Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Sustainability Resources

Ruth Wallen

As students return to the university and to education institutions throughout the world, how will all these places take on board what has happened recently? I'm of course very aware of the dangers of Covid19 and the worries that students have about moving into working in studios even with social distancing, but the virus is only one of a complex series of issues that we need to keep aware of if as artists we are going to respond to one of the most threatening situations humans have ever faced. 

I realise it's hard to prioritise but my own feeling is that the most important thing we need to be looking at is the environment. As a species we are in danger of eliminating ourselves by destroying the very spaces we live in. Global warming is already causing massive environmental damage, from the forest fires of the Western USA to the huge glacier melts of Greenland. Globally our wildlife species are rapidly dying out, and here in the UK alone more than two-fifths of our wildlife have seen significant declines in recent decades, insects in particular have been decimated by the use of chemicals on our farming land. The problem is very much to do with the fact that humans have seen the world as a series of resources to mine, rather than a system within which we are an integral part. 

Covid19 is itself a result of our using animals as food and keeping them in such conditions that the chance of interspecies viral transmission is heightened. We need to change our ways or we will become extinct too. The first responsibility of all educators is to help with the process of growing self awareness and at the root of so many of our problems, be it 'Black Lives Matter', global warming, deforestation, pandemics and the lack of spiritual wellbeing that seems to have resulted in the fact that so many of us suffer from depression, is a feeling of unconnectedness and a sense that what we are doing doesn't matter. If we see other people or anything that is not us as in effect 'alien' and different, we will abuse that person or thing and treat it as an object that can simply be used, in reality we are deeply interconnected to everything. 

If we can begin, step by step to rebuild a sense of that interconnectedness with everything, we can I believe gradually heal both ourselves and the world, but we have to start somewhere. Therefore this, my first post of the academic year, is simply devoted to setting out some connections to resources that I think are interesting. Some are connections to individual artists that are working with sustainability issues and others to organisations that I think have information that could be useful. I hope you will find at least one starting point that might help you develop a way forward during what are both exciting and distressing times. 

Some of you may want to use these thoughts as a way of redirecting your art practice so that it responds to these issues and others may decide to keep your art practice separate from concerns that derive from the development of your individual moral and social responsibility. Whether or not to make art about these issues is not that important, what is important is that as human beings we all take a good look at ourselves and try to take some responsibility for rebuilding what we have broken. As Suzanna Clarke put it when speaking about her recent novel, 'Piranesi', "...the divide is between people who see the world for what they can use it for, and the idea that the world is important because it is not human, it's something we might be part of a community with, rather than just a resource".  

(Guardian Review interview, Sat. 12th Sept 2020)


Soil City A good place to start if like me you think soil is vitally important to a sustainable future.


Invisible Dust Lots of links to both artists and scientists   


Creative Carbon Scotland Lots of supportive information on what you can do


Centre for contemporary art and the natural world Exploring new understandings of our place within nature.


Deveron Projects A place to see how a single town has embraced art and climate change awareness


Arts Catalyst A commissioning body that specialises in arts and the environment

Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton, Factum ArteTerra Forming: Engineering the Sublime

FICTILIS, Timothy Furstnau and Andrea Steves, the 'True cost market'

CLUI (Center for Land Use Interpretation)

Livin Studio, Katharina Unger and Julia Kasinger, 

Green Arts web

Individual artists: Olafur Eliasson,  Kim AbelesJeff HongLillian BallSubhankar BanerjeeIain Baxter&Bobbe BesoldCape FarewellMary Ellen Carroll (Precipice Alliance), Brian CollierXavier CortadaGayle CritesAgnes DenesSteven DeoRebecca DiDomenicoFuture Farmers (Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine), Bill Gilbert, Isabella Gonzales, Green Fabrication (via Rick Sommerfeld, University of Colorado, College of Architecture and Planning), Newton Harrison & Helen Mayer HarrisonJudit HerskoLynne Hull, Pierre HuygheBasia IrlandPatricia JohansonChris JordanMarguerite Kahrl, Janet Koenig & Greg SholetteEve Andrée LaraméeLearning Site (Cecilia Wendt and Rikke Luther), Ellen LevyIñigo Manglano-OvallePatrick MaroldNatasha MayersJane McMahanMary MissJoan MyersBeverly NaidusChrissie OrrMelanie Walker & George PetersAndrea Polli, Marjetica PotrcAviva Rahmani, Rapid ResponseBuster SimpsonJoel SternfeldMierle Laderman UkelesRuth WallenSherry WigginsThe Yes Men, and Shai Zakai. 


