Who has the wisdom?

I adapted the following from a sermon I gave on Sunday 18th October during the Sidmouth Science Festival.


The Book of Job is part of the wisdom literature in the Old Testament, which also includes the Psalms and Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs.

It describes the troubles visited by Satan upon Job to test his faith, Job’s lament, and speeches from three friends that are supposed to bring him comfort, but could be summarised as: “You must have sinned, and so brought all this upon yourself.”

Job stoutly defends himself, and asks God to vindicate him, after which a fourth friend, Elihu, gives a long speech criticising the other three for failing to answer Job, and Job for his complaints. And then in Chapter 38, God finally arrives in a whirlwind and delivers an amazing bravura rebuke, at which point Job relents and is restored.

Let’s take two verses:

Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
   or given understanding to the mind?
Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
   Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
(Job 38:36-37, NRSV)

God’s speech does not come out of the blue; it all references earlier speeches. So when God asks “Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?” Elihu has already five times referred to clouds, for example asking Job: “Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of the one whose knowledge is perfect?”

The answer to these rhetorical questions is of course that only God has the wisdom. But what is wisdom? I am a bit of a nerd and like to look up the origin of words.

Wisdom is Old English, an elision of wise and doom. Wise is related to wisse, used by Chaucer to mean show or teach. The Ancrene Wisse was an anonymous 13th century monastic rule or guidance. And then doom is about judgement – as in the Doom paintings you see in some churches with God above and saints going to heaven on one side and sinners to hell on the other.

So wisdom goes beyond knowledge, to the weighing up of knowledge, and the application of knowledge, experience, intuition.

Now science means knowledge, from the Latin scire to know, probably from the Greek σχίζειν/skhizein to split – think schizophrenia. That’s how science works; it divides big questions up into smaller, manageable and hopefully answerable questions. So we have lots of scientific disciplines, and very focused research projects. It’s not a bad thing, and science has been incredibly successful on its own terms.

But there comes a time when necessary to put it all back together again, to gain an understanding of the whole system, to realise that life is not just about knowledge, and to be humble about not having all the answers – to have wisdom.

Earlier I wrote that God is the one with the wisdom, so I appear to have contradicted myself and the Book of Job. But maybe we start to have some inklings of wisdom gifted to us when we recognise that we are not actually God.

The word scientist was coined relatively recently, in 1834. Before then a person who did science, a 14th century word, was known as a natural philosopher – from the Greek φιλία/philia love and σοφία/sophia wisdom, so a scientist used to be a lover of the wisdom of natural things. Wouldn’t it be great to rediscover that meaning – “a lover of the wisdom of natural things”?

Most of my discussion so far has been about what happens up in the head. But for me “the wisdom of natural things” encompasses not just the head, but the wholeness of a person. Our mind is not separate from our soul, emotions and feelings, or our body. We experience natural things most through our body, after all, and we are in the season of Seasonal Affective Disorder, when I for one feel lower and like hibernating.

I quoted earlier “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” This verse is difficult Hebrew, and has been translated in wildly divergent ways. The New International Version has it: “Who gives the ibis wisdom or gives the rooster understanding?”

The words translated “in the inward parts” could literally mean “into the kidneys”. “Who has put wisdom into our kidneys?” Maybe we would say “heart” in our culture, but in any case, it is very physical language.

And God’s speech in Job is about physical phenomena, natural things: “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?” or “Who provides for the raven its prey?”

Our inklings of human wisdom, gifted by God, are not just in our heads, but come from a combination of knowledge, intuition, and physical gut, and ultimately by listening deeply to and waiting intently upon God the source of all wisdom.

In my art practice “Particulart: The art of knitting, chemistry, and gentle protest”, I am trying to help people to approach science and environmental issues in a variety of ways: through data and head knowledge, numbers and words; but also through the visual aspects; through the tactility of the physical representation; through play; and through reflection and contemplation.

I can’t hide that I intensely dislike most of our current government’s policies. They are not listening to scientists and other concerned citizens over many issues. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is happening, human activity is causing it, and it is the greatest threat to our continued existence. But the Chancellor views the environment as ‘red tape’ holding back economic activity, and consciously or unconsciously chooses not to understand that all economic activity and indeed life is entirely dependent on having an environment.

