Categories
art

Emotion and logic

Dr Rachel Jacobs is an artist based in Nottingham and London. She founded the collective Active Ingredient. Rachel completed a PhD in 2014 entitled ‘The Artist’s Footprint: Investigating the distinct contributions of artists engaging the public with climate change’.

We discuss many of Rachel’s projects, including A Conversation between trees (ACM), The Prediction Machine, and Rachel’s current project Performing the Future – a project looking at the future in response to environmental change.

The art of sharing, telling stories

Approach without an agenda

Emotional connection

The focus has been ‘how do understand the data more?’ but there’s a disconnect, we need to focus on ‘how data can be made more meaningful?’.

We need a combination of emotion and logic to act

I’d rather help people think about it and make sense in their own terms than have them get angry or defensive.

Feeling of future unfolding

(Positive) Something has changed, I hope it sticks

Sustainability: Not thinking sustainability as something different from how we live our lives.

Superpower: Caring about how people feel emotionally about the world.

Challenge: Future Machine

Miracle: Changing the causes of climate change

Advice: Try to find out as much as possible, be open minded, even things that scare me.

Categories
agriculture art community education geography

Rural imaginings

Professor Valentine Cadieux is Director of Environmental Studies and Director of Sustainability at Hamline University in St Paul, Minnesota. She studies collaborative knowledge practices related to food, agriculture, and land in the context of settler society cultures in Canada, the United States, and Aotearoa New Zealand.

Talking points.

Incentivised to explore the woods behind my house.

How to colloboratively define rural environments

Imagination of wilderness

People describing themselves as “rural people at heart” but don’t know any farmers.

Questions around what keeps people in the city when they’re living in rural areas?

Say your objectives out loud – in time you can hear them

Embedding sustainability across the curriculum

Validating what people are doing already.

Pieces of sustainability that dwarf the carpooling. Social justice, transformative change.

Sustainability has been “owned” by the environment, but more and more people are realising that it’s the connection to people – social justice, processes of change – that makes that special.

Institutions of higher learning promote value sets that are more consumerist than they intended. So we have to teach them (students) what is excessive.

Making food access and food liberty a part of being educated.

Students are so anxious about the future of the world. We’ve seen a huge reduction in scare tactics – they’re scared already, we have to present positivity as a message.

Permission to do the things you find pleasure and joy in.

A course: Planetary Home Care Manual.

How do you contribute as much as you take in a collaboration?

Definition: Conditions under which all can thrive

Activist: Social relationships are core – without them the technical won’t work.

Motivation: A surprisingly cheerful reaction to adversity.

Challenge: Not getting boxed in to recycling. Although that is a springboard to energy conversations.

Advice: Work with people who are joyful and find joy in the work. Be joyful and creative.

Categories
art

Painting is my language

Jo St Baker is an award winning visual artist. We talk about the golden thread that runs through First Wave, Resilience: Land Sea Transition and works including Turtle Alaia, Wall of Perpetual Momentum, the various modalities of Requiem (Paddle Out) and the Surfing Sandman. Common to all this is an exploration of light and movement and water. When asked if she considers herself an activist, Jo says “gently – people listen to those who whisper”. Celebrating ever changing land-sea transitions, Jo brings light to edges, a reminder that we need to look after our fragile systems.

Jo works with “things that inspire me on a daily basis” and asks us to look differently, be true to yourself, pay attention, and keep swimming.

Categories
art communication community occupational therapy urban

Creating opportunities for resourcefulness


I think if we were living resourcefully, we would make the most of what we had around us, in a way that meant that we came together as communities, to share resources, and that we took responsibility for what happens within the life of the resources that we use, as individuals, and as families and communities.

Recycling, reusing, reducing, remodeling, and reselling! Juliet Arnott’s social enterprise ‘Rekindle’ is all about diverting reusable resources from waste via creativity and craftsmanship.  Juliet Arnott studied at Otago Polytechnic’s School of Occupational Therapy and went on to use her creativity and craftsmanship with community groups, schools, health groups, artists and designers. Rekindle originally focused on diverting timber from waste within residential demolition in Christchurch, turning it into furniture, interiors, sculpture and jewellery. One of Juliet’s more famous projects was Whole House Reuse, where her team deconstructed and transformed an entire earthquake damaged house into beautiful and purposeful artefacts. More than 250 people from around New Zealand and the world were involved, creating everything from a delicately carved taonga puoro to a finely crafted backyard studio.

Juliet will be honoured in May as one of Otago Polytechnic’s distinguished alumni.

 

 

Samuel Mann: Welcome to Sustainable Lens Resilience: On Radio, a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann. Each week, we talk with someone making a positive difference and applying their skills to a sustainable future. In our conversations, we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s sustainable lens is that of Juliet Arnott, the artist, a founder of Rekindle, and an occupational therapist.  You trained at Otago Polytech.

 

Juliet Arnott: That’s right. Yeah.

 

Samuel Mann: Thank you very much for joining me.

 

Juliet Arnott: Pleasure. It’s lovely to be here.

 

Samuel Mann: Let’s start with questions about you. Where did you grow up?

 

Juliet Arnott: I grew up in a little place called Canvastown, in Marlborough. It’s between Nelson and Blenheim, near Havelock. We were farming and pretty self sufficient, really, back then in the 70’s. Yeah, that was pretty …

 

Samuel Mann: Did you say Canvastown?

 

Juliet Arnott: Canvastown.

 

Samuel Mann: Like tents?

 

Juliet Arnott: Which was a gold rush. Yes. It had this wonderful history. In fact, we spent a fair bit of time in our childhood with our gold pans in the river, ever hopeful. It was a pretty lovely existence, living off the land and living pretty closely with the resources around us, I suppose.

 

Samuel Mann: What did you want to be when you grew up?

 

Juliet Arnott: That’s a good question. I don’t know that I really had a clear sense of that. I just remember being encouraged by mum, particularly, towards being creative. But no, generally I don’t recall what I was particularly aiming at.

 

Samuel Mann: What did you get involved in?

 

Juliet Arnott: It was a pretty rural community, so it was barefoot running around. I just remember being outside, I remember being on the farm, involved in all the usual farming activities, and really enjoying that. I do have this story that I recall, which relates to how things did develop in my life, which was Mum and Dad had this beautiful rush basket, that acted as our bread basket. I remember quite clearly, this experience. I must have been really quite young, maybe five or six, going out down to the paddock below the house, which was full of rushes, a different kind of rush, and attempting to weave a basket, but I was completely inept. I absolutely didn’t have the understanding of how to do it, but I remember the magic of that basket as an object, and that’s kind of lingered with me, I think. It’s definitely part of what has since rolled out in my life, I suppose, as that journey towards understanding how those simple resources can be harnessed and valued.

 

Samuel Mann: I won’t make the obvious connection between baskets and occupational therapy, but is that what got you into occupational therapy?

 

Juliet Arnott: It was!  My mother was a nurse, and I think in my teenage years, when I was starting to think about what I wanted to be, she did encourage me, or my parents encouraged me towards a health profession. I remember one day, bizarrely, we were taken on a tour of the local … In Nelson, where I was at school, taken on a tour of the local … What was then a psychiatric institution, called Ngawhatu. It was really the old fashioned style of institution, and we were walked through it, which I look back and think how bizarre that really was for school students. I saw this woman working in the industrial woodwork shop, and I saw her role and thought what an incredible role to have, to be able to work creatively with people, to work practically in that way, I suppose. That was all I really knew of occupational therapy, in some regards. It was only when I showed up at Otago Polytech and got onto the course in 1993, that I realised that actually, I had hit the jackpot and I actually had found something that was really aligned with what I valued and was really intrigued by, I think, by its diversity and the fact that it connects with what we do every day.

 

Samuel Mann: Did it deliver what you were hoping?

 

Juliet Arnott: Yes it did, and it didn’t. It did in the sense that I learnt a lot. I learnt a huge amount through my training, and through the first probably, fifteen years of my practise, where I was attempting to … Where I was learning about the health system and how it functions, and then attempting to find my place within it. In terms of being able to work well, and truly therapeutically within that system. I think I continuously hit up against the struggles of that system, and whether it was the lack of funding around the time that I could spend with people, or the way that services were limited in the way that they could genuinely support people through big change and challenge in their life. It was helpful in learning some realities, but it’s also been frustrating, I suppose, to be exposed to some of the current systemic challenges. But then, it’s pushed me on to look at something beyond that more conventional occupational therapy role.

 

Samuel Mann: Because you wanted to do more than was in those bounds, or …?

 

Juliet Arnott: Yeah. One of the common struggles for me, and I think definitely for other occupational therapists, is that you end up working within the health system, and you work with the people who have needed your support for the time that the service allows them to be a part of that service, but then you have to support that person back into their home, or back into their daily existence outside of the service. And often, there’s not enough there. I’m particularly thinking in terms of mental health services. There’s simply not enough there, to aid that person, to bridge that gap between being really quite unwell and being quite dependent on a service, through to living a really healthy, productive existence, engaged in community. That gap really was something that’s difficult to do anything about, from inside the service. I guess what has happened gradually over the last few years, has been that I have been attempting to create some of these opportunities that I would like for people going through those challenges to have the opportunity to experience. I guess part of the journey recently has been about trying to evolve, and what I was frustrated with the lack of in the past.

 

Samuel Mann: What was your first venture outside of the conventional bounds?

 

Juliet Arnott: In part, it was probably … For quite some years, I worked conventionally as an occupational therapist, but on the side I would continue my own creative practise, and the two co-existed. I would go to work and talk about doing my basket weaving, and my colleagues would laugh at me, and I would try and explain to them how important it actually was. I had these two very separate parts of my life, and the creative practise was very much, that was when I was living in the UK, and it was very much about my own personal connection with the environment that I was living in, but it was also about revealing the value of materials that were being wasted in the community around me. That became a bigger and bigger part of my life outside of occupational therapy, to the point where I was being commissioned to make work, sculpturally, with these waste materials, and would do that half the time, then in the winter when I wasn’t doing it, I would work as an occupational therapist.

 

It’s been a gradual journey to the point where returning to New Zealand, that’s when I started Rekindle and the two came together more indefinitely.

 

Samuel Mann: What prompted the interest in waste materials?

 

Juliet Arnott: I think the reality was, growing up in that fairly idyllic farming situation, you’re exposed to a fairly simple relationship to the resources around you and understanding where the natural limits lie, and how to live well with what you have around you. Then, I was quite struck, in a fairly naïve way, when I did move to the UK in my mid twenties, and even in rural England, was surprised that there was quite a strong culture of consumption and disposal. It was that really, that pushed me to really look around in my day to day existence, and to really want to make something of the material resources that I was seeing around me that were going to waste. That particularly started with things like the prunings from the hedge rose when they were trimmed. Corpus material that was cut from Willow or Hazel trees. Then, that moved on through and to … As I learnt crafts to use those materials, then through to use of a lot of the waste that washes up on the beaches in the UK, a lot of rope and plastics. It evolved as my wanting, needing, to make sense really, of what I was seeing around me, in some sort of vain attempt I suppose, to show the value of what that stuff was, because mostly, it was being ignored.

 

Samuel Mann: And you came back here?

 

Juliet Arnott: I came back in 2009, after 9 years away, and was feeling relatively displaced, and didn’t really have a grand plan for my return home, and found myself in Auckland for the first time, which I enjoyed. But again, I realise now I was quite naively struck by the waste that I found there. I think that I had imagined that in New Zealand we were well beyond things like landfills, but I obviously found we weren’t, and was just surprised at the dependence on the land fill mechanism and at that time. A lot has changed since, but at that time was surprised to find a big pile of wood out at one of the transfer stations in Auckland, and that is what I responded to with the initial furniture designs that I came up with for Rekindle.

 

Samuel Mann: You established Rekindle…so Rekindle 101…?

 

Juliet Arnott: Rekindle 101, yes, it’s definitely been a big journey since then. Rekindle 101, in a sense … I was living in Grey Lynn in Auckland at the time and I was appreciating all the beautiful old villas around in that area, and other suburbs of Auckland, and realising that there was a fairly common sight to see skips with a fair amount of timbers in them, whether renovations were happening, or to see demolitions underway, and I guess that combined with the wood pile I had seen in the transfer station, I was very intrigued to understand what this was all about, and then to learn that of course, demolition and construction waste are such big contributors to our land filling here. I decided to try and come up with a furniture design that would just reveal some of the structural integrity of that material, some of its beautiful aesthetic value and obviously its cultural value, in terms of it being ancient indigenous timber. I did that with the help of a couple of furniture makers in Auckland, we worked together to prototype the first chair, and then tables, stools and the like.

 

I had just started putting those out into the world, and made a first couple of sales up in Auckland, and then started … I guess being aware through my previous relationship with Christchurch, that my old home that I had lived in in my early twenties was now facing of course, this mess of challenge with regards to demolition waste and the dis empowerment that was occurring as part of that hasty process. That was when I started to think about coming back here, and what role I could play really, in that period of demolition.

 

Samuel Mann: Your website makes the connection between not just the waste, but the community?

 

Juliet Arnott: Yeah.

 

Samuel Mann: And you just talked about that sort of, in the dis empowerment and the waste. Tell me how you’re bringing those two things together.

 

Juliet Arnott: I suppose I find it hard to look at waste without wondering how making waste affects us as humans. I think it’s something that we take for granted that we do, which of course, naturally, many of the inhabitants of this earth make waste. I don’t think we think enough about the impact of that. I think when your ability to hold on to something that you value, is taken away from you, and when the resources that you have owned are taken away from you, and their disposal is managed by someone else, that … In terms of how the demolition played out here, was very difficult for a lot of people. When people are choosing to dispose of their own resources, that’s a whole other story, but I think for people to have that choice taken away from them, was very difficult. Both taken away by the earthquakes themselves and by the damage that occurred, and of course, by the bureaucratic processes that would naturally unfold afterwards.