Suzi Gablik: The Reenchantment of Art

Sacha Kagan: Art and Sustainability: Connecting Patterns for a Culture of Complexity

Mike Berners-Lee: There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years 

Mike Berners-Lee: How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything

Anna Lowenhaupt TsingNils BubandtElaine Gan: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene

Donna Haraway: Staying with the Trouble

Barad, K (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning New York: Duke University Press 

Bennett, J (2010) Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things New York: Duke University Press

Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press

Harman, G. (2011). The Quadruple Object. United Kingdom: Zero Books

Latour, B (2017) Facing Gaia London: Polity Press
Latour, B. (1999) Pandora’s Hope Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Press

Morton, T. (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Previous posts related to sustainability

Sustainability 1

Sustainability 2

Drawing and the 12 Principles of Permaculture 

Pollution, art and making pigments

Drawing and politics

Object orientated ontology 



Thursday, 10 September 2020

Drawing for site specific proposals Part two

Christo: Wrapped Trees: 1997 Proposal drawing
Pencil, fabric, twine, pastel, charcoal, wax crayon, topographical map and fabric sample

My last post on drawing for site specific work focused on the work of Krzysztof Wodiczko, an internationally recognised artist who has a very powerful practice and who has for many years used the city as a background to his work. This type of high-octane work can though feel a bit daunting and when you look at what he achieves, it would have been impossible without the considerable expenditure behind what has been done, both in putting these ideas together and maintaining them once they are live. Not that that should put you off, some artists really enjoy the challenge of raising money and make drawings that can be sold as a fundraising method, think of Christo, but we all have to start somewhere. So I have decided to put a post up about a much more modest venture of my own, especially as I have just installed some ceramics for an installation at Harlow Carr Gardens in Harrogate and the process is still fresh in my mind. 

Because most of my work begins in drawing, drawing is an obvious way for me to think about an externally sited project. I have also put work into a public garden before and therefore have a certain amount of experience in terms of what might go wrong and of how to communicate with the important people on site. 

Drawing for York City Art Gallery Garden exhibition 'Tree Listening'

The image above was one of the drawings I made for an exhibition in York, these 'illustrational' drawings enabled me to get the idea across to the head gardener, the art gallery staff probably had a pretty good idea of the concept already, as one of them had seen some previous work of mine. However the head gardener wanted to know things like how I would safely attach giant ears to their trees and how the installation would work in relation to people walking through the space. 

The map drawing above was made by myself in order to agree with the gardener as to siting of the various pieces. 

A visiter engages with a giant ceramic ear

The final installation also included a walking tour led by myself, whereby I told stories about the various plants and histories of parts of the garden. The installation was meant to suggest nature was listening to people just as much as the people were being encouraged to listen to nature. There is still some information about the first incarnation of this installation available on the centre for ceramic art website

The drawings made in preparation for the Harlow Carr Gardens installation took a lot longer, as the deadline kept shifting because of the continuing impact of corona virus and various associated lockdown measures. Eventually the drawings began to take over as ideas in their own right, but they were very useful in relation to pre-installation publicity. 

Various sketchbook drawings of trees with imagined fish/birds

As the idea began to jell in my mind I did what I always do and walked through my local area and drew. This time I was thinking about trees and whether or not an 'invasive species' could land in them. A tall thin sketchbook also helped with selection, and the initial ideas were about putting these 'invasive species' into various trees. From the tiny drawings of species I then constructed larger drawings to clarify what I was thinking of and I then made a few brightly glazed fish/birds, and took one into the local woods to get an idea of how it would work in an actual tree. 

Initial ideas for bird/fish/animal/plant objects

One of the first ceramic pieces to be made

Testing in the woods using a bungie to attach the ceramic

As soon as an idea is firmed up as a made thing something else comes into play. The colour intensity was what now fascinated me and the basic problem of how to fit these 'creatures' into a tree, without damaging it. A new series of pen, ink and watercolour drawings were now made looking much more at the expressive potential of brightly coloured 'creatures' in dark trees, with attachments to hold them up. 

