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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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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