Research Serves as Basis for Art Exhibit

A Tech professor's research into sugar production in South Africa serves as the inspiration for an artist.

Minnesota artist and educator Susan Armington recently visited Atlanta to work on a project with her longtime friend, Industrial and Systems Engineering Associate Professor Valerie Thomas. Armington, a roster artist of the Minnesota State Arts Board, directs the Talking Suitcases project, which is billed as an arts-based process for exploring questions and processes. She primarily uses the project in education and community building, exploring topics such as immigration, racism, grief and other "life-transitional" issues.

"[The works] are suitcases filled with hand-made objects that tell a story." While visiting Atlanta and Georgia Tech, she and Thomas collaborated on a suitcase that tells the lifecycle of sugar, from the ground to the refinery. The duo is working together to tell the story of 40 grams of sugar, the USDA's recommended daily limit.

"We calculated how much of each item it takes to produce this amount of sugar," Armington said. Items used in the project "Sugar: Lifecycle Inventory in a Box," include a 10-inch square representing the land area of ground required to produce 40 grams of sugar, the sugarcane fiber that is used to power the sugar factory, some water, some diesel fuel, a small amount of coal, etc. "The project breaks it down to the basic ingredients for that small amount of sugar."

This particular project, "Making Concepts Visible," was precipitated by Thomas' research with University of Johannesburg Professor Charles Mbohwa and graduate student Livison Mashoko, under a grant from the South African National Research Foundation on the environmental impacts of renewable fuel options in South Africa.

"Sugarcane is a promising biofuel feedstock for southern Africa, and our first research step has been to evaluate the environmental impacts of the current sugar-production systems in South Africa.. While their work and research are rooted in sustainability, it's not just about the carbon footprint, Thomas says. They also can show ways to improve the process.

Thomas says that research into the lifecycles of products typically breaks the processes down to their basic components, detailing every step in their creation. "I do this all the time, checking the numbers," she said. "Our work is justified not only by having intellectual merit, in advancing the science, but also by having broader impact for society.. With [this project], we can take this research to local high schools. The artistic aspect translates the work to show the broader impact."

As a companion piece, Armington wanted to also illustrate not only ingredients used in the front-end creation, but also the connections and relationships created by the sugar business. "It takes 34 people buying sugar to pay [daily wages] for one South African worker."

Armington says her idea is to create objects that make visible the relationship between parts of the lifecycle, to aid people in reflecting on it. The objects are designed to help everyone, not just scientists, to see better what's going on. "It's not good, it's not bad. You can draw your own conclusions."

For her process, Armington creates prototypes before delving into the full project. "[Valerie and I] work on stuff together," said Armington, who attended graduate school at Cornell with Thomas. "I'll take what I've completed, and leave some of it to be used by her. I'm always looking to work in places I haven't been yet," Armington said. "I like to grow; I like to collaborate and work with people in other cultures and disciplines."

"It was nice that she cared to listen to my ideas," said Thomas, who shares a joint appointment in the School of Public Policy.

Armington said this project has opened up other "lifecycle inventories" in her mind. "I would love to have a project on the lifecycle of petroleum," she said. "Once you start to do these things, you want to keep looking into other items." Her new work, inspired by explorations with Thomas, will be part of the upcoming show, "Art Explores Science," May 2010 at the Phipps Center for the Arts, in Hudson, Wisconsin.

The Georgia Institute of Technology is one of the world's premier research universities. Ranked seventh among U.S. News & World Report's top public universities and the eighth best engineering and information technology university in the world by Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities, Georgia Tech’s more than 20,000 students are enrolled in its Colleges of Architecture, Computing, Engineering, Liberal Arts, Management and Sciences. Tech is among the nation's top producers of women and minority engineers. The Institute offers research opportunities to both undergraduate and graduate students and is home to more than 100 interdisciplinary units plus the Georgia Tech Research Institute.