Photovoltaic Poetics

By Joan Sullivan

In the Global North, we do it every day, dozens of times every single day. Mindlessly, without nary a thought about how different life must have been 100 years ago before electricity became widely available. 

A simple flip of the switch, and voilà! Our lives are instantly transformed: night becomes day; air-conditioners offer temporary respite from heat domes; elevators whisk us to the top floors of skyscrapers; emails and text messages race across the globe; and increasingly, portable air purifiers filter coronaviruses and other airborne contaminants from our indoor lives.

Electricity. Our most intimate yet mysterious source of power, according to Barry Lord, author of Art & Energy: How Culture Changes. Most of us take it for granted, using it 24/7 for nearly every aspect of our modern lives, without really understanding what primary energy source produced it.

As a digital photographer, my entire artistic toolbox is 100% dependent upon a reliable supply of electricity. Not just when working in my office but perhaps more critically when I am out on a shoot. The list is endless: recharging batteries (for camera, flash, gimbal, drone); editing photos in Lightroom and Photoshop; storing and backing-up files; maintaining a website and creating online galleries for clients; taking advantage of online training programs and webinars; entering photo contests; applying for photo grants; uploading/downloading images to/from WeTransfer; sharing images on social; writing for this blog; keeping my cellphone charged and updated to communicate via text, email or FaceTime. And now Zoom! 

Access to 24/7 energy is a defining hallmark of our 21st century lives. But as dependent as we all are on a seemingly endless, uninterrupted supply of electrons, very few among us have taken the time to question where all this electricity comes from and/or how it is transported to power our homes, offices, schools, and businesses.

In his new book, A History of Solar Power Art and Design, Alex Nathanson argues convincingly that it’s high time for artists and designers to think seriously about energy in general, and about electricity from solar energy in particular. For me, the big takeaway from Nathanson’s book is that artists are uniquely qualified to help the rest of us think more deeply about electricity: not just where it comes from, but perhaps more importantly what it means to live such energy-dependent lives.

Before diving into Nathanson’s book, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that electricity is not synonymous with energy. Electricity is not a source of energy, but rather an application of other energy sources. These other energy sources are normally divided into two broad types: non-renewables versus renewables. However, there is another way to distinguish between these two types of energy: fuels (coal, oil, gas, nuclear) versus non-fuels (wind, water, solar, geothermal). 

After having photographed the energy transition for more than a decade, I am convinced that many more artists would take a second look at the energy transition if they visualized it as a transition from fuels to non-fuels. And here’s the teaser: non-fuels produce energy that is invisible, i.e., it’s mostly electrons. And who better than artists, poets, and musicians to express themselves through a medium that is invisible as well as infinite?

There’s so much potential here! 

Imagine JMW Turner with a 21st century palette: light, energy, transformation, hope…

Cell phone photo of JMW Turner’s Sun Setting over a Lake c.1840, taken in March 2021 at the breathtakingly beautiful exhibit Turner and the Sublime, Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, Québec, Canada.

Now, back to Alex. Alex Nathanson is a multimedia artist, technologist, designer, and educator. He coined the term “the poetics of photovoltaics”, which I have unabashedly flipped for the title of my post. For his recently completed M.S. in Integrated Digital Media at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, Nathanson’s thesis became the outline for his new book, to be published next week by Routledge.

In an email exchange, Nathanson explained one of the main motivations for writing it:

There is a long history of artists and designers using photovoltaics (PV) for a very wide range of activities. These have included poetic and abstract explorations, critical and conceptually complex artworks, practical consumer devices, and in collaboration with scientists to support cutting edge scientific research initiatives. Up until now, all of these various activities were very isolated from one another. The public, and even many practitioners, have been unaware of the important work going on in this space. By looking at all of this activity in a cross-disciplinary way we can think about the possibilities and challenges of the energy transition differently.

The 211-page book is divided into 10 chapters, the first three of which introduce readers to the basic technical aspects and history of early PV design. I was particularly interested in Chapter 4, “Solar Art Comes Alive.” Here, Nathanson transports us back to the mid-20th century to better understand the enormous obstacles – including the lack of affordable solar components – that the first generation of PV artists had to overcome in order to incorporate some form of solar power into their avant-garde works.

I have bookmarked Chapter 4 for future reference; I will return to it frequently for my own research. Think of it as a Who’s Who of pioneering visionaries whose dogged determination resulted in a new solar aesthetic: Ted Victoria, Max Neuhaus, Joe Jones, Alvin Lucier, Jürgen and Nora Claus, Mark Tilden, Érik Samakh, Ulrike Gabriel, Allan Giddy, Christina Kubisch, Benoît Maubrey, and Joyce Hinterding.