We are playing at being God, pretending we have wisdom while we just have knowledge, and sometimes we ignore even that. To repeat what I wrote earlier: wisdom goes beyond knowledge, to the weighing up and application of knowledge, experience, and intuition. And maybe we start to have some inklings of wisdom gifted to us when we recognise that we are not actually God.

So let us pray that the negotiators at COP21 in Paris – even those from the UK – have the humility to listen deeply and the willingness to seek wisdom through knowledge, intuition and physical gut feeling, and become lovers of the wisdom of natural things.

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Power Culture

This blog is becoming a bit of a signpost to other blog posts I’ve written. RegenSW asked me to write a couple of pieces for its new blog “Power Culture: exploring our energy generation through the arts”. Naturally, I wrote about Particulart and Didcot Power Station.

  1. Energy infrastructures inhabit our interior landscapes
    I am almost certain that Didcot Power Station’s looming bulk sparked my interest in energy and shaped my environmental interests and career. But I am not the only person which it has sensitised. Many regard it as a blot on the landscape, many others have seen its sculptural appeal.
  2. The art of knitting, chemistry, and gentle protest
    It took me 44 years to learn to follow the energy, so here’s the story of how Particulart sparked and took on its own energy…
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Taking the Long View at TEDxExeter 2015

Each year I summarise the posts I write for TEDxExeter on the theme of the annual conference. In 2015 it was “Taking the Long View” ; in 2014 it was “Ideas Without Frontiers”; in 2013, “Living the Questions”; and way back in the mists of time in 2012 it was “Sustainability and Our Interconnected World”. Here are my 2015 posts.

  1. Magna Carta
    The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta was the inspiration behind the 2015 theme. Why we chose that and not the 50th anniversary of the Sound of Music.
  2. The telescope
    Taking the literal view of the Long View, a smattering of quite interesting factoids about the origins of the telescope and its name; the transit of Venus and Cook’s voyages; and the Interplanetary Scintillation Array and other more modern telescopes.
  3. Climate change and knitting
    The Guardian’s campaign to keep fossil fuels in the ground, a Lenten Carbon Fast; and how I take the long view in my knitting and arts practice.
  4. If you go down to the woods today…
    The short-termism of deforestation, and some hopeful examples of the long view of reafforestation.
  5. Up the Women
    From Clause 40 in Magna Carta to HIllary Clinton via the suffragists and suffragettes – the long struggle for women’s political rights, and a call to vote on 7 May [sigh].
  6. Further together
    There’s an old African proverb that says “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Also a tribute to the wonderful TEDxExeter team.
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The day I jumped out of an aeroplane

I wrote a begging email on 9 May 2015…

Hello,

I’m going to jump out of an aeroplane on 20 June 2015 to raise money for Hospiscare and I’d really appreciate your support.

Hospiscare does amazing work in caring for terminally ill people and providing respite for their carers, and relies on the generosity of many people to continue this work. I have had a surprising number of connections with them, through friends, family friends, work, church, and singing. So I wanted to do something to help.

Why jump out of an aeroplane? Well, why not? I’m told that 15,000ft is the highest possible skydive without needing an oxygen supply. As an aside, my jump will also be part of a Guinness World Record attempt as the biggest ever worldwide tandem skydiving event.

Donating to my JustGiving page is easy – just follow this link and click Donate: justgiving.com/Clare-Bryden. JustGiving sends your donation straight to Hospiscare so it’s a quick and safe way to donate. Alternatively, I will accept cash and cheques!

More about Hospiscare…

“Hospiscare makes a difference for thousands of people in Exeter, mid and east Devon. We deliver a wide range of high-quality care to ensure our patients make the most out of life.

“Hospiscare is dedicated to changing attitudes, bringing choice and dignity to families and helping them through difficult times. We take a lead, we work with others and we change the lives of patients and those around them.

“We provide nurses, doctors, therapists and volunteers who help patients to lead as normal a life as possible, giving both physical and emotional support.

“Hospiscare is not funded by the government or the NHS. We raise over 4 million annually to provide our service free of charge to patients and their families. We rely on generous donations and fundraising from the community to keep our vital service running.”

So if you are able to help, I and Hospiscare would be very grateful.

Thank you,
Clare

PS. I signed up to this before the General Election, and despite the result I am still planning to wear a parachute!!