 

I think for me, as an occupational therapist, I see both naturally the environmental concern about the waste, but for me it’s much more than that, it’s the human experience of disposing of materials that we still see as having value. There’s something futile about that, there’s something even a little hopeless about not being able to take the time to value the things that we would perhaps even feel a bit guilty about throwing out ourselves, if we had done it ourselves. It relates to our need to demonstrate value, when that exists. I think if we’re not experiencing that, if we’re not given the opportunity to experience that, that becomes quite problematic.

 

Samuel Mann: Are we not quite happy having somebody take it away?

 

Juliet Arnott: I just think we definitely are –

 

Samuel Mann: We put the bin out at the curb and it disappears.

 

Juliet Arnott: Absolutely. We would say that we probably would, in most cases, not value the material that we’re putting in those bins, versus say the residential demolition. Different thing. I think … It’s such a complex thing, but you know there’s that thing about there’s hidden nature being useful at times, when we don’t have to face the land fill. If the land fill was just over there, and we saw the seagulls, we might feel slightly uncomfortable, versus what we were seeing with the residential process that was that obvious to us, it was in our faces and that was incredibly difficult to witness.

 

Samuel Mann: You arrived back in Christchurch, thousands of houses being knocked down.

 

Juliet Arnott: Yeah.

 

Samuel Mann: Where do you start?

 

Juliet Arnott: It was quite overwhelming. I didn’t really know what the solution was at that time. It was a very difficult bureaucratic process to even understand, let alone intercept. I spent probably a year speaking with demolition contractors, gaining their trust, getting them to understand that what I wanted to do wasn’t crazy, it wasn’t unsafe, that I wouldn’t slow them down. Initially, we did a lot of salvage just on sites where the diggers had been, and they’d just left a pile of crushed timbers and we would haul out what was still viable for furniture. But, over that first year, we worked out a way that worked, and with the contractors so that we would salvage before the diggers arrive. That’s how we got rolling really. It was only a symbolic thing in the sense that we were definitely not [occurring] … We were definitely not able to grow this capacity to salvage timber, to the degree that we could really address the whole problem, but I guess we just did our best within the constraints at play.

 

The second big response I had to the scale of it all, was the Whole House Reuse project, that very much acknowledged the fact that there were at least 9,000 homes in the red zone, and more, demolished beyond that. How on earth do you attempt to make a statement or celebrate the homes that were lost, or even define the value of a home. It was really hard to know how to even begin to think about these issues. I decided that perhaps if we just put all of our energies into this, to the ultimately resourceful response, to just one home, that we might see something from that that feels heartening for us, so that’s what we did. It didn’t happen for the first … We worked on it for years, but didn’t really get underway until Kate McIntyre came on board as the project manager and we managed to get a red zone home from a demolition contractor, and all of the funds raised to allow us to fully deconstruct that home. We then published a book with a catalogue with all the materials from the home. We used that book launch around the country to call for creatives to submit designs of the materials from that home.

 

That lead to those successful designs being then issued. The people that submitted those were then issued the materials. We sent the materials all around the country and across the world, in fact. And then, the successful objects were sent back. We’ve received around 400 objects made from the home that were later exhibited in Canterbury Museum in 2015.

 

Samuel Mann: So, nice and slowly…you took it apart?

 

Juliet Arnott: Yes.

 

Samuel Mann: Piece by piece?

 

Juliet Arnott: Yes.

 

Samuel Mann: Laid it all out somewhere?

 

Juliet Arnott: Literally, Kate and a team of volunteers put it on trailer loads and took it to the storage unit, categorised it, photographed it, measured it, and created this taxonomy of what we think is the first time in the world that a whole house has been classified in that way. We utilised that catalogue to call for designs, then we had designs submitted from all over New Zealand and some from overseas, from people, from professional designers and makers through to hobbyists and school children, and really fantastic craftspeople, legends of their time, like Brian Flintoff who is New Zealand’s, one of the most remarkable carvers of taonga puoro. With things like an amazing artist on the Isle of Tiree in Scotland, we sent her some broken window panes and she sent back some beautiful slumped glass vessels. Some really wonderful creative responses that valued the material.

 

Samuel Mann: Did people put in a bid, and say ‘I want two taps and a cupboard door’?

 

Juliet Arnott: Yes. They all had to kind of … They all had the same catalogue so it was quite a logistical process, making sure that different people didn’t want the same stuff and all of that, and getting it out to people and then getting the finished objects back. But, generally, Kate managed that process and generally it seemed to work quite well.

 

Samuel Mann: What was the most sought after bit?

 

Juliet Arnott: Do you know what, I don’t know. I think the timbers … The obvious things, like the beautiful rimu and things were pretty popular, but that actually worked out, that was actually quite well spread. That was kind of … We also did it in a couple of rounds, so it wasn’t all at once. We had the first wave of designs, then we had the second wave, it was helpful to co-ordinate it in that way. Yeah. Then, the variety of things that people made were just extraordinary.

 

Samuel Mann: What sort of things did you get back?

 

Juliet Arnott: I mentioned Brian’s taonga puoro, he made some beautiful floats and wind instruments, traditionally carved with [inaudible 00:21:30]. He carved these most beautiful boxes that were traditionally made to store the huia feathers, so they were just three really beautiful ornamentally carved, boxes. And we had Tim McGurk who made a whole lot of stuff with his partner Emma Burn. He made a double bass, which was called the Double Basin, which had a basin as the resonator for the instrument, and it was playable. We had David Trubridge make a magazine rack/coffee table. We had Nic Moon and Lynn Russell from Nelson make the largest object, which was this really beautiful studio building, and it was built in Nic’s  –Nic’s an artist in Nelson, it was built in Nic’s garden, built for deconstruction, so that it could be deconstructed to be brought down here to be reconstructed in the museum. That was pretty amazing, and very beautifully furnished. She worked on it very laboriously and the whole finish was very painstaking and beautiful. There are some beautiful images of it on the website, actually.

 

Through to, tiny little pieces of jewellery, beautiful jewellery made by people like Jeremy Leeming, and thinking of also the beautiful wooden type. We had some whole synopsis of type carved out of rimu framing, by a type fanatic, Russell Frost, in London. He’s a New Zealander but he was over there, he did that, and we’ve since been printing with that, so it’s quite beautiful to …

 

Samuel Mann: Did you attempt to value the …

 

Juliet Arnott: What, the outcome?

 

Samuel Mann: Yeah.

 

Juliet Arnott: We’re actually just in the middle of finalising an academic article on this, because we have. What happened at the end of the exhibition was that the makers could decide what happened to the objects. Half of them chose to put the objects forward into a charitable auction, so we literally have a monetary value associated with those objects, as to what they sold for. Some of the makers also chose to gift their objects to the home owners, which was really wonderful, then the rest … Most of the rest either they went back to the makers, because the makers weren’t paid anything, they did this out of their own goodwill, so they could take their objects back or they could gift them into the community, if they had a specific community purpose in Christchurch. We are doing sums around the value, the monetary value, we’re also doing some sums around essentially what was diverted and how much of an impact that would essentially have. That’s quite useful information to reflect on, the rest of what happened here in Christchurch.

 

Samuel Mann: Did you get stuck with anything at the end?

 

Juliet Arnott: Yeah. We really wanted to reuse the whole house. The shame of it all was, we actually ran out of time. We would’ve been able to. We could’ve kept pushing it, but actually we had to commit to the exhibition and we literally ran out of time, so we were left with a couple of toilet bowls. We still had some weird things like corrugated iron. Weird things like buckets of nails, because the other quite interesting thing was that, when the makers received the materials, their waste from their making processes, we asked them to send that back, so we actually received buckets of nails from the de-nailed timber. Things like that had a ready place on the scrap metal market, for example. If nothing else. In the end … I’m trying to think what was really hard to deal with. There were things like the boreded timber, for example. The idea with that was that … We weren’t allowed to go to the Canterbury Museum funnily enough, so that stayed in the paddock. Things like that can become wood chip, depending on it’s use.

 

We did really well. I can’t remember the number of items we had left, but there was a chunk, but not too many given the scale, I think.

 

Samuel Mann: Did the house have visible history? Layers of wallpaper, and things?

 

Juliet Arnott: Yeah, there was some cool things like that. There was things like … And actually, some of the photographs, before we deconstructed the home, we had an amazing photographer, Guy Frederick, come and document the home. There’s things like, there’s this beautiful cupboard in the laundry bathroom area, you opened the cupboard up and inside there was this bright orange patterned wallpaper from the 70’s. There’s definite areas in the home where you could see the patina of life in there. We spent time before we deconstructed it, with the family and we invited in some of the older families that had lived in the home before the current homeowners, so we really traced as much of that history as we could and documented that, and we showed that in the exhibition with photographs and the like.

 

We really wanted to celebrate the life that that home had held.

 

Samuel Mann: Is this story ongoing?

 

Juliet Arnott: Well, it’s paused at the moment. The next part we would really like to raise funds for, is to document where all of these objects have ended up and end in their current use. One of the key criteria that we had in the design brief is that the objects needed to have utility, so we would love to be able to follow the story of the objects and see the full life of the house and its new use. Otherwise, we have looked at, with enviro schools, at creating an educational resource from it also, so hopefully we’ll get to do that at some point. But, that’s probably acting otherwise, but its legacy in the sense that we learnt a lot in that is certainly spilling out into my work now in Kokoda, for example. It was certainly a journey. We were quite pleased to get to the end of the exhibition, just because it literally, physically, it was an enormous process to manage.

 

Samuel Mann: You worked with the museum to do the communication, the narrative around it?

 

Juliet Arnott: Yes, and to show the work there. There’s actually a lovely film online, on the Whole House Reuse website, that depicts the whole story and gives you some sense of what was seen the in museum.

 

Samuel Mann: Would you do it again?

 

Juliet Arnott: Well, it’s funny you ask that. I’ve been asked that several times, in some cases it was a genuine wish to do it again, and I don’t think I would. I think I would do parts of it again. I think there’s ways that it could be done to make it easier. I think there’s ways that it could be done to make it have greater impact, too. I think it’s a wonderful way for a community to come together around something that they’re feeling concerned about.

 

Samuel Mann: You talked about how building the community in terms of volunteers. Are enterprises springing up out of this sort of work?

 

Juliet Arnott: Yeah, I think to a degree. I think there’s various things that happened here, in Christchurch. We certainly saw a boom in the demolition industry and the salvage industry. I don’t know in terms of creative entrepreneurs. I wouldn’t say there’s been that much. My sense about that in Christchurch is that there’s been a lot of things that people have been dealing with. I think when you look at waste minimization across New Zealand though, we are seeing more and more of a thoughtful, creative response to waste, as a means of raising its value, so to divert it from land fill, and it’s really lovely to see that, I think. You know, certainly see that, and the work of the community recycling network across the country, and the awesome organisations like Extreme Zero Waste in Raglan, and Wanaka Wastebusters, and those organisations. They’ve been doing that for some time.

 

Samuel Mann: You talked before about a resourceful response. What’s your take on resourceful?

 

Juliet Arnott: That’s become a really big focus for me, I think. When I finished the Whole House Reuse project, when we packed that up and had taken a bit of a holiday, I realised that I didn’t have the energy left to keep working with the focus of wastefulness. It was too … The machine, the big waste making machine, whatever it might be, and whatever is contributing to that, is so vast and there’s so much of it, that for me intellectually, it was becoming a struggle to see how to keep working with that positively. I did a lot of thinking about what’s the other, what’s the antithesis of wastefulness, and really out of that thought came this notion of resourcefulness. That, if we were to look at our lives in that healthy state, and that opposite state to wastefulness, it would be a resourceful way of life. It would be a way of living that allows us to be very much in touch with the resources around us, with the natural limits of those resources. I think if we were living resourcefully, we would make the most of what we had around us, in a way that meant that we came together as communities, to share resources, and that we took responsibility for what happens within the life of the resources that we use, as individuals, and as families and communities.

 

I think, for me, more and more I’m focused in terms of developing that concept of resourcefulness, what it looks like, what are the realities of that, what do we do, how do we build that positive relationship with the material resources around us. I think you can’t help but reflect on that, by reflecting on your inner resources as well. You can’t just think about … You can’t separate out really, our relationship with what’s around us, without considering how that makes us feel. I can’t, anyway, I should say. Resourcefulness for me, reflects both that positive state, in terms of our [inaudible 00:32:46] and consideration of the earth and the resources that we utilise from it, but also how that impacts on us. If we act resourcefully and repair a piece of furniture, or an appliance that breaks, then that changes the way we feel. We feel it builds our sense of the resources we have to cope, to feel confident, we have what it takes to manage when we don’t have much money, but we have something break on us. It builds our confidence that we have hands that do the things that we need them to do, or that we know about materials, we know about wood, or textiles, you know. That intimacy between us as humans and the resources that we live around constantly, and interact with, is something that is so present that sometimes we don’t really … We almost don’t think about it.

 

Samuel Mann: Do you feel as though you are fighting a machine?

 

Juliet Arnott: I feel less like it now. The work that I’m doing currently with Rekindle, is very much focused on the resourcefulness, on depicting and bringing out experiences of that. Offering people opportunities, to feel resourceful, as well as still doing some work that is directly addressing wastefulness. It’s not that I’ve given up on that, it’s just that the two for me need to … I need to show them both, as parts of a continuum or spectrum, for me to feel that we’re really focusing on what’s positive and possible in all of this.

 

Samuel Mann: What does a resourceful world look like?

