Tech Art and the Environment


How can we make art using contemporary technology (be it new media art, digital musical instruments or any process really that involves rare minerals and lots of energy) without actively damaging the environment?

I recognise that the impact of choosing to make art with tech is miniscule compared to the large systemic changes that are needed, although the combined environmental impact of contemporary art is substantial. Nevertheless, such changes come about through a change in perspective and priorities that IMHO art can and maybe should encourage.

There is also a more philosophical aspect to it: can our artistic practices cohabit peacefully with the rest of the planet?

The following are thoughts, ideas, cool projects and questions about how to achieve a sustainable artistic practice. If you read this and have any ideas or thoughts on this I'd love to continue the conversation!


Depending on where you live, electricity has a different environmental impact. There are a few alternatives to relying on the electrical grid, although they don't work and may not be effective for every application.

  • Batteries may be necessary for certain things, but carry an environmental impact. Sometimes batteries from discarded laptops and smartphones can be reused, although they can also explode so we need to be careful.
  • Portable solar power can be a complement or alternative to batteries, especially for off grid applications.
  • The electricity needed can be generated through human movement. This generally requires very low power devices resilient to the unstable power source, but is a very exciting possibility where applicable.

Circuit boards, batteries etc.

Manufacturing batteries, circuit boards and other electronic components requires lots of energy, lots of toxic chemicals, precious metals and hazardous working environments for the people mining for those metals.

  • Shall we trust in green labels? RHoS?
  • Shall we put our hope to wetwear/bioelectronics/biological computing?

Alternative approaches to computing

Non-electronic Materials

When building things we can choose materials that have a low negative impact on the environment. Natural materials such as wood, string, fabric, paper etc. can be good (although of course if we can avoid it travelling very far and endangered species of trees that's all the better).

Perhaps we can form partnerships with artisans who work with sustainable materials instead of buying factory made products.

FDM 3D printing materials

The most common 3D printing material, PLA, is a plastic made from cornstarch and sometimes other organic materials. It is technically biodegradable in special composting facilities, but it rarely reaches those. Seen as a pollutant in both compost and plastic recycling since it is hard to separate from other plastics. It can however quite easily be made into new filament if you have a shredder and a filament extruder, or can find someone else in your area that does. If it reaches nature, however, it takes many decades to decompose.

ECO_NIME on PLA 3D printing:

PVA is a usually used for making supports that dissolve in water, but can be used as the main material for certain applications. It's biodegradable in nature, leaves no microplastics and is harmless to the envirnoment in concentrations lower than 5%. More info on PVA...

Austrian company extrudr has developed a few biodegradable filaments made from renewable sources that are more similar to PLA, among them BDP/Green-TEC and Flax, that have gotten good reviews from makers.

There are 3D printers that print clay, but they are quite expensive. There are some DIY modifications available on the internet for having a standard FDM 3D printer print clay and there seems to be some ongoing efforts to improve these. However, you'll also need to be able to fire your clay models in a kiln and the kilns themselves use a lot of energy usually from fossil fuels. Is Pottery Clay Eco-Friendly?

Reuse and repurpose

A lot of fully functioning computer hardware is discarded every year that could absolutely be used for art projects. One challenge here is to make sure that the system you have put together is stable enough for live performance etc. It might also be difficult to find replacement parts should things break so this probably requires proactively keeping more used spare parts close by, but then again you should probably have a backup system for important live performances anyway.

Many other common components can also be salvaged instead of buying them new: screws, nuts, bearings, springs, rods etc.

Thinking about transport

Transport is an area that is currently pretty far from becoming fossile free. As an artist or musician it might sometimes be hard to get by without a car and you may not be able to afford the most environmentally friendly one. For small form factor projects, incorporating design desicions based on how the object will be transported could be a viable strategy to reduce the reliance on a car. Can the object(s) you make be made to fit in a backpack, transported by bike or walking or easily taken on the bus/train?

Don't make people upgrade their devices

When we make things that are supposed to run on other people's devices we should try our best to make sure they don't feel left out because they don't have the latest greatest technology. In other words, don't have our art make people feel like their devices are obsolete and they need to upgrade.

To help, we can:

  • Support old hardware
  • Support old OSes
  • Spend some extra time optimising performance for lower spec devices
  • Support alternative modes with limited functionality for lower spec devices

Supporting the people who are striving for change

A number of artists, designers, researchers, makers and businesses are working to change the system for the better and develop more sustainable methods and materials. A few examples that come to mind:

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