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Carbon Dioxide Measuring Robot, Algae Fuel Tower Star in Climate Exhibit

By Paul Biasco | January 18, 2013 8:47am

LINCOLN PARK — A carbon dioxide measuring robot armed with a marker and a lumbering tower of algae containers are two art pieces the DePaul Art Museum hopes will spark the conversation on climate change with its new exhibition.

The exhibition, "Climate of Uncertainty," which opened late last week, features provocative environmental photographs from seven photographers alongside the more engaging moving exhibits such as the robot and algae tower.

"I feel like it’s a very timely exhibition,"  said Laura Fatemi, assistant director of the DePaul Art Museum. "I think weather related events in the past year are really waking people up.”

Near the entrance of the museum at 935 West Fullerton Ave. sits the small female robot called "Grower," which every minute or so puts a marker to the white wall and draws a vertical line indicating how much carbon dioxide is in the air near the bot at that time.

 Marissa Benedict's  Algal Biodiesel  is a mini laboratory of algae pools that are fed carbon dioxide that Benedict captures from fermenting mead to produce a biodiesel fuel.
Marissa Benedict's Algal Biodiesel is a mini laboratory of algae pools that are fed carbon dioxide that Benedict captures from fermenting mead to produce a biodiesel fuel.
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The robot, created by Chicago-based artist Sabrina Raaf, slowly moves around the room and makes the viewer an involuntary participant in the exhibit when he or she exhales.

"Plants themselves use carbon dioxide from us in part in order to grow, so there’s that kind of symbiotic relationship," said Raaf, who lives in Bridgeport. "It was kind of beautiful and poetic to try and mimic."

Raaf said the green lines are symbolic of grass, and she hopes the fluctuations in height draw out the viewers curiosity.

"I was looking at the museum and gallery and environment as an ecosystem and trying to show how the community involvement and comment helped to grow and help that environment," she said.

In the back of the museum, in the middle of a square white room, glow the stacked tower of Chicago artist Marissa Benedict's installation "Algal Biodiesel."

Spotlights jet out from the wooden support structure, shining on the containers filled with the bright green slime-like algae, which acts as a mini-laboratory pumping out biodiesel fuel.

"It is really amazing to me that you can transform a plant into energy. What does that mean? How does it happen?" Benedict, a Pilsen resident, said.

Benedict came into the project with little to no understanding of turning algae into fuel, and over the past three years has researched the process extensively. She even brews her own mead to produce carbon dioxide to feed the algae.

"We don’t know what's happening behind all those closed doors and white walls. Who is solving our problems?" she said. "I’m an incredibly curious person, but I think that role of an artist as an amateur is a huge part of this piece. I’m not an expert I come in with a high school understanding of science."

While the two-story museum is packed with art intending to bring attention to a warming planet and changing climate, DePaul is hosting a series of events and programs in the space bringing together business leaders, scientists and artists to discuss the topic.

The first of those events, the DePaul Sustainability Conference, is being held Friday by the school's department of finance for for-profit firms. The sold-out event will include speakers from Northern Trust, Manulife Insurance, Boeing, PriceWaterHouseCooper and other Chicago-based firms.

“I think people are showing genuine concern with the environment. It’s engaging people," Fatemi said.

The museum is open free to the public from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursdays, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays and from noon until 5 p.m. on the weekend.