Yearly Archives: 2017

Our Shifting World

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

“Art is about what has touched us in the world.” —Maurice Merleau-Ponty

I am passionate about using art to facilitate thinking about our place in the world, whether this be exploring our connection to the past, and /or to what is happening here and now. I draw from various interests – anthropology, history, oceanography, and various environmental issues. Earth’s story along with our changing climate are important and constant threads through my work. They help me connect to something beyond the self.

Our impact on the environment, and the subsequent changing climate, is one of the most pressing issues of our time. We are constantly surrounded by news and data – shocking headlines grab attention and large corporate organizations hold sway. We now have scientific evidence and knowledge on an unprecedented scale, information which tells us how our actions are directly affecting life on this planet. At times this can seem overwhelming, leading to feeling powerless, and desensitizing us to these important issues.

For me, the challenge we face is to stay empowered and engaged in the face of so much worrying information.

I try to channel my concerns into my art practice. I predominately work with the book form, creating unique artist books which celebrate the dynamic beauty of the natural world. I hope to inspire, and remind people of what we have, and what we stand to lose if we do not pay heed. I aim to make work which invites people to “step closer” rather than away, holding the belief that if we love something we are more likely to want to protect it. I see art as the beginnings of a conversation. A conversation that can occur on many levels – between the past, the present, and the future. Conversations provide space to reflect and the potential for something new to come into existence.

Ripples Held in a Slumber of Blue.

Collaborations between scientists and artists offer a myriad of ways to engage audiences, and have enormous potential to further raise awareness of environmental concerns. All change starts with a small action – we need not be powerless. While we may be unable to travel the world to witness what is occurring firsthand, the benefit of living in an era of information means freer access to scientific research, films and books – all important sources which facilitate dialogue, and transport us to the largely inaccessible extremes of our world.

Books, with their sequence of spaces, give scope for work to take you on a journey of discovery. It does not have to involve a linear narrative – various book structures offer diversions and alternative paths, where the viewer dictates the direction and pace. Holding a book and navigating its pages is an interactive experience between artist and viewer. The experience of holding a handmade book delights more than the mind. It can be an intimate, sensory experience – of touch and texture, providing reflection on a “moment of time.” There is not necessarily a beginning or an end, for it can be a cyclical process.

I use the book format in its widest sense, sometimes using traditional bindings alongside more sculptural pieces, where the book becomes an object in its own right. From early childhood books have always held a special place in my life; I have early memories of delving into the Encyclopaedia Britannica for homework projects, and visiting libraries after school. It is no surprise that books continue to feature in my art practice. I enjoy reading and often gain inspiration from the shared knowledge of others. The wealth of accessible science books now available to the general reader makes the complex more tangible, and allows entry into areas that often spark ideas for my work.

I am a frequent visitor to museums. The Great Gathering, a series of seven ammonite-shaped books, evolved from initially visiting the Sedgwick Museum of Science, Cambridge and then Colchester Natural History Museum.

Silent Spring Revisited, the Reports Of Seasoned Observers. (Detail)

The Great Gathering 

Responding to both the building and museum collection, this series of seven artist books tells the story of the universe spanning 650 million years. Fossil collections have been key to unlocking our understanding of evolution. Echoing the spiral shape of an ammonite, each book reflects a significant moment of this journey. From dark beginnings (black holes), the Big Bang, forming oceans, ancient sediment layers, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, to the twentieth century and the age of knowledge (recycled National Geographic Magazines), the work charts the inevitability of change. The seventh volume remains unfinished and is in the process of becoming; it represents an unknown future which is still unfolding. The installation was displayed at the Colchester Natural History Museum for three months in 2016 and is now in a private collection.

Ripples Held in a Slumber of Blue

I have a particular interest in the polar regions and in what is happening with the world’s glaciers. This fragile environment is rapidly changing. Having followed the work of James Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey, I produced a series of artist books about this disappearing world. A world which holds our ancient history; once dissolved it can never be replaced.