 

Juliet Arnott: I think it’s one where we are just fundamentally really aware of our relationship with what’s around us, so therefore we don’t discard of materials before they’ve had a full life. We also don’t chose to use materials that area harmful to their origin, or to the earth or to each other. There’s all of that knowledge about where things come from, where materials have come from, how we use them in relation to how that impacts the environment, and then also how we share those resources. Because, how we share those resources, how they flow within our communities, also relates to our access to resources, and in terms of poverty and the like, I think there’s a huge amount to be gained from living resourcefully in communities, in terms of improving our access to resources.

 

Samuel Mann: Have we lost the ability to do that, though?

 

Juliet Arnott: I think it’s definitely compromised, currently. I think our consumption and a lot of autonomy in our daily lives around … Not so much autonomy, but anonymity, I mean. Each household tends to do whatever they do, with waste. They’re not obviously accountable for anyone else, or anything. There’s not a lot of shared problem solving around that, there’s not a lot of shared responsibility around how we care for the resources that we have. I know for efficiencies sake, it’s good that we have great waste minimization organisations helping streamline that, but the bottom line is that it takes away our sense of need to deal with these things. In some ways, I think that’s problematic.

 

Samuel Mann: Do you have any idea how much of the, whether you want to see it as a positive or a negative, but, how much of our individual contribution to the waste we actually have control of? How much of it is upstream or downstream of us, and we don’t actually have much control over?

 

Juliet Arnott: I think we do. I think nowadays we have significant opportunities to control it. For example, the use of the second-hand market has been demonstrated to be a really considerable opportunity to divert material from land fill. I guess, effectively, simply that choice of buying new or buying second hand, that can really impact what ends up going to land fill. It’s not all about the designers or who’s creating what we find on the supermarket shelves. Yes, that certainly contributes to things, and packaging and all of that is problematic, but we absolutely have the choices. Many of the choices that we need around us, in terms of avoidance of packaging, and buying locally without packaging at all, and shopping second hand. That kind of thing.

 

Samuel Mann: One of the things that we like to talk about is how a sustainable future is a better future, not a lesser future. I think well framing that, in terms of this positive relationship. But, to what extent are you and I, and a disappointingly small band of others, kidding ourselves?

 

Juliet Arnott: The occupational therapist in me, looks at mental health statistics, for example. I can’t help but look at that and think, that is such a massive sign that we as a race are really, really struggling with our current way of doing things, and that our search for meaning if you like, in itself, is really challenged by the current way that we do life. I think things are becoming so dire, both in terms of our mental health, but also in terms of the economic struggles that we’re seeing around the world, struggles over natural resources and the like, that I can’t help but think that when things change, as things change, that there will be some improvements there, because it’s bringing us back to some of the fundamental realities, like the fact that we have limited resources. Therefore, we have to learn to care for what we do have around us. I guess, I’m so biased that I can’t see.

 

Samuel Mann: As a species, you’d like to think we’re not stupid. How come we’ve been distracted by this party going on?

 

Juliet Arnott: I just think it’s so convenient. There’s an allure of the sophistication of being able to purchase what you want, being able to have what you want, being able to wear what you want, when you want, eat whatever food you like, wherever in the world it’s come from, whenever you like, whatever season it is. All of that stuff. But, actually, we’ve splurged on that now. People know that they can … Not everyone of course, but people understand those realities now. The impact is such that it doesn’t really make a difference. It doesn’t really mean that we have everything we need, because in fact it’s distracted us probably from what we really need.

 

Samuel Mann: Okay, some questions to end with. I don’t think we’ve covered this one already, so let’s do it now. What’s your go-to definition of sustainability?

 

Juliet Arnott: You see, I stay well away from the word. Just simply because, I think it is a word that for me, has been overused in some regards. I find it easier to talK about some of the more specific concepts that make up a part of that, like resourcefulness.

 

Samuel Mann: Okay. What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years?

 

Juliet Arnott: Success. That’s hard. I think probably the most meaningful thing that’s happened in terms of my work, was recently when supporting some of the planning that’s happening up in Kaikoura, post-quake. I was sitting in a room with a lot of others who had been heavily involved in the demolition process of the red zone, here in Christchurch, residential red zone, was to hear the will for change, so that community can be more involved in deconstruction outcomes, following these kinds of disasters. That for me, was incredibly heartening. It felt like a definite sense that we have learnt something from what happened here.

 

Samuel Mann: We’re writing a book of these interviews. We’re calling it ‘Tomorrow’s Heroes.’ Looking back at the people who are doing the work. How would you like to describe your superpower?

 

Juliet Arnott: My superpower. I think probably, it’s something to do with being … My superpower, that’s really …. Something to do with maybe being able to see the inherent value of material resources and being able to transform them.

 

Samuel Mann: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?

 

Juliet Arnott: I suppose I do nowadays. I suppose I do. Just in the sense that I can’t help but …

 

Samuel Mann: That sounds reluctant though. A reluctant action, or a reluctant label?

 

Juliet Arnott: A reluctant label. The action isn’t reluctant, it’s something I can’t help. I probably don’t call myself that, no.

 

Samuel Mann: What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

 

Juliet Arnott: Just, what’s yet to be done. I guess the opportunities that are there, and the impact that I see that that could have for people who would benefit from, like myself, who would benefit from being creative with resources that are undervalued.

 

Samuel Mann: What are you looking forward to in the next couple of years?

 

Juliet Arnott: I’m looking forward to doing more green wood working. We’ve just got a project that’s being launched at the moment, that’s pushing green wood working into the centre of Christchurch, we’ve set up a workshop in the middle of the city, so I’m looking forward to doing more and more of that myself, working with some beautiful old timbers from within the city.

 

Samuel Mann: Two more. If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur, tomorrow morning, what would you like?

 

Juliet Arnott: I would just love to see … I would love to have a huge craft workshop facilities, that had all of the wonderful tools, and everyone knew about them, and people were coming and sharing their skills and I didn’t have to make it happen.

 

Samuel Mann: Lastly, do you have any advice for our listeners?

 

Juliet Arnott: Nothing that comes to mind.

 

Samuel Mann: If someone gave you a big billboard that you could write on by a motorway, what would you put on it?

 

Juliet Arnott: I guess I would say something like … I guess I would ask people to consider that wastefulness is kind of like … Them being wasteful, is in effect missed opportunities for resourcefulness, you know? If you think about where those opportunities for resourcefulness lie, and seek them out, that probably will assist your will to get out of bed in the morning.

 

Samuel Mann: Thank you very much. You’ve been listening to Sustainable Lens Resilience, on Radio. A weekly show on sustainability projects, brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann. We broadcast on Otago access radio, oar.org.nz, and podcast on sustainablelens.org. On sustainablelens.org we are building up a searchable archive of conversations with people from many different fields, who are applying their skills to a sustainable future.

 

In our conversations we are trying to find out what motivates them, and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens, even if they don’t call it that. Tonight’s sustainable lens was that of Juliet Arnott, founder of Rekindle.

 

You can follow the links on sustainablelens.org to find us on Facebook, to keep in touch, and you can listen to Sustainable Lens via Itunes as well as all the other poddy sorts of places. That was Sustainable Lens, I’m Samuel Mann, I hope you enjoyed the show.

 

Sam’s pictures from the Whole House Reuse exhibition at Canterbury Museum.

Categories
art community urban

Artists shaping the future city

Frances Whitehead Image from http://www.makeartwithpurpose.net/projects.php?id=15&tp=4


Frances Whitehead is an artist working in the Chicago/Gary area of the great lakes basins of the USA. She is a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago andwas in Dunedin for the Art and Future symposium at Otago Polytechnic.   She brings the methods, mindsets, and strategies of contemporary art practice to the process of shaping the future city. Questions of sustainability, culture change, and participation thread through her work as she integrates art and sustainability at the scale of the city.

 

Sam: Welcome to Sustainable Lens: Resilience on Radio, a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann. Shane is not here tonight, but I’m with Frances Whitehead who is an artist working in the Chicago/Gary area of the great lakes basins of the USA. She is a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and she’s here for a symposium at Otago Polytechnic. Thank you for joining me.

 

Frances: Glad to be here.

 

Sam: Let’s go right back. Where did you grow up?

 

Frances: I grew up in Richmond, Virginia on the East Coast, Middle Atlantic area of the US.

 

Sam: What was it like growing up there?

 

Frances: I wasn’t aware of it at the time but there are two things that have really stuck with me from growing up there. One is a preoccupation that the culture has with its own history and to the point where perhaps it’s almost ancestor worship. The other is that Virginia has four real seasons. I didn’t understand that every place is not. When I moved away, I discovered that every place doesn’t have seasons that look like what shows up in the calendar. That was maybe the beginning of me realising at that place which has become a big issue for me.

 

Sam: What did you want to be when you grew up?

 

Frances: I come from a family of artists. I always say art is the family business. Early on, I’ve always been interested in science and I’m quite good in higher mathematics. I’m a Sputnik Baby as they call it, meaning that when the space race from the Sputnik launch was started, they took a bunch of us and taught us what was called the new math. I’m a new math kid.

 

That interest in math and science coupled with my own family background in art, I think set me going where I am interested in both of those areas in the quals and the quants and I find no conflict between them and for me art is science and vice versa. It’s all inquiry. It’s all ways to understand the world. I think that got me going in a particular direction that has stayed with me.

 

Sam: What did you do about that when you left school?

 

Frances: I went to art school and I think that that was the undertow of my family heritage that in the end, I couldn’t do it any other way. It took me a long time to figure out how to bring my other interests back into the mix.

 

Sam: What sort of art did you do?

 

Frances: You mean as a young person?

 

Sam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Frances: As a young person, I primarily focused from printmaking. It took me some time to realise that what I liked about it was the equipment in the room which are big mysterious machines with cranks and making images on sheets of copper or images on stone that appear and disappear and that it’s a kind of alchemy that transpires in there.

 

That actually was the process that interested me. Somehow the prints were always a disappointment. I did a lot of lithography. Gradually, I came to realise it was the equipment, and the rocks, and the bottles of acid, and chemistry that interested me. After I graduated, after I already had my MFA which in the states is your terminal degree, I became a sculptor on my own, outside school. In terms of what became my home-based discipline, sculpture is the big tent, but that’s another story. In terms of that, I’m self-taught I suppose.

 

I set upon a course of work that I began to try to figure out first how domesticity might inform creative production and that led me to make a series of what we might call metaobjects. I didn’t have that language at the time, but in retrospect that’s what it was. That was participating in the theory we might now call deconstruction, but we didn’t have that language then. That was an analysis of how classification in taxonomy actually helped us but also hinder us from understanding what’s in front of us.

 

That eventually morphed into a post-industrial look at industrial artefacts because by then I had moved into Chicago and we were moving into the post-industrial although no one had that language or the postmodern, no one had that language. Eventually, I began to garden while I was in the city. We might call that the pastoral response although I didn’t have that language.

 

The question of nature in the post-industrial city crept in organically over a period of 20 years and eventually that career making objects about that condition that I was exhibiting in galleries and museums, I began to have an unease about that practise because it seemed to disconnected from what was going on around me which was the environmental degradation around me.

 

I began to feel it. I gradually became politicised around environmental issues. I would say around 2000, I discovered this emerging discourse that we now call sustainability. Of course it had been around for a while, but nobody was talking about it really. I became aware of it. Once I became aware of it, I always tell people it completely captured my imagination that I am not working out of a sense that will … Maybe a little bit now, but primarily I’m not working out of a sense of social responsibility. I’m working out of a love affair with complexity because it turns out I have a pretty complex world view and that was always a problem.

 

My interests in complexity was a problem because in reductive, essentialized, academic and professional circles, they weren’t broad enough. When I discovered sustainability, it was a way to use my worldview and my appetite for complexity which was a way to use all of my art, math and science capacity in a way that was interesting instead of it becoming always a liability.

 

Sam: If we take a step back, you were talking about the galleries style of work that you did, the nature and the industrial city. Did that come from a wider society, care for the earth, Earth Day, perhaps protest movement or what was driving that?

 

Frances: I was really dealing with these subjects philosophically and even psychologically. I was not at all an activist. I think I had become a climate activist or an activist now, but I have never been a rabble-rouser type activist. Actually much more attuned to what we might call subversive tactics. For example, I have become quite a chameleon in terms of being able to enter the habitués, the world of another discipline, learn to speak their language, understand their values, priorities, methods so that I can connect the dots so that I can collaborate meaningfully.

 

My activism has been … I joke that I’m a double agent working both inside and outside art. Inside and outside civic arenas, inside and outside science as a way to punch holes in disciplinary walls to allow ideas to flow more freely, but that includes art, turning back on art to change art and to change artists and to change the imaginary of what an artist might be in society. I’ve never really been the activist that you’re describing.

 

Sam: You said you were politicised in about 2000. What brought that on?

 

Frances: As I was describing, I had began to garden and this garden that I had next to my house, without me knowing it was actually a reclamation project because the detritus from the building that had been there kept coming up out of the ground. I would reach out to pick up a piece of fluff and it would turn out to be an 8 by 12 rug that was in the soil. It was coming up out of it from some house that have been there before.

 

It was an unintentional reclamation project. After a few years of this, the condition, this post-urban condition was so all round me that it began to actually rattle my beliefs in the family business, in the art that I was making which was seeming increasingly irrelevant. Even as my first moves were to take these themes, environmental themes and move them into the gallery, I quickly became dissatisfied with that because I felt it was pretty clear, I was preaching to the converted.

 

I went from making object sculpture about post-industrial to bringing even living plants into the gallery out of the garden to eventually realising that the garden was the laboratory that had pulled me out of the studio, into public, into public practice, into collaboration with living entities, into confrontation with degraded soils and systems, but also into conversation with neighbours, into working with living systems. It was a step by step process that went on since the mid-80’s and evolved over a 10 or 20 year period.