Pen, ink and watercolour drawings 

These drawings then led on to another series, thus time using much more intense colour and in pastel. These were very much drawing made in their own right as images in themselves, as I couldn't make ceramics until I had worked out how to get access to a kiln. Now that the project has ended, looking back, it may well be that it is the sequence of about 10 pastel drawings I did over a few days in July are the strongest elements of the project, but that's the value of a process that generates work in a variety of ways, if I had set out to make these drawings in the first place they wouldn't have just 'arrived' in the way they did. 

Pastel drawings

Just after the two dimensional ideas became more important, the early advance publicity for the event was going out, so I was able to make good use of the images. 

This was the text that went out as early pre-publicity and it was accompanied by selected 2D images: 

Like several of the members of the YSG Garry Barker has been working towards realising a proposal for the RHS Garden at Harlow Carr. The exhibition title, ‘Invasive Species’ was the stimulus for creating a new body of work about things that don’t fit in, in particular the old English phrase; ‘neither fish nor fowl’, became central to ideas about things that didn’t fit in.

The earliest known instance of the use of this phrase is from ‘Rede me and be nott wrothe for I saye no thynge but trothe’, a satire against Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1474-1530) and the Roman Catholic clergy, written by William Roy and Jerome Barlow.

Who played the parte of Iudas?
The wholy bisshop of Saynct Asse
A poste of Satans iurisdiccion.
Whom they call Doctour standisshe
Wone that is nether flesshe nor fisshe
At all tymes a cōmen lyer.

The phrase began therefore as ‘neither flesh nor fish’ but over the years morphed into ‘neither fish nor fowl’. This suggested a hybrid form, something that at first sight might be one thing but then on closer inspection perhaps another. The first ideas were worked out as drawings and then once an idea began to emerge, trials were made in ceramics, in particular the bright colours you can get with earthenware firings were explored, ones that might suggest from a distance that a foreign invader such as a parrot had landed in the gardens. Gradually it became apparent that these ‘creatures’ were place dependent and that if they appeared in a tree they would seem as if they were birds, if in a stream as fish, or if on the ground perhaps a mammal or even a vegetable. They would of course be none of these things, but the idea was that we often tend to read others as being in the mental place that we stereotype them to be. Such as if it is a brightly coloured creature it must be a foreign bird, or in the case of a recent black Labour MP on entering parliament, she was mistaken for a cleaner.

Glaze tests have been done and now the hybrid creatures are being taken to places where they can be tested as to audience reaction. Some would hopefully go in trees and they have been constructed in such a way that a soft elastic ‘bungie’ fitting can be used around variable tree girths. 

I eventually solved the kiln access issue and was able to pay for access to East Street Arts kiln space, a Leeds based organisation that offers both studio space and access to artists' facilities. 

I had decided to keep colours bright and almost flag like, especially because the space they were going into was quite dark. If you are wondering where I got the glazes from I use CTM Potters Supplies in Doncaster.  

A stand of rhododendron trees at Harlow Carr Gardens

The pieces were to go into a stand of rhododendron trees, which were smaller in girth than I had envisaged and so that Harlow Carr knew what they were going to get I created a collage of some 'creatures' in the rhododendron trees. 

Photoshop collage of how the idea would look

The work eventually had to be installed. The best thing about that aspect was that the gardeners helped and 'planted' most of the ground embedded pieces themselves, realising immediately that they were meant to be like plants pushing their way out of the earth. I'm always happier if the people who will be onsite all the time 'get it', if so, there is a much higher chance the idea will be communicable. Tying the 'fish/birds' into the trees with elasticated rope was left to me, with help from Terry. 

Not perhaps the best outdoor piece I've been involved with, the loss of access to a kiln in the middle of the process meant that there was hardly any trial and error, which meant that several factors hadn't been considered, such as how the work would photograph, 
which is becoming more and more important in a time of the mobile phone; how possible ways to organise the 'collective' of creatures could have been done, the scale of pieces in relation to the audience distance, and types of and colour of fittings; all of which were I felt issues that had not been resolved properly, no mind the actual forms of the various 'creatures' and the final glazes. 


The images of proposed island surrounds by Christo above are of a massive scale public art project, rather than a small intervention in a garden, but even so, drawing as a central factor in the process of communicating an idea was vital.  In Christo's case he used drawings to both communicate his ideas and to raise money to get projects realised by selling them. In this case the drawing is combined with collage, but once again giving the observer a plan view as well as an illustration of what it would be expected to look like. I have a feeling that under the restrictions of lockdown the presentation of proposals for installations will become more and more important, especially for any students that want to develop and maintain a practice that is ambitious and targeted at raising public awareness of issues. 


