Posts Tagged ‘Spirit in the AIr’

Spirited discussions pt. 4 (by Ben Twist, Director of Creative Carbon Scotland)

September 12, 2013
Dave Young, Carbon Catcher, and Sam Clark, artist and contributor to Spirited discussion 4, in the Meadows.  Photo CO2 Edenburgh.

Dave Young, Carbon Catcher, and Sam Clark, artist and contributor to Spirited discussion 4, in the Meadows. Photo CO2 Edenburgh.

The last of our Spirited Discussions asking, ‘Can Art Change the Climate? was entitled:

Going Beyond the Material: Environment and Invisible Forces in the Literary, Performing and Visual Arts.

This, in some ways, reminded me of Wallace Heim’s reference in Spirited Discussion part 2 to Alan Badiou’s idea that the four critical kinds of event which change people are love, science, art and politics.

In the performing arts particularly there is arguably no ‘thing’ that is the work of art: there is the event that is found in the ether between the player and the audience; there is the growth of digital publishing which has emphasised that the same is true of the written work.  With the written word the format is sometimes less important than the content and the work of art is an event taking place in the reader’s head, brought about by the words in whatever form they are reproduced (consider audiobooks). This aesthetic view could of course be equally true of visual artworks; the event takes place when we view the work, but in an empty gallery or an unoccupied installation all that exists is some colour on a surface or a collection of items.

Lucy Miu, Business Manager of the Bedlam Theatre and driving force behind this year and next’s Dramatic Impacts, is also an Environmental Sciences student, effectively straddling the line between the arts and the sciences. She argued that for people to be informed by information they need to be engaged with it. This is backed up by plenty of behaviour change research which shows that plain information has almost no effect on the recipient’s behaviour.  Kate Foster concurred: her experience with biology students saw them overwhelmed by the sheer level of information they were being asked to take in. Her artistic practice allowed them to make sense of it, focus their new knowledge and understand it, rather than just know it. Lucy felt that the arts, which engage us emotionally, can help, and that perhaps they also help where the original experience is not available to all, (murdering the King of Scotland, experiencing the bombing of Guernica), and the artist can bring that experience to a wider audience.

For me, what is particularly important here is that an artist may, perhaps must if they are to be described as an artist rather than a mere reporter, have special insight into the experience that they transmit to the audience along with the basic information: information + insight is what gets the event lodged in the audience’s understanding. Information + insight creates the sort of event we are interested in.

Lucy also made the point that all performing arts events are group activities.  At the very least there is an audience as well as a performer, whilst engaging with visual arts is, or can be, a more solitary business. In her view this made the performing arts more engaging but Tim Collins argued that different forms do different things. (The similarities and differences between the visual and performing arts were questions that arose regularly and usefully during CO2 Edenburgh: Spirit in the Air.) The question of whether feeling is enough arose again, just as it had been raised by Chris Speed in Discussion 1, and it clearly isn’t enough: pornography, a well-made horror film or Love Story make us feel, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to change people or their behaviour as Badiou seems to be getting at.

Here Sam Clark made her first intervention noting that, to the writer Rebecca Solnit, the difference for the writer between discarding an article and having it published is minimal, but history starts when events happen. The event may happen almost accidentally, or is at least subject to chance, and is not solely in the artist’s gift. How does this square with Wallace Heim’s view that the artists’ practices create the conditions where [Badiou’s] change can happen (remember love, science, art and politics)? The answer is surely that art is a fairly slippery thing with fuzzy boundaries. Questions of intention, insight, engagement and emotion swirl around this subject, which is perhaps what makes the question of whether art can change the climate so difficult to disentangle, let alone answer.

Sam Clark chose to address the title Going Beyond the Material more directly in her short and very beautiful talk, speaking about scientists working on matter. Only 4.7% of reality is material, according to a physicist she knows; 75% is dark matter whose existence is only deduced from its interaction with matter and gravity. Even less concrete is dark energy, only imagined because the universe is expanding and accelerating, not shrinking or slowing down. These scientists are working on a relationship between the visible and the invisible, or in artistic terms the knowable and the ineffable (strikingly similar in my mind to Andrew Patrizio’s conjunction of the mercantile and the religious in fifteenth century Florence – see Discussion 3). The scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern use non-detection as a means of detection; 95% of the universe is only knowable through the instrument of the mind. Here we surely get into the realm of philosophy and for me insight comes to the fore again. What we want from artists – why societies from the year dot have supported, encouraged and valued them – is access to the knowledge of the things that are unknowable just through experience, knowledge that requires use of the instrument of the mind. Sam made the same point – insight and experience of things we don’t understand or things we hate, creating a space of wonder, are the things we want from artists. And as Harry Giles made clear in the first of the Spirited Discussions, actually artists and scientists do many of the same things. But maybe Sam’s last suggestion is what artists do but scientists try to avoid: making the familiar strange.

The session came to a close with a short discussion about empathy, a subject that Reiko Goto Collins had touched upon in her introduction. Sympathy is when you simply feel for another; empathy is when you place yourself in their shoes, which takes more than just emotion. Lucy suggested that maybe if art can change the climate, it is because it can help connect the brain and the heart. If we have done that, just a bit, with CO2 Edenburgh: Spirit in the Air, it will have been well worth it.