 

Sam: I missed a step in there … In your garden you were realising that it was a place of urban decay or something that you were trying to reestablish. Tell me nice and slowly what’s linked between that to being critical of the family business?

 

Frances: I mean, you’re basically asking me to recount a history that was not quite so linear. There were many things going on at the same time. I’m teaching at an art school. I’m continuing to participate in the discourse of what we could call normal art in the Thomas Kuhnian sense where he calls normal science and post-normal science.

 

I’m participating in normal art, meanwhile over a long period of time I’m having this garden which is teaching me things as a citizen and I’m capturing some of these insights and I’m trying to bring them into my practise because as an artist there’s no keeping insights out of your practise. They come in and it changes you, but exactly what to do about that took a while.

 

At some point, I began to have this anxiety about what I’m doing, but it was beyond language. It was very intuitive. It was felt. It was not thought. At the same time, I’m teaching at the School of the Art Institute and the school coughed up in an organic way several of us who were having anxieties around the changing conditions about the challenges that that ultimately would make for art practise, again was beyond language. It was felt.

 

One of the people that came forward was actually coming out of the technology sector and had questions about the impact of technology which is of course now very flushed out. We began to realise as a school of art that we couldn’t take on the environmental impacts and the societal impacts of technology in the built world without having a design school.

 

We began to join with a few other faculty to create a design school with the School of the Art Institute. This became what we called the design initiative. We had been a fine arts school, no design to speak of. Now, we have a full-blown design school that we created during this time. In the process of this design school, we began to talk about what kind of design school we wanted to be. We brought in some intellectual leadership in the form of design theorists, Clive Dilnot who brought with him Tony Fry who’s a sustainability theorist from Australia and quite a famous guy.

 

They began to run these really faculty development workshops. This was in about 1998, 1999. I didn’t know anything about design except that I could tell that the largest impacts on the natural world were being created by what we could call design. They were not being created by what we can call art. Just the scale of impacts. That was very interesting to me and Tony Fry was so persuasive about the importance of considering this thing, this theoretical construct called sustainability and that’s where it captured my imagination and began to require that I reinvent myself.

 

The revelation that that was required took some time and then the ability to formulate question and then a platform and then move into what you might call action research to see what those cultural hypothesis might lead to, that took another 10 years. How’s that? Did I connect the dots for you?

 

Sam: You did indeed. You said before, you said a sentence which I really liked which was that your work is a confrontation and conversation with living systems. You went on to say living systems and the social systems around them.

 

Frances: I don’t think I wake up in the morning and think about confronting living systems anymore. I’m too respectful of living systems. I’m not interested in being confrontational. Maybe I was talking about the collision between traditional arts thinking and the realities as they were revealing themselves as we came to understand the interconnectedness.

 

We’re talking about systems thinking now. This is me on a private level doing that thing that so many people have done now which is to begin to see the limits of what can be achieved through a single disciplinary expertise in the face of the systemic reality as it is beginning to reveal itself to us. In a systemic world, what are the limitations of your disciplinary expertise? I begin to feel that and understand that.

 

That of course takes us directly to a critique of the enlightenment and the system of knowledge that comes out of the enlightenment and the limitations of that. Now, we’re talking about starting to understand the need for a post-enlightenment knowledge model and that includes a post-Kuhnian aesthetic model and what would that be?

 

I think that in many ways, I’ve moved from like so many people trying to understand the nature of the condition and the limitations of the knowledge system that we had inherited in the developed north and questioning what another approach might be and what that would look like and then beginning to try to figure out what does that mean for art? What does an artist know that can contribute to the sustainable future?

 

What will we need to do? What bad habits do we have to change? What intellectual errors do we have to correct and what creative possibilities, new creative possibilities are revealed that didn’t seem to exist before which is the part that’s so exciting?

 

Sam: I’m not going to get in trouble for quoting this back at you because it is on your website. What do artists know?

 

Frances: This question,What do artists know?” began as my private question at the beginning around 2000. Tony Fry is talking about the technosphere, semiosphere and the biosphere and he’s laying out these Venn diagrams. We all know about the triple bottom line and then thank goodness, John Hawks comes up with the four pillar model and at least there’s culture there.

 

Actually before I saw Hawk’s model which is so clear and useful with culture as a pillar, the place that I saw that I could enter was the Guattari based model that Fry was using which included the semiosphere. The semiosphere as the realm of the intangible realm of values and meanings, it was very clear to me that as an artist, I had knowledge and expertise of navigating within the semiosphere because art had become primarily a symbolic economy of culture.

 

We were specialists, you might say. Artists, cultural workers are specialists in this symbolic economy. How could I take that expertise and contribute it and thus my question, “What do artists know?” What we’re really talking about is not the explicit knowledge of artists. Artists know how to mix yellow and blue paint and get green. We know how to weld. We know the history of art. We have explicit skills. What we’re really talking about are the tacit methodological procedural knowledge and skills.

 

These are much more difficult to track down. I had a really interesting thing that happened along these lines. I had entered into a two-year conversation early on in this new work that I’m doing under this knowledge platform. I entered into a two-year conversation with the city planners in the city of Cleveland. Classic legacy post-industrial city on the great lakes, steel city, highly polluted, needs a new economy, losing population, classic so-called shrinking city.

 

We’re talking about all of these things and doing this two-year period with these … This was the director of Cuyahoga County planning, the director of Cleveland Parks, Cleveland Metro Parks planning, very level thinkers. It was quite an intellectual conversation. They began to tell me what they think I’m contributing to their thinking. I made a little Word document on my desktop, on my laptop called What Do Artists Know?

 

They would tell me something and I would write it down and then maybe two months later, they’d say something else and I’d write that down. Two months later they’d say something else and I’d write that down. I was just keeping this as a private document and putting it in my own words what I thought they were saying.

 

One day after two years, I looked at this document and there was a full blown document there. I had no idea what it was. It was called What Do Artists Know? You can actually see this online, you can find it. It’s around. I’ve kept the date of 2006 on it. Sometimes people say, “We should go back and work on this language to clean it up a little bit but I feel like as a historical document. I don’t touch it because it’s just the way it arrived to me.

 

The language is interesting because I was very involved in learning their language and they were very much influenced by what we could call innovation speak. This document is a little bit art speak and a little bit innovation speak. Sometimes people get agitated about its oddity in that way. It’s part civic, part art mashed-up together, a linguistic mash-up. This document knocked around in my life for several years and then one day Chris Csikszentmihalyi who was at MIT Media Lab told me one day that he knew what this was.

 

He said, “This is a knowledge claim.” I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting. What the heck is a knowledge claim?” People would say that they’d call it a manifesto and I knew it wasn’t a manifesto. I mean, it’s written a little but like that but it wasn’t really a manifesto. The idea that it was a knowledge claim document was a terrific thing for me because, A, I learned a new word called the knowledge claim but it began to let me understand that this was tacit knowledge.

 

From there, I was able to apply a whole body that’s coming … At the time I was reading these crazy things that you’re probably aware of called knowledge management or change management. This was just emerging out of business schools and the like. Of course this is really not what most artists are thinking about.

 

Yet the history of the avant-garde is nothing more and nothing less than a focus of value proposition on newness and so I began to realise that the experimental thrust of modern art, of contemporary art, the history, the intellectual history of the avant-garde was connected to this idea that something new, something innovative, something experimental would be one of the prime criteria for art and that that might be interesting or useful mapped on to the idea of civic innovation.

 

That came out of the understanding that this thing was a knowledge claim. Based in that, I took that document to the city of Chicago which had just established an innovation programme and showed it to the innovation director and said, “Basically, you should establish a programme embedding artists in city government,” and he said, “Why should I do that?” I’d say, “Because we are the prime innovators and here’s my knowledge claim.” To my amazement, he agreed with me and he said, “Why should I do it? I said, “Because you’re tasked with innovation.”

 

He said, “Oh, you’re right. Let’s do it.” This thing called the Embedded Artists Programme which is a platform for using artists and bringing cultural perspectives to the daily work of the city was born out of this accidental knowledge capture into this document.

 

Sam: The Embedded Artists project, what sorts of things that people get involved in?

 

Frances: The pilot programme which ran in Chicago from 2008 to ’12 was just two artists, myself and another artist. I worked principally at the beginning in the planning office working on the 20, 40, food plan and the idea there would be that I could help them understand the cultural dimension of food planning. However, that engagement was not so fruitful because the outcome was already determined which is to say we were going to write a planning document and I just became one more researcher.

 

You might say an ethnographer could probably have done the same work that I did. My next placement was with the Department of Environment where a very insightful commissioner assigned me to the brownfields division and to her best engineer. Rather than giving us an outcome, she posed a question to us. Her question was actually three questions. One was, “What is a sustainable brownfield cleanup? What does that look like? How do we think about that?”

 

The next question was, “How can this city get practical experience doing an alternative remediation type?” For example like fight over mediation using plants which is what we ended up doing because I work a lot with plants and so I thought, “Oh that’s something that I can contribute to.” Then the third question was, “What can the city do with their 400 plus abandoned gas stations?” Which were all over the city, they revert to city ownership because when the tanks leak and people can’t clean them up, they stop paying property taxes on them and so they revert to city ownership.

 

The city ends up owning all these brownfields, small brownfields, small contaminated properties. What do we do with them? Having given us these three questions, she said, “Okay. Go off and come up with something.” In that framework because it was so open-ended, we began to work on possibilities and came up with this programme called Slow Cleanup and in Slow Cleanup, we realised that if we could identify a much broader range of plants that can clean up petroleum, that we could create a wide range of new urban landscape topologies in the city.

 

We work with the soil scientist and AP Schwab, Dr. Schwab of Purdue University and tested 80 plants, 80 native ornamental plants that had never been tested for petroleum cleanup. We did identify 12 new ones and with the likely prospect of quiet a few more. We didn’t invent the science, we just applied the science to a new set of plant materials knowing that that would then facilitate a whole new kind of urban design.

 

That was a really terrific outcome. There were all kinds of secondary knowledge that were produced. For example, we figured out a new soil prep method that kept all the soil out of the landfills. We involved students in from four communities of practise in the project so value was created at every step of the project.

 

Sam: That has led to larger scale work. I’ve been looking at pictures of The 606 collection of projects. That’s a large park.

 

Frances: Yes, it is. Three miles.

 

Sam: How did that come about?

 

Frances: There were a number of steps between the gas station project. I went off and did a project with Lima, Peru and did some other projects with other city governments but eventually got pulled into The 606 in an interesting way. The people that were doing The 606, it’s a public private partnership so that was the trust republic land, the city of Chicago and the Chicago Park District.

 

The 606 which was originally called the Bloomingdale Trail because it was on Bloomingdale Avenue, is a rail to trails conversion project. It’s an elevated train line, train spur and it was being turned into a bike path and greenway. There had been a phase one which was the public consultancy project and there was some dissatisfaction among people in the city with the level of ideas that were being put forward.

 

I was hearing quite a bit about this and these were the same people in the city that the people from planning that I had done on the food project and the people from Department of Environment, these were the same people involved and they were dissatisfied with where it was going. The project that we did in Cleveland actually involved the trail even though we ended up working slag cement instead but I had produced quite a few documents about integrating art and cultural perspectives into a bike trail.

 

I ended up giving them all of these documents. I mean, why not? We weren’t using them and I said, “Here’s a lot of work. Maybe you can use this. Here, have it added.” I just gave them all of these documents. I remember Cathy Dickhead in planning saying, “This is already more ideas than they’ve come up with in a year.” I’m like, “Good luck with that.”

 

Lo and behold in the next few weeks after giving away all of these good ideas, they came back to us and invited … They came back to me. I always say us because all of my work has become a plural so I just don’t even use the pronoun I anymore, but in this case, they came back to me and invited me to be the lead artist for the design team, the phase two design team which was the team that was going to actually design the trail.

 

What was interesting here was that because there had not been enough ideas in the phase one we had to do the phase one and the phase two at the same time. It was very fast, very large. It’s a three-mile stretch of city and a fairly contentious process and just one thing about that. There was an artist in phase one who was a terrific artist but they had not been working at the scale of the city.

 

They had been working with murals and community-based projects. I think that the reason that I was able to help them in a different way was because I had done these other projects that had ramped up the scale at which I could be created. I had done it gradually overtime from the Cleveland project, the gas station, the work in Lima. By the time I got to The 606, I had figured out how to think at that scale.

 

Artists are not trained to think at that scale, urbanists are. Even for the landscape designers and the engineers, there were 38 bridges on this project, three miles of landscape. It goes to four distinct neighbourhoods that are quiet broad in their profiles. Being able to work at that scale allowed me to do something that I couldn’t have done 20 years before. There was a direct link between Embedded Artists and The 606 in that they came to me because I have that capacity.

 

Sam: Ramping up the scale in which you can be creative, this is not you painting large areas more quickly, this is changing the way in which you work?

 

Frances: Correct. Yes I am coming out of sculpture and the built world and gardens. I’m talking about the work that I do is with soil and pavement. I consider sculpture one of what they called world-making traditions in terms of the built world. I am not my own work. I do some drawings. It’s funny coming out of printmaking but it’s so long ago. My work is with a three dimensional world and living systems with plant systems and water systems, et cetera. By this time I have got quite a bit of experience doing that.

 

Sam: If you have to classify it, you see the whole park or the whole or the whole bits of the plant perhaps as sculptures. Is that how you see it in your head? How does it work?

 

Frances: It’s interesting. The nature of this thing, it can be seen in many ways. It is a transportation quarter. It is heritage infrastructure. Some people likened it to a charm bracelet with charms along the way because there were many, many different pocket parks and sites and interventions. Some were pure designs, some were pure art.