On 20 June, the forecast was this…

Dunk-forecast

Mist, fog, dark coud, light cloud, rain – too much weather to be conducive to jumping. My jump was postponed, so I rescheduled for 3 July.

I wrote another email on 27 July to my supporters…

A belated report and thank you.

It happened! Touch and go, as my doctor’s form didn’t have the proper stamp, which meant panicked form-refilling and scanning and emailing and stamping and signing and scanning and emailing and printing and stapling.

But anticipation gradually took over from stress, and then there was the spiral up to the jump height, the shuffling forward on the benches towards the gaping door, and the moment of sheer panic as I knelt on the edge and was tipped forward into oblivion, and then we levelled out and I could enjoy the sense of freefall for an all-too-short minute.

My original date was 20th June, which was also supposed to be an attempt on the world record for most skydives from an airfield in one day, but that had to be postponed owing to too much weather. I thought I may as well rearrange the jump for my birthday, 3rd July, so I was treated to a rendition of Happy Birthday on the way up – sweet but atonal. My jump partner Andy also took a wrist camera, set to take regular stills. I could view the shots after we got back down to earth, but didn’t pay to keep them! The attached were taken by my uncle, who nobly came to watch and hang around (there was a lot of hanging around), and the partner of one of the other jumpers.

My tandem guy Andy, with parachute

My tandem guy Andy, with parachute


Our parachute was number 4...

Our parachute was number 4…


...as you can clearly see!

…as you can clearly see!


Back down to earth

Back down to earth

Visibility was excellent – Exeter, Honiton, the Exe Estuary, and as far as Portland, Hinkley Point, and South Wales. The ascent to 15,000ft took about 10 minutes, and the descent under parachute from about 5,000ft took about 3 minutes, so I had a goodly time to look about. Parachuting felt almost as gentle as air ballooning. We tried a bit of aerobatics – a strong yank on the right strings set us spinning sharply… and my stomach to churning, so we stopped that.

Then there was just time to appreciate the solar farm and the pool by our landing site used for pond swooping before Andy told me it was time to raise my legs, and we came gliding in to land on our backsides.

Thank you once again for your support. Hospiscare were very impressed with my total of over £1,800. Would I do it again? Yes maybe, to fully experience that 5 seconds of terror!

You can still sponsor me at justgiving.com/Clare-Bryden

 

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Didcot Power Station, art installation

Didcot Power Station was commissioned shortly before I was born and dominated the landscape of my childhood. I am fairly sure that its looming bulk sparked my interest in energy, and possibly shaped my environmental interests and career. And now, one of my interests is environmental art, including the subset that is the art related to energy production and supply.

I know that as part of General Studies during my lower sixth year, I had to write about the architecture of four buildings, and I chose Didcot as one of the four. I wrote about its aesthetics – the shape of the cooling towers, the site layout – although now I know that I missed a few angles. Since then I have been sensitive to articles about it, unsurprisingly not always positive, and have seen one or two art pieces using Didcot as a model. But only now that it is in the process of being demolished, have I investigated a little more thoroughly.

Didcot Power Station* was built in the late 1960s to meet the rapidly growing demand for electricity. Most of the other stations built at the time were located close to coalfields or on major rivers. Didcot was unusual, built in a rural area that was highly regarded for its natural beauty in order to be close to sources of demand and reduce transmission losses. This meant that more attention was paid to its aesthetics than were to, for example, the slightly later Drax.

Historic England’s assessment of Didcot as a candidate for listing is my prime source of information about the design.

At the time, the CEGB built stations to a standard template, but had to preserve local amenity and submit its proposals to the Royal Fine Art Commission for approval. As architect it appointed Frederick Gibberd, whose previous work included Harlow New Town and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. His brief was to maintain the views across the Vale of the White Horse, and covered the layout, cladding materials, the colour scheme, hard landscaping and planting.

My mother has written a few maths text books.

My mother has written a few maths text books.

Gibberd modelled the site from four viewpoints, considering differing numbers, sizes and groupings of cooling towers. Henry Moore had a small role in the design when it came to the Royal Fine Art Commission, moving the towers around to create a good composition. The final solution used six cooling towers of standard height and hyperbolic swoop.** The towers were divided in two groups of three, as widely spaced as possible at either end of a NW-SE axis across the site, with the rest of the plant equidistant between them.

