Tag Archives: art

The Portslade “Gassie”

portland gassie

In Scotland, it’s traditional to give people coal when first greeting them in the new year. It’s meant to symbolise hope for warmth and light for the future, rather different from the tradition of giving naughty children nothing but coal in their Christmas stocking (from other parts of Northern Europe, I think).

I don’t have any coal, but here’s a picture reflecting another way in which our reliance on fossil fuels runs deep: the “Portslade Gassie”. It’s a piece of public art – not the most aesthetically striking of objects, stuck by a rather dull bit of road and covered in litter when I stumbled across it this afternoon – but marking an interesting piece of energy history. Gasworks were built in Portslade in 1884, after local demand outstripped the smaller works at Black Rock (built in 1818), partly because the location allowed easy delivery of coal by ship. By the 1920s, the site occupied 40 acres, providing work for many local residents (some more details on this local history blog, including a fascinating history of lighting the Brighton Pavilion). Workers were ferried across a canal by small boats nicknamed “gassies”, which this slightly angular, statue of a man in a boat represents.

This artwork doesn’t help us think about what our energy future should be, but it does at least prompt us us think about the past. It also reminds us that energy infrastructure is something made by people. I re-watched Brassed Off over Christmas, which is more directly about coal, and helps make a similar point.  How we find, distribute and use energy is something that changes over time, not always due to the wishes of these people or what is necessarily best for the world. It’s something we’ve made, and should be thoughtfully remade.

Nature in cities: the weird trees of Seattle

Eagle, Seattle

I took this photo yesterday morning, out for a walk in the mist around Seattle’s waterfront. The red pointy thing on the left is Alexander Calder’s The Eagle (painted steel, 1971) next to a few trees planted within the Olympic Sculpture Park. I snapped a picture, cropped it and uploaded it to this page. There you go. Nature: tamed, translated, abstracted and remediated several times over.

Something about the abstracted eagle and that carefully planted line of trees reminded me of the new Lorax movie, which I saw last week. [Warning: very minor spoilers] It’s a fable on the distance we’ve come from nature played out through a juxtaposition of real trees and remote-controlled manmade ones; the message being we should stop letting industry fabricate a sellable, apparently controllable nature, and instead just let it grow. And yet, despite this message, it’s told through an odd Dr-Seuss-by-way-of-Pixar fantastic hyperreal style of cartooning. I’m not about to appeal to a knee-jerk critique of postmodernity and plead for a simply really-real depiction of nature. When there was all that fuss about the BBC and polar bears last year, I rolled my eyes at the naivety and largely went with the George Monbiot view. As I argued last month in respects to protest symbols and museum artefacts, sometimes we have to re-make nature to really see it, or at least to share a view of it. Still, the way in which the Lorax movie’s message is presented does inspire a certain type of head-desk. Why not just go outside and get your hands dirty planting something? (arguably because a movie allows the production of consumable goods, but that’s a whole other thread of head-desking).

Back to the sculpture park. A bit along from that eagle is a silver tree. I think it is also made from steel, but I couldn’t find a label. It was slightly like a Dr Seuss illustration itself, and eerily beautiful amongst green grass and pink flowers, also in the mist. I saw a crow fly around and then perch upon one of the higher branches. I’m not sure what Dr Seuss would have made of it, something about the sight reminded me of L. Frank Baum.

Silver tree, by Seattle Art Museum

There’s something about trees in cities which says a lot about humans’ relationship with nature in modernity. Planted to provide controlled moments of green amongst browns and greys, they may annoy us with pollen or overgrowing roots but we generally appreciate them. Especially in the case of the London plane, they can be surprisingly study, despite the pollution thrown at them. They give us shelter, shade and air, as well as changing the more regulated colours, lines and shapes of a modern city. As the Trees for Cities campaign argues, cities need their trees. It’s also worth mentioning Seattle’s “renegade park” the Pollinator Pathway – a mile long corridor of gardens aiming to combine art, ecology, science and community engagement – which has a display case just next to that silver tree.

