Imagine future archaeologists, post-Anthropocene, discovering an ancient display of colorful solar panels arranged in a straight line. The archaeologists hypothesize that this “solar tapestry” was created to provide future generations with an illustrated epic story of how 21st century Homo Sapiens wisely – but narrowly – averted a climate emergency by embracing the sun.
Imaginative ideas like this – a Bayeux Tapestry for our times, according to UK artist Chloe Uden – inspired her to found the Art and Energy collective in 2018 with her long-time collaborator, the artist and botanist Naomi Wright.
“The Art and Energy collective re-imagines solar technology as an art material for the future,” explained Chloe in an email exchange. “We’re still at the experimental level, testing ideas, exploring the cultural dimensions of energy systems, and planning for future collaboration. We want to share our knowledge widely so others can design and make their own solar panel artworks. This will help create new stories for our energy future.”
2019 has been super-charged for the year-old collective. In March, Chloe and Naomi unveiled their first solar panel artworks during MikroFest at Kaleider Studios in Exeter, UK. Comments posted from visitors included one from the poet Matt Harvey, whom I’ve written about previously, who wrote “This is wonderful and inspiring work – I would love to see it ‘scaled-up’ perhaps a cathedral or an enormous building.” In fact, this great suggestion is already a reality across the big pond: the Cathedral of the Holy Family in the Canadian city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was the first cathedral in the world to integrate solar cells into its stained glass windows, designed by Canadian glass artist Sarah Hall in 2011.
Several months after Art and Energy’s first unveiling, the collective was invited by Kaleider Studios in July 2019 for a year-long residency to research new processes, work on new pieces, deliver workshops and continue growing their new creative venture. In August, Chloe and Naomi are running solar artworks workshops at the International Festival of Glass in Stourbridge, UK. In September, they will be exhibiting artworks at the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI), as well as offering solar charger making workshops at the Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC) in Totnes.
In October, Chloe will be participating, along with 20 other start-ups from across southwest England, in the Dartington School of Social Entrepreneurs. Earlier in the year, Art and Energy exhibited at TEDx Exeter‘s “The Art of the Possible” event by providing phone charging points in the exhibition hall. For more information on Art and Energy’s incredibly busy 2019 schedule (yes, there’s more!), check out their website.
“Mostly, we are not just interested in art illustrating the existence of climate change, or going on about how terrible it is. We want to make art, and we want to respond to the climate emergency AT THE SAME TIME. So, our solar panel artworks generate electricity from the sun,” Chloe explained in an email.
“(But) some people have told us that art can’t be useful too – that it is too much to expect art to actually make a difference. If art is doing anything other than being art, then it isn’t art any more. In fact, they suggest that if our solar art panels didn’t actually work, THEN they might be art.”
As a renewable energy photographer, I have received similar unhelpful feedback on my work. In a climate emergency, perhaps the definition of “art” needs to change? Barry Lord, one of the world’s great cultural thinkers, explains in his 2014 book Art & Energy: How Culture Changes how major cultural and artistic shifts have accompanied each energy transition since humans first mastered fire. We are currently living through the third energy transition – from oil/gas to renewables. In this transition, Lord argues that “the so-called energy debate is really a conflict of cultures.” I will write more about his provocative and prescient thesis in my next post.
So. “Who cares really at this time of crisis what definitions (of art) we are using?” asks Chloe. “We will either respond to the climate emergency, or we won’t. And the way I see it is, if we can make beautiful things, why not make beautiful things that respond to the reality we live in and reverse global warming?”
Over the last 15 years juggling two careers – one in renewable energy, the other in art (puppetry and illustration) – Chloe has come to realize that creatives more than most will recognize what the climate emergency requires of us:
- A commitment to bring our attention to the challenge and work, work, work
- A compulsion to follow our curiosity, reflect, learn, synthesize and do
- A need to be brave and willing to find a way
- An acceptance of possible failure and the humility to accept whatever
“Responding to the climate emergency is like deciding to make art: some of us feel it is the highest form of human endeavour, and mostly you’re not in it for the money.”
Perhaps the same could be true of the artists (or shall we refer to them simply as “artisans”?) who created the magnificent 70-meters long Bayeux Tapestry, which preserved for future generations the details of the great medieval epic – illustrated in humble wool thread embroidered on linen cloth – of the 11th century conquest of England by the Duke of Normandy.
Perhaps artists like Chloe Uden, Naomi Wright and their many collaborators will find a way to weave a similar tapestry for future generations in humble silicon PV. I will be their biggest fan.
(All photos reprinted with permission from the Arts and Energy collective.)
This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.
Joan Sullivan is a Canadian renewable energy photographer. Since 2009, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to keep our eyes on the prize – a 100% clean energy economy in our lifetimes. Joan is currently working on a documentary film and book project about Canada’s energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on Ello, Twitter and Visura.
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.
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