them and said, look, I’m going to do an outdoor music festival with Triple Zed, the college radio and Queensland. And we had some ideas. And they said, honey, you’d be better off doing wine tasting. Outdoor music festivals don’t work.

                   And so, I said, okay, thank you for your advice and we’ll book these bands. And by taking out a $5,000 car loan from UniCredit.

AL               That’s car loan in inverted commas, presumably.

NJ              That’s right. I was able to put some money down. And then we started preselling tickets and was able to pay for these bands. And the big concept was to, in fact, say that Brisbane had a music scene. Go-Betweens were from Brisbane. We were going to reform The Go-Betweens and bring back to Brisbane this Brisbane music. Why had everybody left? Couldn’t it happen here?

                   So, we did. And I think it was sheer luck. It was sheer luck that it worked. Partly because there was a conflict between the student union at University of Queensland, which was dominated by a right-wing kind of faction. And then this Triple Zed Radio was dominated by the far left. And there was a crisis brewing where the student union was going to take over. So, I think that was.

AL               But it’s huge in the early days, right? I mean you’ve got Nick Cave, TISM. You had Cruel Sea, Caligula. You had a whole lot of superstars in those early years. And yet by the time the festival’s taking off, you’ve moved onto the next challenge. You’re in Palo Alto by the early 1990s. You’re an artist-in-residence at Xerox. What took you to San Francisco, to the extent you’re comfortable talking about that? And what was it like to be an artist-in-residence at a technology company?

NJ              Well, that was very interesting. I went to the US because the high school boyfriend had decided to abduct my daughter. So, when I found out where they were, they were in San Francisco. So, I was happy running the Livid Festival. It was interesting. And we did a lot of… It was a really important exercise, conceptually, for me to figure out what youth culture is. Because we had to call it a youth culture festival. It wasn’t a music festival. We wouldn’t have gotten the liquor license if we had called it a music festival.

                   And, during that time, I really explored… Music is one form of culture but it’s not the only form. It was just the one that I thought was commercially most successful. And so, we did program a whole lot of other performance art and visual art as well.

                   And the first visual art that we did at that first Livid Festival I put in a white tent like a white tube.

                   And curated some beautiful pieces from all of my friends. And realised that that didn’t work at all. That ended up being where people did drugs and unseemly things. So, it became evident to me that there was something much more spectacular required. And so, we moved through to dropping ping pong balls out of helicopters and currency where little Jamba, my daughter’s face, was on the note rather than Queenie poo [?].

                   And one of my favourites was Danius Kesminas, a Lithuanian artist in Melbourne. He soaked a rope in gasoline and then we rolled it in gunpowder. And we just had this rope lying around on the grass. Hundreds of meters of it. And every now and then I would drop a match. Or someone would drop a cigarette on it. And it would sear through the crowd like a fuse.

                   And suddenly everybody would start to think, where am I? What is happening? This moment of confusion which really worked as a piece in our field full of 20 or 30,000 inebriated 20-something-year-olds. It was a different sort of work. But it had a powerful presence and a sense of rethinking who you are, where you are, why you’re there, which I think was interesting.

AL               So, was that a precursor to Live Wire? Your most famous work from Xerox?

NJ              No, it wasn’t. But it did… The sense of what context you’re producing work in and for. Because there’s a default that the museum or the gallery space, that’s quiet, meditative, hushed space.

                   And I don’t think art has to be confined to that. So, at Xerox PARC, I needed a job. I was doing, actually, some doctoral work at University of Melbourne with the wonderful Helene Verin. If you have not come across her, she’s a national treasure. But she was in philosophy there when I was doing a PhD that had come out of some scientific visualisation and some other work, her work on aboriginal logic systems.

                   And what was interesting about her was not just her work, which is great, but she was the first academic I saw who actually used her research for activism. So, she was involved in a lot of land rights hearings and arguments. And that greatly impressed me.

                   When I landed in San Francisco in order to initiate what became over a decade and over 125 court-appearance custody battle for my wonderful daughter, I was running Livid from California and doing my doctoral work from California. But I had this computer science master’s degree. And I was looking for work. And I went to Xerox PARC because it was famed and the home of the personal computer.

