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Cooking up interdisciplinarity (with added artist)


Participants at NAKFI 2015 take part in movement experiment. Photo: Keck Futures

Participants at NAKFI 2015 take part in movement experiment. Photo: Keck Futures

Discussions about the future of science and technology have increasingly considered how interdisciplinary working might contribute to science’s discoveries and technology’s innovations. The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) was launched in the US in 2003, a program designed to “stimulate new modes of inquiry and break down conceptual and institutional barriers to interdisciplinary research”.

The central tool of NAKFI is an annual themed “think-tank” style conference, attended by 100 participants selected from an international open call. Participants work in interdisciplinary groups to try to address urgent scientific or societal challenges. Afterwards, they can apply for seed grants to enable further pursuit of their ideas.

Previous NAKFI conferences have brought people together from science, engineering and medicine. For the first time in the 2015 conference, the academies decided to include artists and designers. The intention was explore how bringing together arts, design, sciences, engineering and medicine can help to stimulate innovation, as well as how such collaborations might encourage public and academic discourse around critical societal, scientific and environmental issues.

Silhouette of man in front of installation

Ruth West et al., Atlas in Silico, installed at NAKFI 2015. An interactive art installation featuring the entire first release of 17.4 million metagenomics sequences from the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition.

David Edwards, a biomedical engineer and founder-director of Le Laboratoire, an art/science innovation space in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was asked to chair the 2015 NAKFI steering committee and invited me to be a member. This role involved helping to select participants from the open call, generating ‘seed ideas’, and mentoring some of the groups during the conference. I was impressed by the openness of the committee to the possible forms and impact that projects resulting from the conference might take. Most members were scientists or technologists, but had appreciation of the arts from different perspectives.

So does NAKFI work, as an initiator for innovative projects, and as a contribution to breaking down institutional and systemic barriers to interdisciplinary research? NAKFI has funded many interesting looking projects through the process in the past, so perhaps that ticks the first part of the question. Whether it has had a long-term impact on interdisciplinary research in the US can probably only be answered by a longitudinal and attitudinal study of participants and their institutions.

It’s difficult to draw any conclusions as yet from the 2015 conference, including the effectiveness of adding artists into the mix, partly because it’s early days in the development of the proposed projects. The ideas and the content of the discussions are embargoed until Spring 2016, however I think I’m allowed to make some general observations.

As with earlier conferences, the goal was to come up with concrete project proposals. However, the type of impact of the project could be cultural/artistic, as well as educational, social or scientific. Participants were allocated to ‘seed idea’ groups, whose composition was largely led by participant preference, which – whilst apparently a good idea – meant that one group I was mentoring contained no artists, while a second held no scientists. This was a bit of a lost opportunity, as I felt both groups would have benefited from the absent expertise and perspective, although they came up with strong outline proposals.

One realisation I had, observing the conference unfold and speaking with people who had attended previous conferences, was that the group dynamics this year were far more animated than in previous years. One person remarked that back in 2004 there had “nearly been a stand-up fight” between two group participants, but that was a far cry from the impassioned debates, emotional arguments, group upheavals and reformations that characterised 2015’s conference. One organiser suggested it was because the artists were more “desperate” for funding, but I wonder if it isn’t more to do with the tendency (even tradition) for artists to offer the dissident voice, to question consensus and to seek alternative ways of doing things. It’s important too to emphasise that it was not only artists reassigning themselves to other groups, and that some artists stayed in groups where they were uncomfortable, but I like to think that these tendencies of artists I mention can actually benefit such an experimental process.

NAKFI seed group developing idea. Photo: Paul R Kennedy

NAKFI seed group developing idea. Photo: Paul R Kennedy

In accepting the committee position, I was driven by my interest in exploring the role of contemporary art in society, and particularly its potential inter-relationships with science. While interdisciplinary research and education have been enduring interests for me, I’ve been less involved with the innovation agenda, but it seems to me that engaging the interest of policymakers and those in industry can help to strengthen interdisciplinary research involving artists. In the USA, the agenda of ‘STEM to STEAM’ (transforming research, innovation and education policy by placing art and design at the centre of science, technology, engineering and medicine) is being discussed in the National Academies of Science, major universities, and even the US House of Representatives. So I was interested in the NAKFI conference as a testing ground to explore the potential role/s for art within innovation.

And then too I have an underlying urge, which I know I share with many artists, to initiate projects that may have clear practical benefits for people. This tendency in art is something that, in an art historical context, the Arts Catalyst will be exploring at our new centre in London in its opening exhibition: ‘Notes from the Field: Commoning Practices in Art and Science’. Perhaps the role of art is to experience and understand the problem, rather than to seek a solution. But this act of problematising can itself inflame a desire to transform those situations.

Huntingdon Beach, where we stayed for NAKFI 2015. Photo: Alana Quinn

Blue skies at Huntingdon Beach, where we stayed for NAKFI 2015. Photo: Alana Quinn


Aerocene – flight without borders

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, pilot launch at White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Rubin Center for the Visual Arts


In the dunes of White Sands desert, on Sunday 8th November 2015, for the first time in the world, a registered solar heat powered balloon carrying a human person floated for more than 2 hours without touching ground and without burning any gas.

Tomás Saraceno’s work is as conceptually rich as it is aesthetically captivating. His pursuit of a borderless existence in the sky unfolds in a bewitching succession of floating structures, transparent aerial habitations, and human-scale suspended webs. Saraceno’s artistic visions seek to defy the constraints – social, technological, political and cultural – that bind us to a ground-based, bordered, fossil-fuelled, restricted existence. And he underpins these visions with relentless research, technical experimentation and scientific collaborations.