Spirited Discussions Pt. 3

August 22, 2013

Wednesday afternoon 14th August, third discussion around the issues of art, science, environment, monitoring, CO2.

Andrew Patrizio started us off by taking us back to Renaissance Florence. His summer reading had been Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy. In that he found a description of the particular characteristics of the mercantile mind, the ability to gauge quantity, weight, volume and space accurately. According to Andrew, Baxandall argues that the circumstances in which Florence was a nexus for trade meant that a significant proportion of the population were involved in activities requiring gauging. By gauging I imagine we mean forming accurate judgements about things which can be weight and measured, but where some of the technologies for doing that which we take for granted didn’t exist or were relatively unsophisticated. We can perhaps imagine parallels with the emergence of monitoring in the 21st Century. Can we imagine the flows of energy through the grid when we are told about the impact of everyone turning on their kettle in the break for advertisements during a major sporting event? Or that animation of aircraft moving across the Atlantic and then moving back? As we have previously discussed, the calibration of our experience of CO2 through art is a particular challenge.

Renaissance Italy was at a critical point of social, economic and cultural development and the arts were deeply enmeshed in that. Trade was central, but the ramifications are much wider. The emergence of the new painting characterised by the use of perspective, but equally importantly including specific identifiable individuals such as patrons in real space with divine figures also treated as if they were human, is well known. We can imagine the pleasure that a painting which expressed space through perspective, and depicted fabric realistically, would bring to a person who could fully appreciate the space, volumes and sumptuousness – the play between the aesthetic and the mercantile mind. The late 20th and early part of the 21st Centuries has as Andrew drew our attention to, been characterised by conceptual, performative and participatory practices, sculpture in the expanded field, systems theory, data visualisation and new media.

In Renaissance Italy we know the practices of art and science were not separated out in the way that they are now. The enquiry into what can be understood about the world, whether through philosophy, science or art, was a process that individuals participated in as what we might now call public intellectuals, rather than as distinct disciplines. The methodologies were broadly similar and compatible if the manifestations were different. We know of Leonardo’s sketchbooks but we are less familiar with Piero della Francesca several treatise on mathematics of which the most well-known are those on perspective. The emergence of the artist researcher who plays across these two fields is a relatively recent not always welcomed development. It is criticised on the one hand as institutionally driven, and on the other perhaps because it seems to ‘explain’ the work, which by rights should stand on its own. The 20th Century in particular has been dominated by a resistance to the instrumentalisation of art, a resistance to a ‘unified reading’ of the work of art. The artist researcher, writer of papers as well as maker of art, seeks to understand the world and share that understanding. The artist researcher might seek to intentionally change the world (though probably not through simplistic cause and effect processes).

Setting aside the question of who writes papers and who makes artworks, Andrew was asking us to think about the comparison between then and now, the extent to which we are living through a period of more than just social, cultural and economic change. The shift taking place in Renaissance Italy might be characterised as the emergence of the idea of the human as being at the centre of everything, able to shape the world according to our desires and for our convenience. The word ‘environment’ means the circumstances or conditions that surround one, or that surround and organism or a group of organisms. It is predicated on an assumption of a ‘thing’ which has ‘an environment’. Without a ‘thing’ there is no ‘environment’ because the word is describing that relationship. Perhaps the Renaissance is the point in modern history where the human moves to be the de facto ‘thing’ – where the human environment division is crystallised. If we look at the paintings we see the human at the centre of the environment, the focal point.

We feel that we are living through another key paradigm shift, or rather that we need to be living through a paradigm shift, because the current paradigm, that we can use the planet and everything on it for our own convenience and comfort and it will just carry on, isn’t working anymore. If 500 years ago it seemed that we needed to learn how the world worked so that we could control it to make it safer (and make no mistake life was short and painful 500 years ago), at that point it seemed that nothing we could do would impact on ‘nature’. Science and technology offered ways to protect ourselves, live longer, avoid illness, be warm and comfortable.

If we accept that our world view is changing again, that the Anthroposcene is the result of a trajectory that has social, economic and cultural roots in the deep past, it is interesting to imagine the arts’ involvement in the process 500 years ago. Did artists sit around and worry about being instrumentalised? How would they have felt about Samuel Beckett’s statement, “Art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear.” Of course that resistance of Beckett’s is precisely because art has been implicated in the paradigm that created the problem. And Beckett has contributed to our understanding of the world. But Ian Garrett, one of the founders of the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, led us into another possible construction of the avoidance of ‘making clear’ in a simplistic sense (where frankly Design Communication has the task of ‘making clear’). He talked about the project Fallen Fruit which used maps in a way which is reminiscent of the work of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, where the layering of information creates a density that requires thought and interpretation. CO2 Edenburgh layers information on carbon dioxide monitored in the City over greenspace and urban fabric, it performs the movement through the landscape of CO2, and overlays the social cultural activity associated with the Edinburgh Festivals. It could add economic layers or regular traffic movement layers, or any number of other factors. The point is to create questions in the mind of the person engaged with the work of art.

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

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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