Video and Sound Installations Incorporating Renewable Energy

By Chris Meigh-Andrews

In the period between January and April 1994, while I was Artist in Residence in Digital Imaging in the School of Visual Arts, Music and Publishing at Oxford Brookes University, I developed Perpetual Motion, a gallery-based installation presenting a computer animation of a flying kite powered via a wind turbine. After its initial exhibition in Oxford, this work was subsequently exhibited at the Saw Contemporary Arts Centre in Ottawa (1994), and at the Castlefield Gallery, Manchester (1996). This early work initiated a series of installations, presented within a “white cube” gallery setting and outside in the landscape, in which renewable energy systems were integral to the themes and functioning of the work and to the ethos and concerns of my approach to working with moving image and sound technologies. Since then I have continued to work with renewable energy within gallery spaces and at outside locations as a way of establishing relationships with the natural environment and highlighting the flow and transformation of energy from one form to another.

Perpetual Motion (1994), Saw Gallery, Ottawa, Canada

For example, Mothlight (1998), exhibited at the Museum of Natural History in Pisa, Glass Box Gallery in Salford and at the Rich Women of Zurich, London, featured halogen lamps, solar panels and video monitors in dynamic counter-balance. Mothlight sought ways to highlight the interdependence of the elements which were at the core of the work – a repeating cycle of computer-generated fluttering moths and suspended solar-powered video screens illuminated by halogen lamps that were interconnected to form an interrelated cycle of meaning. Light was an important theme in this work; illuminating, powering, and conceptually connecting the images and objects within the work. My interest in the relationship between technology and nature was a major concern. In Mothlight the use of “renewable resources” was intended to be subversive; solar panels were not simply used to generate electricity but to act as passive conductors which were transducing light from the domestic main’s power point. In my thinking at the time, I felt that by inverting the “conventional” application of renewable energy, I was serving the poetic rather than the technological.

In 2002, my solar-powered digital video installation For William Henry Fox Talbot (The Pencil of Nature) was commissioned for “Digital Interventions” at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Electricity produced from a solar panel was harnessed to power a digital video camera focused on the large latticed window first photographed by Will Henry Fox Talbot in 1835. The image from the digital camera was composed to exactly reproduce Fox Talbot’s pioneering “photogenic drawing,” the world’s earliest surviving photograph. This digital facsimile was relayed via an ISDN phone line from Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire to the museum in London, the resultant “live” digital image presenting a full-size image of the historic window in “real time.”

In 1994, with research funding from National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), I developed Interwoven Motion, an outdoor self-powered (solar and wind) video installation for the “Foundation for Art & Creative Technology” (FACT) with support from Grizedale Arts and the UK Forestry Commission. At the edge of a wooded area, a large tree was temporarily equipped with four video cameras arranged around the trunk at the height of approximately eight meters. The images produced by the cameras were relayed via a switcher to a weatherproof LCD video display at the base of the tree. The speed and direction of the image flow was determined by the velocity and direction of the wind. The system was powered by a wind turbine extended beyond the height of the forest canopy and four solar panels mounted within the tree itself.

Resurrection (2004), Saint James Cavalier, Valletta, Malta

In 2005-2006, I produced Resurrection, a solar-powered video installation for “Digital Discourse,” in Valletta. A dead tree, complete with roots (approximately 20-feet high), was cut in half, the root end mounted in the center of the floor at one end of the gallery. The upturned tree and roots were lit by halogen lamps with forty-five individual miniature solar panels arranged irregularly on the roots. Video images of fluttering leaves were projected onto paper “leaves” arranged on the dead branches. Resurrection presented a record of a previously living existence recreated via technology. The energy used to bring the tree back to life was transformed within the gallery space from electricity to light and back again, the shimmering leaves experienced as both light reflectors and light receptors, the solar panels as both surrogate leaves and transforming technology.

SunBeam (2011), University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK

In 2011, I developed SunBeam, an outdoor event featuring high-definition video images of the sun from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory projected at night onto a large solar array. My aspirations for this work were related to ideas and concerns linking it to my previous renewable energy installation projects. As Dr. Charlie Gere, professor of media theory and history at the University of Lancaster has observed, SunBeam brought me closer to my conceptual goal of producing a technological artwork which attempted to integrate the source of its energy with the images it presents, celebrating the harmonious relationship between light, energy and the fluid nature of matter in general:

In SunBeam, Meigh-Andrews now perhaps realises what the earlier works hinted at, an artwork which both represents the prodigious energy of the sun and performs its effects by using that energy to make the representation possible…That the energy harvested during the day can then be used to make an artwork possible beautifully encapsulates (Georges) Bataille’s notion of art as a form of general economy exemplified in the sun itself. The system that harnesses the sun’s extraordinary power for straightforward and restricted uses, such as supplying energy to the university and to the national grid, is ‘detourned’ to produce a work of art, or in other words something useless according to the restricted economy of reciprocity and exchange. This is, perhaps, the very definition of art itself.

— Charles Gere, “Solar: Chris Meigh-Andrews’ Sunbeam

Aeolian Processes II (2014), Long Reef, Sydney, Australia

I have continued working with renewable energy in an ongoing series of sculptural works entitled Impossible Objects (2015-2021). Although these pieces have much in common with earlier works in that they often incorporate or feature renewable energy components in order to make connections to themes of flow and flux, they are also more directly centered on notions of “process.” They are “Impossible Objects” not because they cannot exist (as they clearly do), but because they make use of, or refer to, a process that contains a contradiction or presents an “impossible” idea. They are representations of a state or situation that cannot be achieved, except through the processes and agency of art. In this respect, I have been influenced in part by the “Mono-ha” works of the Korean artist Lee Ufan, in which there is an encounter between different materials – “a relationship of tension” in which the work is the site of the encounter. In common with my approach to the large-scale installations, all of these “Impossible Objects” are hybrid installation/sculptures made using domestic technology – temporary assemblages made using readily available materials and equipment.

(Top image: SunBeam (2011), installing the screen on solar panel.)

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Chris Meigh-Andrews is an artist, writer, and curator who has been making and exhibiting screen-based video and sculptural moving image installations since the mid-1970s. He studied fine art at Goldsmiths and completed his PhD at the Royal College of Art in 2001. He is Emeritus Professor of Electronic and Digital Art, University of Central Lancashire and was Visiting Professor at the Centre for Moving Image Research, University of the West of England, 2013-2016. He has held a number of artist’s residencies in the UK and abroad and his site-specific and commissioned installations often incorporate renewable energy systems.

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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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