Gibberd considered colouring the plant and towers in cream, biscuit, white and dark green, but chose to use a “muted palette of colours to create an even grey tone over the whole composition”. He worked with landscape architect Brenda Colvin on the site planting. The lower buildings and coal yard were screened, but Colvin felt the towers “were a significant feature of the landscape – giant eye-catchers”, and so the planting did not attempt to screen them but provided a setting and a balance to open up the views.

Roger Wagner, “Menorah”, 1993

The first artistic reponse to Didcot that I was aware of was “Menorah” by Roger Wagner, in which he uses a view of the six towers and chimney as a back-drop to the crucifixion drama. He writes: “When I first saw Didcot power station through the window of a train from Oxford to Paddington, the smoke belching from the central chimney reminded me more of a crematorium than a symbol of God’s presence. And yet having said that, the astonishing sky behind the towers looked like the arch of some great cathedral, while something in the scale of the cooling towers themselves, with the light moving across them and the steam slowly, elegiacally, drifting away, created the impression that they were somehow the backdrop of a great religious drama.”

But Wagner was not the first to respond. According to Historic England, “An evocative cultural appreciation by Marina Warner and entitled Didcot Power Station, 1970 (BBC Elstree, 1990) formed one of a series of short documentary films relating to building history produced by the BBC.” I’d be grateful if anyone could let me know how to obtain a copy.

Even earlier, in 1966 during construction of the power station, Sir John Betjeman lamented the defacing of rural England in Inexpensive Progress: “Encase your legs in nylons, / Bestride your hills with pylons / O age without a soul; … And if there is some scenery, / Some unpretentious greenery, / Surviving anywhere, / It does not need protecting / For soon we’ll be erecting / A Power Station there.” He doesn’t name Didcot, but Betjeman located other poetry in the area, most famously “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!”

On a (possibly) more positive note, Sir Tim Rice wrote the lyric Ode to Didcot Power Station for the musical Three More Men in a Boat (1982). I couldn’t find it online, but I confess I didn’t look very hard. Here instead are a few lines from Kit Wright’s 2005 Ode to Didcot Power Station: ” DIDCOT! To one more / Soft eidolon thou steams’t ope mem’ry’s door… / For in thy hanging shrouds I view return / Far other blue-grey clouds;”

Seeing Didcot’s towers once more from the train also prompted memories for a former master of Keble College Oxford who, writing under the pseudonym John Elinger, won a poetry prize in 2009 for The Cooling Towers at Didcot. But later in the poem he writes: “Technology’s half / Life seems so short. The towers must go, / They say.” And indeed, in 2014 and 2015, the towers are being demolished.

…which is why, when a glimpse of the towers is no longer a vehicle for memory, documentary photographic evidence is so important. The Social landscape of Didcot, a Facebook page of Paul Bodsworth’s photographs “capturing moments… and interesting aspects of life in Didcot… using composition that challenges mainstream photography and viewers alike”. He started photographing Didcot at the end of March 2012, one year before its decommissioning and “the Power station stops creating its plumes of steam and falls quiet.” I don’t know whether photography is art, but this image of the first demolition in July 2014 in particular tells a story.

 

Barbaresi & Round’s 1:1 scale model of a cooling tower section

During the three months prior to its decommissioning, Rachel Barbaresi & Susanna Round were appointed as resident artists at Didcot, funded by RWE npower and South Oxfordshire District Council. In their blog Where clouds are made, they describe their visits to the station, conversations with workers past and present, their impressions internal and external, investigations into Gibberd’s design, and the relationship of the power station with the town of Didcot. All of this is included in their ‘work’: “Through the project we want to explore how the power plant and cooling towers have come to play an imaginative role in the sense of place for Didcot residents and beyond.” But their residency culminated with an exhibition at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot during May-June 2013.

Barbaresi & Round’s blog mentions James Attlee’s role as Writer on the Train for First Great Western, and his post about passing and photographing Didcot on his daily commute to London. Unfortunately, Attlee’s original post is now unavailable, probably because it is now in book form.

The blog also briefly describes their work with the film maker Martyn Bull. Bull’s sound and video recordings of the power station became a sound installation in the Cornerstone exhibition. Thankfully, Bull’s work How beautiful can a power station sound? is still available.