                   And started speaking to the computer science department there, telling them how important it was that they would give me a job. And they, actually, had just won a DAPA grant, which is the defence advanced research program something for ubiquitous computing. And nobody knew what ubiquitous computing was at the time.

AL               Well, the internet is just getting going, right?

NJ              Yes. I worked with some of the computer science people there to build the first homepage. Anyway, it was a time when the computation was well celebrated, but it wasn’t… It had become personal. We’d gone from mainframes to personal computing. But this idea that you could have a handheld computer was astonishing.

                   And they needed somebody to imagine what that could look like. And what was interesting about that time, and I think it hasn’t changed now, is that the only scenarios that people had and that they’d written the DAPA grant on were these paranoid security scenarios. Of how you could have a house full of cameras, surveying where if anyone approached.

                   And there was nothing about how you could make this… How this could be important to a good life. Except this idea that you would be secured in… I think quite the opposite is the problem. Is that who cares that you exist? No one is coming to visit, let alone… Anyway, this idea of materialising what ubiquitous computing could look like was my charge. And I helped build the artist-in-residence program with Rich Gold while I was there. And invited several other artists in.

                   And, actually, that was an interesting project as well, because I could speak geek, if you will. And could speak art, I spent a lot of my time matchmaking, translating.

AL               Right, that seems to be your comparative advantage in all these sorts of things. The ability to bridge these two worlds in a way in which so few people in the world can.

NJ              Yes. And I don’t think it’s an ability. I think it’s hard won. It’s something that to be able to motivate why electric paper and turning around little black and white balls would be important. And then to be able to motivate to a computer scientist to why emulating… There’s a beautiful piece that Paul DeMarinis [?] did that when people… It’s apocryphal, but nonetheless beautiful. The potters, when they were talking around, chatting with each other, their voice, like a record player, went into the clay as they. And so, he reproduced this. And why would that be interesting?

                   So, the cultural translation really means that you have to be interested in both of those areas yourself. There’s no faking it is what I’m saying.

AL               So, keeping it concrete. Tell us about Live Wire. Your most famous project from Xerox.

NJ              Oh yes, that’s an interesting piece. In materialising what ubiquitous computing could look like, there was a whole lot of projects that I built. But the one that really… I think Live Wire was the most problematic if you will, in so much as it was simply a wire that hung down in the corner of the room of the computer science lab. Not far from the coffee pot and outside of the director’s office. And there were a few beanbags around. But it was there.

                   So, it was connected to the local area network. And it would wiggle when traffic went by. It would wiggle a lot when a lot of traffic went by. And so, whenever you were trying to do something on the computer and you were downloading some files and they were going really slowly, you could look out and see, oh, it’s really busy. Somebody else is… We’ve got lot of stuff going on. And other ways you could see.

                   You just had a general sense of what was happening on the network. Otherwise, the computer science lab was people in their offices, quietly tapping away on their keyboard. No one knew what anybody else was doing, and it was very much the paradigm of the personal computer, which it’s not evident. There’s no kind of convivial sociality to the work in the way that those potters had. They were chatting with each other and they were laughing but they were still getting the work done. That’s not the case in personal computing. It’s a very privatised paradigm.

                   So, this Live Wire set up there, and people thought it was peculiar and not very… But was interesting was how it was used. Everybody started commenting on it. And the social learning that happened around it. Oh, that’s just the local area network. Don’t you understand that’s not the whole internet. And people could get that, oh, they started to see the structure. They started to see.

                   Mark Weiser, who was the director of the computer science lab, said that just from that peripheral monitoring that it provided, he knew when the backup started every night. He knew when a hacker broke in, because it was unusual activity. He got to read the sense without actually paying any attention to it. It was just there.

                   And it became a bit of a hit as the tour of this place. There was nothing else to see except geeks working on their computers. So, very the first stop and the last stop on the tour, as people talked about what was actually going on and why it was wiggling or not wiggling. And how long it wiggled for. And what a packet was. And all of the things that people didn’t quite know.

AL               So, this is just one of about 20 projects you’ve done that I’m deeply fascinated by. So, I’m wondering if we can just fast-forward through a range of the projects that you’ve worked in your careers. And you can just give us a little snapshot about each of them.