Titling work is another interesting aspect of developing work for public exhibitions. You are usually given a very tight brief within which to work. In this case the title had to fit on the RHS designed title cards that were to be installed next to the various installations. ‘Neither fish nor fowl’, followed by 'A series of ceramic creatures, representing the need to accommodate differences and celebrate the contributions of what we sometimes call 'invasive species'; was just about the limit in terms of allowed space for text. Whether or not it managed to convey the idea behind the work is debatable, but a long way from 'Composition number 34', which is the type of title I well remember from my early visits to art galleries. 
It was Terry Atkinson that really alerted me to the importance of titles. I was in the same Hayward Annual exhibition 'British Drawing' as him in 1982, (as was Terry Hammill) Atkinson had had three drawings selected. The first, 'The black art of proletarian gob-eating 4: Private Pineapple-Romanoff, Wurtemburg infantryman, Nr. Amiens, July 1918', alerted me to the fact that I had done little work on my own title, simply snatching a line from the poet Yates. However Atkinson's next work had a four part title, beginning 'Non ideological camouflage, ideological sky', then (title part 2) ''Untitled', (title part 3) 'Shape drawing exercise - 'Clearly this artist has not been trained well in the fine art of drawing shapes' and (title part 4) Instruction from a bourgeois liberal spectator', this final forth part of the overall title going on to explain the instruction over 29 lines of text. Now that's a title. 

See also:

Some other thoughts on exhibitions I have been in

Dead fish exhibition Piscean Promises

Friday, 4 September 2020

The diagram as art and spirit guide

Walter Russell

Walter Russell was an impressionist style painter, but his most important contribution to visual imagery and its ability to carry ideas was in the development of a range of diagrammatic descriptions of mystic energy forces. These diagrams have recently come back into fashion, probably because of a rise in interest of artists such as Hilma of Klint. 

Hilma of Klint

Both Walter Russell and 
Hilma of Klint were in their own ways influenced by Theosophy and they were drawn to an exploration of alternative ways of envisioning the world that were attempts to uncover the underlying spiritual and metaphysical aspects of reality. At the time they were regarded initially as 'interesting' but very quickly dismissed as odd balls but we must not forget that many artists at the time were involved in theosophy including Kandinsky and Mondrian. Perhaps artists like Walter Russell and Hilma of Klint asked too many difficult questions of the art dealers and art audience of the time, because they were not just making images, they were producing diagrams for action, their art was part of a much larger ideal, one that would have involved participants in massive social change. In times of upheaval like the one we are in now we often need to look for an alternative understanding of reality. The one we have seems to be failing, in particular truth seems to be something for people to make up as they go along and this has caused many of us to distrust 'the powers that be' and we therefore perhaps need to forge another vision that seems more spiritually up-lifting. However to do this artists need to think of their practice as being not an isolated reflection on our times, but as a way of working that is integral to the forging of new ways to think. Our current undermined social systems and belief structures, need new foundations if we are to move onwards and become able to deal with huge issues such as global warming and the failure of our democratic processes. At the end of the 19th century theosophy seemed to offer an answer to a series of failing belief systems, and several artists at the time saw in its belief system an opportunity to rethink their practices, both as artists and as social thinkers. However it was to be Dada and Surrealism that carried the anti-rationalist flag into the centre of twentieth century art practices, and as Rosalind Krauss stated, it soon became “embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence". However Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale, entitled 'The Encyclopedic Palace' was a turning point in critical reception amongst the art community. As you entered the first pavilion in the Arsenale you were confronted with Marino Auriti's museum of imaginary knowledge, a three dimensional diagram that echoed the structure of memory theatres. We were being informed that it was ok to once again be in touch with that other side of creativity, the one we never talk about, but which we often draw upon when feeling spiritually exhausted. Since that time several artists have emerged from obscurity who put spirituality at the centre of their practices, such as Marjorie Cameron a follower of Thelema, a spiritual practice developed by Aleister Crowley, Agnes Pelton, Georgiana Houghton, who's 'spirit drawings' were shown at the Courtauld and Emma Kunz who's work was shown at the Serpentine Gallery recently. The exhibition 'Language of the birds' at New York University’s 80WSE Gallery, was an exploration of art inspired by Kabbalah, alchemy, hermeticism, and Tarot and Grisha Bruskin's work (someone I have been looking at and been influenced by for some time) is now becoming much more well known. 

