I recently moderated the inaugural event of the ULI Urban Art Forum, which was devoted to the work of the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI).
We are in a period of increasing awareness related to climate adaptations and renewable energy. At the same time, when we undertake urban regeneration efforts, we recognise the centrality of narratives that create identity and meaning. The presentation of the LAGI/Land Art Generator Initiative takes place at this fascinating intersection of renewable energy and public art.
The original ‘land art’ movement – which in many ways is the foundation of the Land Art Generator Initiative – produced extraordinary work that approached and transformed natural landscape. The pioneers of the movement, artists like Richard Long, Walter deMaria, Michael Heizer and Dennis Oppenheim, expanded creative boundaries by their innovative and monumental siting of natural materials.
With the death of Robert Smithson in a plane crash in 1973, the movement lost one of its most important figureheads. Charles Ross continues to work on the Star Axis project, which he began in 1971. Michael Heizer continues his work on City, and James Turrell continues to work on the Roden Crater project. In most respects, ‘land art’ has become part of mainstream public art. Some of the other concerns of the land art movement centred around rejection of commercialization of art-making and enthusiasm with an emergent ecological movement, values that also carry over into the current world of LAGI.
The founders of the Land Art Generator Initiative, Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Perry, have been a collaborative pair for years. Classmates from their days at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, they are married partners with overlapping interests and have been working closely together since the inception of LAGI in Dubai in 2010. They finish each other’s sentences. Even their emails have an automatically paired signature. They have received significant recognition, including grants from the (US) National Endowment for the Arts and the JM Kaplan Innovation Prize.
Elizabeth and Robert established the Land Art Generator Initiative to provide a platform for artists, architects, landscape architects, and other creatives working with engineers and scientists. Since then, they continue to focus their efforts on energy strategies that overlap with public art and architecture. Specifically, they advocate a new kind of sustainable energy infrastructure – works of public art that provide energy at utility scale. They are perhaps best known for the initiation and management of the LAGI biennial design competitions (which have been organised for selected sites in the UAE, New York, Copenhagen, Santa Monica, and Melbourne).
In their joint opening for the ULI event, Elizabeth and Robert identified power plants like Battersea as expressive urban icons, not just remote utilities. These energy producers were part of a visual narrative for the city. In an age of increased environmental awareness, they stressed that story-telling is the foundation of resilience. They used terms like ‘energy landscape’ and ‘sustainable expressionism’, which begin to suggest the potentially rich cross-overs between energy and art.
They presented some of the outstanding submissions made for LAGI biennial competitions, which included proposals for an electromagnetic desalination plant with an annual production of 10,000 MWh/4.5 billion litres of drinking water; a solar hourglass that produces 7,500 MW/year with a thermal beam-down tower; and ‘Scene-Sensor’ a volumetric scrim of thin-film piezoelectric generators.
Elizabeth and Robert also discussed some of their other outreach programs, including LAGI community workshops, Art+Energy flash cards, and the Masai Solar project – renewable energy technologies developed by LAGI that Masai women merged with local materials to produce functional art objects that reflected local culture and a vision for the future.
Much of the event discussion centred on how LAGI could best transform some of the large-scale competition proposals into realised projects. The founders noted that they maintained active relationships with some of the best qualified technical teams from over 800 competition submissions – an extraordinary amount of intellectual property. They were looking forward to pairing established teams with cities, developers, and utility companies that also had ambitions to build ‘energy landscapes’.
Several audience members suggested that LAGI would need to establish the economic case for proposals, not just their energy processes, to move the initiatives forward. But perhaps the best way to realise these ambitious proposals might be to emphasise iconic aesthetic merits rather than productive capacities as energy utilities. Land Art Generators are public art first and foremost, and their related value goes beyond the economic value of the generated power.
Towards the close of the ULI session, AECOM’s Maged Hanna called LAGI ‘the Fendi of renewable infrastructure’. We can debate whether LAGI is sustainability fashion, industrial design, or art in its own right. But in the end, the work of the Land Art Generator Initiative expresses astonishing innovation that makes us re-imagine the centrality of energy in our urban life.