If you want something really Seuss-like, in downtown Seattle someone’s painted a load of trees bright blue. I googled “blue trees Seattle WTF” and discovered it’s more art, designed to draw attention to deforestation. According to a piece on Atlantic Cities, the artist used a colorant that doesn’t harm the trees, even if it’s designed to jar with your idea of a healthy tree (it’s worth clicking the Atlantic link to see a picture of them covered in blossom, quite something, or there’s more on the artist’s website).

Trees painted blue, by Seattle Occupy

I’ve saved the best trees in Seattle till last though, and they’re a lot simpler. These were a bit south of the sculpture park, by some rail tracks running alongside the harbour. Someone had hung piping between the trees and stuck a load of plant ports made from old milk cartons to it. Water-cooler sized bottles were stuffed in the trees’ branches, with the pipes running out of their mouths, which I guess provide a watering system of some sort. They aren’t as polished as the silver tree or as striking as the blue ones, but they’re stunningly beautiful and quite the best bit of bunting I’ve seen all year (I live in London, I’ve seen a lot of bunting this year).

Many of Seattle’s trees made me smile, but these milk-carton plant-bunting ones inspired me. You can watch the oh-too-ironic Lorax movie or you can go out and plant something. Go, try guerrilla gardening.


There’s a nuclear missile on the roof above a vintage clothes shop on the Holloway Road…

There’s a nuclear missile on the roof above a vintage clothes shop on the Holloway Road. You have to look carefully, but it’s there. It’s that egg-like object in the photo above. Or at least that’s the top of it, the red thing next to it is the base.

No, it’s nothing to do with our upcoming sports extravaganza. It’s been there for years. It’s also bloody heavy, though it’s well over a decade since I handled the thing. It’s not a real nuclear missile. It’s a model. It belongs to CND, whose offices are also above said vintage clothes shop. They have an inflatable one these days, but the “missile” used to tour round the country every summer as a way of taking military technology to the people. Or at least it took a talking point for discussing such objects, in absence of the real thing. It’s not like the MoD are going to let CND play with an actual one.

The Holloway Road missile is only one in a cast of mockups of technological or natural objects used by campaigners. There was the whale the World Wildlife Fund drove down the Thames in February, or Greenpeace’s “polar bears” that sprung up in cities across the world last week. I walked by some orangoutangs outside on Tottenham Court Rd a few weeks ago too, protesting about deforestation. Environmental activist orangoutangs, it turns out, wear sandals (it was really hot that day). My favourite is probably Water Aid’s giant river crafted from 100s of blue squares posted by an international network of knitters; a wooly petition which ended up draped over the National Theatre.

Those are all clear, explicit fakes. They’re not mermen. They’re not designed to con. They are not even trick-then-reveal projects like the Yes Men Arctic Ready site or the OFT fat melting pads. Such overt fabrications are openly designed to expose those bits of the world which are too far away, too dangerous, too secret or too unruly to be experienced directly by most of us. They’re a moment of spectacular, a slight subversion of the world designed to draw attention and inspire learning or action. They are falsehoods in a way, but there to express something people feel very strongly is important and true. They bring a bit of reality to us by being unreal.

It’s not just activists who engage in such subverted realism. It’s a quite routine part of the public communication of science, technology and the environment. Metaphor or analogy in text, CGI or filming “under controlled conditions” for a documentary. I think museums provide the best examples though. Museums of science and technology often have to find inventive ways to fit the large, dangerous or simply abstract things they curate into a glass case: Einstein’s chalkboard, Galileo’s finger, Florence Nightengale’s moccasins, models of boats, a bowl from Hiroshima. My favourite example of this has to be the Science Museum’s DNA model. They wanted to display the model from the iconic 1953 Watson and Crick picture. Except the people in the lab had taken the model apart to reuse after the photo was staged. The museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them down and rebuilt the model. It is a mockup, albeit an official one, unveiled by Watson himself, but a mockup nonetheless.

When it comes to the bits of the world natural history museums want to encase, once living things are often pickled, stuffed or rebuilt from fossils (though they model too, from the Crystal Palace dinosaurs to modern animatronic models or IMAX movies) . With the recent death of “Lonesome George” the Galapagos giant tortoise, there’s been some interesting debate over what to do with his body. Henry Nicholls argues we shouldn’t stuff George, writing a thoughtful piece about the politics of preserving other iconic animals (though I wondered why he didn’t mention Jeremy Bentham). In contrast, Paolo Viscardi stresses museums’ role as research institutions as well as public communication, saying George should be preserved for science. Both pieces are worth reading. Incidentally, Viscardi works at the Horinman, which is where the merman I linked to earlier resides, and also contains the most amazing inaccurately overstuffed Walrus (one of the many museum exhibits which tweet a form of post-mortem anthropomorphic existence). I can also recommend this piece by Phillip Hoare on how to remember the whale that died in the Thames a few years ago, or the Brown Dog statue in Battersea‘s worth a visit.

I’m rambling. My point is that we all do a lot of fictional work to have non-fictional discussion and fabricate things in order to debate things we hold as truths. It’s normal, it’s necessary and to think otherwise is just a bit limiting. The trick is to consider which bit of reality we want to communicate, and stay as true to that as you can.

If anyone has any other examples of fabricated, refashioned or reconstructed aspects of science, technology or the natural world used for public communication, I’d love to hear them. Bet there’s loads of ageing science props hidden in store cupboards of museums, NGOs, schools and film studios the world over.

The beauty of a grazed knee

You might have heard the poem Lamia by John Keats, which includes the lines: “Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings, Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine. Unweave a rainbow…”.

Richard Dawkins takes this to task in a book, Unweaving the Rainbow. In the introduction, he argues Newton’s optics, far from destroying the beauty of Keats’ rainbow, opened up a whole new set of wonders. They revealed mysterious beauties rather than destroying them. Dawkins isn’t the only person to express this sort of aesthetic appeal of science. We could equally mention Carl Sagan, Brian Cox, or a host of other people writing about science, right back to the 17th century.

It’s also an approach used by the Horrible Science books I wrote my PhD thesis on, and I can be quite cynical about it at times. Still, if I’m honest, it’s an aesthetic I often share, and I was reminded of Dawkins’ response to Keats at the Wellcome Images Awards last night.

A picture of a mouse’ kidney was put up, and the guy behind me whispered “wow that’s quite cool” and I found myself replying “that’s VERY cool”. It wasn’t the only image to make us go wow. This was my favourite: A scanning electron micrograph of clotting blood caught between the fibres of a plaster.

Full details at Wellcome Images

Maybe it’s because I fell flat on my face outside the British Library last week (leaving me with grazed-knee a 7 year old would be proud of…) but I was captivated by this image. It’s something really mundane, indeed something we might flinch at the ugliness of. In many respects the very opposite of Keat’s rainbow. However, here, it is shown in a way we would not normally be able to see. Science has ‘unwoven’ it, maybe, but in doing so has changed and abstracted it into something very beautiful. It’s woven something new.

Moreover, this image is not only wonderous in itself, but makes you wonder. Or at least it made me wonder. It drew me in, made me remember what I knew about blood clotting and question what I don’t already know. Because if we take Dawkins’ point seriously, it’s not just beautiful as a piece of abstract art, it is because I know something about the context of the image too. It is beautiful because it opens up new ideas, and stands as a reflection of years of history of people working to open such ideas up.

I’ve been planning to do a post on the philosophical and historical points around this – a sort of ‘brief history of awesome’ – but explaining the technological sublime in a couple of hundred words has, so far, proved tricky. I do promise to get around it at some point though. EDIT: done! A brief history of awesome, or a short treatise on the politics of wonder, featuring Immanuel Kant and Zaphod Beeblebrox.