 

For example, there are four locations for large scale commissions, art commissions. Inside that would happen at a smaller scale than what I was operating, but in another way, I did actually without telling anyone conceptualise it as a three-model sculpture. It was a little game I played with myself. At one end, we have an observatory and it is a convex mount. The other end, we had planned a skate park which was not really a skate bowl, it was a plaza style skate park but it was concave.

 

Then perhaps my signature idea that has the most of my intellectual DNA on it is a planted line that runs the full length of the trail that connects the two. This planted line is a climate monitoring planting based on what’s called phrenology which is where you look at bud burst to see microclimate. Because we are east-west in relation to Michigan, the trail is a climate monitoring instrument de facto because of this floral planting that we put.

 

I didn’t really call out to anyone that if you think of … Maybe you can imagine this. If you have a ball at one end and a ball at the other end, concave and convex mirror images of themselves, connect it to a line up the middle, you basically have a baton shape, a three-model baton shape. I never call that out to anyone until it was all done because I thought that … It started because we were doing a line and we were doing the observatory.

 

Then when the skate park happened I began to realise this form was shaping and it became a fun game for myself to see if I could pull it off. I didn’t tell anyone until it was all done and when I did, there was an audible gasp in the room because I thought it would seem megalomaniacal to say, “And by the way, I just made this thing into a three-model object.” It was a fun game for me to think in those terms. I don’t know if that’s what you’re talking about.

 

Sam: How do you go about making a city sculpture? if you were commissioned to make a sculptural whatever, is it the same sort of process for approaching a city degradation problem?

 

Frances: What is sculpture? You’re talking about sculpture as an object, but sculpture expanded beyond the objects many years ago. In the early 70’s, Rosalind Krauss wrote an article called Sculpture in the expanded field where she was talking about art works that had already become earth works, site works and sculpture was returning to its relationship to landscape and architecture which of course is where it was until 100 years before because if you think about the public monument which has an architectural base and maybe it’s a got a guy on a horse or something, this commemorative monument that was always sited, contextualised part of public memory.

 

It was civic. It was frequently tied to some kind of celebratory memorial nature. It was tied to the architecture of the space around it and this thing that we call the sculpture was contextualised in relationship to site and architecture. When sculpture came off of that kind of work and jump off the pedestal and then ran into the art gallery, it left its relationship to place site, civic, and architecture and landscape. It left all of that.

 

By the 60’s and 70’s sculpture was running back out the door and trying to reconnect to all of those things. Krauss calls this the expanded field. In many of their minds, the field of sculpture, we call that the Big Bang or I do anyway and call it Big Bang Moment when sculpture re-expanded and has really just kept expanding.

 

Even though there are people who make objects called sculptures, the field of sculpture has now expanded into what we call sculptural practises or a whole series of expanded practises, critical practises. This includes artist working like I do in ecology, artist working in an urban conditions, artists working with what’s called social practise, artists working with media performance and film video, artists working in all kinds of expanded practises.

 

In many art schools, this lives in the sculpture department. Why does it live there because sculpture is the big tent. It’s the place where whatever goes on in the world, goes on in sculpture. Sculpture as a discipline has become this broad enterprise of practises that include object making but are not limited to it. It’s the home for all of the artistic orphans that don’t seem to go anywhere else. We sometimes joke that if isn’t a painting and it isn’t a photograph and it isn’t something else you can name, it’s a sculpture.

 

Sam: Back to your question, what do artists know? If you were the city planner who’s been told to sort out derelict areas, suburbs, something, why should you involve an artist?

 

Frances: Several reasons. One is for their cultural literacy. For example, if you want to pull forward, contextual dimensions of the site, of the population of the community, this would be a great way to do it. Second reason would be if there are technical challenges about this site, it floods, it’s contaminated, it needs economic revitalization, something and people have tried conventional methods and they have failed.

 

Now artists are not miracle workers but sometimes we have other ideas about things that could be tried. This could be understood as an innovation, but the artists frequently think about things differently and they might see other possibilities. This is what I call the imaginative potential of our artists to deal with issues that where other people see no solutions. Sometimes this is because artists may understand the nature of the condition differently.

 

We call this problem finding rather than problem solving. Maybe it’s not about solving the problem, maybe it’s about understanding that the problem is actually a symptom of some other condition. Artists have been very good at doing a different kind of analysis of what’s going on such that they might be able to offer a different approach.

 

Sam: You may or may not get “artworks” out of that?

 

Frances: The artworks is a completely different question. On the one hand, we’re really talking now about the artists as cultural agent. We’re not talking about the production of artworks. Now, we could say many years ago, it became pretty obvious and this is really a function of logic that the only place you can get art is from artists that there is a necessary and sufficient condition between artists and artworks.

 

What is art? It’s what artists do. What are artists? People who make art. When you involve artists, you could argue that in some way you’re going to get something we could understand as art, but this frequently gets you mired in the question where people want to argue whether or not the product is art which I find a really unproductive place to head. I have turned off the question of art. I changed the channel. I like to say for sure I’m an artist out of habit training and inclination and for sure the work is cultural. The question of art, who knows? Too soon to say.

 

Sam: You talked about ramping up the scale at which you could be creative and you’re currently working at the city suburb level. Can you keep going, scaling up? Is there an optimum at which you think you could operate?

 

Frances: Interestingly, I’ve gone the other direction. After working on The 606, I came away from that project longing to work at a more intimate scale. That and a number of other factors have led me to work around the bottom of the lake in Gary, Indiana. Gary is a smaller city. It’s lost population. It has a lot of available land that needs re-imagining. It needs a new economy because Gary was built as a steel city. US Steel, it was a company town and like it has suffered the faith of company towns.

 

When steel production moved elsewhere, the economy fell apart. People with options left and the people who don’t have as many options have stayed. Gary as a city has got a very extreme version of the post-industrial issues of cities in the great lakes. This has captured my imagination but it also is a place full of possibility.

 

When I did the climate monitoring planting on the 606, the plant that we used called the apple serviceberry, the Amelanchier x grandiflora is actually a member of the apple family. The reason that it’s a great climate indicator is because it’s temperature sensitive. Most fruiting plants are temperature sensitive because the way they bloom, they have to bloom after frost in temperate climates, after frost has passed so that the frost doesn’t kill the fruiting bud and then the fruit.

 

They’re great climate indicators because of that and there also they tend to be beautiful. We all know about the famous Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival which was actually the source, this source idea for that project because people don’t know that the cherry blossoms, the Japanese have … It’s a cultural festival. They have been writing down the bloom date of the cherry bloom since 720 AD. That dataset is one of the most important climate datasets that we have and it was produced by culture. It was by the appreciation of beauty. It was not produced by science and it was not produced by social responsibility.

 

Part of what I had been interested in is can we use this beauty, this engagement with the blooming spectacle to raise consciousness and to engage. On The 606, it was used to raise consciousness of the proximity to the lake and the lake microclimate, but that became … I was calling pink infrastructure, infrastructure for climate awareness.

 

I really wanted to extend that idea. Part of my interest in Gary is that as you moved east around the bottom of Lake Michigan you move towards the Michigan fruit belt. The soils under Chicago are clay, but as the time you get to the bottom of the lake, they turn into sandy lake plain soils. You have the advantageous microclimate tempered by the lake, but you also have improved fruit soils.

 

I began to wonder if a new fruit economy could be … An improvement in the food shed could be developed in Gary. Because I was interested in working at a smaller, more intimate scale, the project that I’ve started with some other people there in the community is a community orchard. Rather than start this through the city even though I’m in conversation with the city and they support the project and they’ve given us some parcels and we can’t do it without them, I am really playing this through the local community.

 

We identified some master gardeners and environmental specialists that live in the neighbourhood and we are it very much bottom up and a small scale and if we can do this orchard as prototype, we might grow ourselves a big programme but we’re going to do it in the opposite way from The 606.

 

Sam: I have some questions to and with. What’s your go-to definition of sustainability?

 

Frances: I hear people say that no one knows what it is. I think this is absolutely incorrect. I think that lots of people know what it is. It’s aspirational. What we don’t know … To me sustainability isn’t aspirational statement. What we disagree with what is contentious is what might the model be. What would be the important components. That’s where you always see those Venn diagrams and then how do you model that in reality, what does that look like?

 

I find multiple models of sustainability useful. I really like the Guattarian model that I mentioned to you, technosphere, semiosphere, biosphere, that model. The idea of attending to all of those systems but that is really academic and abstract. A lot of people for example in business and the city can’t deal with that. They want to use the so-called triple bottom line and it’s been very useful for me just to add the fourth pillar to that.

 

I think critical because one of the problems with the triple bottom line is if you look the qualities, they want it to be viable something unbearable. I think the word is bearable. Who wants to live in a world that … I don’t aspire to bearable. It sounds dreadful.

 

Sam: Hardly inspirational.

 

Frances: Hardly inspirational. Quality of life has to get in there. We’ve got to have that hopeful vitality piece. To me, this is not mysterious. It is not difficult to explain what it is. If you understand it is aspirational and what’s difficult us getting people to change their behaviours.

 

Sam: We’re writing a book of these conversations. We’re calling it tomorrow’s heroes. How would you describe your superpower?

 

Frances: My superpower?

 

Sam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Frances: You mean what I think I’m really good at? What do you mean by superpower?

 

Sam: What are you bringing to this good fight?

 

Frances: I am a really terrific documenter. I joke that I’m an expert generalist. I think that this actually, this dot connecting and this double agency that I mentioned, comes directly out of the knowledge of the way artists are educated and trained. The ability of artists to see connections among what we might call asymmetrical data. We are excellent at pattern and system recognition, dot connecting and that ability to synthesise things that don’t seem to go together I think is something, maybe our best trick.

 

Sam: What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years?

 

Frances: I think the climate monitoring planting on The 606 would have to be up there. The reason for that is I’m going to be dead and off the planet by the time we know whether or not it worked, but if the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival can produce climate awareness but in an embodied way, in a deeply cultural way, the idea that these floral display along this bike path might change consciousness in a way that is beyond language, beyond mere quantification.

 

I think we have a shot at that. It seems almost inevitable if we can get the plants to become established and to live. I think that that is bound. I’m convinced that will do its magic with or without a citizen science programme, with or without anyone even knowing it’s working. I don’t mind that subversive approach. I don’t mind not having people know that anybody had that in mind.

 

Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?

 

Frances: I do consider myself to be an activist now but in that way that we described earlier in that subversive way that I am interested in changing people’s behaviour. I am working for the nonhuman users of the planet, not just the human users. I’m interested in doing something that actually changes the future and not just changes the short-term political conversation.

 

Sam: You might have just answered this but what motivates you?

 

Frances: I think I just answered this.  The nonhuman users, that’s what actually motivates me because we’re taking … if we survive, we’ll survive but we will take out a lot of species with us and I actually find the ethics of that intolerable. We have to get our act together.

 

Sam: What challenges are you looking forward to in the next couple of years?

 

Frances: I think this new orchard project of the idea that there might be a small fruit economy to be had in this area that really needs … The people there really need new options and I’m very excited about … I consider it about a 10-year project. One thing we didn’t talk about, I don’t think, I’m very interested in this idea of long time, working in long time.

 

We live in a culture of tweets and short political cycles and short media cycles and yet climate change, fruit growing, consciousness, these things happen in long time. I’m really interested in working in these projects that unfold over a long period of time and change people’s conception of time. I might even say that working with time and space as malleable plastic media is the new sculpture.

 

Sam: Are they going to be unfolding over such a long time that you have to relinquish the artist tag on them because all the people are going to be changing it over time.

 

Frances: I already have. What we’re saying about the project in Gary because I’ve already began speaking about what our creativity model is and we’re calling it co-creativity. The very first thing that I did when I got this idea and we were seeking some funding for it is identified my core community partners and invited them to join me in what we’re calling the community orchard collaborative. Walter Jones who’s a long term resident of the Emerson neighbourhood. [Deb Backus 00:55:05] who’s a resident and the environmental engineer.

 

I invited them to immediately become my core collaborative. From the beginning it must be co-creativity and with the city partners because this is not Frances’ orchard. That makes no sense in any way including the question of what happens as I age? By the time the fruit is ready to produce, I will be in my 70’s. It’s got to belong to someone else.

 

Sam: It’s got to belong to people who aren’t born yet. They have to see it as an artwork?

 

Frances: No. I don’t even talk about it as an artwork.

 

Sam: They have to see it as something they want.

 

Frances: Most of what I’m talking about does not need to be seen as an artwork. For people interested in art in the future of art, we can go often talk about it as an artwork but the principal thing is for them to see it as an orchard and we are going to plant in a little bit of an unusual way in a wedge that shows the time that different plants take to become productive.

 

It will form a green wedge that likens itself to the progression of time and our motto is it’s about time. I think that people will see it and go, “Oh, this is a little unusual. This is a little different.” It will be very legible, the time factor in this. That might make them talk about whether or not it’s an artwork. I don’t know but for me it’s primarily making time legible and it’s really a form of embodied environmental education and that’s what’s important about it. If we don’t produce any fruit, it’s all for naught. It’s got to be a productive fruitscape or else what the heck are you doing.

 

Sam: Two more questions. If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur, what would it be?

 

Frances: Orchards all over Gary.

 

Sam: Lastly, do you have any advice for our listeners?

 

Frances: I have an insight that I’ll offer up and people can chew on it over their breakfast cereal if they’re so inclined or whatever and that is that all of human activity is essentially cultural that it is all artifactual. It is all cultural. We need to see ourselves as the way anthropologists would see us. if we can begin to see ourselves, the way anthropologists would see us and see that all of our activity is cultural, is part of the semiosphere that we would begin to see how value driven our decisions are and maybe have a better chance at understanding how to change our behaviours towards something more sustainable.

