How art and design can effect sustainable urban transformations is one of the questions that the Curating Cities project seeks to answer. In Try This At Home, the Slow Art Collective created an installation from detritus and unloved objects, whilst the 1200 Buildings initiative in Melbourne has taken another approach, seeking to strip back urban infrastructure to make the frameworks of our buildings transparent, with the aim of engaging the public in conversations about sustainability. Director of Carbon Arts, Jodi Newcombe explains this project.

In 2011 the City of Melbourne commissioned an innovative new public art work that responds to the sustainability of a building, with a pilot project dubbed ‘The 1200 Buildings Public Art Commission’. The brief for artists was to make visible the invisible functions of the building, engage passersby in the broader conversation about sustainability, and potentially contribute to actual improvements in local environmental quality.

The building hosting the public artwork, Green Spaces at 490 Spencer Street, is part of City of Melbourne’s 1200 Buildings Program, which encourages and supports the improvement of the energy, water and waste performance of Melbourne’s commercial buildings. The City of Melbourne and two building owners, Green Spaces and Fort Knox Self Storage, have jointly funded the commission.

Globally, there is an emerging trend of artists working closely with councils and the providers of green infrastructure to bring the functioning of our built environment and our relationship with nature to the fore of the public consciousness. From Calgary to San Jose, artists are repurposing building facades into monitors of environmental risk, beautifying solar energy generation and transforming water infrastructure from the functional to the poetic.

Many of these efforts are directed at celebrating a new vision of the future, educating the public and raising awareness around our use of resources and the ecosystems upon which we depend. They offer an opportunity for artists to engage in the critical response to sustainability in the urban context. Through this engagement public art can engage the broader community in ways that are playful, meaningful and revelatory.

Eleven proposals for the 1200 Buildings Public Art Commission in Melbourne were shortlisted and exhibited at the Federation Square Atrium from 28 September to 4 October 2011. The proposals were from not only visual artists, but also video game developers, landscape architects, and artists specialised in digital and data-driven media. All participated in a workshop run by Carbon Arts, a Melbourne-based organisation working for a greater role for the creative sector in addressing climate change and sustainability.

The commission winner is a team of professionals from ARUP Infomatics with their proposal for a sculptural, programmable facade that employs 500 pixels in the form of carved-up recycled street signs. The work The Green Transfer is a play on ‘The Gruen Transfer’, but as opposed to architect Victor Gruen, who invented the shopping mall as an environment to encourage consumption, The Green Transfer will use data from the building to communicate environmental stewardship and discourage unsustainable lifestyle choices.

Carbon Arts, a partner in the Curating Cities project, is working with the City of Melbourne to evaluate the 1200 Buildings public art pilot project and explore ways in which more green buildings in the city can take up public art as a way to communicate and leverage their leadership in sustainability.