Elemental Art

The following article first featured in April 2005’s issue 20 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.

This article discussed the notion of increasingly scientific and environmental collaborations being created by artists.

Elemental Art – Harmonic Collaborations of Art in the Environment

The ultimate example of artists engaged to work directly with our natural environment comes within the annual ‘Artists and Writers Programme’ jointly sponsored by the British Antarctic Survey and Arts Council England, with two artist-in-residence places made available each year during the Antarctic summer. One eminent recipient in 2000 was the Orkney-based composer Peter Maxwell Davies who was commissioned jointly by the Philharmonic Orchestra and the British Antarctic Survey to commemorate the (then) 50th anniversary of the writing of ‘Sinfonia Antarctica’ by Vaughan Williams. This month sees Maxwell Davis conducting his resultant ‘Antarctic Symphony’ at the Royal Festival Hall (30th April) to mark both his forthcoming 70th birthday, and the complimentary exhibition of his work running at the South Bank Centre.


Unless you live somewhere equally as remote as Antarctica, you should not have failed to notice that the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to curb the air pollution blamed for global warming, is in the news again after coming into force in February. The accord now requires its 141 signatory countries to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 2012 – though ironically of course, these countries exclude USA, the world’s top polluter. The principles of good environmental husbandry however, are not just restricted to the political agreements of G8 Statesmen and other world players – as under the Agenda 21 code, it is the simple responsibility of everyone to try to “think locally but act globally”. This philosophy works like the infamous El-Niño effect caused by the simultaneous fluttering of millions of butterfly wings, and aspires to beat the changes holistically through a mass of tiny programmes of community engagement – be those communities publicly or professionally based.  With the same modest spirit, art can also contribute to our environmental agendas, and indeed has evolved into a much more active mechanism to achieve this, from the passive origins of ‘tree-hugging’ environmental artists working in a natural media, with a hand-crafted aesthetic. Even the arts ethos of die-hard environmental groups such as Groundwork and Sustrans has moved a long way, and now sees them engaging with many aspects of new commissioning practice – often more about exploring new media and temporary work than it is about creating permanence through community environmental sculpture and land art. With strong links existing between ecological issues and new technologies, it is not surprising that environmentally conscious artists are increasingly looking to harness these rich sources of reference for their own art practice. For example, a recent work by lighting designer Jason Bruges created four giant 12m-high towers made from litmus paper that could sense and respond to a variety of stimuli, such as daylight, wind and tides between the marsh areas and outer London suburbs along the A13 corridor.


In addition, as the monitoring and management of our environment becomes ever-more research dependent, then artists also seek to try and keep pace with this through their own exploration of new development approaches, and this is evident in the increasingly popularity of a specialist post graduate course like the MA in Bioclimatic Design or Art in Environment, at MIRIAD (Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art & Design). Here is a crossdisciplinary course for would-be environmental artists, addressing the theoretical and practical issues relating to the growing field of art and the environment, and deliberately aimed at individuals from a wide range of creative backgrounds. The stated purpose of the programme is to: “foster creative and lateral thinking on a wide range of issues directly related to the environment, whilst exploring the value of diversity and the importance of both tradition and experimentation”. Of course, such exploratory approaches, essential in the historical advancement of our understanding of science, are now essential within developmental environmental arts practice itself – and particularly in the fuzzy cross-over where the two worlds collide. Indeed, to help in the facilitation of this, key Sci-Art organisations like NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) exist to engage both proactively and reactively with new thinking. NESTA currently run a number of award programmes, which aims to support “everyone from inventors and engineers to filmmakers and musicians” and these share the simple common aim, of wanting to back people of exceptional talent and imagination. One such NESTA award was for the eccentric ‘High Tide Organ’ installed on Blackpool Promenade in 2003, and created by artist-inventor Liam Curtin with collaborator John Gooding. The artwork directly employs the movement of the waves around every high tide; allowing air through embedded pipes in the sea wall to sound a beautiful 50-foot sculptural organ mounted on the promenade above; thus creating an eerily random soundscape, calibrated to the harmonic series, and resonant of whale-songs and distorted fog horns – or what Liam Curtin likes to refer to as a “musical manifestation of the sea”.


The work is part of a much larger art-on-the-prom programme called ‘The Great Promenade Show’ implemented at Blackpool as one happy bi-product of the towns continuing sea-defence improvements, and containing several environmentally referenced artworks. However, not conceived itself as an overtly ecological statement, High Tide Organ illustrates the point well, that such art does not always need to attempt to be ‘green and worthy’ to be classed as sympathetic to the cause, and can remind us all daily of our on-going debt to our natural world by simply highlighting the marvel of our everyday surroundings through pure artistic celebration.

Categories: Writing

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