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Van Alen Sessions

Photo: Daniel Kulinski

Van Alen Sessions is an online short-documentary series highlighting current debates about urban infrastructure.

Van Alen Sessions takes viewers on revealing trips through a city’s internal workings, documenting conversations with urban planning practitioners and city dwellers. The series brings together the analysis of experts and the experiences of ordinary people.

 

Season Three of Van Alen Sessions, Autonomous Infrastructure, explores how three U.S. cities combine cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned ingenuity to manage critical resources and structures for urban life. Directed and produced by filmmaker Lucy Wells, these three episodes investigate the capacities and limits of innovative, automated systems that clean up harbors, inspect bridges, and generate electricity in drinking water pipes. The expert insight of engineers and the stories of everyday people illuminate how robots and drones can make cities safer, cleaner, and more energy efficient. Despite these technical advances, this season reminds us that the human elements of foresight, imagination, and care for each other and the environment are still indispensable in advancing more livable communities.

Episode One of Autonomous Infrastructure showcases how automated trash collection wheels are cleaning up Baltimore Harbor. Not only are these devices known for their effectiveness in removing trash from the city’s waterways, but Mr. Trash Wheel and Professor Trash Wheel have also become local celebrities thanks to their anthropomorphized googly eyes, personalities, and even their own social media accounts. John Kellett, inventor of the trash wheel, Adam Lindquist (Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore), and Jeffrey Raymond (Baltimore Department of Public Works) explain how these lovable characters have raised the public’s awareness and appreciation of the city’s inventive public works programs and environmental cleanup efforts.

Episode Two of Autonomous Infrastructure delves under the streets of Portland, Oregon to investigate how turbines embedded in the city’s drinking water delivery pipes are generating electricity. Dr. Nina Bergen French (Lucent Energy) explains how the turbine system converts hydraulic energy that would otherwise be wasted into electricity that can power hundreds of homes, while having minimal impact on fish or other wildlife. Stan VandeBergh (Portland Water Bureau) discusses how Lucent’s turbines are the latest innovation in a long history of forward-looking planning that has ensured that clean and abundant water is available for the city’s growing population.

Episode Three of Autonomous Infrastructure soars over the streets of Minneapolis to survey how the Minnesota Department of Transportation is studying the use of drone technology for bridge inspections across the state. While flying drones, sometimes via X-box controllers, may seem to be a fun pastime, ensuring that Minnesota’s 20,000 plus bridges are in good condition is serious business. Sarah Sondag (MN Department of Transportation) and Barritt Lovelace (Collins Engineers) describe how drones can augment bridge inspections with faster, safer, and more cost effective methods in comparison to older, more manual maintenance routines.

Season Two

Power Lines, the second season of Van Alen Sessions, explores the relationship between energy infrastructure and communities. Episodes spotlight the outdated systems that currently put millions of city dwellers at risk, and reveal ambitious ideas for tomorrow’s electricity networks.

Directed and produced by artist and journalist Kelly Loudenberg, with research conducted by students in the masters program in design research, writing, and criticism at School of Visual Arts, this new season broadcasts the voices of people powering oftentimes invisible energy infrastructure, and an up-close examination of the cities, landscapes, and regions in three corners of the U.S. impacted by major shifts in the electric grid.

Episode One highlights the shift underway among citizens of Los Angeles from energy consumers to producers as they channel solar electricity from their homes and onto the grid. Graham Richard (Advanced Energy Economy) explains the enormous potential of solar energy in sun-soaked California, which now employs nearly three-times as many people in clean energy than in film and television industries. The episode takes us to an installation site on a rooftop in Watts, where women in a training program tell the stories of how they’re bringing power to the people—and empowering themselves.

Episode Two of Power Lines departs from the metropolitan hubs of past episodes, taking viewers to the boom-and-bust towns of South Texas that are part of the Eagle Ford natural gas field. The population influx that came with the arrival of shale drilling in 2008 has collapsed with oil prices—Texas lost 72,000 oil and gas jobs in 2015—leaving cities with half-built infrastructure and desolate “man camps”. Viewers will hear from a gas pipeline inspector, the chamber of commerce manager of Dimmit County, an RV park supervisor, and an industry journalist, all of whom are asking if their region has witnessed its final surge of petroleum-fueled prosperity.

Episode Three of Power Lines takes us inside the Pilgrim Nuclear Reactor in Plymouth, Mass., where a planned 2019 shutdown has locals struggling with impending economic turmoil, toxic waste storage, and the dilemma of meeting lower emissions standards while letting go of the zero carbon footprint of nuclear energy. A plant safety inspector, local environmental activists, and Plymouth’s economic development manager offer first-hand insight on what the energy future holds in one of the nation’s first cities.

Season One

The first season of Van Alen Sessions, Tunnel Vision, directed and produced by artist and journalist Kelly Loudenberg, leads viewers through massive tunnel transportation infrastructure projects. With behind-the-scenes research provided by graduate students in design and public policy, this focus serves as a lens for understanding how large-scale interventions impact the way we move in, around, and between cities every day.  The three episodes document what it takes to create the transit networks that shape our routines and relationships.

Episode One of Tunnel Vision illustrates the $20 billion Gateway Project, a high-speed rail corridor designed to alleviate the bottleneck along the Northeast Corridor. The video offers new vantage points into ongoing tunnel construction, offset with first-hand accounts from New Jersey Transit and Amtrak commuters. Interviews with Petra Messick (Amtrak) and Tom Wright (Regional Plan Association) provide insight onto the current transportation crisis due to outdated infrastructure and deterioration caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Episode Two of Tunnel Vision offers backstage access to the technology lab working on a prototype for Hyperloop, a $6 billion high-speed transportation system connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for The Los Angeles Times, frames the project within the larger context of high-speed rail initiatives in California and the debate surrounding private versus public investment in infrastructure.

Episode Three of Tunnel Vision brings viewers deep inside Seattle’s new U Link rail stations before they open in March 2016. Transit activist Jon Cracolici provides personal commentary about this 20-years-in-the-making event, while Sound Transit representative Kimberly Reason and construction outreach manager Gary Bruce explain in clear terms how Seattle is not just a center for information technology, but infrastructure innovation.

On June 15, 2016 we hosted a preview screening and discussion of season two of Van Alen Sessions, Season Two: Power Lineswith Mark Alan Hughes, professor of practice at PennDesign, faculty director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, and Lead Investigator at the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficient Buildings Hub at the Philadelphia Navy Yard; documentary director and producer Kelly Loudenberg; Sommer Mathis, editor, CityLab; and Wes Rozen, partner, SITU Studio, and author Ginger Strand.

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And on November 2, 2017, we premiered Van Alen Sessions Season Three: Autonomous Infrastructure at the Architecture & Design Film Festival. Following the screening of the short films, an audience joined us for a fast-paced conversation that dug deeper into how some cities are changing the narrative of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure while engaging local citizens. The dialogue included commentary from  Nicole Flatow, editor, CityLabMolly Heintz, chair, School of Visual Arts MA Design Research, Writing and CriticismPetra Messick, Director, Gateway Program Planning, Amtrak; and Lucy Wells, director, Van Alen Sessions, and was moderated by Steven Thomson, managing producer, Van Alen Sessions and programs and communications manager, Van Alen Institute.

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