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Alumni Feature: Tiana Birrell

The research of new genre artist Tiana Birrell revolves around the intersection of materiality and immateriality, and the internet as a new type of consumerism

Tiana Birrell credits four major influences with her decision to become an artist: her artist grandmother, her optometrist father, a relentlessly encouraging mother and MassMoCA, which she attended often as a child growing up in rural Massachusetts just 30 minutes outside of Boston.  

“My surroundings were conducive to being a creative persona, both familial and place,” Birrell said. “There was just art everywhere.” After experimenting with a variety of mediums as a BFA student at BYU, Birrell went on to earn an MFA in photography from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Her interest in photography was initially sparked by her father’s profession.

“Learning from my dad about the eye and perception and light led me to be interested in the camera and the photographic gaze,” Birrell said. “We talked often about the eye, the camera, how we see things and how we perceive the world.”

The Epiphany

Although her MFA focus was in photography, Birrell continued to explore other disciplines at SAIC, including performance and video. Despite living in Chicago, she felt her attention returning to the western landscapes she had become familiar with during her time at BYU.  Eventually, Birrell emerged from graduate school in 2017 with a specific set of research interests that continue to motivate her work today. "I became fascinated with this idea that something immaterial that I was saving actually exists somewhere physical." Birrell described an epiphany she experienced while studying at SAIC. While sifting through terabytes of video experimentation on her hard drives, she wondered whether there was a better way to safely store her artwork. As she considered using the cloud, she became more and more interested in its substructure. “I went on this downward spiral that I think the internet is very conducive to,” Birrell said. “I learned that cloud data centers where you’re storing your stuff, are actual physical places. As the internet grows, more data is stored in these data centers. I became fascinated with this idea that something immaterial that I was saving actually exists somewhere physical.”

The environmentalist in Birrell was appalled at the amount of energy and water used by data centers to store and cool data. “Think about your computer,” she explained. “When you work on it a long time, it starts to get hot. Then think about a household, or a company or a school — everyone who is saving their photos or their documents to the cloud — and you have a room full of heat.”

Birrell soon became interested in the environmental impact that occurs as a result of individual needs to house documents. Her research has led her back to the West, and to Utah in particular, where many data centers are located in the greater Salt Lake area.

“My research has circled around this idea of immateriality meeting materiality, and questioning this internet-ness and our feat of information as a new type of consumerism,” Birrell said. “Environmentally, it’s a consumer feast of water, energy and electricity in this arid climate.” While researching this topic, Birrell flew back and forth between Salt Lake and Chicago. Knowing she wanted to conduct more onsite research after graduation, she enrolled in an environmental humanities master’s program at the University of Utah in the fall of 2017. The program helped Birrell increase her understanding of environmental issues and expand her network.

Changing a System

At first, as Birrell educated herself on the environmental impact of data centers, she immediately cleaned up her personal google drive and bought more external hard drives to store her work. She also eschewed podcasts and Spotify, feeling hypocritical if she used cloud-based services. “What do you do if you’re making art about the corruptness of a system?” Birrell said. “Are you never allowed to use that system to work and make art about it? It becomes really complex. Eventually I came to grips with the fact that I wanted to use the internet in order to create this tension.”

Environmentally, [the internet is] a consumer feast of water, energy and electricity in this arid climate. Birrell doesn’t denounce the internet — which she noted has enabled the world to function relatively normally during the COVID-19 pandemic — but emphasized that she is interested in how to use internet-based tools in a more conscientious way. 

More than anything, Birrell dove into the political aspect of data centers. While she believes that one person’s habits can make a difference, Birrell knew that to make a big change she would have to get politically involved. She started volunteering with local nonprofit organizations that are concerned with water usage in Utah, writing op-eds, letters to the editor and delivering interdisciplinary lectures at schools and museums.

Currently, Birrell seeks to combine her passions for art, research and activism through performative lectures at universities throughout Utah. “My lectures incorporate everything from ecopoetry to statistics to bring to life my videos about data and water,” Birrell said. “By the end of the lecture, I hope to have unraveled people’s perception of our digital spaces and the environmental impact that our digital consumer habits have on our surroundings.”

Birrell has found that this type of communication helps filter information from scientists to the general public. Through her performances, she hopes to make the invisible structure of the internet visible to regular users. During one such performance, “Flow,” Birrell followed the narrative of water from mountaintop to data farm — including its journey into grasslands and farmlands polluted by chemical spills — and shared statistics along the way, all while projecting videos of data going through servers in an effort to perform data as physical.  Through her residency at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art starting in November, Birrell hopes to make a “desktop documentary” that can be exhibited with an impact similar to her lectures.  In addition to her art and research, Birrell teaches part-time at BYU and makes commission paintings. She is also one of the co-founders of the PARC Collective, a nomadic Utah-based art collective that responds to ideas of shared time and place, and champions contemporary art within the state.