                   So, you moved from West Coast US to the East Coast in the late 1990s. Is that right? Around the time when you and Dalton met? And then just let me fire some projects at you, and you can tell us about them. Feral robots.

NJ              That’s when I moved to Yale and took my first faculty position in the engineering, in the faculty of engineering and mechanical engineering. And I had to develop a robotics curriculum, which I did. And I, first of all, tried it out on some 15-year-olds in the Bronx, at the Bronx River Art Centre, before I tried it out on my Yale students. And the 15-year-old Bronx students as well the Yale students, I have to tell you. But it was really just to take these, at that time, 1999 was when Sony’s Aibo was released.

                   And this was the first high-end robotic dog on the market. But there were many other cheap little ones for about $30 or 19.99. And so, we took inexpensive robots and, first of all, we dissected them and had a look at what was hand-soldered together and where that might have been made. And what chip was in there. And how these worked.

                   And then we put them back together. That’s the nice thing about robots. You can vivisect them, but then they can come back. And we upgraded their raison d’être. So, we gave them a new nose and a new brain. And so, we would prepare them and research our public site that had a contaminant. And the dogs would be programmed to sniff, if you will. They appeared to be smelling out the contaminant.

                   And so, when you release packs of hotrodder, feral robot dogs on public sites, the press will come. And anyone can understand. We were taking 20,000 samples a second. But because it was displaying the information in the movement of the dog. And when they hit a high point they might roll over and play dead. Or, as a pack, they might converge on a high point and start barking the national anthem if that was programmed in them.

                   But this idea that because they were displaying the information in their movement, anyone could understand. A two-year-old or the grandparents that came could see what the dogs were doing. And they could say, oh yes, there used to be a pumping station there. People could.

AL               So, you were setting them loose in contaminated sites, right?

NJ              In contaminated sites. And the attention of the press. And it’s a very difficult thing to talk to television news journalists. But I’d argue even the television news journalist could understand what the dogs were doing. And they would ask the students who had programmed them, what is your dog finding? What does it mean? What do we do about it?

                   And, of course, the students had been working with these and would. And so, it really created an opportunity for evidence-driven discussion about a shared a problem. A public site, a park or a school, that turns out that a lot of schools in the US are built on what are called Superfund sites. These highly contaminated sites. Because schools are poor and contaminated sites are cheap. And so, they somehow go together. It’s a strange logic.

                   But we explored 11 different school sites. And it’s an opportunity to really think about, with many diverse people, what we can do. And those kids that had programmed the dogs, the first bunch in the Bronx, they were on every talk show. They were on every radio. And they were invited to talk to the EPA engineers and the Con Edison had hired an engineering firm. Just because they had this robotic dog, they became part of a larger discussion. And I think that was very successful.

AL               So, then let me take you to upside down maple trees. Your exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Who plants maple trees upside and how do you plant a tree and why?

NJ              That was a piece commissioned by the opening of the museum. Yes, the opening of, really, it’s become the largest contemporary arts piece in the country. And it was also an interesting and controversial piece. Not only with the… Well, I really respect that the curator, Laura Heon [?].

AL               Forget the curator. How do you plant a tree upside down?

NJ              Well, I was a not well-known young artist. And it was brave of them to commission me to do this. And it’s since become kind of a fridge magnet for the museum, literally. But you plant these trees upside down. First of all, why do you do it? It’s because we see trees as these kind of static icons that, in effect, they just point up.

                   We don’t see them as these dynamic, adaptive organisms. And I’ll have you know that the white spruce up here has ten times our genomic material. It’s ten times more intelligent. Or at least ten times more complex than we are. We think of little mice and we experiment on little mice, because they have ten times less genomic material. But we’re the little mice to these white spruce. The maple, the flame maple, doesn’t have quite as large a genome, but it’s still an interesting organism that’s dynamic and adapting.

                   And by turning them upside down, you can see how adaptive they are. By posing the gravitropism and they’re growing towards the light, the phototropism, we’re mixing signals that we thought were the same. But these trees figure it out literally within minutes of being upside down. Their leaves turn around. And then their legnation machinery grows up.