 

Sam: Thank you very much for joining me.

 

Frances: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

 

Sam: You’ve been listening to Sustainable Lens: Resilience on Radio, a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann. We’re broadcasting on Otago Access Radio, oar.org.nz and podcast on sustainablelens.org. On sustainablelens.org we’re building up a searchable archive of conversations with people from many different fields who are applying their skills to a sustainable future. In our conversations, we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens.

 

Tonight’s sustainable lens was that of Frances Whitehead, a civic practise artist from Chicago and Gary, in the great lakes basins in the USA and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. So many things there I really like. I like the last thing that we just talked about making time legible. I liked that idea a lot.  You can follow the links on sustainablelens.org to find us on Facebook to keep in touch, and you can listen to Sustainable Lens via iTunes and other places as well. That was Sustainable Lens, I’m Samuel Mann. I hope you enjoyed the show.

 

 

The image of Frances Whitehead is from Janeil Engelstad on Make Art With Purpose.

Categories
art climate change design energy

designers of the Anthropocene

Beth Ferguson Sara Dean

We’re mapping different types of unknown territory.


Our guests tonight are Sara Dean and Beth Ferguson.

Sara is an assistant professor of graduate design at the California College of the Arts. She is an architect and designer. Her work considers the implications of digital and social media as urban infrastructure, especially in relation to issues of sustainability

Beth Ferguson is an assistant professor in industrial design at the University of California Davis. She runs Solar Design Lab, a solar design and build company. Her work positions solar energy design as a civic and public resource.

They are here in Dunedin as collaborators in a project called Climate Kit. Climate Kit is a project commissioned by Zero1, American Arts Incubator in partnership with the US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs and the US Embassy here in Wellington. Climate Kit brings together Beth, an expert on design and solar energy and Sara, an expert in digital design to create a cross disciplinarian workshop of with academics, artists, business and government leaders to discuss and share best practices on raising awareness of resiliency in climate change and how to communicate and share our best practices publicly in compelling ways.

Talking points

A question I’ve always had is what is the device that makes a problem or a challenge visible, engageable, start people moving together towards solutions.

We’re really looking at the environment through the lens of the challenges that the environment sees and as we tool up to kind of solve some of these problems on a grassroots level, they become images that can be brought into a community setting like a university or a museum to have discussions.

I think often when we deal with complex systems, we end up addressing both in the community and in interventions, addressing the effects of the systems… upstream in the system as possible so that they can make better decisions.

One of the challenges I think we have right now as a global population, and as designers, is how to connect those in a productive way to be able to not isolate people who are feeling the effects of climate change faster because we’re all going to be feeling them eventually.

Tangible glimpses at large shifts

If a community is prepared for climate change, it is significantly more affordable than responding to disaster.

That’s the language as designers that we’ve learned to use of coming up with creative ways to talk about challenges.

Sustainability is really about thinking about future generations. If we’re not designing our economies and systems, infrastructure systems to just be for our generation, the next 30 years. If we’re really thinking the next 7 generations, that is sustainability

We’re not really wired to think long, big scale or long distances. It’s a challenge. It’s probably a challenge we’ve always had, but I think the challenge of scale right now is the one that kind of obsesses me. We’re not great at thinking beyond neighbourhood and city. A lot of the challenges that we’re facing in neighbourhoods and cities are coming at us from really large scales. To me, that’s a design challenge. Time and scale right now, are a design challenge.

 Transcript

 

Shane: First of all I want to talk about you guys. Beth can I start off with you? You got into solar energy. You’re an engineer. When did you decide to become an engineer and what got you interested in solar energy?

 

Beth: Yeah. It’s actually a personal transportation story. I was a graduate design student at the University of Texas in Austin and really interested in small electric vehicles and just by chance saw a small electric scooter on Craigslist. It’s like a used item website in the states. For $200 I bought an electric bike and it was an awesome way to move around the city without having to deal with expensive parking or gas. I’ve quickly found challenges bringing it to my college campus. I had no place to charge it or plug it in. I’d bring it in to my study and be bothered thinking everyone thought it was a gas motorcycle. I realized, being in Texas, that there’s not infrastructure for small electric vehicles yet, but of course other more progressive states probably have that infrastructure.

 

This was in 2007. I had trouble finding other alternatives and worked with a small solar company and found out one solar panel could charge my electric scooter. Then I started getting into design and prototyping and thinking a solar charging station would actually be quite feasible for electric bikes and scooters and even electric cars. In 2007, electric vehicles were just catching on and the prices of solar panels, so my timing with this challenge was really good. Seeing both the solar industry get stronger as well as more electric bikes and scooters and cars available. The last seven years I’ve seen these industries really grow and I started my own studio call Solar Design Lab, where I work with other engineers, architects, designers and do public projects that are commissioned by universities, city utilities, music festivals for phone charging. We’ve brought the project to many different places.

 

We’re on, I think, prototype 12 right now for the city of Austin, they’re utility for a new street called electric drive. Electric drive will have demonstration areas for electric car charging, bikes and scooters as well as USB ports for outdoor phones. That’s like a quick version of many years of working in public places and bringing solar energy down to the street. The projects are the size of bus stops. They’re pretty easy for people to interact with and see how they work.

 

Sam: That’s incredible. Go back to your childhood. Where did you grow up?

 

Beth: I grew up on the coast of Maine, which is a good question because it’s not unlike Dunedin and I felt quite at home here in the hills and on the coast.

 

Sam: All right. As a young girl, did you imagine yourself being an engineer from a very young age or is that something you … How did you get into engineering? What’s your journey there?

 

Beth: I was always really interested in the environment. Living on the coast, being able to ride my bike and hike and find the environment as a big inspiration. My master’s degree is in design, but after I received that degree, I did take solar engineering courses at a local community college to get solar engineering skills. That’s kind of been my toolkit so that I’ve been able to put a lot of curriculum together. I’ve always loved teaching from a young age, working in environmental summer camps and getting to explore the outdoors. Maine is on the East Coast of the United States, very close to Canada. It’s a place that people really appreciate the environment. Coming up with alternatives that are going to be using less dependence on fossil fuels has been an interest of mine for a long time. My interest in sustainability kind of has merged with transportation solutions, transportation and electricity are huge numbers to the green house gases in the US. Coming up with solutions for the way we move through our city and the way we use electricity is very important for how we’re going to really reduce our carbon in the US.

 

Sam: Was that your driving passion, that pushed you through college and guided your career?

 

Beth: In undergraduate work, I studied ecological design. My interest art and all different types of art, public art and performance art really combined with my interest in the environment to be environmental design. I think I saw a documentary on Buckminster Fuller as a young student and that really inspired me to see the types of design that’s possible for re-envisioning the world that we want versus accepting these unsustainable models we have for the way cities are laid out. We have suburbs. I’ve always like a city you can bike and walk in. I’ve lived in New York City. I love community gardens. I love having a healthy lifestyle and I think that that is possible if we re-shift the way urban planners have made big sprawl in cities and really condense cities again to be livable and affordable with public transportation as well as small electric vehicles.

 

Shane: I think one of the focuses of the interview, we’re going to talk about this interest between arts and science and design and the environment. We’ll circle back to that eventually, but I want to turn to Sara and ask you the same questions. Where did you grow up and what’s your background? What got you into your career?

 

Sara: One of the commonalities that Beth and I have is a varied number of disciplines that we’ve kind of accumulated into a space where we want to work. I grew up in Virginia, which is in the Southeast of the United States. I originally studied communication arts, interested in how we communicate through graphic design and illustration. After that I moved to New Orleans, and worked a lot in building and renovating houses alongside the work I was doing as a graphic designer, which was geared toward community organization.

 

I worked as the lead graphic designer for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now for a number of years in New Orleans and that work really brought home to me how design can activate communities, can be tools to make policy and the distinctions, or the opportunity for on the ground community work design and government policy to be in a conversation together. A question I’ve always had is what is the device that makes a problem or a challenge visible, engageable, start people moving together towards solutions. That’s my kind of where I worked from. While I was in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina happened and that was a really devastating climate change moment and policy failure moment for the city and the region. I worked for a number of years after Katrina in energy policy and building practices to try to make more sustainable methods of building.

 

After that I went back to school for architecture, realizing that I was more interested in the built environment and wanted to tool up in that way. Since then my practice has really been to combine those two worlds. Understanding urban infrastructure and an architectural mindset and then coming from community organizing and communication structures, has put me in a position where I work with really multi disciplinary groups to tackle big infrastructural issues through many forms. Digital media, built form, manufacturing practices, and using everything from say social media and technology to house those in and other types of build work.

 

Shane: How did you two guys meet up? How did you meet up? What was that story?

 

Beth: We were really lucky that a mutual friend who is actually on the board of Solar Design Lab, my studio was giving me advice on how to scale the project and said, “You really need to meet Sara Dean.” We had a mutual dinner and then Sara and I immediately have like 15 ideas of new projects. We’ve been coming up or baking new ideas ever since and have a huge list we’ve yet to crack. Doing Climate Kit has been really fun as a real immersion in the support from the Otago Museum, the science communication department here at the University of Otago, the Zero1 American Arts Incubator, and the US State Department in Wellington, the embassy in Wellington have really helped connect so many thoughts especially in the community for us to really hear many different voices on the challenges related to climate change. Otago and Dunedin, just really big spirited people. We feel really lucky to have this month to work together as well as do community work.

 

Shane: Neither of you have had a typical career. It’s not like you decided to go in one direction. You’ve taken this kind of serpentine path and it’s fascinating to me that you’ve taken all these different areas and kind of blended them like hard science and soft sciences and kind of community. You’ve blended together, and you’ve brought together this amazing ideas and concepts. When you try to explain this to people, do people get it or is kind of like, “You what? What do you do?”

 

Sara: Probably half and half. I think for me one of the things that disciplines give us in general is a language. When I use architectural language to talk about infrastructure system problems and how social media, for example could be used as an architecture in a city. If I’m using architectural language, the architects get it. If I’m using community organizing language, the community organizations will get it, but it doesn’t quite work the other way around. Really understanding how to engage different types of disciplines is an incredible benefit as long as you can be a flexible person that’s okay with some questionable stares now and then.

 

Shane: One of the things that we constantly hear about, one of the major things, is the theme of narrative. How you turn your story and again you’re repeating that. Like you said, you have to tell your story in a particular way. Is this your experience as well, Beth?

 

Beth: Yeah, absolutely. People are so curious, especially with doing prototyping and innovation and experimenting, combining unordinary things. A lot of my solar charging stations have used 1950s gas pumps. I’ve recycled a symbol of the road trip, the American Legacy of this vintage automobilia. That humor and narrative has helped me really launch into a place as a public artist to combine cutting edge technology which are batteries, battery storage for solar energy, electric vehicles. We’re doing a project that’s charging Tesla cars. Sometimes there’s a space in the world, like a crack that hasn’t been investigated to bring new projects out into the world. When you wear as many hats that Sara and I have worn of working with Universities as researchers, us working with arts institutions, museums, architecture firms Sara has done, and starting my own studio, you really learn different ways to use multiple narratives to get visions across and that’s when the work becomes powerful.

 

Shane: You guys met over dinner, you have the projects and it sounds really exciting, like you guys sparked off each other. What brought the idea of the Climate Kit and I’ve seen some really interesting pictures of like a gas mask, well some sort of air filter, and a strange rod with a spiral rounded. A few bits and pieces which I think quite works and they’re quite able to identify, but fascinating museum. What is the climate Kit and just start off with that?

 

Sara: The question that we started with with Climate Kit is how is expedition and exploration changing in the world. When you think about California and then also thinking about New Zealand as these new frontiers that have been explored in various ways and we can picture the types of tools that go into that exploration of new territory, unknown territory, but we have different types of unknown territory now, that aren’t about mapping unknown terrain, but mapping unknown metrics or unknown data. Moving into say a big data space or a post natural space of exploration, what are the new tools that people are using. Asking that, say very broad question has gotten us a starting point to different conversations that we’ve been having here between each other and in getting the exhibit together at the Otago museum.

 

Old tools have different purposes now and there’s a lot of new tools being developed. That was the starting point for us. As far as what is a month long conversation basically that we could have with the science community in Dunedin around field working tools for climate.

 

Shane: When you come here to, I can see the appeal for Dunedin to have two amazing academics come from overseas and create a space for conversation. Can you do that in the same way in America or at home? How do you start creating that space. I can see the appeal here but how do you do that back?

 

Beth: One important part of Sara and I meeting that we didn’t mention is we were new to San Francisco, new to the Bay area, new to Silicon Valley. Sara had moved from Andover Michigan. I had moved from Austin Texas and we had a lot of excitement as many new pioneers in Silicon Valley to come up with some new ideas and push boundaries. Our work related to emergency is actually inspired by the threat of earthquakes in the Bay area. We’ve had constant little tremors. We’re really thinking about infrastructure and thinking about human impact on the environment. Thinking about like a field guide to the anthropocene is a part of the toolkit project we’re working on.

 

The lens we’ve gotten to use here in New Zealand has actually been to map and photograph and explore dams and different parts around Dunedin where there’s failure of controlling flooding. Where there are challenges related to pollution or related to a side of the hill that the houses are too moist and people are getting mould and environmental illnesses. We’re really looking at the environment through the lens of the challenges that the environment sees and as we tool up to kind of solve some of these problems on a grassroots level, they become images that can be brought into a community setting like a university or a museum to have discussions.