Saraceno’s sculpture Aerocene last week had its pilot flight in the dramatic landscape White Sands desert, New Mexico, in an event organised by the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in El Paso, curated by my former colleague Rob La Frenais with Tomas Saraceno Studio. This extraordinary flight marked the first milestone in a Saraceno’s new project the Aerocene, which takes forward his vision in the flights of aerosolar sculptures that are inflated by air, lifted by the heat of the sun alone, and transported by the wind.

Black balloon lying in desert

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, air heating as the sun rises, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Ewen Chardronnet

The artist has been experimenting with solar balloons for some years, driven by his dream of habitations in space without polluting the atmosphere with black carbon. Black carbon particles (soot) are emitted by hydrocarbon-fueled rockets and a recent scientific study has indicated that, if the space transport industry grows significantly in coming years, this black carbon could contribute to global climate change. Emissions from 1,000 private rocket launches a year would persist high in the stratosphere, potentially greatly altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone and contributing to polar temperature rises and sea ice melt.

Saraceno’s siting his new launch in the New Mexico White Sands desert area – where the first rocket launches in the United States were made and where the first tourist spaceport in the world is located – is therefore particularly significant.

Black balloon, white desert, blue sky, person suspended

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Ewen Chardronnet

Prior to the launch, Saraceno put out a call for people to be part of a collaborative action to help the launch of his new solar balloon. The experimental flight was preceded by a conference ‘Space Without Rockets’ at the Rubin Center, organized to explore the vision, potential and contexts for the project.

On the morning of Sunday 8 November, around 25 people, including Saraceno’s team of engineers and balloonists, arrived well before dawn at the White Sands Missile Range entry point for security clearance by the US Army (having previously submitted our passport information), which controls a large part of the White Sands area.

We drove out in a convoy of cars across the desert, as twilight spread across the flat landscape. After an hour’s driving, with the sun coming up over the distant mountains, we arrived in the launch site in the heart of the white sand dunes.

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno. Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno

Saraceno’s black solar balloon was stretched out across the white sand, partially inflated with air. It lay rather limply and lop-sided in the cool dawn air, awaiting the full power of the sun’s heat to emerge. Miraculously, despite an ominous weather forecast that had made some of us a little reluctant to get out of our warm El Paso hotel beds at 3am in the morning, the sky was clear and nor was there a breath of wind.

The Aerocene sculpture materializes more than ten years of research by Saraceno and his team on material properties, thermodynamics and atmospheric science. In principle, as the sun warms the air within the balloon, the air molecules becomes less dense than the outside air, causing the balloon to rise without the burning of propane or the use of lighter-than-air gases (helium or hydrogen).

The flight of this prototype balloon was planned as a tethered flight, always connected to the ground by ropes, as its venting and control had not been tested. The radical action was to lift a person off the ground by the power of the sun itself. In the early morning, the balloon looked as though it could barely lift itself, let alone a person. But, as the desert heat gathered force and the sun’s energy bounced back off the dazzling white sand into the balloon, adding to the heating effect, the balloon gathered strength. With Marija, an experienced balloonist from Croatia, suspended by a skydiver harness below the balloon, it lifted off the ground, controlled by the volunteers holding its ropes. A gentle breeze moved the balloon along the dunes and between them.

As the sun rose further, the balloon’s strength increased, lifting Marija higher. Danja from the Studio took Marija’s place and was allowed to rise to a height of perhaps 100 feet. The balloon strained against its tethers. Six people hung onto each rope to prevent the balloon taking off. Tomas was finally persuaded to take his place below the balloon, and a few others followed him, careful checks on the harness and attachments taking places each time. The balloon became a formidable beast striving to rush upwards to its home in the blue sky. More people joined the ropes to control it. After a few hours, the expert balloonists decided it had become too powerful to control and, after some less than successful testing of the venting, the balloon was gradually brought to the ground and emptied of its blisteringly hot air.

black balloon, person suspended, blue sky

Tomás Saraceno flies his Aerocene, White Sands Desert, 2015.

Saraceno’s fascination for structures in the sky stems from his family’s exile from Argentina (when the artist was a baby) because of the Perón dictatorship. When he returned there ten years later, he felt it was no longer his home, a place where he didn’t belong. Since then, he has travelled a lot and has become interested in challenging how the nations, divisions and borders we inhabit are created on Planet Earth.

His conceptual challenge of the territorialisation of the earth by a move into the sky seems particularly relevant at this time, Europe’s new border crisis, and appropriate for exploration in El Paso, situated on the tense border between Mexico and the USA. Saraceno’s is a utopian project, both in terms of finding a new way of existing borderless, and of reaching the skies and space without polluting them.

But another factor seems apparent in the Aerocene’s connection to a more elemental and human-centered mode of existence. Our severe control over our environment and the elements (as I realised shivering in the glacial air conditioned terminal of Houston airport looking out over a shimmering landscape on my connection to El Paso) has physical and environmental impacts, as detrimental to us, I suggest, as they are beneficial.