                   And so, you can see the tree logic. You can see the logic of the trees, actually, in action. And every time you come back you can see how they’ve adapted more. And although I’ve been accused of being a tree torturer and many other questioning the cruelty of suspending these trees, magnificent trees, 40 feet in the air. It’s actually a delicately tender and attentive piece to really see how they think and what they do when put in an unusual circumstance.

AL               Polycarbonate tubes in the Hudson River that glow when fish swim through them.

NJ              Yes. That was buoys as they say. In America they call them buoys. In Australia, we call them buoys. I think they have to disambiguate between the young males.

AL               Just to make clear, you’re not submerging young children in the water.

NJ              No, I’m not. So, this array of buoys. Now I say buoys. I’m sorry. Actually have two levels of lights on them. Instead of being round, they’re long. So, they project about a meter up and about a meter below. So, three foot up and three foot down. And at the water level, there’s a light that goes on when a fish swims under. A sonar sensor.

                   And at the top of the buoy, there’s an always on light that shifts from a warm red colour when dissolved oxygen is low to a cool blue and green colour when dissolved oxygen is high.

                   And the other thing about the buoys is that they’re a network. And the important part is that we have to change our relationship to what I call the unshore line, where we build with buoyancy intention rather than with rigidity and mass. So, these embody that idea that we can build on and in the water in a radically different way to how we have been building. And it’s thousands of times cheaper and about hundreds of times stronger to do it that way.

                   Nonetheless, this is very important as we are shoring up these unshore lines as you know. So, there’s a real engineering paradigm in there. But it’s also an invitation to understand this, again, a dynamic environment where the buoys lean further with the velocity of the water underneath. So, you can’t really tell the speed of the water in the east river, which is a ferocious tidal current. Probably one of the fastest in the world. So, they lean one way or the other.

                   You can also see, when the dissolved oxygen is high, there’s more fish there. Which makes you realise, oh yes, dissolved oxygen is just like breathing. Fish can breathe. Okay, yes, that would make sense.

AL               So, it’s a way of allowing the passers by to understand the fish life underneath.

NJ              It is, but also to query it. So, you can text the fish and the fish will text you back. And when the eels are coming by, or alewife.

AL               How do fish text you back, given their lack of opposable thumbs?

NJ              They aggregate the situation form the sensors that are available. And with an AI application, they… Just like any other AI application.

                   They inform the model that I’m using to interact with people with their own behaviour. And so, the fish will tell you, yes, it’s us, the alewife, the herring. We’re shooting up. It’s breeding time. We’re going up for some parties up the river. We need some fresh water, so we’re going.

                   So, they inform and popularise the understanding of what’s there and why it’s there. And really invite us to develop a new relationship, a better relationship with these lovely organisms.

AL               And then you’ve got an avian project which is sort of a companion project to the fish one. This For The Birds project, in which birds are able to experiment on humans by landing on different perches. Tell us about how that works?

NJ              Yes. Well, I’ll tell you. I’m just actually launching a flag here. Because all of these projects are ongoing and it’s a beautiful flag. I can just show right here. It’s iridescent.

AL               Good for me, but less useful for podcast listeners.

NJ              I know. But it’s a beautiful, iridescent flag.

AL               It is beautiful. It is very iridescent.

NJ              And an iridescent plastic that rubs together and creates a static field.

                   And so, that static field will attract any of the mercury ions or the heavy metals that are actually extraordinary levels of pollution in and around particularly these north-eastern universities that heat with this oil that is full of heavy metals.

                   Anyway, the bird feathers really, it wets onto the bird feathers. And it actually changes their weight, but this attracts them. And it’s actually an invitational nest. So, the two bars that hold the flag back to the building is actually a nest for an eagle. And I take bets on whether or not an when the eagle will nest there. I’m obviously situating it where I think they will nest. And the idea, it will attract the metal ions away from the fledglings and the nesting and the nesting organisms.

                   But the idea that we use these invitational nests I want to put on the front of every building, where instead of using an image of an eagle, which they like to use in all sorts of places, we actually have. We created habitat for a real eagle. And we learn a lot about whether or not they like it. And I raised money to do these by taking bets on. It’s about a ten to one bet at the moment. So, if you want to place a bet on whether or not it will be inhabited next season, I’m taking those bets.