 

Our exhibition’s opening tomorrow, but Saturday we’re having a community panel and inviting people in to talk about their work in Dunedin related to climate change but also open up that conversation. That’s kind of the spring board idea of toolkit and kind of the benefit of having the whole month to really talk to people.

 

Sara: I’ll add there’s a huge advantage to having time. There’s nothing more luxurious than time. As much as Beth and I have been working together for two years, there’s a lot of other things happening as well and we both have our own individual practices that were also propelling forward. To get a month together to work on these questions in a new place is a huge luxury. As much as this could happen in daily life, it’s a lot easier in some ways to do it in isolation and get new inputs and kind of feed off of the new community event and all of the energy here.

 

Shane: How did you decide on Dunedin. It’s not the most obvious choice. Obviously we have an amazing university and Polytech. Why Dunedin?

 

Beth: Dunedin was chosen or recommended by the US Embassy in Wellington. I think it had a lot to do with the science festival that happened a few weeks ago. Our timing with the really exciting science festival in Dunedin was perfect in the timeline for our commission and residency was about the same time. I think it was a natural fit, the beauty of the Otago Peninsula, we just feel so lucky to have been able to come here. The other artists that have been a part of the American Art Incubator have been to the Philippines, to Vietnam, to China. This is the first group that’s come to New Zealand. We’re the lucky ones.

 

Shane: How do you describe yourselves? Are you scientists? Are you engineers? Are you artists? Are you all of the above? How do you describe yourselves?

 

Beth: We’re really in an exciting time in the world as academics and designers. I describe myself as an industrial designer. That having a multi toolkit and being able to bridge disciplines that becomes a strong problem solver. When you’re able to kind of go between a city utility and consider how electric vehicles are going to be charged on a city grid, versus an arts organization that would really amplify a story in a new way, that’s kind of the beauty of having multidisciplinary skills. Sara’s worked in architecture and myself in industrial design, as a contractor you have to be able to bring in a lot of skills to the table and execute large scale projects. This was a very fast project in one month and we have a couple years worth of research ideas that maybe we’ll still be back to do in the future.

 

Shane: Brilliant. Sara, how do you describe yourself?

 

Sara: I think of myself as an architect. I’m trained as an architect, and to me when I approach a problem, I think I approach it as an architect even though I’ve been trained as many other things as well. To me it’s about those methods of approaching a problem, methods of coming up with ways of solving it. To me, I do that architecturally. I think of it systematically. I look for a point of agency in a city or in a community or in an organization and try to find what the physical landing point of that is. I get the most mileage, personally out of thinking of that as an architect. Some architects don’t think what I do is very architectural because I use Twitter, or I use interaction design or I use visualization techniques, but to me the methodology is very architectural. That’s what I go with.

 

Shane: Fantastic. Neither of you have really used any kind of language like numbers or facts and stuff. You talk about narrative and art and creating spaces. That’s really interesting to me, because a lot of our society’s folks ran numbers and facts and new projections. This is a very much a new way of conceiving science within society. Do you think about it that way?

 

Sara: I would say, I think at least for me, what I offer are methods of approaching problems and that’s what I’m developing personally. When I go into a new project, all of the facts matter a lot, but the topic or the subject matter, say whether it’s a flooding problem or it’s a drought problem or it’s a spatial problem, the facts are incredibly important, but the methodology is what moves between projects. That’s maybe why it’s more of a narrative and how it’s described. When we came in to Dunedin we really dug in to a lot of the details of the history of Dunedin, the economy of it. We learned as many facts as we could as we went. Really the community workshops provided a lot of that knowledge for us and that’s incredibly important to us. We don’t want to come in and just make assumptions and start working and think we’re participating in the community. When we go to the next, the next thing could be very different and it would be another fact finding starting point.

 

Sam: When we start talking about that Anthropocene or the climate change, we’re starting to talk about complex systems. There are heavy science concepts in there. Things like, well there’s lots of data, but there’s also the science concepts of a certainty and so on. At the other end there’s people concerned about their houses and where they’re going to live and so on. How do you bridge between those two.

 

Sara: I think often when we deal with complex systems, we end up addressing both in the community and in interventions, addressing the effects of the systems and the systems themselves aren’t changed by the intervention. It’s incredibly important that people can feed their families and feel secure and not worry about the impact of weather and large scale environmental issues on their daily life. It’s also important that as we address that, we’re addressing it as upstream in the system as possible so that they can make better decisions.

 

As an example, it’s important to raise houses in flood plains and we see that in New Orleans that happened, but it’s also important to change the policies around lead use. We don’t want to just keep raising houses another couple feet every year. I don’t know if that answers your question, but that’s kind of how I go about it. What are points of agency within these systems that create more ability to have resilient responsive communities?

 

Beth: Here in New Zealand, we’ve gotten to meet with City Council members and look at some of the projections of climate change in Dunedin. There’s some amazing maps that show the different, actually kind of retraces where the marshland used to be, and where a lot of the infill is now. Looking at the future sea level rise, it’s projected that the sea level will go back to where the coast originally was. There’s a lot of interesting history that we’ve been digging up with different academics and researchers and community members that have worked with us. We’ve worked with a public school teacher. We’ve worked with a professor from the Polytechnic.

 

We have a project that we’re going to be launching tomorrow that’s actually using a topography mat of the Otago Peninsula that will project different layers of maps. Thinking about past, present, and future. That’s going to be revealed so we invite people to come see it. That’s been a way to think about … It’s a table and it has bumps on it so you can see the hills and the lower valley areas. When we conceptually try to think about sea level rising, it’s kind of hard to do without something that’s 3D or dimensional. That’s what we’re hoping with that project and it’s something similar, we’ve seen at a museum in the San Francisco Bay area and it’s very popular. Seeing people really consider how water moves through an area with so many coasts, I think is really important.

 

Sam: I think a big part of the problem is that it’s not actually that technically complicated, but it’s still a messy, wicked problem. If we take the sea level, and the houses in South Dunedin, It’s reasonably easy to understand what’s going on in terms of the water levels, the water table and so on, but solving it-

 

Sara: Yeah, absolutely.

 

Sam: -is enormously complicated.

 

Sara: Absolutely and it shouldn’t be simplified just because as you say, the part about the water seems simple, right? Because it’s not a simple problem when you factor in people’s properties, and safety and community and all those factors. The fact that we have historically as people, built by water means that the problem that South Dunedin is facing is the same problem that a huge number of cities in the world are facing. We’re facing it faster and we’re urbanizing faster, which is creating more dramatic run off because of all the impervious surfaces are increasing in water shed. We’re getting it from both sides. There’s both the water table rising and there’s run off and water sheds changing their behaviours. This is happening at a local scale here, and it’s happening at a local scale in many cities. One of the challenges I think we have right now as a global population, and as designers, is how to connect those in a productive way to be able to not isolate people who are feeling the effects of climate change faster because we’re all going to be feeling them eventually. How we kind of deal with these, the more immediate impacts is going to really manifest down the line.

 

Sam: I think for the longest time, Dunedin’s had the niggling feeling that actually a couple of degrees warmer wouldn’t do us any harm and not really thinking through the actual implications. People have been talking about for a long time that it’s not just about being a little bit warmer, it’s actually speeding up of the system and the increased floods and increased droughts and all those sorts of things and the complexities of that on where people live. There is this kind of twofold danger that people think that there’s a technological solution just out there, so we can carry on having a party, what Susan Krumdieck calls the green myth, that everyone having a party, there’s a miracle going on somewhere.

 

Beth: I have a comment for you on that. I think that’s exactly right. Hearing two degrees warmer doesn’t sound very big but hearing that we don’t have snow pack in California or here on the western side of the south island and thinking about without snow what does that mean? That means our rivers are not filling up. That means our dams are not producing the amount of electricity they once produced. If pastures are getting larger and larger, that means the heavy rains are going to have more nutrient rich soil run off in to the rivers. We’ve heard that kind of historically, or more recently that water quality in the south Dunedin rivers, it has to be safe enough to stand in with your gum boots. If you can stand in the river with rubber boots, it’s clean enough, but thinking about what if we could have our kids swim in that river again, or what if we can have healthy fish in that river again or what if the eels could come back and have a way to swim up river. It seems like a lot of conversations we’ve had are people wanting to raise the bar on water standards.

 

I got to go out last week with the Healthy Harbour Watchers, an amazing team of scientists and public school teachers and high school students that go to about 7 different points around the Otago Peninsula a few times a month and collect water samples, bring it back to the lab at the University of Otago and test for nitrates, phosphates, water salinity. They take a note of the colour of the water and I got to help take notes with them and I had such a blast. Seeing the spirit of citizen science is really amazing in Dunedin. Being part of the science festival really taught us how many great projects are happening. It’s been inspiring.

 

Sara: One of the projects we’ve been doing here is talking to scientists about exactly these kind of tangible glimpses at large shifts and it’s been fascinating because this is such an incredibly unique ecosystem and kind of meeting point of many environments and the impact of the ocean and the small shifts in current. I’ve learned enough to be dangerous as they say about this while I’ve been in Dunedin. A small change in temperature can change the ocean currents dramatically which will change the make up of the ocean life.

 

One of the issues that I’ve heard that I thought was very telling as far as this two degrees is just a little warmer kind of question is that there’s a sea urchin in Tasmania that will drift, the larva will drift on the current down to the north shore of the north island and that’s happened periodically but the temperature of the water has meant that they haven’t survived. Now with the increase in the temperature of the ocean water and the current is getting stronger, but also the water is warming up just a little bit on the north shore of the north island which means that now these sea urchin are growing up there and not dying in their larval stage. Which means that now the ecosystem of the ocean shelf on that shore is changing dramatically. The kelp is disappearing because the sea urchin are eating it. Then you can see that as it chain.

 

Now that they’ve taken hold on that shore, when the water gets a little warmer farther down and some larva drift down, they will survive and these kinds of impacts that are very minute changed thresholds that are very controlled and important and very minor. On top of that, and this is one of the things that’s been fascinating in talking to scientists here that work on these incredibly long timelines, is talking to them about climate change, because of course they’re like, “Well which one do you want to talk about? We’ve had them through all of history.” Thinking about human impact not as a … Thinking about human impact as an added stress to already stressed environments that animals are constantly struggling and that’s fine. That’s always been the case, but we’re making them struggle so much harder to continue. These little shifts in temperature and the little shifts in fishing and fishing for example, the lobsters on the north island meant that nothing was eating the young sea urchins when they were coming. That increased their foothold there. These kind of cascading issues can start with really minor climate differences.

 

Sam: One of the issues that we have is that people would rather not talk about it. Hands over our eyes, fingers in our ears. Let’s pretend it’s not happening and being quite critical of people that do. You’re very much taking the approach of engaging the community is a thing we need to be doing. I’m wondering what you’re hoping to achieve from that?

 

Beth: When you start preparing a community …. Actually the numbers, you guys asked about numbers. If a community is prepared for climate change, it is significantly more affordable than responding to disaster. If South Dunedin and the community at large come up with solutions now, it’ll be a much cheaper price tag than dealing with a polluted water table and homes that are not livable and all of the challenges that come with not planning. That’s the world all over. The Bay area we’ve seen numbers if we start planning in the San Francisco Bay area for climate change now, it will be much more affordable even though the price tags are big. What the climate deniers, where they kind of are comical, is they deny climate change but if you tell them, “Oh. We came up with a solution for climate change,” they say, “Great. Let’s get it.” They want a solution but at the same time they don’t want to acknowledge the problem.

 

That’s the language as designers that we’ve learned to use of coming up with creative ways to talk about challenges. We’ve heard from climate activists here in Dunedin that instead of calling it climate change, there’s sea inundation, backyards with saltwater at high tide. There’s ways to be less threatening but still come up with solutions for communities and families that are going to need drier homes so that their kids are healthy. Asthma rates, if your basement is damp, go up. We heard about someone digging a fence in his back yard and he had to wait until it was low tide, because the holes were filled with water at high tide.

 

Sea level inundation is something you can’t ignore when you’re living in it. We want to actually learn some of these tactical skills that Dunedinites are going to have to put into practice sooner than later, and share them with our home communities.

 

Sam: Do you think that we can get there through incremental approaches or is it going to take a revolution?

 

Sara: I don’t think we’ve been here long enough to say locally.

 

Sam: Just in California then.

 

Sara: …California. I think it has to be both. Some of the tipping points that we’re seeing are coming from kind of the most standard places you could think of. When insurance pulls out of a community, and the government and the community are now on the hook for the liability of home ownership, which is one of the major safety nets of families all over the world. When insurance pulls out and this happened in New Orleans, things get a lot more of an emergency a lot quicker. There was just news last week in San Francisco, the millennium tower, one of these new big development projects in San Francisco is  sinking already and it’s sinking because, well for many reasons. Okay. Now that’s a different focus. It’s important that these are not the rich and the insured that can manage to push us forward, but when we’re seeing it from both sides, where the world bank is trying to do infrastructure problems to hold off flooding, because they have an investment that needs to be secured. Meanwhile, poor communities are really suffering from that insecurity the most. The question is, how do we get everybody moving towards the same solutions rather than pit it against each other.

 

Sam: What’s your go-to definition of sustainability?

 

Beth: Sustainability is really about thinking about future generations. If we’re not designing our economies and systems, infrastructure systems to just be for our generation, the next 30 years. If we’re really thinking the next 7 generations, that is sustainability. The carrying capacity of one generation using up natural resources that are not going to be sustained for future generations, is unsustainable. There’s a lot of great over the sustainability movement the last 30 years. I’m teaching a course next semester on the history of sustainable design. I’m excited to bring out some old precedents even. European town and country inspirations that were done in England of bringing farmers markets, or bringing urban gardens into a city so you can grow your own food. There’s a lot of old precedents that can be brought in. Thinking about electricity and power, I was really inspired by indigenous architecture that faces in the US, the south would be the north here. The home is actually facing the direction of the sun and that the home is a solar collector, versus just having solar panels on their roof. Really thinking about designing in a way that’s going to use electricity, be comfortable and be healthy. Not be in a threat of a flood is really important.