Suspended above the desert under a vast black solar balloon, I could feel the sun burning my face, the slight breeze moving me gently, the force of the balloon tugging upwards. I looked out over a white desert dazzling under a violently blue sky, and at the scraps of vegetation struggling in this landscape, and felt the immediacy of the possibility of flying up and off in whatever direction – and across whatever border – the elements might choose, should my colleagues on the ground let go of those two slight ropes. It was an intensely sensorial experience that left me feeling profoundly alive.

black balloon, person suspended, white desert, blue sky

Nicola Triscott flies Tomás Saraceno’s Aerocene, pilot launch at White Sands Desert, 2015. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno

A personal update – seeking the view from Stateside

Neal White with Tina O'Connell, 1x1, Transformer, Washington DC, 2012

Neal White and Tina O’Connell, 1×1, Transformer, Washington DC, 2012. Photo: Tear – Tidal Basin (c) the artists *

I’m excited to let you know that, for the next 12 months, I’ll be based in Washington D.C., from where I’ll be exploring opportunities for the Arts Catalyst in the US, as well as – after 21 years leading the organisation – taking a semi-sabbatical to extend my own research and writing.

One exciting initiative that I’m involved in is as a member of the Steering Committee for the US National Academies’ Keck Futures Initiative ‘Art and Science, Engineering and Medicine Frontier Collaborations: Ideation, Translation & Realization’. The conference at the heart of this initiative takes place next week in Irvine, California, and brings together a diverse group of participants (selected from an open international call) to explore how arts, design, sciences, engineering and medicine can stimulate a renaissance of innovation to solve real-world problems, and create concrete projects that can lead to educational, cultural, social and scientific impacts. As a steering committee member, I’ll be mentoring a couple of the ‘seed idea’ groups that I’ve been involved in putting together: Developing Programs to Engage and Empower Communities to Address Threats to Ecosystems, and Creating Open Data Culture.

Another couple of conferences I’ll be participating in during the year are Aerosolar: Space Without Rockets at the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts in El Paso, Texas, this week, curated by my former colleague Rob La Frenais, where I’ll be talking about the peaceful uses of outer space and attending an experimental balloon launch by artist Tomas Saraceno at White Sands, and the Association of American Geographers (AAG)’s annual meeting in San Francisco, on a panel about Geographies of Outer Space, convened by Julie Klinger and Dan Bednar of Western University in Canada, in March 2016. Also on the space-related side of my work, I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of a book to which I’ve contributed a chapter, The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space, a vital collection of texts from a broad range of disciplines that examine outer space as a dynamic and contested field, edited by Peter Dickens and James S. Ormrod. Whilst on the pricey side for most of us, I’m sure many institutions will order a copy for their libraries and I’ll ensure that the Arts Catalyst has a copy in its reference library. We’re also thinking about holding a seminar or event in London next year to explore and open up some of the book’s key themes and ideas.

During the coming year, I’ll continue to oversee the Arts Catalyst’s artistic programme whilst handing over most executive leadership to an interim Managing Director. I’m therefore delighted to announce that we’ve appointed Gary Sangster as Arts Catalyst’s Interim Managing Director. Gary has an exceptional international track record as a museum director, curator, educator and writer, and brings his vast wealth of knowledge and experience to the company. This all comes at a very exciting time for Arts Catalyst. Following our highly successful crowdfunding campaign, the Arts Catalyst’s new Centre for Art, Science and Technology opens in Cromer Street, King’s Cross in January 2016 (I’ll be back in the UK for the opening). Our opening project at the centre will be ‘Notes From the Field: Commoning Practices in Art and Science’ – details upcoming.

You can follow my work both in the USA and the UK (and anywhere else I get invited to!) via this blog and my twitter.

* Image: Neal White and Tina O’Connell’s 1×1, as part of 5×5, comprised 1,000 small vials of “tears” – water collected in Japan after the earthquake and Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant disaster (my small role in this project was in facilitating the collection of the water from Japan). Visitors were encouraged to pour the water on a cherry tree bringing about a symbolic rebirth, drawing on the specific historical connection to the gift of the Cherry Trees to Washington DC one hundred years ago. 1×1 reflected upon the range of experience and responses to the Tsunami and Fukushima Diaichi catastrophe in Japan a year before the project.

Words and Money: discussions on art, ethics & value

Ackroyd & Harvey, Living Skin, 1992/2014. © Ackroyd & Harvey. Photo: Anne Purkiss. The work was shown in an exhibition from which Ackroyd & Harvey have now withdrawn it, due to their ethical concerns around sponsorship.

Ackroyd & Harvey, Living Skin, 1992/2014. © Ackroyd & Harvey. Photo: Anne Purkiss. The work was shown in an exhibition from which Ackroyd & Harvey have now withdrawn it, due to their ethical concerns around the exhibition’s sponsor.

I’ve been at a couple of conferences recently in London that were responding to rising concern about the ways the visual arts in the UK are being funded.

‘Take the Money and Run’ reflected on ethics and fundraising. It was organised by Live Art Development Agency, Artsadmin and Home Live Art, with Platform. The recent campaign by Platform to force Tate to release details of its sponsorship by BP was an underlying motif for the day.

There were several fiery and articulate presentations and provocations, of which you can get a sense from the twitter storify. I particularly enjoyed artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey’s tales of attempted manipulation and deceit by sponsors, from the overt and almost hilariously gauche (sponsors wanting to alter their artwork to promote their brand) to the hidden (the gradual realisation that the motivations of the sponsors of an apparently worthy exhibition were not what they seemed).

Their stories ably illustrated key points that the other speakers made:

  • that the type of funding an artist or organisation receives can and often does affect the work itself
  • that the arts have always been sustained by private sponsorship/patronage/philanthropy (different, but related), but now we have more ability to research the sources
  • the need to understand and reflect upon what it is that sponsors are buying, and if that is what we want to sell.

