Dialogue with Ken Rinaldo and Amy Youngs

Fall 2010: v.06 n.02: Dynamic Coupling

 Farm Fountain 3, 2007. Rinaldo and Youngs.

Farm Fountain 3, 2007. Rinaldo and Youngs.

Farm Fountain is a system for growing edible and ornamental fish and plants in a constructed, indoor ecosystem. Based on the concept of aquaponics, this hanging garden fountain uses a simple pond pump, along with gravity to flow the nutrients from fish waste through the plant roots. The plants and bacteria in the system serve to cleanse and purify the water for the fish. 
Project documentation can be accessed at: http://farmfountain.com/

How much time do you spend together? Do you live together or share a studio, or do you just get together to work on projects as they come up?

We spend a lot of time together. We live together, we share a studio together and we work in the same academic department and Art & Technology area together.

When you are working on something do you schedule structured time together in a physical space, or meet online, or is it more organic than that?

It’s very organic, as our personal, our private, and work lives are all intermeshed.

At other times we schedule specific work times to accomplish specific tasks especially when commissioned deadlines are looming. At times we divide and conquer and at other times we build, drill and wire together.

Do you keep your personal/professional lives separate, or have they become seamless and indistinct? Is this okay?

It seems seamless and indistinct.

AY: It can be difficult though, when the art or academic parts of our lives are

very busy, because our personal lives are diminished.

KR: For me the professional and personal are more blurred, as I am quite focused with production and generally working toward deadlines.

Can you, or do you, turn off your research/studio practice(s)?

KR: I try, though I feel deadlines are often looming.

AY: Yes.

When and how did you meet each other and under what circumstances?

We met on the beach during a ceramics pit fire in San Francisco while Amy was an undergrad in Art and Ken was a graduate student at San Francisco State University. Ken was reading the Bride and the Bachelors out loud to a bunch friends and Amy sat next him to listen. She was amazed that someone was doing something so academic at the beach.

Later, Ken was obsessed with meeting Amy again. He constantly walked by the ceramics room to try and get her to pay attention, though she never would look up.

After six months of being friends, helping each other with art projects, poetry and wine in Golden Gate park, we had our first kiss.

At what point did you start making work together?

Our first collaborative show was Dis-M-Body in 1995 where we explored the disembodied nature of information and messages as they dislocate and fracture one’s sense of self while simultaneously expanding one’s sense of connection.

It was constructed almost entirely out of recycled materials – lint, paper, hair, found machines – and borrowed equipment, like ten magnetic tape recorders that we took apart for an installation, which we had to put back together to return to the institution we borrowed them from.

Was there a growing period, when you had to get a feel for each other’s process/priorities, learn how to communicate – or did you click right away?

The conceptualizing period has always been very fluid for us.

AY: Yes, but our working styles were pretty different. I wanted to focus fully on the collaborative project, but Ken had other commitments, so we worked separately to construct parts of our first show. It came together, but it was a stressful way for me to work. Probably this was the reason we did not collaborate for many years after that first project.

KR: I was simultaneously busy with another show happening at the same time and feel that Amy would have liked me to be more present in production. In the end I think we were quite happy with the exhibition and the works that resulted.

Do you gravitate towards roles in your practice – based on strengths, or personality, or skills? Or is every project a different kind of adventure?

Yes, both. While we certainly gravitate to what each of use, knows, or does best, we definitely conceptualize, research and work together on making the art and figuring out the ways of solving technical and aesthetic issues.

Ken tends to focus more on the 3D modeling, electronics and control, and Amy tends towards 2D imaging, photography and video. Administratively, Ken tends towards negotiating contracts and international shippers, and Amy towards working on the websites, though we are both really focused on the biology of making our systems work as well as the research end of making it all function, though it is often blurred and we both do all.

Yes each project is an adventure.

How do you generate the concepts you work with? Do you draw, write, photograph, or do any sort of regular background practice? Is this a shared thing?

We brainstorm a lot and we mostly agree on the concepts. We have many common interests such as biology, new technologies, future thinking, environmentalism and sustainability, so our background practice is the dialog we share about these ideas.

How do you make choices and negotiate decisions about what direction to take with projects?

We discuss, we fight, we debate, we diverge, and we compromise and finally agree. We do feel that a superior project arises as a result.

Does your collaboration ever involve more people? If no, why not? If yes, then when and how does that work?

We specify and work with manufacturers to build parts of the larger projects and we have worked with expert glassblowers, laser cutters, and custom fabricators. Though for our joint collaborative work we have not fully collaborated with others, as they are not at our dinner table.

Will you describe a project that didn’t work out or you didn’t follow through on? Can you describe something that you couldn’t agree on or you didn’t feel like you were both “into?”

We were recently invited to participate in an exhibition in Norway that did not work out with timing; that is, neither of us had the time to set the work up.

There are projects we have not yet gotten to, given time constraints, but nothing that we have scrapped altogether.

Our latest project, a commission in Portugal for the Nature Art Hotel, was a struggle as we disagreed about the design we should implement. But, given a two-week time frame to make the project, we needed to make a decision, rather than argue about it, so in the end we did find agreement and we both feel that it was successful.

What kinds of singular processes or practices, studio or research, do you maintain as individuals that you may or may not bring into the collaboration?

KR: I am excited with electronics, symbiotic biological systems, and artificial life as well as robotics and interactive art in particular, and some of that overlaps with our collaborations and some of it does not.

