Arts, Real-Time Video and Interactivity for Sustainability

This research project proposes to investigate innovative concepts and design methods regarding the use of real-time video as raw material for artistic exploration on environmental causes. The acronym for this exploratory project and research agenda is ARTiVIS, which connects with the symbolic meaning association of Art and Activism. Concerned with Climate Change, especially in what relates to forests and their preservation, we are addressing artistic, scientific and technological aspects.

Living in a country that has always been extremely exposed to forest fires, makes us very sensitive to an issue which also applies to a world scale. The whole planet is being affected by the consequences of the destruction of the forest patrimony by fire hazards, and "Globally, 95% of all fires are caused by various human activities" [FAO04]. Despite previous measures [Alho09, Forest09, GSE-FM09] an attitude towards prevention seems pertinent and urgent. To prevent and control destructive forest fires, the involvement of communities is crucial [FAO04].

Through research with a critical perspective and experimental artistic approaches, this practice based research lives at the intersection of Art, Science and Technology. Combining physical and digital worlds, ARTiVIS explores real-time video technological challenges to offer participants ways to experience and to remotely access the natural environment. The objectives of this research are:
» to create digital contexts of aesthetic contemplation of nature by exploring the beauty and danger of trees and forest fires
» to raise awareness on the natural environment by establishing a bond between people and forests, using technology in artistic contexts
» to help prevent forest fires by extending surveillance systems to online communities through "the emotion of real-time" monitoring.
These interactive systems feed a global community that ultimately enables self-sustained surveillance and explorations with digital media in interactive installations to engage the audience senses in unconventional ways.

In this scope, we are creating interactive experiences that are meant to stimulate awareness and prevention of fire related damages to the forests. The outputs are a tradeoff between aesthetic pleasure from contemplative observation and interactive experiments of forests real-time videos.
Aiming to promote a more sustainable world through digital media and experimental design, the outcomes of this iterative process bridging between the digital and the physical include:
» Interactive installations for public exhibition with real-time video of the forests as raw material, put in practice through diverse ideas. Hug@ree, Treeellucinations, B-Wind!, and Play with Fire are experiences being implemented in the scope of this project; Enchanted Forest and MAicro are concepts designed for further development
» An online platform prototype, to display the real-time forests videos and correspondent artistic explorations, working as the ARTiVIS community hub
» The design of a surveillance open source hardware and software DIY kit common to all the installations, repurposing surveillance technology to bring people and their communities together to protect their forests. Resulting video streams and collected data will be uploaded and become part of the online platform network.
All together, we foresee that these interactions provide the experiences of contact with nature contributing to a feeling of belonging, strengthening the relationship with the forest, and leading to local communities growth
and empowerment.

Research Questions

Forest covers 31% of total the planet's land area [UN11]. Every year millions of hectares of land across the planet are ravaged by fierce forest fires which rage out of control, destroying the environment, crops, homes and, in the worst case scenarios, lives [Viegas09].
From the analysis of forest fires throughout Europe by the Institute for Environment and Sustainability, Montgomery reported the "surprising" human activities causing the majority of forest fires. The causes range from deliberate actions by arsonists (40%), to "simple" negligence (58%): "Environmental groups acknowledge that forest fires play an essential role in the life of a forest and that when they occur naturally they are an integral aspect of any forest’s ecosystem, acting as a catalyst for ongoing regeneration. They are part of the circle of life. The problem occurs when an unnatural factor interferes with nature’s delicately balanced ecosystem. And unfortunately the ‘unnatural factor’ in the case of most forest fires is man. (…) In many countries the amount of fires which started as a result of natural causes (usually lightning) amounted to less than 1%. A staggering 99% of the fires which caused so much damage and heartbreak were caused by humans themselves, either directly or otherwise. (…) In Portugal alone, 83% of accidental fires were caused as a direct result of agricultural burnings, pasture renewal and slash burning" [Montgomery09].

