In amongst the people handing out leaflets for shows and holding up placards for restaurants, there are a couple of people wearing white coats walking around bearing standards reminiscent of Roman Legions, though these are not surmounted by eagles but rather by LED displays reporting CO2 levels. These are ‘Carbon Catchers’.
They are part of the Collins and Goto Studio‘s project called CO2 Edenburgh: Can art change the climate? and are working out of the Art, Space and Nature MFA‘s Tent Space at Edinburgh College of Art. The data that the Carbon Catchers are collecting plus the data from a number of Festival venues (theatres, galleries and public spaces) is all feeding into a wall of information. Creative Carbon Scotland, commissioners of the project, have relocated their office to the space so they are living with the blinking red LED’s as well as a background pattern of noise generated from the data and emitted into the space.
Yesterday, at the first of a series of discussions (see below for details of the next ones), Tim Barker, a media theorist from Glasgow University, talked about the history of interference – the point at which we became aware of the invisible. So in 1886 there was unexpected interference on the new Austrian telephone system. This was electromagnetic radiation from the sun picked up by the copper wires. (Also Tim mentioned that Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant used to just sit and listen to the noise on the wires – he was simply fascinated.) So there’s something about noise overpowering signals that’s pretty important in the history of science. Or maybe it’s the converse – as someone said yesterday afternoon, what’s important is, “…the desire to uncover the new by a disruption and treatment of the real.”
Why does this matter? Because our relationship to CO2 is pretty much at a similar stage – scientists are monitoring it (and it was a research station in Hawaii which first recorded passing 400ppm earlier this year). But we only think we understand what all this means. Actually the sensors that form part of this project are taking readings ranging from 320ppm to over 1000ppm. Walking around the City Centre yesterday with one of the team of ‘Carbon Catchers’ taking readings, we were getting different levels along the Cowgate. Someone commented during the discussion in the afternoon that they were surprised that the CO2 level in the room was going down because there were 10 people talking and no obvious carbon sink.
Harry Giles, the other invited speaker, challenged us to set aside the two cultures argument and pay more attention to the militaristic nature of the territory we are in (and he wasn’t talking about the Edinburgh Tattoo). The maps and sensors being used enable the surveillance of the environment in ways that has both tactical and strategic purposes. Art has often been allied with power and most monitoring technology has been developed for the military.
We might argue that the arts are engaged in both tactical and strategic purposes. There is an avowed intention on the part of Collins and Goto to challenge assumptions about aesthetics. There is not a lot of ‘sublime’ or ‘picturesque’ in this environmental art work. We might well ask where is the aesthetic? Surely this is just public engagement in science – how is it different from something that the Science Festival might put on? And if it’s public engagement with science, is it effective? Is this a Kaprowesque blurring of art and life? Is this like Burrough’s cut-ups, something as normal as a book cut up to offer new meaning, and at once so strange that it appears as just noise without meaning? If we are dealing with things that we can’t perceive with our senses, and which have timescales that we find difficult to comprehend, then should the aesthetic be that of, as someone suggested, a horror movie? Don’t we need a new aesthetics for a new experience and a new scale?
On the strategic level Creative Carbon Scotland aims to green the cultural sector supporting organisations and institutions to reduce their carbon footprints. This is of course part of a pattern of attention on environmental issues which means that climate change comes up in pretty much every conversation, every organisation has a climate change policy (and it would be fun to make a collection of these), and the sustainability question in grant applications may in the future include environmental alongside economic criteria. But usually these programmes are ‘business to business’ rather than ‘business to consumer’ (if we accept that an exhibition in the Edinburgh Art Festival is by and large a ‘consumer’ facing affair).
So the events programme, a series of four conversations which ecoartscotland has helped to put together, is perhaps the point where we break out of these sorts of dichotomies.
- On Saturday (10th August) the conversation will track across art, technology, activism and knowledge with the help of Dr Wallace Heim (of the Ashden Directory) and Joel Chaney (from the Energy Research Group at Heriott Watt).
- The following Wednesday (14th August) focusing on “Environmental Monitoring” we will be joined by Prof Andrew Patrizio (art historian and head of research at Edinburgh College of Art) and Jan Hogarth, (Director of Wide Open and one of the key people behind the imminent Environmental Art Festival Scotland).
- And for the last event “Going beyond the material” (21st August) we’ll be joined by Samantha Clark, artist, and Lucy Mui, student, activist and Theatre Manager for Bedlam.
Full details on the CO2Edenburgh website.
The Spirited discussions are curated and documented by ecoartscotland