“My art is all about changing people’s perception of scale and their place within a larger universe,” says visual artist Byron Rich (MFA ’13). Growing up in Alberta, Canada, he was inspired and humbled by his country’s massive mountains and infinite prairies. “It really puts you in your place,” he says.
Rich helps the rest of us understand our place in the world—and, in particular, how even our smallest actions affect the environment—through his latest project, “Protista Imperialis,” on display at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University until February 2015. The piece, a delicately balanced interplay of physical and digital microcosms, features a complex bioreactor complete with LEDs, air pump, microphone, webcam, computer and algae. It is named after the species of algae Rich ordered for the project. “Imperialis had certain connotations to corporate and nationalistic imperialism that I found compelling,” he says.
Whether they wish to or not, people interact with the work through special software that converts the sounds of footsteps or human voices in the exhibit space to light. If there is no sound (i.e., no human presence), there is no light, and the algae eventually dies. Meanwhile, whenever the computer logs an appearance of the hashtag “#climatechange” on Twitter or Instagram, the image of the world that is projected over a live view of the algae changes: The digital oceans encroach pixel by pixel into the continents. We experience global warming in both physical and digital realms.
Rich has two goals for “Protista Imperialis”: “I want viewers to reconsider their sense of cosmic scale, hopefully eliciting a sense of the deep interconnectedness of the universe and its systems,” he says. “I also wanted to question whether social media activism was effectual in any meaningful way, or merely empty gestures absolving individuals of becoming active in a cause in a more overtly physical way.”