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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