AM: I am focused on interactions between nature and animals (sometimes the human type) and technologies – and again, some of those overlap with our projects.

Do you make your own work in addition to the collaborative work, and what sort of need does this fill?

Yes we both have individual practices and that is the primary focus for each of us. However, we consider our ongoing dialog together as an important part of our individual work. We certainly influence each other and ideationally, there is much intermixing and cross-pollinating.

If you maintain an individual practice as well as a collaborative practice, have you run into conflicts of interest, time-management/priority issues, or experienced communication problems due to multiple focuses at any point? How is this resolved?

KR: Yes I tend to get many commissions and show offers and seem to be juggling many balls at once so at times it is difficult to focus on collaboratives in spite of wanting to do more.

How is this resolved?

AY: We do less collaboratives.

What are the strengths in working collaboratively and what are the challenges in working collaboratively?

The challenges have to do with question 15: “multiple focuses and time management. ” The strengths are that the works are unique creations that represent both our voices.

What sort of theory, cultural circumstances, or life scenarios influence or inform your decision to work collaboratively?

We have a mutual interest in biological systems, sustainability and future thinking.

Would you say that your collaboration is philosophically driven, or more pragmatic?

It is both philosophical and pragmatic; we have similar philosophies and we enjoy each other’s company and like working together.

If you teach, how does collaborative practice inform the way you facilitate student projects and teach studio courses?

It does inform how we teach, as we know that collaboration is both challenging and rewarding. We encourage it among our students, but we realize it is not something we can mandate.

If you teach, do you co-teach? If you do co-teach, how has that been received by the students, and how has this been received in the academic institutions you have worked with?

We co-teach graduate students, but not our regular classes, though each of us invites the other to do guest lectures.

Please point to us at a project or projects you would like to describe. Include links or attach files. If relevant, share with us a sense of the collaborative back-and-forth that may have gone into planning and making the work.

After our first collaborative project together, we did not formally collaborate together for ten years. We started up again when we were both invited to be artists in residence at Pilchuck Glass School, where we had the opportunity to work with expert glass-blowers. Our conversations about local food and our joint desire to grow food year-round in our home led us to want to create sun-powered hydroponic garden in glass. The Hydroponic Solar Garden is the resulting artwork, which we were delighted with. Until we realized that we would need to add petrochemical fertilizers to promote plant growth, as is necessary in most hydroponic systems.

Our research next led us to the concept of aquaponics, where fish in the system provide the necessary nutrients for the plants and, in turn, the plants create cleaner water for the fish. In 2007 we began a series of experiments with indoor aquaponics artworks in our next collaborative project, called Farm Fountain. This time, our goals were to create an indoor home farm, next to a sunny window that could produce edible fish and plants and that could be reproduced by anyone else wanting the same. It was more important that it be accessible and functional than for it to be aesthetically pleasing in the traditional sense. We wanted our artwork to have a greater impact on sustainability by promoting local, home-grown food and offering free instructions for others to participate.

When we had an opportunity to propose a project for an eco-art exhibition at the Te Papa museum in New Zealand, we decided to propose a more spectacular version of the Farm Fountain project.  We had debated heavily amongst ourselves, about whether this museum version was fitting our overall goals of sustainability since it was going to require so much more material use and would need to be shipped in large crates to New Zealand. Though the carbon impact was causing us both stresses, we ultimately went ahead with it, with the hope that the idea would reach new audiences who would hopefully be inspired to build their own home systems.

Farm Fountain 5 is our most recent version. It is sited in Portugal, where it can survive year-round outdoors. A residency at Cultivamos Cultura in Portugal – and the great weather there – gave us the opportunity to get completely off the grid. All power is coming from the sun and gravity. Solar panels power the pump that delivers water to the recycled bottle plant containers, which trickles down to each level of plants and then down into a goldfish pond built into an outdoor wall of an eco hotel. The hotel staff harvests the herbs, peppers and strawberries from and use them in their kitchen to prepare meals for the guests.

When we find the time, we will be pursuing Farm Fountain 6.

Ken Rinaldo is an artist, theorist / author creating interactive installations that blur the boundaries between organic and inorganic matter and focused on the co-evolution between living and evolving technological cultures. His works have been commissioned and presented nationally and  internationally: the Vancouver Olympics, Canada; World Ocean Museum, Russia; Itau Museum, Brazil; Biennial Electronic Arts, Australia; Transmediale, Berlin; Arco, Spain; Kiasma Museum, Finland, and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Rinaldo was the recipient of first prize for Avida 3.0 Spain and an Award of Distinction; Ars Electronica, Austria. He has been featured on TV internationally and reviewed broadly in Art and Electronic Media, Edward Shanken; Art + Science, Steve Wilson; Digital Art, Christiane

Paul; New York Times and Wired Magazine. Rinaldo directs the Art & Technology program at The Ohio State University.


Amy M. Youngs creates biological art, interactive sculptures, and digital media works that explore the complex relationship between technology and our changing concept of nature and self. Topics of interest include: interactions with plants and animals, technological nature follies, constructed

ecosystems, and seeing through the eyes of machines. Youngs has exhibited her works nationally and internationally at venues such as the The Papa Museum in New Zealand, the Trondheim Electronic Arts Centre in Norway

and the Tweed Museum in Duluth, Minnesota. She has lectured widely, at venues such as the Australian Center For the Moving Image in Australia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She received her MFA from the

School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1999 and is currently an Associate Professor of Art at The Ohio State University.