Points from the floor that I greatly appreciated included misdirected gratitude (as was said later in the day “BP doesn’t support Tate, Tate supports BP”), the irrelevance of personal moral responsibility (“It’s not about individual ethics. We’re all compromised. It’s about movements and changing politics”), and the Arts Council’s contentious use of the word “resilience” in relation to forcing companies away from reliance on public funding into the uncertain world of corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy.

‘Public Assets: small-scale arts organisations and the production of value’ was convened by Common Practice to discuss value and sustainability in the small-scale arts sector. I attended with my colleague, curator Ele Carpenter.

Common Practice is a group of London visual arts organisations that commissions research around the value of the small-scale contemporary visual arts sector in London. It has produced two interesting papers: ‘Size Matters’ by Sarah Thelwall, which argued for a more sophisticated understanding of the concept of value, and ‘Value, Measure, Sustainability’ by Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, generated by a day-long symposium in 2012 which I attended, which argued for different ways of measuring the artistic contributions of small organisations beyond footfall and econometric indices.

The morning presentations opened up possibilities for creating new language and metaphors for value in small arts organisations. Artist and theorist Kodwo Eshun called for partnerships between cultural organisations and academia to create ‘alternative communities’, and new forms of cultural politics. Charlotte Higgins noted that the UKIP culture spokesperson says the arts are the last domain of the left that he need to conquer.

In the discussion, the notion of care, specifically curatorial care – for art and artists, for concepts and theory – was a recurring idea. A delegate suggested that those doing the ‘caring’ are often female, and that arts organisations suffer from the problem that ‘carers’ in society are not valued. One contributor spoke of gendered male theory in female-run organisations, but the conversation held off from addressing the social entitlement of men to hold positions of power.

New metaphors, outside those related to economic value, were requested, a point that was picked up in the breakout session I attended, where a contributor noted that ‘cultural industries’ in itself is a metaphor that requires attention. An amusing suggestion expanded the ecology metaphor into the idea that small arts organisations create the compost for artists’ practice. The proposer thought the way in which Eshun described theory made her think of theorists as worms, mixing the compost and enriching the soil. It was a popular idea, although it was felt that ecological analogies still rely on ‘growth’ or ‘competition’ models, in which, as Gordon-Nesbitt’s paper noted, “only those organisations able to adapt – particularly to corporate or philanthropic models of organisational development – will survive” and the small is only of worth if it contributes to, or grows into, the large.

The afternoon presented speakers with international but relevant perspectives. Maria Lind, Director of the Tensta Konsthall in Sweden, suggested that, whilst networks were essential for small organisations, it was easier to partner internationally because of competition for funding within a country. Lise Soskolne from W.A.G.E. in the USA meanwhile presented detailed argument for the need to pay artists working with non-profit organisations. She spoke of the contradictions swirling around the issue of pay to artists, as well as analysing the economy of philanthropy. W.A.G.E. has developed a certification program in the US that establishes a sector-wide minimum standard for artist compensation. Fee levels take into account pay levels within the organisation.

As Higgins and Eshun eloquently described, small arts organisations are small in size but big in scope and networks through which they support the development of artists’ practices (commissioning new work, helping artists to establish contexts for their work, providing residencies and mentoring, etc), enable audiences to experience new artworks and engage meaningfully with ideas and specialist practices, organise discussion and debate, and work imaginatively with long term communities of interest. All this caring, developmental work needs to be valued, not simply as underpinning the rest of the art world, but for having complex and in depth engagement with art and its many communities and discourses. So we were all left thinking about the elephant in the room: will the new Arts Council England research grants examine the ‘impact’ of their regular dissolution and undermining of so many small scale arts organisations across the UK?

2014 at The Arts Catalyst

Arts Catalyst's 20th anniversary party (photo: Shiraz Ksaiba)

Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary party (photo: Shiraz Ksaiba)

Mixed reviews of 2014 as a year in the media. The Arts Catalyst meanwhile has had a pretty darned good 2014 – our 20th anniversary year – which is remarkable considering the difficult political and economic climate in which the non-profit arts sector is situated. Our projects continued our ongoing artistic and cultural investigations into space exploration, infrastructure, nuclear energy, ecology, polar studies, and ‘epic’ residencies for artists.

We launched our year in January, in the wake of China landing a probe on the Moon triggering fears of mining operations on the Moon, by declaring an artists’ ‘Republic of the Moon’ and transforming the Bargehouse on London’s South Bank into the lunar republic’s Earth-based embassy. The exhibition was a popular and critical success. It included works by Agnes Meyer Brandis, Liliane Lijn, Leonid Tishkov, Katie Paterson, and Joanna Griffin and the Moon Vehicle Group, and an evolving installation and residency by artists We Colonised the Moon (Sue Corke and Hagen Betzwieser). We animated the exhibition with performances, workshops, music, talks, a pop-up moon shop by super/collider and playful protests against lunar exploitation.

Republic of the Moon at the Bargehouse, 2014

Lunar protest, We Colonised the Moon in Republic of the Moon

We Colonised the Moon’s lunar protest, in Republic of the Moon

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon (installation view), RotM 2014

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon (installation view), RotM 2014

In June, we brought the spectacular artist road-rail vehicle SEFT-1 to London. SEFT-1 was created by Mexican artists Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene to explore the abandoned and ruined passenger railway networks of Mexico and Ecuador. Arts Catalyst, in partnership Furtherfield commissioned a new exhibition about their journeys, with video, photographs, objects, and a scale-model diorama of a viaduct ruin in Mexico, which the artists had explored on their travels. The exhibition reflected on how the ideology of progress is imprinted onto historic landscapes through the modern ruin.