Beyond institutional campaigns and isolated initiatives, much can be done. Government support is one of the factors that can make a difference when it comes to incentives – an example is a village in China, that has had no uncontrolled fires for over 35 years, ever since a policy was adopted that provided benefits and income from the forests to the villagers [FAO04].
On the other side, "critical weather conditions have recently caused unprecedented damages in economic terms and in number of human casualties. (…) governments are discussing potential options under future climate change conditions that may trigger more dangerous and more frequent forest fires". South Africa, for example, will hold the next (fifth) Forest Day, which has become one of the most intensive and influential annual global events on forests, and it will be coinciding with the 17th Conference of the Parties for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UN11]. Motivations are clear: "The need for greater awareness of the latest research on Africa's forests is underscored by predictions that the continent will be hit hard by climate change" [FCC11].

As citizens doing research and art practices, we can also play a role for effective change in people's behavior regarding forests protection:
What are the possibilities of proposing constructive approaches to the destructive dynamics of fire that aggravate climate change? Can digital art foster awareness and respect for nature?

Refuting the idea of passively waiting for dramatic evidence to come, we are actively building on a paradigm shift proposal so that ours and generations to come bring a wiser way of thinking and acting that can contribute towards a better world.
Regarding forests surveillance systems to record and make the data available to an open community, we are mashing up visual aesthetics experiments with broadcasting access.

With this combination of artistic explorations and functional purposes, can we conceive a project that is both artistic and functional?
Regarding the impact and the potential of art and technology on society and the environment, we aim at creating a “forests showroom” experience through digital media, in order to inspire lifestyle change.

The outputs will be a trade-off between aesthetic pleasure from contemplative observation and interactive experiments of forests real-time videos. ARTiVIS will also explore a tense feeling of control over danger and functional monitoring for forest protection in a surveillance system, aiming to promote a more sustainable world through digital media and experimental design.


The current investigation converges practice based and project research [Gear10, FCG10] and active research based in design methods. Blending the research techniques of both arts and sciences fields, this hybrid approach embodies the so called “third culture”: "Because our work and tools are in constant flux, we are forced to articulate the reasoning and meaning informing the art we produce, which has traditionally been the role of art critics and historians. This creates room for an active dialogue with both humanists and scientists. Thus we are placed in between these "Two Cultures," which creates a triangle and promises the emergence of a third culture" [Vesna01].

Applying design methodology in a multimedia context, ARTiVIS requires an iterative development process that includes research, conceptualization, creation and presentation of diverse articulated working prototypes.
The development of the project ranges from experiments with real-time video monitoring the natural environment, to the design of interactive installations to help change the current behavior regarding environmental protection. An original platform prototype enables artistic and scientific use of streaming video for sustainability awareness.

The online platform output will be a mash-up combining existing technologies that are customizable and that provide the needed resources for fast prototyping, enabling a concept proof to evaluate the structure proposed.
Mobile devices and network infrastructures will open the possibility for new forms of information access or storytelling while visiting physical places [Correia05].
Anticipating connections with existing forest surveillance infrastructures in a world scale, the final version will be able to support several feeds of streaming data from forests in different places simultaneously.
The development of these components altogether will explore the potential of local communities growth and empowerment.


PhD fellowship in Digital Media in the framework of the UT Austin-Portugal Program, funded by FCT [Foundation for Science and Technology], specialization in Audiovisual and Interactive Content Creation.
Masters in Multimedia Educational Communication [MCEM "Redesign of Educational Video: Hypermedia Interfaces for Video and Television", UA]

This research is done in the framework of the PhD in Digital Media of the UT Austin-Portugal Program funded by FCT – Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (ref. SFRH/BD/42555/2007), with professors Nuno Correia and Sílvia Chicó as thesis advisors.
Acknowledgements to FBAUL and CIEBA for the support regarding participation in conferences and exhibitions; to Victoria Vesna, for the research term at UCLA Art|Sci center+lab; to O Espaço do Tempo, for the artist residencies.
We also thank Valentina Nisi for the collaboration in Play with Fire and AZ Labs and its members for the interactive installations development support, especially to Pedro Ângelo, who has been the programming the interactive installations implemented in the scope of this research.