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Ways of seeing

By Jill White
The implications of environment change are not immediately visible to us in our everday lives – except in the art-science collaborations curated by Invisible Dust.

By nature, we landscape architects are a collaborative bunch. We’re used to working in teams with other professions, but most often they are related in some way to what we do – engineering, say, or traffic modelling or arboriculture. But how about working collaboratively to change the public’s view of what’s going on in the world, or using it as a campaign tool to lobby for change or for problem solving? The Invisible Dust project is doing exactly that to help us to realise the impact of huge global problems in a quick and easy way, literally finding new ways of seeing.

We should all know about rising sea levels, but it would certainly help to appreciate what it will really mean for us if there was a mark on the wall of our local corner shop actually showing the projected future level. Or perhaps seeing a scaled model re-enactment of an oil platform spillage staged as a public event at the local swimming pool might really enable us to understand the issue for our own North Sea coastline. The trouble with global pollution problems and issues such as future climate change is that they can seem distant and unreal because we cannot ‘see’ the problem right here, right now. This may make us less likely to act personally to make changes to our lives which would make a difference if we all did it together. Most of us don’t even know how many kilowatts of energy we use as individuals every day and thus may do little to reduce our resource use.

The Invisible Dust (ID) project works with leading artists and scientists to combine contemporary art with new scientific ideas that deal with the environment and climate change. It brings together particular scientists and artists, who do not normally meet, to work on key themes. It finds funding for them to create a public event or installation of some kind to help people to ‘see’ more clearly some real problems we are all facing. Its director and curator Alice Sharp explains, ‘Invisible Dust aims to create an understanding of climate change and our environment that moves people and creates space to think positively. Artists are amazing communicators and are able to explore the science in many ways. Whether we are experiencing a sci fi dreamscape, something humorous or something beautiful, it is our emotional reactions that inspire us to act.’ Proof of her terrific success in this approach has just come with her winning the 2014 PEA (People Environment & Achievement) UK Arts, Fashion, Music & Film Award, which recognises inspirational people who are contributing and making a difference to the green agenda.

What kinds of projects and events have been attracting a total of 300,000 people to them, and garnering over £1 million of financial sponsorship so far? In May 2011, the ‘Plane Jam’ event was staged in Norwich, created by internationally acclaimed artists Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen (collectively known as HeHe). Wires were strung between buildings and model jets whizzed along them emitting smoke, to demonstrate that if we could actually see the tiny pollutants in a highly visible way we might think twice about routinely using this form of transport. Aviation is one of the major growth areas of future CO2 emissions.

The artists had been in residency at UEA where they collaborated with Peter Brimblecombe, professor of atmospheric chemistry and senior editor of Atmospheric Environment. They also drew on the work of Professor Frank Kelly, director of the environmental research group at King’s College London which has expertise in air pollution, modelling and analysis. ‘Plane Jam’ was one of the winners of a Norwich Eco Award for artworks and outreach at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in 2011.

In a similar vein, the ‘Invisible Breath’ project in 2012 tackled the effect of pollution in London on health, noting that (mainly) traffic pollution causes more premature deaths than passive smoking and traffic accidents combined. As part of this, artist Dryden Goodwin installed a beautiful hand-drawn animation of his own son breathing in and out which was projected onto an enormous wall at St.Thomas’ Hospital in London (opposite the Houses of Parliament) to get across the message about the damage done to children by emissions in London. The project was the result of a collaboration between Goodwin and air pollution scientists at King’s College London. ‘Invisible Breath’ won the Lord Mayor of the City of London Sustainability Award. The hope was that it would make diesel users, amongst others, aware of other issues to be thinking about, besides their mileage and costs.