SEFT-1 at Furtherfield Gallery, 2014

SEFT-1 at Furtherfield Gallery, 2014

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Bridge

Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, SEFT-1 over Metlac Viaduct


Model of the Metlac Viaduct, 2014

July saw us visit Japan with a group of artists to explore the artistic, societal and political responses to nuclear energy post-Fukushima. In partnership with S-AIR in Sapporo, and curated by Arts Catalyst’s associate curator Ele Carpenter, we organized the Actinium exhibition, which included works by James Acord, Shuji Akagi, Chim↑Pom, Crowe & Rawlinson, Karen Kramer, Cécile Massart, Eva & Franco Mattes, and Thomson & Craighead, which formed part of the Sapporo International Art Festival Collaborative Program and acted as a base for discussions, screenings and field trips to nuclear facilities around Hokkaido, and further afield to Eastern Japan around Fukushima.

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Actinium exhibition, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Meanwhile, our curated exhibition Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica, commissioned by the British Council, and featuring some of the most innovative and progressive examples of contemporary architecture in Antarctica, toured from MOSI (Manchester Museum of Science & Industry) to New Zealand’s IceFest in Christchurch and then to Otago Museum, New Zealand.

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, the first "Zero emission" polar research station in the mist at Utsteinen -Belare 2008-2009

Princess Elisabeth Antarctica, “Zero emission” polar research station, Ice Lab

Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (in Ice Lab)

Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (in Ice Lab)

As part of our ongoing investigatory project with YoHa, Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone, we organized workshops in Leigh-on-Sea over the summer months to involve local people and artists in exploring and mapping the changing ecology of the Thames estuary. Wrecked is setting up a network of local people, artists and technologists to explore how local “situated” knowledge of the estuary can be combined with artistic investigations and citizen science techniques to explore and respond to a changing, contested estuary.


Thames Estuary, Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone. Photo: Fran Galardo

Vaping the estuary, Wrecked on the intertidal zone public workshop

Vaping the estuary, Wrecked public workshop. Photo: YoHa

Yours truly, stuck in the mud off Leigh-on-Sea, Wrecked

Yours truly stuck in the mud off Leigh-on-Sea (the reality of being Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone). Photo: Jo Fells

The Arts Catalyst’s 20th anniversary party in October was delightfully celebrated with many friends, glow-in-the-dark cocktails, a moon landing darts game organized by We Colonised the Moon, a whisky tornado by Bompas & Parr, and music by Teleplasmiste and the Pond Scum Light Orchestra.

Arts Catalyst’s 20th party: We Colonised the Moon’s moon landing darts. Photo: Marek Kukula

Teleplasmiste & the Pond Scum Light Show

Arts Catalyst’s 20th party: Teleplasmiste & the Pond Scum Light Show

Kosmica Mexico moved into its third festival in Mexico City in November in partnership with Laboratorio Arte Alameda and the Centro Cultura Digitale, programmed by Nahum Mantra. Artists, scientists, performers, scholars, space explorers, workshop leaders and musicians from Mexico, UK, France, Canada and USA came together to explore the cultural and artistic aspects of space exploration, including Bompas and Parr and super/collider’s recreation and extension of their intoxicating and wildly popular event ‘A brief history of drinking in space’ from Republic of the Moon’ as well as topics such as sex and sexuality in space, and nostalgia for the Earth.

Bompas & Parr's Whiskey Tornado at Kosmica Mexico

Marie-Pier Boucher, Nahum Mantra and Ale de la Puente try out Bompas & Parr’s Whisky Soda Vaporisation Chamber in ‘A Brief History of Drinking in Space’ at Kosmica Mexico 2014

In a series of international “epic residencies” throughout the year, we enabled artist Alistair McClymont to spend several weeks at the Central Laser Facility in Didcot with some of the most powerful lasers in the world, facilitated visits and field trips for six artists and curators to Japan (Revital Cohen, Tuur Van Balen, Ele Carpenter, Jon Thomson, Alison Craighead, Karen Kramer and Susan Schuppli), and supported Kuai Shen’s research in Yasuni National Park, Ecuador. We also advised and supported the Mexican project La Gravedad de los Asuntos, led by Nahum Mantra, which – inspired by The Arts Catalyst’s zero gravity programme (2000-2005) – saw a group of Mexican artists and scientists, including Ivan Puig, Ale de la Puente, Arcángel Constantini, Fabiola Torres-Alzaga, Gilberto Esparza, Iván Puig, Juan José Díaz Infante, Marcela Armas, Miguel Alcubierre, Tania Candiani and Nahum, go to Star City Russia and undertake artistic research in zero gravity.

All that and a new website, our first e-reader, and a map of the Arts Catalyst’s two decades of experimental, trail-blazing projects.

20 years of Arts Catalyst projects

20 years of Arts Catalyst projects

And, towards the end of the year, we said ‘au revoir’ to curator Rob La Frenais, off to undertake new freelance projects (although he will be working with Arts Catalyst on one-off projects in the future) …

HAPPY 2015!!!

HAPPY 2015!!!