                   But, really, the other idea is that I think it was important to say that one that I set up in Chelsea had a perch which was effectively a gun. And it was a whole… It was on a green roof. And I designed the habitat to be delightful. And I had a feeding table where every morning and evening I would sprinkle out food automatically. And so, we could see on the table whether or not who would share a plate and who would feel only worthy of gathering the crumbs from underneath.

                   By setting it around a table, we can recognise human relationships imposed onto the birds, which of course is social one and as interesting as our human dramas. But the gun perch was pointed right at that table, so that a bird could land on the perch and shoot the gun. It wasn’t a gun per se. It was a high-pressure water valve that would have shot every other bird off that table. The feeding table.

AL               So, the birds could fire the gun at themselves?

NJ              Well, a bird could land on that perch and fire it at every other one. And then monopolise all the nutritional resources for themselves. So, would they use the gun for that kind of technical advantage? Or would they, in fact… There was a Ferris wheel as well that required a bird to jump on. And as the Ferris wheel went around and around, every time it went around it let out some more seeds. So, the bird that was going around was actually delivering seeds to the others. Because they couldn’t eat it. So, which one would they do?

                   Would they use the gun to monopolise the resources for themselves, or would they playfully use it to share with all of their fellow friends. And I’ll have you know that the pigeons in this case worked out the Ferris wheel within 15 minutes of me putting it up there. And it was going constantly. There was some bird. They took turns. They were all using it.

                   And that gun? It was triggered four times in three years. So, that’s very interesting, because it was a very handy perch, right near a feeding table. Why wouldn’t they land on it, accidentally even?

                   But somehow they’d communicated, oh, don’t land there. That’s not fun. So, we learned that pigeons are in fact peace-loving and playful and don’t like guns.

AL               And you also did one with bird perches which when the bird lands on them would pass a message. Would play an audio message for the humans. And then the birds could move around different perches and work out which message they wanted conveyed to humans.

NJ              Exactly. Humans are kind of dumb and need these things spelled out for them. And so, these lovely perches that were in the Whitney Biennial and at MASS MoCA and I put them around a number of different places, with a variety of different messages when they land on them. Would you please go and get some of those health food bars from over there and sprinkle them around here? There’s a good person.

                   Explaining how people can share nutritional resources that we don’t have to… We, as a species, don’t have to monopolise them. And this whole idea that we’re somehow interfering with the birds, or with wild animals, if we share nutritional resources is, yes, we are interfering. We’re changing the entire climate. You can make it good. This whole idea that somehow you don’t feed the animals when that’s the essential transaction to build trust and to learn about each other.

                   It bothers me that there’s this kind of righteous hand-slapping that don’t feed them because they’ll become dependent. We’re all in this together. We’re figuring out what a delightful, biodiverse future might look like.

                   And, frankly, I would rather it be biodiverse than not. And feeding the birds is the way that I’ve developed trust enough to sufficient to I’ve got a book of poetry coming out on translating bird songs into lyrics for the songs, so humans can understand them. And really understanding what it is the birds are saying to each other in this real time, daily-updated oral map that they are producing.

                   And I’ve only been able to do that because, of course, I share some. It’s an exchange economy. I share some food, and they hang around for long enough to share some delight with me.

AL               So, each of your projects are fascinating enough that we could spend an entire podcast on them. But let me press on with a final few. Life Cycles.

NJ              Life Cycles. I’m doing a new addition of Life Cycles here. So, I cross-dress bicycles with Tyvek. I do a lot of things with Tyvek. And I just have to put in a note that I often get… Tyvek is a high-density polyethylene material. It’s a plastic. And many environmentalists question me on why I would use plastic. And I have to assert that plastic is not bad. It’s how we use it that’s bad.

                   Plastic can allow us to do many things that we couldn’t otherwise have done, like cross-dress bicycles in a lightweight material. And I have a whole number of things on it. But one of the successful things has been to do on-street advertising.

                   So, in New York City, there’s an experimental theatre and there’s a children’s music school, neither of which can really advertise $400 for three days in the Village Voice for half a line. They don’t really have that budget. And it’s $40,000 to put an on-street ad on. So, I matchmake with the people who park around that area. And they cross-dress the bike for $50. The children’s music school has each of these bikes parking around the area, advertising on street that would otherwise.

