UCLA Counterforce Lab combats climate change through art and design

May 6, 2020

By Emily Castelazo

Artists and designers at UCLA’s Counterforce Lab are educating the public about the drastic changes the climate is undergoing and inspiring action through art. 

The UCLA Counterforce Lab is a research and fieldwork studio founded by Rebeca Méndez, a professor in the department of Design Media Arts at UCLA. The studio works to facilitate collaborations and develop research methods to create projects around the ecological impacts of the climate crisis. 

“Changing behavior is the driving force behind art and design. It’s our superpower,” Méndez said. “It’s really about giving the ability to take something that is highly complex and being able to have that connection to people in a human way.”

A rendering of the “biophilia treehouse.” Image courtesy of Counterforce Lab

Seeing the L.A. County Sustainability Plan through a creative lens

To help influence sustainability behavior and beliefs in Los Angeles County, Méndez and Counterforce graduate fellows Erin Cooney and Eleanor Diamant are participating in a competition called the PANDO DAYS Challenge. Participants in the challenge, organized by the nonprofit Pando Populus, are tasked with developing a creative project inspired by one of the 12 goals of the Los Angeles County Sustainability Plan. The Counterforce Lab team has been tasked with responding creatively to goal number five of the Sustainability Plan: Thriving ecosystems, habitats and biodiversity.

For the project, Méndez and her team are focusing on birds because they are indicator species for ecosystem health in the region. Los Angeles County has 527 species of birds — more than any other county in the United States.

The team has developed a prototype for a lightweight sculpture they have dubbed a “biophilia treehouse.” The sculpture will serve as both habitat for birds and a space to honor the region’s biodiversity.

The structures will also work to address environmental equity in the region and intend to be placed in underserved communities to increase Angelenos’ access to green spaces, shade and nature.

Through the creation and eventual installation of their structures, Méndez and her team want to fundamentally change the way that Angelenos engage with the natural world and reshape the relationship people have with their non-human neighbors. 

“I hope people engage in a way that we acknowledge that we are embedded in this larger ecosystem, and have the opportunity to spend the time with their avian neighbors and community members,” Diamant said.

Enhancing ecosystem health beyond the PANDO DAYS Challenge 

The Counterforce Lab team’s goals extend far beyond the constraints of the PANDO DAYS Challenge, and they are seeking additional funding sources to help turn their concept into a reality. The team plans to build at least five biophilia treehouses across the county over the course of the next five years and increase biodiversity in urban bird and insect habitats. 

Additionally, the Counterforce Lab team said that their biophilia treehouses will contribute to the innovation of new methods of green building and a shift in the way that people understand their place in the greater ecosystem.

“The best way to confront the challenges is that we need to retell the stories of our relationship to the natural world,” Cooney said. “It requires a fundamental shift in our understanding of our relationship in the natural world so that we can become embedded in it rather than remain separate.” 

For more, watch the Counterforce Lab team’s video presentation for Pando Days or visit the project website.

The full Counterforce Lab team: 

Rebeca Mendez, project lead; professor, Design Media Arts; founder, Counterforce Lab 

Alvaro Azcarraga, MFA candidate in Design Media Arts

Erin Cooney, MFA candidate in Design Media Arts

Eleanor Diamant, Ph.D. candidate in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Maru García, MFA, Design Media Arts class of 2019 

Andrew Gonzalez, MA candidate in Architecture

Sana Jahani, MA candidate in Architecture

Jason Lee, BFA, UCLA Design Media Arts class of 2017

Wonho Lee, undergraduate student in Design Media Arts

Yogan Muller, Ph.D., visiting lecturer in Design Media Arts