Related reading material – for those who want:
Republic of the Moon manifesto
Railways, ruins & modernity blog post (on SEFT-1)
Nuclear Culture blog (Actinium)
and my blog posts on nuclear culture in Japan – Part 1 Part 2
Ice Lab book
Alistair McClymont’s blog (Beam Time residency)
Arts Catalyst Reader Volume 1
A Brief History of The Arts Catalyst (20th anniversary booklet)

Nuclear culture in Japan. Pt 2: Road trip through Fukushima exclusion zone

After my lecture at the Actinium nuclear forum in Sapporo, a group of us (Arts Catalyst team and artists with Kyoko Tachibana from our partners S-AIR) travelled by plane and bullet train to Fukushima City (located 60km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant). If we weren’t already aware of what we were heading into, this was the first thing we saw on leaving the rail station:

Geiger counter, Fukushima City

Geiger counter, Fukushima City

Fukushima City was not evacuated after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. It is the prefectural capital with a population of more than 280,000. On the surface, life appears to continue here as normal.

We met with Shuji Akagi, an artist and high school art teacher, who lives in the city (Shuji’s work was shown in the Actinium exhibition and he spoke at the forum). Since 2011, Shuji has been meticulously photographically documenting the decontamination of the city. He took us on a tour of the city to give us some insight into this vast process, which involves the rather low-tech process of scrubbing roads, buildings and trees with street sweeping vehicles, high-powered sprayers, and hand-held brushes. In addition, the first metre of topsoil is being removed from parks and gardens and reburied elsewhere. The plan is to decontaminate the entire city. It has taken three years so far and it looks a long way from being finished.

Roadway circular scratches caused by machine

Scratches from decontamination process on the roads, Fukushima City

The photo below is of one of the temporary storage sites for contaminated topsoil in the heart of this busy city. Hidden from street view behind a fence, here they are storing topsoil, which will then be reburied elsewhere in Fukushima prefecture. The city has difficulty finding storage sites to keep contaminated soil. When first removed, it is temporarily stored on the premises of schools and people’s homes, buried in yards or covered in plastic sheets, awaiting collection. 

Numerous black bags containing soil with blue covering in large hole in central city location

Contaminated topsoil, Fukyshima City

Sign with blue Japanese writing

Blue ‘decontamination site’ sign – these are found all over Fukushima City and the region

All around the city, you see these piles of contaminated topsoil.

Blue covered pile outside shop with vending machine next to it

Contaminated topsoil awaiting collection, Fukushima City

Shuji took us to see a large temporary storage site, where this topsoil is then taken, just on the edge of the city by Fukushima University. The topsoil is stored here before being relocated again for burial.

Vast hole in the ground containing large black and blue plastic bags. Sign - picture of worker with hands outstretched in warning and Japanese writing

Temporary contaminated topsoil storage site, near Fukushima University

How do the people of the city feel about the decontamination? Do they discuss its progress? Do they think it is effective? Shuji told us that it is rarely discussed by the city’s inhabitants in general conversation. The city authorities say the city is safe and the city returned quite quickly to normal after the disaster, almost as though nothing had happened. He finds this very strange. But he does not know if he is too worried, or not worried enough, about the dangers posed by the contamination. He knows he looks for spots of high radiation, while others prefer to be reassured, and he finds it difficult to find others in the city as concerned as he is. The art world outside Fukushima and internationally, where his photographs are widely exhibited, gives him an arena to discuss the things that concern him so greatly that he relocated his family to another city, 80 km away, although he still works in Fukushima City to keep up their income.

From Fukushima City, our group drove to Soma, closer to the Fukushima restricted zone, where we stayed the night. Shuji accompanied us, interested to visit the evacuation zone around the power plant. In the early hours, the hotel shook. An earthquake. A small one for here. A common occurrence. And this is where they build nuclear reactors? This feels increasingly uncanny, a place where abnormal things have become normalised.

The restricted zone

It is complex to explain the spatial aspect of the exclusion and restricted zones around Fukushima. This is one map I’ve found that can help, and it usefully shows the location of Fukushima City. Initially, the exclusion (evacuation) zone was a 20km circle around the around the Fukushima Daiichi plant  – shown on the map below. However, the coloured areas show how the radiation was actually distributed, due to the wind direction. This meant that the original evacuation zone was soon extended Northwest towards Fukushima City, although the city itself was left outside it.


The restricted zone today continues to be adjusted to allow people into areas with lower radiation levels, and move them out of areas with higher levels. Below is a recent, although by no means up-to-date, map. The green areas show those parts of the original exclusion zone that people are now allowed back into. The orange are areas where people are only allowed in during the day to work or visit former homes, but cannot live there, or which can only be visited at all with a special permit. The pink area is the Red Zone, the most contaminated area, which is extremely restricted. Due to the revised shape of the exclusion zone, by driving down Highway 6 from Soma, and with a special permit, we were able to come within 4km of the Daiichi power plant itself and to visit the evacuated town of Namie.


The morning after our bumpy sleep, we set off with Shuji and a local guide (a former farmer, evacuated from his house in the exclusion zone, who stays in the area working with an NGO). Driving along Highway 6, we found ourselves tailing one of the many trucks carrying radioactive topsoil. It’s a massive industry here, the clean up. We stopped in Minamisoma (a formerly evacuated city to which inhabitants have been allowed to return) to pick up our permit, allowing us to enter the Orange Zone.

Our guide took us to the coastal area where he lived to the north of the Daiichi plant. In most of the area affected by the tsunami, the clean up has erased most obvious physical evidence. Here, the physical evidence of the tsunami is frozen in time, a consequence of the radioactivity that has fallen on the area. “Here most people got out” our guide says as we reached some derelict houses. “Here, over 100 people died”, he informed us, as we passed an area where there was no trace of any houses – washed away by the force of the tsunami.

