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ARTiVIS: Appropriating Surveillance Technology for Environmental Awareness and Protection

Mónica Mendes and Pedro Ângelo 

ARTiVIS—Arts, Real-Time Video and Interactivity for Sustainability—is a collective research project that brings together artists, technologists and activists to explore how art and technology can foster environmental awareness and protection. The project started out in the scope of a PhD research in Digital Media looking into how real-time video streaming could be used as raw material for artistic explorations that could foster environmental awareness (Mendes 2012b).

Initially our goal was to build a collaborative online web-based citizen forest surveillance network, where users could share video streams of their favorite forests and contemplate them both for protection and aesthetic purposes. Once online, these video streams could then be reused as artistic material to drive interactive experiences that could bring people closer to forests.

ARTiVIS online platform prototype: web and mobile interface design

This goal proved to be harder to achieve than initially expected, in terms of development cost and resources needed, and at the time there were also some open questions on whether this approach would work in terms of environmental awareness. So instead we set out to show that real-time video could be used effectively as a medium for artistic expression and environmental awareness. To this end we developed, publicly presented and evaluated B-Wind!, Hug@ree and Play with Fire, three interactive art installations which used real-time video as raw material.

B-Wind! focused on the poetry of movement to bring attention on how local action can have remote consequences, allowing participants to be the wind by triggering remote fans through their motion.

B-Wind! interactive installation at AZ Labs @ O Espaço do Tempo exhibition: participant interaction both indoors with visual effects on the real-time video projection and outdoors on the fans activation on the tree. An ARTiVIS experience by Mónica Mendes, Pedro Ângelo and Nuno Correia

Hug@ree sought to enhance affection through physical contact with nature, showing how small individual actions can become collectively very relevant - this was done by capturing real-time video clips of people hugging an instrumented tree and using these clips to create a massive video collage - combining art, science and technology research approaches into a unique blend.

Hug@ree interaction showing a participant hugging the tree outdoors and the indoor touch interface displaying the new videoloops on the “ground” generated from the tree hugs outdoors in real-time. Participants drag the small videos in the touchscreen interface, becoming part of the human hugs foliage gathered during the exhibition. An ARTiVIS experience by Mónica Mendes, Pedro Ângelo and Nuno Correia

Play with Fire
explored procedural rhetoric to expose the paradox between the aesthetic wonder and the consequences of forest fires. By their physical motion, users sparked virtual forest fires in a remote forest and kept a long time reminder on their mobile phones of the damage they had done and the time it would take the forest to recover from it. 

Play with Fire at Creative Algorithms exhibition: the news mashup, user interaction on site and mobile application with consequences to carry. An ARTiVIS experience by Mónica Mendes, Pedro Ângelo, Valentina Nisi
 and Nuno Correia.

These installations were iteratively developed with the feedback and collaboration of local populations, art institutions, academic research groups and hackerspaces.

Collaborative work during the AZ Labs residency at O Espaço do Tempo for the development of the Play with Fire installation.

Testing capacitive sensors during AZ Sprint in rural village Maçal do Chão.

Gallery of the participants that hugged a tree for task analysis in the scope of the “10/10/10 Global Work Party” on 2012.10.10 and sent to the Hug@ree call at

Hug@ree installation participants answering an evaluation form at Pop Up city exhibition in Lisbon and Summer demonstration at Maçal do Chão.

In our approach towards environmental sustainability, ARTiVIS has sought legitimacy within a global context. The work was presented in a wide range of artistic, technologic and sociological contexts: exhibitions, demos, school visits, summer schools, hackmeets, and events related to entrepreneurship, usability, design, art, science and public policy - such as Artech, ISEA, NordiCHI, ACM Multimedia,TEI, ACE, DIS, Future Places, CHI, Creative Algorithms, SXSW, Films for the Forest, Pop Up City Lisbon, Pop Up Guimarães 2012, AZ Labs Showcase, Artropocode, European Researchers Night, STTF Sustainable Futures, and Citizen Veillance.

Evaluation was a big part of the project, given the research focus and the open questions regarding the effectiveness of the proposed approach. The evaluation process gradually developed from standard usability aspects into more subjective issues as we explored ways to combine art and Human-Computer Interaction techniques to understand how these experiences were contributing to the participants’ environmental awareness (Mendes, 2012). 

From this process, we inferred that these experiences contributed to a feeling of belonging, providing contact with nature and leading to attitude changes through awareness on environmental issues – ultimately, for the design of a more sustainable environment. 

Moreover, it was noted from the tests done in some of the interactive installations and observations that people were engaged and definitely open to these new approaches of both research and artistic experiments by their voluntary participation. People's engagement was motivated by a willingness to help in a research project, or to be involved and become visible in an artistic project.

Throughout this work we were hampered by the cost and many limitations inherent in off-the-shelf surveillance cameras. We then set out to design and develop our own open-source hardware and software kit to simplify the deployment of video streaming nodes, and based it on readily available parts like the Raspberry Pi single board computer. 

Prototype of the ARTiVIS surveillance kit showing the CPU module based on the Raspberry PI platform, using a USB HD camera as camera module, and a USB mini wifi adapter as network module.

The kit’s development process included a series of community workshops where the participants learned how to assemble their own kits and explored the creative possibilities of real-time video streaming for use on their own projects (Ângelo 2013). These workshops also allowed us to evaluate the technology’s usability and artistic potential, to fix bugs and to prioritize development features to make it more accessible.

These activities have been encouraging civic engagement around sustainability issues, and have sparked a dialogue with diverse social actors regarding the balance between risk and potential entailed by the appropriation of surveillance technologies for artistic exploration, environmental monitoring and community action. During this process we have learned that in order to be effective, this technology has to support decentralized and voluntary participation, be low cost and easy to use by people without a high degree of technical skill. Our current work is focused on generalizing what we learned during this research into developing tools to facilitate development of low-cost, low-power, distributed community sensor networks for environmental monitoring and how this data could be used as raw material to design interactive experiences and eco-visualizations that can foster awareness and care for environmental resources. 


Mendes, Mónica, Pedro Ângelo, and Nuno Correia. 2014. “Hug@ree: An ARTiVIS Experience for Sustainability.” Leonardo 47 (5) April (to appear). doi:10.1162/LEON_a_00822.

Ângelo, Pedro, and Mónica Mendes. 2013. “Artivis Diy Forest Surveillance Kit.” In Proceedings of the 19th International Symposium on Electronic Arts. Sydney: ISEA International. doi:

Mendes, Mónica Sofia Santos. 2012. “ARTiVIS - Arts, Real-Time Video and Interactivity for Sustainability.”

Mendes, Mónica, Pedro Ângelo, Valentina Nisi, and Nuno Correia. 2012. “Digital Art, HCI and Environmental Awareness Evaluating Play with Fire.” In Proceedings of the 7th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction: Making Sense Through Design, 408–17. NordiCHI ’12. New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/2399016.2399079.

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