Posts Tagged ‘carbon dioxide’

Spirited discussions Pt. 2

August 14, 2013
Carbon Catcher Catriona Patterson taking discussion participants on a monitoring walk

Carbon Catcher Catriona Patterson taking discussion participants on a monitoring walk

Sat. 10th August. We dug back into the question of the role of the artist, in particular working with other disciplines such as scientists and public engagement professionals.

The discussion highlighted a couple of slippages: one towards science and another towards public engagement. These are points of blurring – things that the artist might be doing. For example, CO2 Edenburgh involves environmental monitoring and this has been developed between the artists, Tim Collins and Reiko Goto, and Creative Carbon Scotland, Ben Twist and Gemma Lawrence). Both teams have specific skills in this area. CO2 Edenburgh also involves public engagement and both teams have specific skills in that area. So the Carbon Catchers walk the streets of Edinburgh, stop to take readings and talk to people.  The install in the Tent Space at Edinburgh College of Art is like a lab studio combination with data readouts on maps on walls which also have notes from discussions and photos of activity. Both of these tactics are designed to make the monitoring very visible and engaging. Both are also elements that we might find in other activist art projects, such as Tushar Joag and his Unicell Public Works Cell.

If we want to make claims for the role of art in relation to the social and environmental, and in particular to make a case for high level involvement, then we need to be able to articulate the distinctive contribution, otherwise the role of the artist could be replaced by the environmental scientist or the public engagement professional.

So let’s just note that one of the things Tim Collins and Reiko Goto highlighted is that it feels like CO2 is talked about as a bad thing in public discourse at the moment. It’s also talked about as a very abstract thing. One of the messages that has been used in campaigns to influence the public in the UK as been “Act on CO2”. There’s a danger that the discourse around CO2 become like the discourse around smoking or drink driving. There’s another connected issue with CO2: the climate change discourse focuses on specific thresholds 350 parts per million, 400 parts per million. The environmental science that monitors climate change ‘flattens’ and abstracts CO2. The importance of this point came home when Joel Chaney, one of the panellists, mentioned in passing that the national grid, the infrastructure by which we move electricity from the point of production to the point of consumption, requires ‘grid stability’, again a metaphor for ‘evenness’.

So two points in relation to these issues: firstly CO2 isn’t in itself ‘bad’. In fact it’s only the release of currently fossilised carbon into the atmosphere as CO2 that is a problem. Carbon and CO2 is what we and all of the living world is made out of. Secondly, what is coming out of the CO2 Edenburgh monitoring is that CO2 is anything but flat or evenly distributed. The monitoring is beginning to enable us to perceive the complexity of the pattern of CO2 in central Edinburgh. As Tim Collins said, this project tries to “…calibrate an experience of CO2.”

Tim Collins and Reiko Goto’s central focus in recent work is empathy. The work Plein Air that they installed in the Tent Space in the spring (and Plein Air is an ongoing project) seeks to enable us to experience trees breathing as a means to engage us empathetically with trees. Of course trees are other living things which we know, experience, and understand (reasonably well). Some people have planted and nurtured trees. Some people have pruned or cut down trees. CO2 on the other hand is a molecule, something which we, particularly if we focus on the science, can’t experience. On the other hand if we begin to pay attention to the locally specific then perhaps we can experience – the stuffy room, the fresh air, etc. And as Simon Beeson noted that experience of CO2 should inform architecture – thinking about CO2 in the environment of buildings.

Perhaps, as Tim Collins pointed us to, we need to deeply engage with the shift from Subject Object (me and CO2), to Subject Object Environment (me, CO2 and the interrelations embedded in the environment). As someone pointed out, one of Scotland’s great scientists, James Clerk Maxwell, was at the forefront of a shift from looking for ‘evidence’ to looking for ‘interactions’.

But we need to go back to the top – trying to understand what it is that the artist ‘does’. Another trope is to talk about the artist as a storyteller. This is in danger of being a slippage towards the public engagement we mentioned above. Wallace Heim, another panellist, started us off with Alan Badiou and the importance of events. For Badiou there are four critical forms of event – love, politics, art and science. For Badiou these forms of event change our perception of reality in a way that require us in the future to act in ways that are true to that event (so we are not talking about everyday politics, science or art, but those moments when something is revealed and understood). Badiou is of course not writing about art, not trying to tell us what art does distinctively. Rather he’s attempting to describe something about life, something fundamental about being human. And art is part of that, for Badiou, enscribed at the heart of it, but not exclusively.

So we believe that artists can change things (Tim Collins and Reiko Goto talk about three aspects to art, the lyrical, the critical and the transformative). But the difficulty is that science, public engagement, politics (and love) also change things, transform them. What we want to be able to do is to understand and share the ways that artists such as Collins and Goto, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, Amy Balkin, Hans Haacke, Suzanne Lacy operate because they can make a significant contribution to deep social and environmental issues. We also don’t want to let that potential contribution be reduced to a description of storytelling, or public engagement, or public science, or creating spectacular events. But we also don’t want to set it on a pedestal as a form of magic.  Anne Douglas said we need to understand the high level contribution that some artists can make.

Spirited discussions Pt. 1

August 9, 2013
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Carbon Catcher Catriona Patterson on the Royal Mile

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


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