 

Sam: Talking about engaging people in future generations or thinking about future generations. We’re not very good at it.

 

Sara: It’s true. I think people in general, we’re not really wired to think long, big scale or long distances. It’s a challenge. It’s probably a challenge we’ve always had, but I think the challenge of scale right now is the one that kind of obsesses me. We’re not great at thinking beyond neighbourhood and city. A lot of the challenges that we’re facing in neighbourhoods and cities are coming at us from really large scales. To me, that’s a design challenge. Time and scale right now, are a design challenge.

 

Sam: One of my favourite definitions of sustainability is ethics extended in space and time. What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years?

 

Beth: I’m about to install my dream project. In Texas I’ve worked with these gas pumps with solar panels, I’ve told you about. We’ve just gone through a year process of getting permits for a new solar charging station for the city of Austin that will be in this beautiful park in downtown Austin that was formerly a power station. It’s called the Sea Home Power Plant that was built in the 50s and decommissioned in the 90s and now the city is taking it over to be their ecodistrict. It has numerous features of sustainable design. Working with the city of Austin’s utility, Austin Energy, to do electric vehicle charging is where all of my more whimsical prototypes have wanted to go. I’m about to install my dream project that will be Austin Energy’s Electric Drive Solar Charging Station and it will have space for electric scooters and bikes to charge, as well as outdoor seating and plants and a beautiful solar canopy.

 

Keep an eye on Solar Design Lab’s website to see that project soon. That’s kind of an interesting moment for me, where as a public artist doing realistic infrastructure. The city finally took notice. It took 7 years, but persistence is really the secret to community changing. Buckminster Fuller has a great quote of, “Don’t spend time pointing out things that are not useful. Really build the things that you want to see for the future.” I think that’s important for all of us of thinking about climate change and sustainability in Dunedin, let’s build that vision as opposed to blaming and pointing fingers, let’s start building a way to make these hard transitions possible.

 

Sam: We’re writing a book about these conversations. We’re calling it Tomorrow’s Heroes. We’re writing a book. Aren’t we Shane?

 

Shane: We are indeed. Slowly.

 

Sam: What we’re looking at is trying to describe people’s superpower. What’s their sustainable superpower? It’s really, what are you bringing to the sustainable team? How would you like your superpower to be described?

 

Sara: I think what I end up bringing to teams, I think, is finding that way to engage the platform to engage. The moment of agency in a system.

 

Sam: That’s cool.

 

Beth: Yeah, that’s a great question. For me, I think, thinking about design, not just design for the dump, but design for positive innovation. With doing solar energy projects, it’s been a really fun superpower. Someone said it’s like open source solar energy giving free solar power to the public to really experience it for the first time. It’s great to have solar panels up on rooftops, but to bring it down to the public level for them to touch and experience it. We’ve done musical festivals where we’ve charged 4,000 cellphones over 4 days. Getting to be that close to that many people wanting to try solar energy out has been really thrilling and that’s kind of helped feed this kind of work and my commitment to teaching and design is going to keep that going at the University of California Davis with continuing that research.

 

Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist.

 

Beth: Definitely. You asked me about my childhood, and I didn’t mention I guess in my early 20s I was part of a bike circus. It was a bicycle circus that we did month long bike trips around issues of biotechnology and environmental pollution and anti-globalization and a lot of issues that we were worried about 10, 15 years ago, we’re actually seeing play out in really terrifying ways. We’ve lost so many jobs in the US for building things. We’ve lost a lot and the cycle right now is everything being made in China and then shipped to the US, is not a sustainable path. I’m really interested in being part of some design research as well as shifting design education to come up with some ways to do local manufacturing.

 

Sam: Same thing?

 

Sara: I think I’m definitely an activist. It’s important to me that work is political. If a design, if it’s not a political project, than … I guess another way to say that is I usually make projects a political project. I think all designs should be political.

 

Sam: What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

 

Sara: That’s a tough one. I guess there’s just a lot to do. Ways of being in collaborations, different types of groups to collaborate with, I’ll say and I’ll piggy back this on my recent success of the last three years. I’ve been working for the last couple years with a really multidisciplinary group in Jakarta, Indonesia. There’s computer scientists and geographers and engineers and urban theorists. I’m the designer on the project. It’s using social media data to get real time flood maps of the city that’s a community resource and then also a resource for the Emergency Management Agency. Ways of leveraging both community tools, open source tools, big data and real on the ground problems that’s the sweet spot, I think, for where to design. That’s been a fantastic project to be a part of and it’s been a very successful project that’s now picked up by the city of Jakarta as an official resource for community reporting. That type of … Which, you know, it’s not like those projects come along everyday, but being able to be part of projects like that where factors are being thought of through engineering and community and I can add the design eye of how to engage the public through what methods on their terms, that’s the perfect spot.

 

Sam: What challenges are you looking forward to in the next couple of years?

 

Beth: For me, kind of transitioning, the more you do work in public space the bigger the projects or the more exciting the collaboration gets. Climate Kit, has been a really fun way for Sara and I to prototype and learn from another country some of the challenges, sort of bring some of these skills and prototype ideas home is going to be really inspiring to share what we’ve learned her and really think about new infrastructure design and innovation that could come up with some bigger challenges for climate change. I just joined the University of California Davis Department of Design, with a few new faculty and we’re starting an industrial design programme for the design department. I want a lot of the curriculum to really be about solutions for climate change. That’s a big tag, but what that means is design innovation to come up with how can we have our city work on drought issues, work on aging infrastructure that needs to change, bringing more public transportation to our cities, bringing more sustainable building options. Living in smaller spaces. There’s a lot of great projects happening but how to have that be a pedagogy, a real curriculum and how to grow a program like that. I’m excited about. As well as continuing my own practice with Infrastructure for small electric vehicles.

 

Sam: Two more questions, we’ll have to be very quick. If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur, what would it be?

 

Sara: I think I’ve eliminated all of those options from my brain. I don’t know if I can put it back in.

 

Sam: What’s the smallest thing that we could do that would have the biggest impact?

 

Sara: Really engage the issue and believe that that would work. I think the thing is that, as you said, turning away from it is easier but also it’s a challenge. It’s so out scaled from an individual that getting that feeling any agency within these problems, I think is a real difficulty right now. I think that’s what it would be. Just kind of feeling like we could charge ahead in it.

 

Beth: We absolutely have all the solutions to these challenges and then we have precedence in the world of the amount of people that were organized for dealing world wars is possible and necessary for coming up with solutions for climate change.

 

Sam: Lastly, quickly. Do you have any advice for our listeners?

 

Beth: Enjoy the beautiful parts of Dunedin and come to our exhibition. It’s going to be at 4 o’clock at the Otago Museum. Work with each other to come up with some solutions to the challenges in this beautiful place.

 

Shane: Brilliant. Thank you so much for coming in.

 

 

 

Categories
art climate change science

Art explorer of the world

Gabby O Connor-01

I’m trying to make sense of the world – to understand things I don’t understand – making sense of them using the language that I have…colour, space, light.


Gabby O’Connor is an artist and interdisciplinary researcher. Her work ranges from landscape scale installations, through room-scale icebergs, and to photographing the smallest ice platelets. Her work is process based, often involving communities and children. After several years of imaginatively exploring the space and place of Antarctica, Gabby recently spent time there as an artist embedded in a research team. We are joined also by Bridie Lonie and talk about Gabby’s work and the role of the interdisciplinary researcher in both communicating and perhaps influencing the science of understanding our world.

We also talk about seal snot.

Talking points

It’s an experiment within an experiment to see if art could in turn influence science.

I’m trying to make sense of the world – to understand things I don’t understand – making sense of them using the language that I have…colour, space, light.

It’s a stereotype that there are scientists and there are artists, the process is often quite similar.

It’s like a Venn diagram, the art intersecting with the science, then there’s this education component. They can each operate separately, but in together combination the power is just just massive.

That’s that really exciting unknown space…we’re really enjoying pushing all the disciplines a little bit further.

Tensions? There’s a lot of trust because it’s a relationship built over time.

Both artists and scientists are trying to find out things that aren’t known – both trying to understand the world.

Scientists are trying to find small pieces of a puzzle that will help explain and prepare us for Climate Change, and I’m using many small fragments of information to try and tell similar stories.

(Success) Going to Antarctica.

(Activist) No, but, not protesting. Really good information, connecting with children is a really good investment.

(Motivation) I’m an artist, impractical…maybe practical and imaginative. I’m in a unique position at the moment where all my interests have intersected in a most perfect way.

(Challenges) Turning data into newer things.

(Miracle) Lost of time, dedicated space, great conversations.

(Advice) If your’re an artist, have a blog – you never know what might happen – but don’t make it a pretty things I like blog. A historical document, where you can put all those ideas. (Gabby’s blog)

Categories
art education

Art, science and imagination

Daro Montag

The biggest problem we’re facing is a lack of imagination


Dr Daro Montag is a professor of Art and Sustainability at Falmouth University. There he heads the RANE research group, examining the relationship between the visual arts and ecological thinking, with the aim of contributing to a more sustainable future.

Talking points

Art and science are not always looking in the same direction.

For most of humanity’s existence, a living planet has been a given.

The biggest problem we’re facing is a lack of imagination

A whole cascade of problems caused by the population multiplied by our lifestyles – we’re victims of our own success.

Should we be looking towards unsustainable, and helping to steer that change?

We’re living in a bubble, and we need to be aware of it, thankful for it, but we need to do with less.

We are living in a privileged times, but they are limited. It is the responsibility of professors and artists to be thinking of alternatives.

As an artist I don’t really make a distinction between making pictures and the rest of your life.

It’s about stories you live by.

Art is not something you produce, it’s a way of being.

The growth of the smartphone camera is dangerous, if we experience the world through a lens we lose the connection, the world becomes 2D, not living – we treat the world as a dead object to be captured.

I try to make (my students) aware of what is happening, with art students there’s a door you can open.

You don’t separate art from the environment.

Art is activist provocation

The idea of being an artist who produces for a gallery is over – art is about a gesture. Art is a verb, not a noun.

(Motivation?) Fun. The global environmental message is very doomy. The world is in a very dire predicament, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to do something positive about it.

This given situation, what we know, it’s our responsibility to get up and do something – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun and enjoyable.

It’s not about sacrifice and giving things up, it’s about weaving a better story.

(Activist?) Yes. Anyone wanting to change the world for the better is an activist. There are different ways of doing.

Activism isn’t about saying no, it is not just about protest. Activism can be about positive choices, fostering imagination.

(Miracle) That we realise that there is enough energy from the sun to meet all of our needs. And the crazy thing is that it is true…back to that lack of imagination problem.

(Advice) Educate yourselves – keep the imagination alive.

Categories
art computing

Experiencing changing trajectories

Steve Benford


Deliberately and systematically creating uncomfortable interactions as part of powerful cultural experiences

Prof Steve Benford is Professor of Collaborative Computing at The University of Nottingham’s Horizon Digital Economy Research Hub. He is the first ever academic to take part in the new ‘Dream Fellowship’ at the BBC. Steve’s work on understanding trajectories through experiences provides us with insights into understanding and behaviour change. Working at the interaction of art and science, Steve focusses on pushing boundaries and engineering compelling experiences. His work into uncomfortable interaction may lead us to better ways of supporting societal change.

In partnership with artists group Blast Theory, Steve and his team have worked on Desert Rain, a combination of virtual reality, installation and performance to problematise the boundary between the real and the virtual. Similarly, Uncle Roy all arround you explored social changes and ubiquity in the city.

In recent work, Steve has been involved in Conversation with Trees. This has brought together art and science around issues of climate change, providing compelling experiences and provoking responses through sometimes deliberate ambiguity.

Recorded at CHI13. Photo on this image cc Frank Boyd.

Categories
art

Ecological artist


Lloyd Godman is an ecological artist. A successful photographer for many years, Lloyd is currently working with plants. This is not as big a transformation as it may seem – much of Lloyd’s photographic work explored plants as a form of photography – indeed he describes the planet as large scale photographic membrane. Lloyd says that he is an activist – in that art is an action for positive social change. Art itself though, he says is largely unsustainable.

Lloyd is based at Melbourne’s Baldessin Press. He describes his work as super-sustainable: artworks with a positive effect. They both question – what we are doing to the planet is a giant uncontrolled scientific experiment and we don’t know what is going to happen – and provide positive benefits. Working with bromeliads, particularly the Tillandsia family, Lloyd creates aerial gardens that are being increasingly recognised for their contribution to architecture.  His Rotating Gardens are now being installed in prominent locations in Melbourne.

Here’s Lloyd with a rotating garden.

Lloyd’s work discussed in the show:

Other links:

Categories
art landscape

Bridie Lonie

 


Radio meets pictures as Bridie Lonie walks us through a trail of art and nature.  Bridie Lonie is from Otago Polytechnic’s School of Art where she researches the relationships between art and social issues.

Here’s some of the ground we covered:

Edward Hick’s Peaceable Kingdom
Komar and Melamid’s Most Wanted
Grizzly Man
Public Smog

Shane’s number of the week: 500 metres is how far away honey bees have to be away from Genetically Modified crops, and the honey contain no traces of pollen from GM  for the honey to be classed as food according to a recent European Union ruling.

Sam’s joined-joined-up-thinking: Intergenerational equity is the cornerstone of sustainability but it is being eroded by use of the term to support municipal borrowing (read on>>>).