Feature

The term eccentric engineering brings to mind a Willy Wonka-inspired mechanical utopia where anything is possible. For artist and environmental engineer Tega Brain, that image is not far from reality. Swapping chocolate rivers for real waterways, Brain specialises in combining artistic concepts with ecology and engineering. “I use the term eccentric engineering because this phrase captures my obsession with questions of how we design the systems we live with,” she says.

Dividing her time between Sydney and New York, Brain is active in using technology and engineering to create large-scale art works and interactive devices.

Literally looking outside the box, she relies heavily on consequence and coincidence, finding ways to turn structural anomalies into mutually beneficial systems where success lies in an unplanned event.

“In my work, I create systems that operate with unexpected or unconventional agendas – like [in Being Radiotropic 2016] a Wi-Fi router where the data speed and network strength oscillates in sync with the phase of the moon,” explains Brain. “Traditional engineering practices are concerned with building closed, tightly controlled systems that minimise risk to the human, but they largely overlook that the human is embedded in a dynamic ecological system.”

Water and its environmental importance as a global resource is a consistent theme in Brain’s eccentric engineering. In 2011 at Sydney’s FirstDraft gallery, Brain exhibited Coin Operated Wetland, an installation using the traditional laundromat model to explore how everyday activities can unexpectedly reduce waste and benefit other life forms. In a room set up with washing machines, a clothesline and a row of grassy, water loving plants, Brain’s laundromat used the wastewater coming through the pipes to sustain the plants. In addition to this, as the dirty water pooled and moved through the plants and their root systems, it was filtered and cleaned, ready to be used in another wash cycle. By looking at alternative solutions for wastewater, Brain fulfilled the basic premise of eccentric engineering by developing a structure that encouraged other living organisms to co-exist with humans.

Being-Radiotropic-Woods
Tega Brain, Being Radiotopic series, The Woods, 2016, wifi router, live spathiphyllum, sensors. 25cm x 25cm x 40cm.

Currently, Brain is collaborating with Sydney-based artist Janet Laurence to propose a work for Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park (GASP). Situated in an industrially polluted inlet in Southern Tasmania’s Derwent River, GASP is the driving force behind Swimmable, an ongoing series of artworks seeking to repair and enhance the site. As part of Swimmable, Brain and Laurence intend to create Parliament, an artificial island encompassing an off shore land mass and a reef, specifically designed to support and encourage native plants and animals to repopulate the area. “We are in conversation with scientists at the University of Tasmania who have experimented with reef building,” says Brain. “Structures can be quite simply made by placing existing shells in bags or using frayed rope.”

Alongside these environmentally progressive projects, Brain is also interested in the engineering of biological functions.

In Smell Dating 2016, Brain and researcher Sam Lavigne developed a Tinder-like project that ditched the profile photo and matched people via scent only. Dubbed “the first mail odour dating service”, hundreds of people in New York City sent in t-shirts they had worn for three days straight. Each participant then received 10 musky swatches taken from other people’s shirts. By using an olfactory alternative to find the perfect match, Brain admits, “This is an incredibly inefficient way to date, as we provide no information on age, gender or sexual orientation, however, it yields an incredibly evocative experience.”

Similar to the imaginative effect science fiction has on the creation of real life innovations like The Planetary Society’s Light Sail and Google Glass, Brain is able to creatively combine scientific techniques with artistic concepts to question the limits of what we currently know. With a strong focus on the environment and technology, Brain’s work urges us to consider the hidden potential of everyday objects by highlighting the unexpected and exploring the possible.

Briony Downes