Finally, Barbaresi & Round quote from Marina Warner’s reflection on Didcot as her 1991 contribution to the BBC series Building Sights, which again seems not to be available. The towers “symbolise heedless, overflowing consumption with an ironic economy of form” and, echoing Shelley’s Ozymandius, like monuments “they contain the promise of ruin”.

Historic England refused the listing because, although Gibberd’s design has “strong resonance”, Didcot conformed too much to standards and policies. And so… at 5.01am on 27 July 2014, the three southern cooling towers were demolished.

Through the news reporting, I became aware of the work of Patrick Cannon, abstract paintings which preserve Didcot in its setting of natural beauty. But I would say that the final piece of art associated with Didcot, for the time being at least, is the performance art of the demolition itself. This BBC video starts with the collapse in reverse, and the three towers spring to life before crumpling into dust. Solid blocks deform as ripples of fabric. The closest tower blows a smoke ring as they collapse in situ, in the place Where clouds [of dust] are made.

 

* The original power station was coal-fired, and is now known as Didcot A since the gas-fired Didcot B was built in the 1990s. I’m using Didcot throughout to refer to Didcot A.

** I vaguely recall reading that Didcot’s hyperbolae were modified, so the towers are more pleasing in shape than say Drax’s, but can’t find anything to back this up.

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Without Frontiers at TEDxExeter 2014

I’ve just started writing blog posts for TEDxExeter on the theme of the 2015 conference: “Taking the Long View”. This reminded me that I posted summaries here and here of the themed posts I wrote in 2013. I wrote a whole bunch of themed posts in 2012 too, and combined most of these into posts here and here. But until now, I have neglected to summarise 2014’s posts on the theme of “Ideas Without Frontiers”. So here they are.

  1. Money Without Frontiers
    Forex flows, international debt, tax avoidance, respiratory illness metaphors, and where there is a frontier that needs dismantling.
  2. People Without Frontiers
    More about pilgrims than immigrants, and how our planet is bounded whereas our imaginations aren’t.
  3. Nature Without Frontiers
    More about the reality of some physical frontiers, while pollutants do not respect national boundaries.
  4. Research Without Frontiers
    The value of focusing attention and how boundaries inspire creativity, as well as pushing the frontiers of knowledge and Interdisciplinary sparks.
  5. Information Without Frontiers
    Access to the World Wide Web, being overwhelmed, information security, and is Google making us stupid?
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I will pour…

A short reflection I wrote for EcoChurch South West’s Carbon Fast 2015 – Day 7 – Wednesday. The overall theme is water.

For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. Isaiah 44:3

At the Greenbelt Festival in 2012, Kathy Galloway spoke for ten minutes on the topic “Is God… Scottish?” As a cloudburst deposited its soaking load on the festivalgoers outside, she reminded us of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, that God sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. In Scotland, she said, “the combination of the cold damp climate and Presbyterian cultural pessimism meant that rain is experienced as a curse”, and those who were affected by the floods in southwest England last year may well agree.

But in Palestine at the time of Jesus, rain was a blessing, a necessity for crops, livestock and people. In many parts of the world today, farmers rely on regular rainfall patterns, and are struggling as those patterns break down under climate change.

God created the world and declared it good. God is a God who blesses and who promises blessings. Let us open our hands and minds to receive those blessings with thanks and carefulness.

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Particulart, or the art of knitting, chemistry, meditation and gentle protest

The politics

The first Particulart exhibition was a collaboration between Diana Moore and myself, running in the Exeter Real Food café from Monday 13th October to Saturday 29th November 2014. Particulart is all about knitting. It’s also all about the Exeter Incinerator, which was inaugurated on 16th October 2014, and about waste management strategy, and monitoring emissions, and the environment, and health, and transparency, and visual impact, and chemistry.

The Incinerator had already happened, and we couldn’t change that. But we want to make sure it is operated properly, and knitting and emitting particles was our way of telling other people about it and its potential impacts. Hence the timing of the exhibition, and the exhibition launch party the evening before the Incinerator’s inauguration.

As we were preparing the exhibition, Brooks Newmark, in his first major speech as the new minister for civil society, said: “We really want to try and keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realms of politics… The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others.” Mr Newmark, as well as being patronising, clearly doesn’t know his knitters very well. I expect there were a few tricoteuses cackling when his head metaphorically rolled into the basket three weeks later. We just laughed, tweeted the link, and carried on with our knitting and politics… although, broadly speaking, I did the knitting and exhibition and Diana did the politics and launch.