The Reports of Seasoned Observers – Silent Spring Revisited 

The year 2012 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I spent a number of weeks at Southend Museum viewing their egg collections. Following discussions with the curators, I was made aware of the contentious issue surrounding the display of these old collections. Attitudes have changed in the past fifty years; it is now illegal to remove any egg from a nest. Conversely these collections have a vital role in helping scientists to compare, for example, the thickness of shells from the past and now. Shells now are often thinner than they use to be.

I created a series of “fossilized” eggs, vessels carrying Carson’s own words, reminding us of the continued relevance of her research and highlighting the worrying decline of bird and insect species today. The egg, often seen as a symbol of renewal, in this instance becomes a reminder of loss.

Lost Voices

Lost Voices is a series of artist books, which explore the complex relationship between humans and whales over the past two hundred years. Taking visual inspiration from the old whaling logbooks, I incorporated passages from Melville’s Moby Dick, as well as first-hand accounts to capture the “lost voices” from this period of history. The original whaling documents are of a great value to climate scientists, who are able to use the data regarding old weather patterns and compare them to now.

(Top image: The Great Gathering, Vol.V The Age Of Transition.)

Lost Voices.


Chris Ruston has a Fine Art background, and worked as an art psychotherapist for many years. She particularly enjoys working with paper, inks and mark making. She regularly takes part in Artist Book Fairs and has been featured in several book art publications. She received the Artist Award at Turn the Page, Artist Book Fair, Norwich in 2015.

Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Ben’s Strategy blog: Stubborn optimism and imagination

This post comes from Creative Carbon Scotland

Three recent events provided some useful food for thought about where we are in the journey to a sustainable society, and to some extent linked up. I’ll try to bring them together here.

First an inspiring evening at Edinburgh Castle where Christiana Figueres, the architect and driving force behind the Paris Agreement, was receiving the Shackleton Medal. The medal was awarded jointly in 2016 by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society to Christiana Figueres as the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, M Laurent Fabius, the French Prime Minister who chaired the 2015 Paris conference, and Manuel Pulgar Vidal, the Peruvian Environment Minister who chaired the 2014 climate conference in Lima, which was central to the success of the Paris one. Presumably Ms Figueres hadn’t been able to travel to Scotland to receive the medal in 2016, but she was here last week speaking at a number of events.

Stubborn Optimism

Figueres gave a speech highlighting two of Ernest Shackleton’s qualities. First his commitment to his team, and here she paid tribute not only to her fellow medallists but to all who are working for a better, zero-carbon world. Shackleton of course promised his men that he would return to rescue them from the icy wastes of Antarctica, and did so having made an extraordinary and perilous journey. Arguably after the divisions at the Copenhagen conference in 2009, Figueres had to deliver in Paris on a similar promise made to the poorer nations of the world in the intervening years. Second she focused on Shackleton’s ‘stubborn optimism’, which she unpacked as being an attitude that saw problems as the stimuli for innovation and an opportunity to bring people together to overcome them; and an ability to get up in the morning feeling that success was possible, despite overwhelming odds. She finished by introducing seven young climate leaders from low lying islands who were also in Edinburgh. She urged them to remember that they had come here on the ‘Peace Boat’: ‘not the Anger Boat, or the Blame Boat, or the War Boat’. Her speech was a good reminder of what an achievement the Paris Agreement is, with all its flaws, and how easy it is, in an era of Trump, Brexit and Spanish politics, not to work together – and how important working together is, whatever the circumstances. (I’d say it’s also more fun.)