Grisha Bruskin

In Bruskin's work we find a conjunction between the structures of soviet Russian society and the imagery of Jewish mysticism and he has in the past set out his ideas in diagrammatic form. 

However it is probably in the diagrams of Rudolf Steiner that we see the most powerful influence of the spiritualist/socialist mind on contemporary art. 

Rudolf Steiner diagrams

Steiner developed a system of thinking that he called anthroposophy and he aimed to regain traction in the the spiritual world by mirroring the information obtained by science when investigating the physical world. This split between the world of the social (spiritual) and that of science, would be raised yet again in the work of both Joseph Beuys and Bruno Latour. 
Beuys was deeply influenced by Steiner's diagrams, in particular those produced during his blackboard lectures. In fact a Beuys diagram at first sight looks very like one of Steiner's. 

Joseph Beuys diagrams

Bruno Latour has developed a system of thinking that is an "anthropology of science". It explores the dualistic distinction that modernity has made between nature and society. Pre-modern peoples argues Latour, made no such division and a tidy nature/culture dualism was in fact never possible. He cites a particular moment in time as the beginning of this separation, the argument between Hobbes and Boyle as to what constitutes evidence. Hobbes is someone that saw evidence as something that comes from the masses of people that experience the world, evidence being something that emerges from social discourse, while Boyle points to another type of evidence, that which was embedded within a scientific experiment, such as in his case the proof of the existence of a vacuum by experiment. The tacit practice of the air pump and the dexterity it required is witnessed not by texts or languages but by silent things such as air pumps and Hobbes could not accept that this type of evidence could outweigh the voices of many people. 


It was Beuys as an artist that made us aware that being an artist was more akin to being a shaman type figure, one that operated as a catalyst between people and the various ways that they came to understand the world. He was very interested in systems and saw his work as interventions that might change what were becoming ossified systems that pervaded Western society. As well as looking back to Steiner he looked as Eastern philosophies and religions as signs of alternative approaches to living and he began to integrate various aspects of his life into a larger diagram that was continually evolving. For instance he might focus on money and how it could be both used to lever change and at the same time be subject to a rethinking, whereby as a capitalist form of support for commercial exchange it was becoming redundant. This particular tendency within the various strands of contemporary practice has been brought together in the net exhibition, Diagrams of Power which showcases a range of artists working in this territory at the moment. However what seems to be missing is the touch of the esoteric, we need to remember that Thomas Edison was fascinated with the occult and that he initially invented the telephone to talk to the dead. The existence of an invisible, non-material realm is still with us but we now call it 'dark matter', these unknown territories will hopefully always be with us, they are the gaps in our knowledge that allow us as artists to do the things we do, without having to always justify ourselves in the court of rationality. 

Installation view of "Emma Kunz - Visionary Drawings: An exhibition conceived with Christodoulos Panayiotou" at the Serpentine Galleries. Courtesy of the Serpentine.
Emma Kunz Visionary Drawings: Serpentine Galleries


I have looked at this area of work myself at times, in particular now that I'm part of the group, 'Life hacks for a limited future', I have developed a diagram for the group to help envisage the various stages of ageing.

The stages of ageing

The idea was to create a diagram with an image embedded within it, in this case a scarab beetle was the rough guide to the overall shape. In Egyptian times it was a symbol of immortality, resurrection, transformation and protection, so seemed a good model on which to base a diagram that was designed to get older people to think about facing up to death. Because this is an age of the mobile phone I then had to redesign my diagram to fit a phone screen, a note to self about the fact that technology moves on. 

Another addition:

My old friend Terry Hammill on seeing this post sent me a story about when in 1971 he was in the USA and came across the work of Soleri, who had published a wonderful book called ‘Arcology: the city in the image of man’. Paolo Soleri had published his ‘Arcology' book just two years before in 1969 and his spiritual ideas are very similar to the ones introduced above, the difference being that Soleri was an architect and was determined to erect real buildings that would reflect his cosmological ideas. 

Paolo Soleri: Diagrams from Arcology: the city in the image of man

See also: