Guest blog: Made from Light

30 Aug 2018

A guest blog by Dr Greg Lynall is Reader in English, and co-director of the Literature & Science Hub, at the University of Liverpool

At Tate Liverpool in June, I led an interdisciplinary week-long exhibition and series of public workshops and performances called ‘Made from Light: The Art and Science of Renewable Energy’. The event itself was held under the auspices of the ‘Tate Exchange’ scheme, through which partner organisations (such as the University of Liverpool) can stage projects within Tate Liverpool’s interactive, educational Exchange space.

Reimagining energy

When I told visitors I was a member of the English department at Liverpool, they frequently asked ‘so why have you organized an exhibition about energy?’ The cultural history of energy (particularly solar) has been a theme of my research for a number of years, and I’m interested in what that history can teach us now, especially given that the future of energy poses challenges not only scientifically and technologically, but also politically and culturally.

For humanity to transition away from depleting carbon-intensive resources, industrial modernity must be reimagined within alternative energy paradigms and systems that may challenge accepted notions of space, community, lifestyle and human interaction with the environment.

This is not the first time communities have needed to transition to different forms of energy in order to sustain their increasing populations and deal with new societal problems and demands upon resources. As President Jimmy Carter stated back in 1977, ‘we must look back into history to solve our energy problems’. The slight cosmic irony is that in the twenty-first century shift to renewable energy we are ultimately returning to sources which powered much of the world up until two hundred years ago.

However, the dilemmas faced in the twenty-first century are on very different scales to those faced previously, encompassing the survival of habitats and species across the entire planet, amidst climate change caused by past and present energy choices. To adequately understand and, most importantly, act upon the predicted consequences of our energy-related behaviours to some extent involves the work of the collective imagination, and literature and art offer visions of energy production and consumption which may assist these creative leaps.

An interdisciplinary approach to engaging audiences

Whilst this culturally-inflected angle was emphasized at the Tate, I wanted the event to approach the topic from as many perspectives as possible (and, if some of the recent literary works on energy tell us anything, it is that society needs to draw its expertise together).

Fortunately, I was able to find a diverse pool of energy researchers interested in disseminating their work in a slightly different way than they were used to, and we featured talks and posters from academics working in Architecture, English, History, Art History, Engineering, Physics and Chemistry (including the Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy). We incorporated some relevant artworks from the Tate, a brilliant recent political cartoon from Martin Rowson, and I collaborated with the artist Simon Logan on musical pieces which synthesized and sampled the sound of (real and imagined) energy systems. Creative writers were on hand to help visitors write their own energy-related poems and short stories, and these imaginative responses – along with more direct comments and opinions – were added to our displays, to emphasize the importance of dialogue between different voices as part of our whole approach to thinking about energy.

We received some excellent visitor feedback during the week, including: ‘Completely changed my whole sense of energy and convinced me that renewable is the way forward’, ‘I wasn’t sure of the arts’ place in this technological field before this event. Now I think it has an important part to play’, and (my favourite) ‘Maybe we are not doomed after all’. I only encountered one antagonistic visitor: a retired nuclear physicist who said he fundamentally disagreed that there was a significant connection between energy and the arts. I didn’t get the chance to ask him if he’d heard of Kraftwerk.

Dr Greg Lynall is Reader in English, and co-director of the Literature & Science Hub, at the University of Liverpool