I took the picture above on my walk home from work earlier this week. It’s the pillar in Seven Dials in central London, which has a had a low energy blue LED light wrapped around it, positioned to show where sea level may be in 1000 years time as part of a city-wide art project to raise awareness of climate change.
The artist’s choice of the colour blue is, I’m sure, due to lots of reasons (e.g. association with water) and the circle reflects the shape of the monument but, intensionally or otherwise, it means the piece echoes London’s blue plaques.
Like many Londoners, I love spotting a blue plaque. Sometimes they remind me of something I knew but had forgotten, or add a geographical tag to something I knew about but didn’t realise was local. Sometimes they highlight something or someone entirely new and I often find myself standing in the street googleing someone I’d never heard of, transported back in time to whenever what they did or who they were was seen as important.
I mean, who is this Thomas Young? (Wimpole Street, or near there anyway, spotted on my cycle to work a few months back). And isn’t it kind of cool that we once would someone as “a man of science”, like we might “a man of letters”? Similarly, it’s slightly amazing that this otherwise unassuming housing estate in the East End turns out to be where William Henry Perkin accidentally fulled the industrial revolution when he stumbled across a purple dye.
Such memorials provide a chance to stop and think about something because we’ve stumbled across a relevant point in space, in the same way a google doodle invites us to think of someone or something just because of a particular point in time.
Not all such signs in London are blue of course, and not all are there in celebration. Take this monument to the victims of BSE, for example, which glowers at the Houses of Parliament from an otherwise unassuming patch of wall by a hospital on the south side of the river Thames.
I think my favourite plaque at the moment is one on the Caledonian Road, to a giant ice well that was sited there in the late 19th century. I’m not sure why it’s green, and it doesn’t have an institutional reference on it (some say London County Council, English Heritage or British History of Comedy Society or something so you know who put them up). It marks a point when people in London decided it was a good idea to transport 1500 tones of ice from Norway and store it in a well just north of Kings Cross. That was kind of a weird thing to do, no? I spotted it a couple of weeks ago, when it was freezing cold and it certainly seemed particularly weird then. Its weirdness made me think in turn about how weird it is that we have fridge freezers, the now familiarity of such objects, and the ease we might procure ice today, made me think about the way the ability to control the temperature of things around us is a reasonably recent technological achievement (one, thinking back to that artistically placed ring around the pillar in Seven Dials, we may pay for, and indeed maybe fleeting).
What makes these blue circles different from the plaques is that they are about a possible future, not London’s past. They are rooted in science, but also in a way fictional, or at least they are not anchored in anything we can easily recognise or look up. I did feel that this is a slight failing in this art work, there didn’t seem to be a sign saying what they were about. I wanted some explanatory material to go with the spooky glowing ring. I happened to remember having read about them in the paper when I spotted it, so could google from that, but I’m sure most people would just walk by. I guess that is often a challenge for science communication (especially risk communication) compared to the cosiness of historical memorials, which the art work is playing with in itself. Still, I personally wanted them to deal with this a bit more on the site. Maybe there is a sign and I just didn’t spot it, but I should have been able to spot it if the sign was working.
The art work is called Plunge London if you want to know more and their website has some details of both the science behind the future they predict and the history the blue circles’ sites reflect. It’s around until the 4th March and there are other blue rings in Paternoster Square, near St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Duke of York Column by the Royal Society, just West of Trafalgar Square.