Damaged rural houses

Houses deserted post-tsunami damage, Fukushima exclusion zone

Interior of house devastated by tsunami

Interior of house devastated by tsunami

Gold dome and square building

Deserted planetarium, Orange Zone, Fukushima

Boats stranded in paddy fields by the tsunami

Boats stranded in paddy fields by the tsunami

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Tsunami debris

Passing the checkpoint at which we showed our permit, we arrived at the edge of the Red Zone. Getting out of our minivan, we could just make out Fukushima Daiichi’s plant’s reactors, 4 km away, across a river with a broken bridge. Ele Carpenter took her Geiger counter out and placed it close to the water source (where radioactivity concentrates). The readings on the counter had increased as we’d got closer to the Red Zone, but not significantly.

View over ruined bridge towards distant hills and electricity pylons

Looking out towards the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant (from 4km)

Geiger counter placed on a crack in the road

Ele’s Geiger counter, Fukushima Prefecture

As we looked out across the landscape, a pair of workers emerged by car from the Red Zone wearing white suits. This was the first sign we had seen of anyone in protective wear.

Men in white overalls and face masks get into a white car

Workers leaving the Red Zone, 4km from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Bizarrely, a Google streetcar passed us as we stood there. Will we be on Google Street View, captured hanging around uncertainly in this uncertain uncanny zone?

We drove to Namie next, a ghost town on the edge of the Red Zone, evacuated after the disaster.

A deserted high street of a small Japanese town

Namie ghost town, Fukushima exclusion zone

In a shop, piles of newspapers left from the day of the evacuation. Kyoko read the headlines for us – they were about the earthquake.

Stack of newspapers in Japanese

Stack of newspapers from the day of the evacuation, shop in Namie, Fukushima exclusion zone

The Geiger counter reading increased and we decided to leave quite quickly to be on the safe side.

We dropped Susan Schuppli off near where our guide’s house was, where she wanted more time to do some filming – I’d offered to drive back later to collect her – and we drove back to Soma. The others headed for Fukushima City from there, while I collected the small car I’d hired and drove the 90 minute journey back into the restricted zone to rendezvous with Susan. I found her filming in the middle of a field near a major seawall rebuilding project. We decide to drive back into Namie for a little more filming and, out of curiosity, we then headed to the edge of the Red Zone on Highway 6. It was the rush hour, and we looked on astonished at the endless stream of traffic emerging from the Red Zone carrying workers. It was almost bumper to bumper driving back through Namie, but no one stops in this town. There are no shops open, yet it looks like a functioning town. It’s just that there’s no one here anymore. And probably never will be.

Bowling hall in the evacuated ghost town of Namie, Fukishima exclusion zone

Bowling hall in the evacuated ghost town of Namie, Fukishima exclusion zone

View of rolling hills at sunset

View inland from the coast, Fukushima exclusion zone

We drove back to Fukushima City over the hills, skirting the edge of the Red Zone and passing through the deserted picturesque village of Iitate, an unfortunate place that was hit badly by the radiation despite being 40km from the power plant and outside the 30km exclusion zone around the plant. A feeling of great sadness and waste hit me, a sense of displaced people, disrupted lives and an invisibly toxic landscape.

Nuclear culture in Japan. Part 1: Actinium programme, Sapporo, Hokkaido

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

Temporary storage site for radioactively contaminated topsoil, Fukushima City,2014

I’ve been in Japan for Arts Catalyst’s Actinium exhibition and forum, part of an ongoing partnership between The Arts Catalyst and S-AIR in Sapporo, and part of the collaborative programme for the Sapporo International Art Festival.

The Actinium exhibition, held at Oyoyo in central Sapporo, was a hub for discussion about contemporary nuclear culture in Japan. It hosted film screenings and a forum, as well as being the base for field trips for artists and curators to explore the relationships between culture and nuclear power in northern Japan after 2011, the year in which the fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded shook the country, causing widespread destruction and triggering powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 metres (133 ft) in some parts. The disaster killed more than 15,000 people and caused a series of nuclear accidents, primarily the major meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, which led to evacuations affecting hundreds of thousands of residents.

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photo: Ele Carpenter

Actinium exhibition, Oyoyo, Sapporo, 2014. Photographs by Shuji Akagi (foreground), Temporary Index by Thomson & Craighead (rear), re-creation of James Acord’s nuclear round table (right). Photo: Ele Carpenter

Before 2011, Japan generated 30 per cent of its electrical power from nuclear reactors, even though Japan is subject to frequent earthquakes, located near a triple fault line between the Eurasian plate, the Pacific plate and the Philippine plate. Since 2011, many of Japan’s nuclear plants were closed or their operations suspended. The last of Japan’s fifty nuclear reactors (at Tomari in Hokkaido) went offline in May 2012.

Today, Japan and its northern island of Hokkaido face critical decisions about whether to re-start their nuclear plants, as well as where to store nuclear waste in a highly nuclear-dependent nation, how to support the Fukushima evacuees and what to do with the contaminated debris and topsoil from the region. The after effects of the Fukushima disaster are complex and highly sensitive.

Japanese artists have responded strongly to this crisis and it has deeply affected many practices. The Actinium exhibition was curated by Arts Catalyst associate curator Ele Carpenter, who has been leading the Nuclear Culture programme, a curatorial research programme based at The Arts Catalyst and Goldsmiths College, which combines artists’ field trips, new commissions, exhibitions, film screenings, interdisciplinary symposia, and public talks. Ele Carpenter spent a month in Sapporo last year, as curator-in-residence at S-AIR, meeting Japanese artists and curators to research the Japanese cultural response to the Fukushima disaster and nuclear power in Japan today.