According to Nathanson, these and other artists were motivated to embrace solar for a variety of environmental, political, social, financial, and technical reasons. He cites the three most common ways that artists have utilized PV to date:

  1. Artists who have PV technologies as the center of their work because of the unique affordances of the technology. These artists may be attracted to the material because of the precariousness and variability of solar power or other unique attributes of the technology (Nathanson describes this as the poetic attributes of PV).
  2. Artists who want to leverage an understanding of the technology to explore ideas relating to climate and the energy transition.
  3. Artists who want to use PV to power artworks, but are not necessarily concerned with it being perceived by the viewer. These artists may want to use PV because it is more environmentally friendly or because it allows them to site an artwork in a remote area.

Whatever their motivation for experimenting with and/or incorporating PV into their work, artists and designers have a key role to play in the energy transition, says Nathanson. He writes:

In order to integrate sustainable energy technologies, and PV in particular, into our lives in a way that is equitable, sustainable, and responsive to local needs, it must be accessible to the communities most impacted by the climate crisis and the infrastructure changes this crisis is forcing upon us. Whether it is through making PV more culturally relevant, teaching engineering concepts through STEAM pedagogy, making its electrical functions clearer to the non-engineer, or poetically reframing the way we think about energy infrastructure, there are many crucial roles that artists and designers can play, particularly in the context of energy justice. Sustainable energy art and design is about far more than simply something looking good. It is about building a more equitable future.

Of all the solar artists mentioned in Nathanson’s book, three have left a deep impression on me. I will dig further into each of their lives over the coming months to better understand their respective contributions to the new solar aesthetic.

Allan Giddy is a New Zealand-born sculptor and installation artist based in Sydney, Australia. Originally trained as an electrician, Giddy describes himself as “a pioneer in, and one of Australia’s foremost proponents of, sustainable energy systems, electronic interconnectivity and interactivity embedded in the physical art object.” For more than 20 years, Giddy has collaborated across disciplines to create a wide range of public art that, according to Nathanson, “often makes visible or audible natural phenomena, systems and cultural history through poetic installations rife with symbolism.”

One of Giddy’s solar installations, described in a short paragraph on page 76 of Nathanson’s book, caused me to involuntarily shout out “YES!” while reading. In 1998, Giddy installed Ice Heart on a public beach in Sydney. It featured a heart-shaped ice sculpture that was kept frozen by… you guessed it, solar power. Giddy describes the installation on his website:

A small glass chamber containing a heart moulded from ice sits atop a tiled pyramid. A solar-powered refrigerator unit hidden within the pyramid cools the chamber to freezing. Solar cells lying on beach towels around the pyramid provide the energy with which the ice heart is maintained. 

Yes, yes, yes, yes! More like this please!

I was also excited to read about the fruitful collaboration between two German artists, Jürgen and Nora Claus, now living in Belgium. The couples’ lives and work are centered around their bold vision of biospheric art – a return to art as a vehicle for connecting the viewer to natural rhythms, processes, and environments. In 1984, Jürgen was one of the earliest artists to use solar PV in outdoor public sculpture, starting with his Pyramid of the Sun. In 1993, the Claus duo co-founded the SolArt Global Network to unite artists worldwide using the power of sunlight as a creative medium or, in their own words, using the sun as “a partner and creator of art installations” with the ultimate goal of “sharpening our awareness of solar energy.”

Twenty-six years ago, Jürgen wrote about the importance of this global network; it could so easily have been written today. Nathanson paraphrases below: 

The necessity for the [SolArt Global] network, Claus wrote, was driven by the increasing urgency of ecological issues, awareness of the limits of fossil fuels, the growing desire for decentralization in politics and energy, and the growing demands of disenfranchised people globally to attain a higher quality of life. He argues that ecological stability in the 21st century must be rooted in cultural change and the loose network of artists sharing his vision for a “solar age” was a mechanism to achieve that goal. He goes on to say that this work is needed urgently and must begin immediately in order to address these issues by the year 2025, a call to action that society unfortunately did not hear.

Nathanson’s book introduces us to dozens of other cutting-edge solar artists, including textile artists, sound artists, electronic and multimedia artists. Cross-disciplinary collaboration is what unites them all, as Giddy suggests in the video above. For those artists interested in exploring the energy transition, I encourage you to get your hands on Nathanson’s book (use code FLY21 for 20% off when you purchase through Routledge’s website). It will jump-start your thinking about how to move beyond the blue rectangle of solar PV and, in Nathanson’s words, help you to embrace the poetic precariousness and variability of both the weather and solar power.

As the provocative creators of Juice Rap News reminded us back in 2014, we are “still living in the dark ages” by ignoring the most obvious fact: that the sun, at the center of our universe, should also be at the center of our energy strategies. Amen.

Top image by Joan Sullivan.

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her grief about climate breakdown. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

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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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