Seductive, playful, spectacle—these are words artist Stephanie Rothenberg uses to describe her work. As the inaugural Roux Scholar, she will work with a group of students to create a Bowdoin-specific installation of that nature later this year.
Rothenberg received her Master of Fine Arts in 2003 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and now teaches courses in graphic design and emerging practices at State University of New York at Buffalo, where she’s also director of graduate studies.
Her teaching attempts to integrate art, science and technology. While some people lament the pervasiveness of technology in our society, Rothenberg embraces it.
“It’s like being creative with the sciences and technology. It’s about putting your art hat on and saying, ‘OK, this is a methodology that happens when we do this particular lab work, so what if we do it in a different way?’” she said. “Because as artists we don’t have to have a pragmatic outcome.”
Rothenberg argues that artists have the freedom to experiment in art as well as bring aesthetics into science. In her career, she has transformed scientific data from her research into extravagant, eye-catching displays—calling attention to facts that might otherwise be ignored.
Her latest series called “Reversal of Fortune,” which premiered at ZKM Center for Art and Media in 2015, incorporates living plants into her data visualizations. The plants’ struggle for survival serves as a metaphor for human life and economic growth.
“What is a data visualization? It’s a narrative … so what I was trying to do was tell a story of the way that technologies are enabling new forms of charity in the developing world,” Rothenberg said.
One piece in the series, titled “Planthropy,” utilizes Twitter to dissect the mindset behind acts of charity. Lush plants sitting on sleek platforms are suspended in the middle of white room. Whenever anyone tweets using hashtags like #DonateClimateChange or #DonateRefugees, the plants are watered and a robotic voice reads them aloud.
“Planthropy is just responding to Twitter,” she said. “[The work] is also commenting on armchair philanthropy as I call it, it’s the attention economy … It’s all [about] ‘I did a good deed, I was charitable, I saved the world.’”
Along the same lines, “Garden of Virtual Kinship” aims to tell the story of digitally crowdfunded charities. A map of the world assembled by small plants tracks the online donations made to developing countries. The water, which gives the plants life, represents the flow of cash between developing countries and online charities in developed ones.
“[It] showed was that your money wasn’t necessarily going to these people … but the majority of it—because there are these huge fees—goes to the global microfinance banking industry,” she said.
While her works are undeniably innovative, Rothenberg insists she’s not the first to blend these seemingly opposing fields together.
“There’s this whole history of artists that use technology,” she said. “It blows my mind that high schools don’t teach this.”
In the 1990s, Rothenberg worked as an art director in New York City for companies like Coca-Cola and McGraw-Hill Publishing. She witnessed firsthand how these companies transitioned into digital spaces, transforming labor and the work environment—a theme commonly found in her work. She lists artists such as Nam June Paik as her inspiration.
For her work at Bowdoin, Rothenberg will potentially explore additional issues such as climate change, the food industry and the Maine coastline.
As for what lies ahead, she has an idea regarding the installation but is waiting for the final reveal.
“It’s something working with students, it’s probably some interactive visualization, it might be some kind of mobile unit that moves onto the quad and that could also go into town,” she said.