Diana composed a letter to Devon Council and Exeter City Councillors, inviting them to the exhibition launch and making a number of requests:

  • increased transparency to enable peace of mind on public health and the environment – that is, enhanced monitoring and public reporting of emissions
  • a commitment to waste reduction and recycling – including better information, and composting instead of incineration of food waste
  • increased transparency over the contract – including information about the cost to the tax payer, value for money, cost of operation, profit

We waited for their response, Diana wrote a press release and dealt with local media, and I continuing knitting and planning the exhibition hanging.

The Incinerator’s official name is the Marsh Barton Energy from Waste / Energy Recovery Facility, which makes it sound all nice and positive: all that waste just going to waste, and we can generate electricity and heat from it. But the beast needs feeding, and what if Devon County Council were fined if it couldn’t provide enough waste to operators Tiru and Viridor? The County Waste Manager states that “The [Exeter] plant has been sized to ensure that there will always be sufficient waste to feed it and as such there are no plans to have to restrict recycling to feed the plant or bring waste from further afield”, but also acknowledges the “concern that a degree of complacency [over recycling] may occur given Exeter’s waste would no longer be going to landfill but would be used to generate energy”. An incinerator is an incentive to generate more waste, rather than to reduce, reuse or recycle. And burning 1 tonne of waste generates on average about 1 tonne of carbon dioxide, so what if that electricity from waste displaced a lower-carbon alternative? And what if there were problems with its operation, so it emitted harmful, even toxic, pollution? Much of Exeter, not least Devon County Council’s offices, are downstream in a prevailing wind.

The artwork

Particulart comprised my 3D knitted representations of a series of particles that the Incinerator would inevitably emit, such as carbon dioxide, and that it shouldn’t emit, such as toxic dioxins and furans.

We also commissioned three new works from photographer Benjamin J Borley. The Incinerator is located on the corner of Grace Road South and Alphin Brook Road, on the edge of Marsh Barton Trading Estate next to the railway, Exeter Canal, and Riverside Valley Park. It all sounds as though it should be lovely and bucolic. But the Trading Estate certainly isn’t, and now the Valley Park is dominated by a hulking grey industrial armadillo. And the red light at the top of its chimney is visible from miles around, day and night – Sauron’s malevolent eye at the top of the Dark Tower of Barad-dûr.

In his studies, Ben beautifully captured the monolithic nature of the building, and its juxtaposition with the neighbouring green space. It stands both separate and other from its context, yet negatively impacts upon it. Ben used an infra-red filter in one photo, which turns vegetation a polluted pink. In another, the early light gives the Incinerator an almost radioactive glow. And in the final of the three studies we used, the building dwarfs the human scale of a team of local media.

By contrast, the knitted particles are homely, warm and comfortable, approachable, innocent, and non-threatening.

Each particle is made up of a number of atoms and bonds knitted in acrylic yarn. The design follows the ball and stick model and the CPK colour scheme used in chemistry. So carbon is black, mercury and other metals are grey, oxygen is red, hydrogen is white, nitrogen is blue, fluorine is light-green, chlorine is mid-green, bromine is dark green, and sulphur is yellow. I stuffed the atoms with those plastic bags that charities keep dropping through the letterbox, and stiffened the particles with coathanger wire.

The materials used are not natural and beautiful. The yarn is manufactured from oil not natural fibres. The plastic bags and wire are, well, plastic bags and wire. The carbon footprint of the particles, including yarn, bags and wire, is just over 5kg CO2, equivalent to a couple of burgers. However, as only a fraction of charity plastic bags are actually used to collect bric-a-brac, and it can be difficult to recycle wire coathangers, reusing them keeps a few at least out of the Incinerator.

Reflections

Particulart encompasses the senses of sight, through Ben’s photos worth a thousand words, and of touch. Knitting epitomises the material relationship between human being and things. It references the handmade, and the clothing which sits next to the skin and expresses our personalities. Particulart takes both the maker and the audience on a journey from data and scientific thought to the more tactile areas of the brain. So it is not just about thinking, but about doing and experiencing, as life must be.

