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Organograph: Public Art in San Jose

An ambitious new San Jose public art project aims to tell time on a global scale
THE PETALS OF TIME: This site simulation shows the proposed Organograph in all its flowering glory. Organograph 2012

After three long years, endless meetings, phases of competition and rounds of elimination, the winning team of Chico MacMurtrie, Geo Homsy and Bill Washabaugh has constructed a 10-foot-high prototype of the Organograph, possibly the most ambitious public art project ever conceived for San Jose.

The prototype will be displayed during the ZER01 Biennial this fall, and after more funds are raised, the final 75-foot-tall multilevel sculpture will be constructed on the grass in front of Diridon Station as part of the San Jose Climate Clock Initiative.

It won't be your grandfather's clock, believe me. The Organograph is a landmark project by any interpretation of those words. It is simultaneously a public-art sculpture, an instrument of scientific data measurement and a five-level kinetic building, combining a model of the earth's carbon cycle, a long time-frame clock, an incubating plant greenhouse, and an organic global temperature and CO2 graph—all in one. Whew.

The final working sculpture, entirely powered by the sun, will open up like a lotus flower every morning, revealing its inner components—plant, animal and machine—that will interact with the community and the environment for the next 100 years.

The Organograph will rotate once per day while concurrently moving forward along a path—two meters a year—with data from a carbon-cycle simulation represented in a trail of colored marbles the machine drops in its path. The mixture of colored marbles in the path directly represents the amount of naturally occurring CO2 in the atmosphere, versus the amount of man-made CO2, as measured by the machine over time.

In an entirely separate process, the machine will also robotically plant flowers in a "history garden' that flanks the trail of marbles. The color of the plants' foliage will represent the evolution of average temperature variations on a global scale through time as measured by the machine. So, after 100 years, the entire landscape left by the machine in its path will document how the climate changed over the preceding century. Double whew.

At any moment during the day, visitors will be able to walk up inside the structure and observe the mechanical timekeeping apparatus in action. So if you're crashed out waiting for a late Amtrak train to Oxnard, you can actually learn something about robotics and climate change in the meantime.

Over the last three years, this triumvirate of multidisciplinary creative heroes—MacMurtrie, Homsy and Washabaugh—pooled their resources and orchestrated the entire enterprise.

MacMurtrie is a renowned robotics sculptor; Washabaugh is an aerospace engineer, mechanical designer and musician; and Homsy holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT. Each one brings a variety of skill sets to the table, which is why I'm claiming this is a uniquely "Silicon Valley' collaboration.

While the Organograph is still a work in progress, it is a career-defining project for each one of them. They have all worked together before in one capacity or another, but MacMurtrie says that after three years, the Organograph signifies a grand culmination of everything that each one of them has ever been interested in, all put into one project. The collaboration was a triangle of mutual influence, with MacMurtrie, Homsy and Washabaugh as vertices.

MacMurtrie says interest already exists from other parties who may want to build more of these sculptures. The project may be adaptable to other landscapes or environments.

"We're excited about where this project, once completed, will lead us,' he said. "Our vision is, can this climate clock project spread around the world? We've heard from educators who said they want to be involved, [from] Spain, Germany, Arizona [and from] friends of mine who've followed the project. The potential for this to expand is something, down the line, that we see as pretty exciting.'

The 10-foot Organograph prototype will be on display during the ZER01 Biennial this September.

Organograph