Arlene Birt, Visualizing Grocery Footprints
“In a complicated world, Birt’s purpose is to provide clear pictures of that complicated world.”
Visualizing Grocery Footprints
TraceProduct.info, the online component of the installation at the Spark Festival, Visualizing Grocery Footprints, aims to visualize the narratives behind the ubiquitous objects that we interact with everyday as consumers. It focuses on the ways in which these products connect us to the larger world.
By bringing the attention of the shopper to the detailed and factual backgrounds of their everyday choices, TraceProduct.info seeks to inspire people to understand more about how their individual purchases impact global environment and society.
Where It Comes From
Arlene Birt’s Visualizing Grocery Footprints is a data-driven and interactive installation that enables the customers of a (at the present moment) fictional grocery store to see the points of origin of their food purchases by looking at a screen at the checkout that contains a world map with icons of their purchases located at their sources, or by reading their receipt. It’s meant to fit seamlessly into existing systems for scanning food items and seeing the scanned information on screens.
The piece is, as Birt says, “future-focused,” because at the moment there is no way to easily incorporate the data needed into the scanning system used by grocery stores. In the near future, however, she says, information on food origins may well be a required part of the UPC coding stores use, and then her system could be widely implemented.
Birt is a specialist in devising ways of visually presenting information. In this case, her solid and simple way of transmitting to store patrons the locations from which their food purchases derived has great rational appeal. We all know, foggily, that our food often comes from a long ways off. Myself, being old and all, used to think of this in romantic terms—just think! This banana was hanging on a tree, upside down, in a hot green jungle just a week ago, and now I’m eating it while looking at a thermometer saying 50 degrees below zero, before wrapping up in 6 layers of wool and tromping off to school. That kind of thing.
Is it Birt’s purpose to get us to swear off mangoes? I try to eat local but I live in northern Minnesota. One reason my ancestors left Norway, I’m guessing, is that they got sick of eating white food.
No, says Birt, she is not a proselytizer, for eating local or for anything else.
“My purpose to communicate information about sustainability,” she says. “I don’t want to force people into decisions. Sustainability is different in every context. It’s important that people develop an understanding that can feed sustainability for their whole lives.
“Someone could use this tool to say, ‘I’m only going to eat things from halfway around the world!’ And this isn’t right and wrong. I want to provide information that people can use, and help people understand the big picture.”
In a complicated world, Birt’s purpose is to provide clear pictures of that complicated world.
The biggest part of the work, says Birt, was the coordination involved: “I had to research the existing system of supply, supply-chain databases, cash register software, and write code for all this.”
What she created was the concept of instantly available information on origins of food, as well as the interface that would pull the information and make it useful. Work that moves along the border between what we think of as “art” and what we call design is immensely appealing at a time when systems of information so desperately need creative attention.
We are now in a time when there are vast amounts of raw data available, but very little of it is incorporated into the kind of transparent, usable system that Birt has devised. Between polemic and data there is something like usable information: we need to find ways to create more of it.
Ann Klefstad is an artist and writer in Duluth.
I am fascinated by the idea that we are endlessly tied to the world through the objects that we consume. Small, seemingly inconsequential objects populate our every-day, and yet the intricate life stories of these objects are hidden from the eyes of their present consumer.
I aim to visually explain the significance of the everyday within the context of the big picture in order to engage people in their role as consumers. I am driven by the idea that when people become engaged with—and can interact with—the stories behind their purchases and daily rituals, they can create a personal connection, from which they can understand their own role in social and environmental sustainability. This theme has emerged from my own varied background: work and study in art, journalism, advertising, sustainability, graphic and interactive design. All of which have provided me with experiences that have greatly informed my artistic process; including sorting through complex information, and working through multiple visual iterations and applications of a project.
Because many voices are present in the backgrounds of each topic I explore and in the creation of each project, it is difficult for me to claim ownership of my work as “the” artist. The outcomes belong to the context from which they came. In this sense the boundaries between art, design, commerce, and technology blur and intersect in my work: real-world static data plays out into more emotionally charged, collectively visual, stories.
mentor: Piotr Szyhalski
Arlene Birt is a visual storyteller, artist and information designer. Arlene’s work visually explains the significance of the everyday within the context of the big picture in order to communicate the impacts of sustainability to consumers.
Arlene received a Fulbright grant to the Netherlands to research visual communication methods to “explain” sustainability, and a Masters in Design from Design Academy Eindhoven (NL). Now based in Minnesota (US), Arlene teaches visual information design and works with companies aiming to improve their sustainability communication.
Her work on sustainability, which rides the line between art and communication, has been featured in Creative Review (UK), U.S. News and World Report, BusinessWeek.com, worldchanging.com, SEED magazine, and at the Barcelona Design Museum.