Like other old skills coming back into vogue, knitting is a model of thrift, of making and mending. Old knitted garments can be darned, or unravelled and made anew. Reuse and recycling is creative; incineration is destructive. And yet Particulart subverts craft and chemistry. The particles are not useful, unlike warm woolly jumpers, socks or tea cosies. Nor is a toxic dioxin cuddly, unlike its 3D knitted representation (at least before I stiffened it with wire for hanging).

Particulart is also countercultural. The making of it required a certain slowness, presence in the moment and attentiveness. There are no short cuts to knitting a particle. Each stitch must be stitched, sometimes more than once if I made a mistake! At times it became a meditative practice, each stitch a mantra akin to the ancient Christian prayer-word “Maranatha”, which occupied my surface rational brain and allowed contemplation in the depths. At other times, I found myself mulling over the issue. While the act of assembling data and information about the particles increased knowledge of the issue, the act of making led to a deeper care and concern about the issue, and attention to how the audience might understand the issue and respond to the exhibition.

The concept of the exhibition emerged with a certain slowness. It all began with a cup of tea and general chitchat in the Real Food café in March 2013. Diana floated the idea of knitting molecules to leave around Exeter. I was interested and immediately started investigating the emissions from incinerators, but it wasn’t until July that I started looking into chemistry models and knitting patterns. With Diana’s encouragement, I prototyped a carbon dioxide, which was too big and time-consuming to knit, so I experimented with reducing the pattern. In September, we met again to discuss a new idea of displaying the particles in a gallery before ’emitting’ them into the community, the latest on Incinerator launch dates, and avenues for publicity.

It is important that there were two of us involved from the beginning. Together we could take ideas for a walk, and find that we had voices which were saying “we can do something”, and that we could be voices. The writer Betsy Greer coined the portmanteau word ‘craftivism’ in 2003, and defined it as “a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite”. In knitting, Diana and I had found a gentle way of creating an opening to get our message heard.

Particulart thereafter became a means of opening out the conversation and creating a community of interest.

Diana joined the Incinerator’s Liaison Committee, as a local resident, and the conversation extended to the construction companies, their PR, councillors and other members of the committee. Diana was invited to the inauguration, and we invited the Committee to our launch, which led to one of the most positive responses we had to the exhibition. One of the subcontractors who attended the launch told us they were used to attending shouty aggressive protests, which did little beyond alienating people. Our gentle protest made him much more interested in engaging, and he liked the potential for educating the public too.

Diana and I talked to other knitters who wanted to participate, to our friends, to members of the Politics department at the University, and to other artists in Exeter, as well as to the Real Food store who kindly hosted the exhibition. Then there were the networks and conversations that happened and are still happening on social media, Twitter in particular. And last but not least there were the interactions arising from the exhibition and its making: between the maker and the made, between the particles and Ben’s photos, and between the exhibition and its audience.

Diana crocheted a basket of PM2.5 (tiny clumps of carbon which cause havoc in the lungs) for giving away to people at the exhibition launch and the Incinerator inauguration, and leaving on the tables in the café during the exhibition. They went far and wide from the launch, and were a big hit with Viridor staff at the inauguration. At the end of the exhibition, we found only one left in the café. Who knows where the others went, and what conversations they prompted.

Kaleider is an arts production studio in Exeter that produces some really interesting work arising from the question “What can we do together that we cannot do apart?” They make art that interrupts the dominant narratives in our society: “We want to make interruptive gifts; we want to create experiences where those dominant narratives are problematised for a moment; to provoke a moment of reflection; to tell a counter story; to design different narratives.” The art is about encounter, where the work meets the audience and ‘forces’ interaction in a joyful, playful and engaging way. I got to know Kaleider after the exhibition, but it seems to me that serendipitously by showing Particulart in a café we did something similar. In any case, producing “interruptive gifts” is a good aim for the future. Here are a few of the comments and tweets we received:

  • I do like a bit of #knitted art over coffee.
  • I was drinking my tea at Real Food, when I noticed a knitted particle on the table, then I realised I was surrounded by organic chemistry.
  • Had a sneak preview. Looks amazing. Do go along and see something you will never have seen before.

It also strikes me that engaging with Particulart required as much slowness as the making of it did. And therefore an independent café, where time is slowed and the audience is relaxed, is the ideal location for an encounter with a bunch of knitted chemistry with a message. Maybe its impact wasn’t instant, but perhaps in conversation and subsequent reflection it formed and refined and sunk in and was digested and will be long-lasting.