                   And the cyclists earn $50 for three months of advertising. Parking where they would otherwise park. We’ve got another part of that, which I think is really important to assert, the independent anarchistic mobility of cycling that’s so lovely and, of course, doesn’t pollute the air for other people, with the bike messenger. And that’s a persistence of vision display on the wheels. So, it makes an image.

                   And every time you go through an intersection or along the bicycle route, the seahorses that live on the east river jump up onto the wheels. Or the number of fatalities of that intersection appear at that intersection.  

                   At Connecticut College, I did it with every time a cyclist goes through the intersection where a kid crossed the road and was killed, his artwork appears on the wheels. So, this is geolocated information that gets programmed into local area. It’s ephemeral but it’s durable. And it’s a delightful way of not only making the bicycles more visible, but also creating and telling those stories that are important about our diverse, complex, urban ecosystems.

AL               The Environmental Health Clinic and it’s impatients.

NJ              Yes. That’s probably the biggest frame. And I use that to… Although now I’ve been putting things more into the Museum of Natural Futures. That the Environmental Health Clinic is really a framework that everything I do might be a little playful or seem silly, but it all measurable improves human and environmental health. So, I think that that’s the only proxy, the only metric and the best proxy for the common good is health.

                   You can have people who are anti-development or pro development. Left-wing or right-wing. But no one’s really anti-health. And so, we have a common ground, if you will, to build things. And I think that the idea that what can any one of us do about the environmental and political challenges we face. This what do I do? I don’t have time or money or degrees. That crisis of agency, I call it.

AL               So, anyone can come into the environmental health clinic?

NJ              Anyone can come in. And they come in with their environmental health concerns, and we figure out what it is they can do to improve, measurably, their human, their local health. So, the air quality, indoor, outdoor, the food systems, mobility, water, soil.

                   And the thing about that’s very different, even though when I first opened, the NYU Medical School legal counsel came down and tried to close me down several times for impersonating a physician, which I’m happy to do. But they were very concerned that I was filling the space… Physicians don’t even try to improve outdoor air quality.

                   And, frankly, I can, with my vertical agriculture systems, just with increasing the leaf area index, the canopy complexity tenfold, which I can do very easily, we can have substantial reduction in hospitalisation for all the kind of vascular diseases. So, actually, the external determinants of health, if we acted on those, we can have, as Hippocrates said, to treat the inner, one must treat the outer.

AL               So, why are they called impatients?

NJ              Well, because they’re too impatient to wait for legislative change or for health system reform to address local environmental health issues. And we all have the power and capacity to improve our indoor and outdoor air quality, for instance. And any one of us, if you did that, the benefits are enjoyed by those who share that indoor or outdoor air quality with. So, it has an aggregating effect, which I think is redemptive.

AL               So, I’m not sure we’re even going to get to the Bat Billboard and xAirport. People will have to explore your presence online to learn more about this. But let me wrap up with a couple of final questions, Natalie, that I ask all my interviewees. What advice would you give to your teenage self?

NJ              Interesting. I do the reverse. I try and get advice from my teenage self. My teenage self had hutzpah. Had anything was possible. Had a sense of watch out world, here I come. That I think we get a little beaten down.

                   So, I look back to my teenage self and say, you go, girl. Tell me what I should do again. It’s a little bit the reverse. I think teenagers, they have it going on. And bless them for it.

AL               And I’m speaking to you on Mother’s Day. We’ve spoken about your first child, Jamba. But then with your former husband, Dalton Conley, you’ve got two wonderful children, E and Yo. I remember a lovely dinner you had us over for at your apartment, where we had dinner on a table which was balanced on a centre point, where everything had to be placed on the table just so. Otherwise, the whole thing would collapse on the floor.

NJ              I think that’s another thing that Dalton is glad to have behind him. Yes.

AL               But the embrace of chaos in your parenting style seems something that I really admire.

NJ              I suppose that’s what I would, then again, deflect that to my parents who, having ten children, is an invitation for chaos. And they managed it with such good humour and such energetic kind of embrace of the unexpected. Because, more than anything, our children defy our expectations in wonderful and interesting ways. And they teach us that we know so little about the complexity of how to live and how to live well. And yet having a child I think is probably the most important bet on the future.