Alice Sharp has a strong track record of great public art events and creations. She was one of the erstwhile managers of the installations on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square alongside Anthony Gormley, many of which certainly excited public debate and discussion. Alice has really seen the usefulness of public art as an awareness generator and educative tool, rather than solely as a mechanism of visual enhancement and enjoys the varied nature of the installations which demand attention. For example, ID enabled artist Eve Mosher to carry out ‘HighWaterLine’ in Bristol, where projected future flood level markers were chalked on buildings and streets, a project she has also performed in New York and Miami. Not surprisingly, the flood levels in the aftermath of the recent Hurricane Sandy matched the previously shown chalk lines worryingly well.

These projects are bringing together the scientific community, which traditionally has not used campaigning vehicles extensively, with artists who are passionate about particular issues. The lists includes two previous Turner Prize winners – Jeremy Deller, concerning bat conservation and Elizabeth Price with a large- scale video installation of historic sun images. This latter project is the result of her being the first artist in residence at Rutherford Appleton Space Laboratory. Elizabeth Price trawled the Rutherford archives to gather photographic images of the sun’s activity dating back to the 1900s.

Other collaborative projects that ID has curated can be seen at the moment in Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum’s ‘Think Space’. These include Mariele Neudecker’s ‘For Now We See’ deep sea videos, made in collaboration with Professor Alex Rogers, a marine biologist at Oxford University, revealing images of life on ocean floors some 3000m deep; Eve Mosher’s ‘High Water Line’ and Adam Chodzko’s video ‘Rising’. This latter work, inspired by a recent major flash flooding incident in Newcastle, aims to get viewers to think about what their familiar city surroundings would be like after inundation.

Alice Sharp’s work in public art events always has strong community focus (for example ‘Park Lite’ in London’s Clissold Park on which she worked previously featured the ‘Big Chill’ outdoor festival which encouraged community video). However, it was seeing the installation of nine small islands, 2–3m in length along a tidal spit at Whitstable by artist Nick Crowe in 2008, to hit home the issue of sea inundation, that gave her her ‘lightbulb’ moment.

She saw how artists could bring to visual life the findings of scientific research. Alice also linked with UEA professor Peter Brimblecombe, who had been studying the effects of air pollution and found some interesting outcomes, such as that playgrounds are sometimes more polluted than their surroundings as carers/parents drop their children off in cars. If they could ‘see’ that pollution, they might change what they were doing to their own children.

Alice is convinced that if we could literally see or hear what we are doing we would change our behaviour. If you could listen to that virgin rainforest tropical hardwood tree crashing to the ground to make your shelves, would you be so keen? A current ID project in this area is concerned with the amount of peat being used by (amongst others) gardeners – a group probably considered as sensitive to their environment. Laura Harrington, artist in residence at Durham University’s geography department (the residency is funded by the Leverhulme Trust) worked alongside Dr Jeff Warburton who is studying fluvial, hydrological and hillslope processes. The residency comprises an exchange of both artistic and scientific skills and practices. They aim to show peat bogs as beautiful, life-supporting places which are brought to vivid life by Harrington’s stunning drawings and photographs, revealing peat as existing in bogs that are places of inner beauty and not as the inert and dead-looking substance being used unnecessarily by many gardeners. It is hoped that if people can actually see the life and beauty of what they are complicit in destroying, consumers’ behaviour will change. Harrington’s work will be exhibited at the Woodhorn Museum, Northumberland this year.

Another project to watch out for this spring is the result of collaboration between the Manchester Museum at Manchester University, where ‘throwaway’ culture in technology is challenged by the ID supported Owl Project – a collective of Steve Symons, Simon Blackmore and Antony Hall.

Instead of being made from industrially manufactured materials, all kinds of instruments and technological gadgets are being made of sustainable wood in this fun project, further developing the museum’s new collecting theme of ‘trees’. Other future works include the opening of a further exhibition this spring of Elizabeth Price’s sun image work. Alice Sharp is also currently working on bringing together behavioural psychology and the UN Climate Talks in Paris, where ID will be continuing to work its magic of showing us the invisible.

Jill White is a landscape architect practising in the southwest. She is a member of the editorial advisory panel of Landscape. 

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