The Actinium programme emerged from this research, involving the exhibition and forum, and enabling a number of artists from the UK to visit Japan. The Actinium exhibition included works by artists from Japan, the UK, the US and Canada, several of whom also attended the forum. With Japanese curators, artists and other experts, the visiting group also made field trips to the Underground Research Center for radioactive waste storage at Horonobe, and the Nuclear Power Plant at Tomari, before heading south to Fukushima.

Actinium exhibition, 2014. Let Them Believe by Eva and Franco Mattes (right), Photo of James Acord's round table (left), which was re-created for the exhibition

Actinium exhibition, 2014. Let Them Believe by Eva and Franco Mattes (right), Photo of James Acord’s round table (left)

The Actinium Forum

The forum brought together artists with Japanese academics, activists and researchers in the field of nuclear culture. Discussion topics included political, social, material and philosophical concerns, geologic time, the nuclear cycle, radiation, immateriality and invisibility.

In my opening talk, I raised the issue of dependency on expertise and questions around the legitimacy of that expertise in modern technoscientific democratic societies (referencing Sheila Jasanoff’s writings). Through the lens of Langdon Winner’s analysis of the political character of technology, I discussed some of the Arts Catalyst’s work that engages with or critiques centralized systems of technology, such as nuclear energy, and our interest in exploring alternatives to centralised science, such as renewable energy, open source technologies and  citizen (or civic) science projects, exemplified by Arts Catalyst’s role in the Arctic Perspective Initiative, a multidisciplinary project led by artists Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman that aims to develop free and open source science and technology tools for citizens of the North, showing in the Sapporo International Art Festival.

Chim↑Pom, KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers) (video still)


Chim↑Pom, KI-AI 100 (100 Cheers) (video still)

There were then a series of fascinating artists’ presentations by Ryuta Ushiro from artists collective Chim↑Pom, who introduced the group’s work and controversial artistic response to the Fukushima disaster, Jon Thomson & Alison Craighead who discussed their evolving work ‘Temporary Index’ a proposal for a counter representing the decay rate of a number of nuclear waste products to consider our relationship with deep time and our legacy of nuclear weapons and energy, and Shuji Akagi, an artist, high school teacher and resident of Fukushima City who has been photographically documenting the decontamination process around his city over the last three years, and whose photographs – revealing the immense scale of the process of removing and burying contaminated topsoil – formed a compelling part of the exhibition. Further artists’ talks were given by Susan Schuppli, whose work investigates the concept of ‘the material witness’, entities that record evidence of passing events, and Takashi Noguchi, who tried to visually capture the invisible radiation in his photographs from Fukushima by wrapping them in dark bags with radioactive soil.

2014-07-27 13.50.46

Takashi Noguchi at the Actinium Forum

In the afternoon were two fascinating presentations by scientist Dr Yogo Ono and lawyer Norio Sugasawa.

Dr Yugo Ono is a geographer, geo-ecologist and environmental scientist, a professor emeritus at Hokkaido University and professor at Hokusei Gakuen University, Sapporo. Ono says he has been deeply influenced by the late Jinzaburo Takagi’s ideas about citizen science. Ono discussed his estimates of radiation contamination if an accident occurred at the Tomari nuclear power plant on Hokkaido. Unlike at Fukushima, where 80 per cent of the radiation was blown out to sea, at Tomari, where winds blow from the west, almost all the radioactivity would be blown inland, devastating large areas of Hokkaido. Ono established the Group for Decommissioning the Tomari NPP, and has filed a lawsuit aimed at the decommissioning of the plant. As a side note, Ono also participates in the movement to restore the rights of indigenous Ainu people and the movement against the Sanru Dam construction.

Predicted dispersal of radiation from meltdown at Tomari nuclear power plant, from leaflet distributed by Dr Yogo Ono

Predicted dispersal of radiation from meltdown at Tomari nuclear power plant, from leaflet distributed by Dr Yogo Ono

Norio Sugasawa spoke about his work with the Decommission Tomari Campaign, on a civil suit against Hokkaido Electric Power Company (HEPCO) that owns Tomari Nuclear power station, as well as legal cases being taken against nuclear power across Japan since March 11, 2011, with some recent success, although Sugasawa pointed out the ultimate decisions about nuclear power will not be legal but political.

The forum ended with a series of extremely animated ‘break out’ roundtable discussions. In the one I attended, there was discussion about Japanese people’s response to the disaster and some concern expressed that people aboard may feel their response too passive (although there have been many protests and legal cases against nuclear power) – would people from other countries have protested more loudly? In a group that was a mix of Japanese and Western people, we agreed that the 3.11 disaster was so profound and traumatic that it was difficult to say that in another country people would have responded differently. Although the Japanese in the group explained that in their culture people tend not to state their opposition or objections out loud, the group realized that this did not mean that there had not been deep questioning, protest and activism, nor could it be said that a more outspoken culture would have reacted very differently under similarly overwhelming circumstances. The Japanese situation was uniquely devastating, but there were lessons to be learned from it for the world.

The Actinium programme (exhibition, forum, exchange & research trips) was supported by the Daiwa Foundation, Goldsmiths College, University of London, SIAF, the Pola Art Foundation, Arts Council England, Agency for Cultural Affairs, City of Sapporo, S-AIR and The Arts Catalyst.

In my next Japan installment, I will report on our road trip to the Fukushima exclusion zone.

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