But…

But is it art? Nowadays, the art of ideas jostles alongside the art that imitates the world. Although Particulart does represent the molecular building blocks of the world, it primarily reflects on the culture and society in which we live, exploring the issues and effects of consumerism and accountability: the production and treatment of waste, the interactions between humans and rest of our environment, and even the disjunction between science and the rest of culture.

In an episode of “What Do Artists Do All Day?” screened in November 2014, the Chapman Brothers said that in some of their work they were “trying to just ruin the assumption that art has some progressive motion to it. And we think that by doing things like flower arranging and knitting that in some ways we can undermine the heroic nature of making art. We can just turn it into something prosaic.” Their position supports the notion that knitting can be art, even if it is phrased somewhat pejoratively. But does it differ from the use of craft in activism? Perhaps other craftivism goes further in explaining its purpose, meaning and demands. We produced an interpretative board and website that outlined our requests, and this blog is overly explicative, but I think and hope the exhibition also allowed space for interpretation. Anyway, I suspect that question doesn’t matter because craftivism is art anyway.

Either way, some “real artists” (as I call them) in Exeter received Particulart as art, which is good enough for me. And Matt Harvey, the local Wondermentalist, also commented that the particle name “2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin” was poetry in its own right, which was an added bonus.

So now what?

Diana is continuing to hold Devon County Council to account. The set of Incinerator particles is available to other protest groups on loan. Except, that is, for my out-size prototype carbon dioxide, which we will one day soon give away via Free Art Friday. Maybe we could go into schools and teach pupils how to skpo and kfb as a means of introducing them (and their teachers) to the issues.

I am developing the Particulart concept further to encompass further issues and more chemistry. “A Stitch in Time” is on the subject of climate change, and is being exhibited in Bristol Cathedral during Lent 2015. This Wednesday, 25th February, I am giving a talk in Exeter (I have reused my title as the title of this blog) and I would like to do more speaking and writing about the concept and the issues.

But I will leave the last word to my favourite tweet: “I wish I could adequately describe how happy I am that knitted molecular chains are an actual thing.”

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Candlemas-ology

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ at the Temple, otherwise known as Candlemas. In the reading from Luke’s gospel, Simeon calls Jesus “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32; NRSV), hence presumably the practice in the western church of blessing the candles for use in the church throughout the year, and the name ‘Candlemas’.

Originally, the feast was a minor celebration. But in 541 AD, bubonic plague broke out in Constantinople, killing thousands. Emperor Justinian I, in consultation with the Patriarch of Constantinople, ordered a period of fasting and prayer throughout the Eastern Empire, culminating in processions and a prayer service asking for deliverance on Candlemas in 542, whereupon the plague ceased. In thanksgiving, Justinian elevated the feast to a more solemn celebration.

Sometime in my first couple of years at the Met Office, I went to a lecture on dendrochronology-palaeoecology. Dendrochronology is the scientific method of dating based on the analysis of patterns of tree-rings, which is then used to determine certain aspects of past ecologies. In areas where the climate is reasonably predictable, trees develop annual rings of different properties depending on weather, rain, temperature, soil acidity, plant nutrition, carbon dioxide concentration, and so on.

In 540 AD, there was a major eruption of the Rabaul caldera near Papua New Guinea, of roughly the same magnitude as Mount Pinatubo in 1991 or Krakatoa in 1883. These sort of events fling huge quantities of ash and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere (Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 pales into insignificance), and appear in the palaeoecology record as ash strata in ice cores and the narrow tree rings resulting from global cooling. The lecturer was relating the science to all sorts of historical events and art, the really fascinating stuff you can get to in science, but only after paying your dues by painstaking counting of gazillions of tree-rings to assemble large enough datasets. He considered the global cooling following the 540 eruption as one of the contributions to the outbreak of plague; cooling would have affected grain crops, leading to famine, greater trade in grain, and hence in rats and fleas, and reduced resistance to disease.

By 542, the atmosphere was recovering, the sun returning and harvests improving. The lecturer didn’t go as far as linking the return of the sun with Justinian’s establishment of the feast celebrating the light for revelation to the nations – that was something I realised after the lecture. Probably there was no such link, but I liked the idea.


This is a repost from my Mucknell Abbey blog. Well, it is Groundhog Day after all!

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