More economics please

Next came the event with Professor Tim Jackson, about whom I blogged in August. His talk, hosted by the Macaulay Development trust and the James Hutton Institute was very good, although it didn’t tell me anything new that I hadn’t read in his book (which I suppose is fair enough – not everyone will have read it). I was hoping I’d get the answer to the question posed in my blog, whether Jackson’s vision of a low-carbon, post-growth society that is based on services is possible, or whether we don’t actually need some ‘stuff’, which is more carbon intensive. However this wasn’t forthcoming and I didn’t have the opportunity to ask my question…

The Q&A afterwards, with Lesley Riddoch, Patrick Harvie MSP and the economist Professsor Deborah Roberts, turned into a rather generalised discussion about the failures of classical economics and governments etc. And maybe that was part of the problem with the whole event: Jackson spent more time than was necessary explaining why we need a new economics of sustainability, and not enough on outlining what that might look like. I think the ‘why’ argument has been won since he set out on this journey in 2009, and he could now focus on the interesting and difficult thinking he’s been doing since. For example he mentioned in an aside that a Universal Basic Income is actually a less effective way of achieving the aims normally associated with it than a capital tax, which itself is less effective than the strengthening of the power of labour and constraints on the power of capital. Now that’s why I go to hear an economist speak!

The Golden Thread

And finally the annual conference of the Sustainable Scotland Network, which supports the 180-odd Public Bodies which have duties under the Climate Change Act here in Scotland. Chris Stark, the Director of Energy & Climate Change at the Scottish Government, gave a terrific talk in which he spoke about the ‘golden thread’ of energy joining up all sorts of policy areas: as his team’s Draft Energy Strategy consultation makes clear, ‘Affordable energy provision is a prerequisite for healthy, fulfilling living and productive, competitive business.’ He made clear that the easy work had been done, in largely decarbonising the electricity supply, but that domestic and non-domestic heat (which produces around 40% of Scotland’s carbon emissions) and transport (another 20% or so) would be much greater challenges. What struck me was that for the first time I heard someone from the Government hinting about a fundamental change in society, not suggesting that life in Scotland would be the same, but magically zero-carbon. He was followed by Professor Jan Webb talking about the difficulties of arranging collaborative projects to deliver the low-carbon heat Chris Stark was talking about: she proposed a general ‘Duty to collaborate’, which I think is crucial. However it would need to trump other targets and duties if it were to have any effect. It is easy to show that you have met your carbon reduction target, and to be sanctioned if you haven’t, but harder to show that you have or haven’t collaborated effectively.

Other speakers from public sector organisations at the conference sounded a bit ground down by their climate change responsibilities. Dave Gorman, Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh described the position of senior managers, who have plenty of other priorities that they are trying to juggle alongside sustainability. His argument was that what they needed were clear proposals that showed how a sustainability-focused project would also deliver on those other priorities: in a way an echo of what Chris Stark was saying, and perhaps a hint about the collaboration that Jan Webb was describing.

Revolutionary thinking

Chris Stark was effectively talking about a revolution, and Jan Webb was telling us that current structures as well as current ways of thinking are not going to bring that revolution about. This is of course what we at Creative Carbon Scotland are working on: proposing different ways of doing things to get different results. As finance across government is getting tighter, there is even greater need for different ideas and collaboration across sectors and silos to achieve our common aims. There is no doubt that people at the carbon face are struggling, and that isn’t the easiest time to try out innovations, but it may also be the time when imagination is most needed. There is a long history of the arts contributing to the health, education and justice agendas but sustainability is seldom mentioned. Our mission is to make sure that culture’s role in the transition to a sustainable society is fully recognised and utilised by both the cultural and sustainabilty worlds. And we bring some of Christiana Figueres’ stubborn optimism to help overcome the significant hurdles along the way.

Image: Christiana Figueres

The post Ben’s Strategy blog: Stubborn optimism and imagination appeared first on Creative Carbon Scotland.

About Creative Carbon Scotland:

Creative Carbon Scotland is a partnership of arts organisations working to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland. We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.

In 2011 we worked with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Threatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network to support over thirty arts organisations to operate more sustainably.

We are now building on these achievements and working with over 70 cultural organisations across Scotland in various key areas including carbon management, behavioural change and advocacy for sustainable practice in the arts.

Our work with cultural organisations is the first step towards a wider change. Cultural organisations can influence public behaviour and attitudes about climate change through:

Changing their own behaviour;
Communicating with their audiences;
Engaging the public’s emotions, values and ideas.

Go to Creative Carbon Scotland