                   It’s this idea that there’s something. And it’s just that Dalton had his book, Parentology. I’m not sure if you read that, on how to make your… How to set your children up for success, which of course every parent wants. But they were my children too. So, I had to write a book in answer, which is called Parenteering [?]. Which is not how to tweak our children, but what we can do to make the world the sort of place we would like for our children.

                   So, it’s only by demonstration that we can actually parent. And I’d like to make this world a little bit better for my kids. And which is what Parenteering is about. It’s a mashup with engineering and whatever it is that orienteering. You have to make it work somehow, and there’s no formula to do so.

                   But there is a sense, that I tell the students that come to me, the suicidal students I call them, that have this idea that they print on both sides of the paper. They ride their bikes. They’re vegan. But wouldn’t the best thing be for them to suicide, because then they’ll have a smaller carbon footprint and they’ll do… This idea that the best you can do is less. To leave no trace. Do not touch. That has hijacked the environmental imagination in a way that I think is tragic.

                   Instead of this idea that do something and make it good. You can make this world a little bit better. You can contribute something. And if I may be misguided, but that’s my belief. And that’s what I work with all these wonderful students. And I’m blessed with the most magnificent children that I learn far more off. But that we can actually make it a bit better.

AL               When are you most happy?

NJ              Interesting. I think Thoreau said that when a bird landed on his epaulette or on his shoulder, he thought it was the most… He thought he was somehow crowned or given an epaulette. I think that moment of wonder when you’re watching two earthworms, which I’ve just got some beautiful video of. Actually, one of the earthworms was helping the other one, fixing a little broken thing. When you’re just wondrously engaged with the complexity and unpredictability of natural systems. That’s certainly my favourite state. That state of wonder.

AL               You travel as much as anyone I know. You work on more projects than seems humanly possible. What’s the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?

NJ              Interesting. I think to do what I love and to love what I do. I don’t really exercise. In fact, I’m anti-exercise. I’m anti that kind of routination. Routinisation. I don’t even know the word. To be physical and to be in the world I think is about a joyous kind of engagement. Not a training for something potentially in the future.

                   And so, for instance, the thing that I am training for is a biannual ride that I’ve developed for Barcelona. Where you know the opening scenes of Wonder Woman, where they’re doing mounted archery?

AL               Yes.

NJ              So, mounted archery is a sport around here. And so, I’m getting good at it. But I’ve changed the arrows. And so, in just early fall and just before spring, in Barcelona, we’re riding through the city, inviting anyone who’s had a bird strike to put a big, red circle on their window.

                   And we will shoot them with my x arrows, which have a little iridescent dye in them that splashes over the window and marks. Makes the windows very visible for the migrating birds, so they don’t in fact smash their skulls on them. So, this kind of glamorous ride through Barcelona twice a year is my new getting fit exercise.

AL               And, finally, Natalie, which person or which experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

NJ              Certainly there are important people. My own parents are beautifully indominable. Nothing can get them down. They keep going. And if they can do it, well, I can do it too. That sense of I can do it. But there’s many. I mean people are good. So many people are good. So many small and heroic actions I think reinforce that sense of just how wonderfully good people are. And how the world actually loves us. The world is complex but understandable.

                   And every single delightful moment I think communicates this sense of you’re okay. You can keep going. You’re in the right place. That sense of wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, it’s good. It’s fine. And I think that’s what keeps me going. Not that I’m right or wrong or any certain knowledge of either. But that I belong here. There’s a sense of belonging.

                   And, therefore, as opposed to that terrible sense of we’re somehow not of the world. We’re somehow a little urban subculture that is foreign to and bad for the world. I think the reverse. I think we are very much a part of the world. And so, whatever we think is okay.

AL               Eco-scientist, artist, experimental designer, thinker, polymath, Natalie Jeremijenko, it’s been a delight to speak with you on The Good Life podcast today. Thank you for your time.

NJ              Thank you so much, Andrew. It’s delightful to speak to you too. And you didn’t say Queenslander. Come on.

AL               And Queenslander. Mackay woman, through and through.

NJ              Yes. Thank you so much, Andrew. Delightful.

AL               Thank you.

NJ              Cheers.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts, formerly known as iTunes. Next week, I’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.