ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Energetic: Exploring the past, present and future of energy, a book that weaves together different strands from the Stories of Change project, excursions into what energy means and work by the project’s artists.
2,010 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes
One of the benefits of attending the exhibition on Culture and Climate Change at the Royal Geographic Society at the end of June — even on one of those very hot and sticky summer days in London — was to meet up again with many of the project members and participants in the Stories of Change project. The project launched in Oxford in September 2014, at one of the TippingPoint events I was fortunate to help organise: an incredibly energetic and creative couple of days in the rooms, chapel and lawns of Exeter College; and here, in the RGS exhibition room, the results of that project’s creativity were on display, alongside two other projects from many of the same partners: Earth in Vision, and Provisional Cities.
As we viewed the photographs and panels and recalled some of the project highlights, a soundtrack of voices played in the background, the results of a commission by artist Vicky Long, who had taken the submissions to the Stories of Change competition My Friend Jules and reworked these stories of personal relationships with energy into a play for voices. My Friend Jules had been devised by games designer Ken Eklund as a way of breaking down the barriers of abstraction which otherwise make it hard for us to visualise energy and just how extraordinary has been our development as a society dependent on the technologies, infrastructures and spatial relationships of industrial and post-industrial energy networks. Part of that story of stories is told in Ken’s post for ClimateCultures in May 2017, The Anthropocene Writ Small: My Friend Jules; and story is the underlying web of meaning through which this four-year project has worked to bring together an impressive range of practices, disciplines, places, people and objects.
Our travels with energy
That June event also marked the launch of Energetic, the book from the Stories of Change project, and I have enjoyed my slow and thoughtful path through its pages. Illustrated throughout with the bright, warm photographs of Tim Mitchell and Gorm Ashurst, the book weaves together the different strands and locations of the project in an accessible and informative guide to the questions and excursions into what energy means for us now, how we have travelled with it over the centuries of the industrial revolutions, and what shapes it might take in the 21st century in a world of changing climate and ecologies. As well as accounts by many of the team members and community participants, the book features work by a good number of the artists who took part in the project.
Nick Drake’s poem Chronicles of the Incandescent Lightbulb offers an effective frame for our reflections on our relationships with the immaterial essence of energy, embodied here in the material (but usually no-less invisible) convenience that is our instant gratification of holding back the dark:
You had nothing but the moon,
the guttering candle, and the dish of oil
to thread the eye of a needle, read,
or cast shadows on the walls, until
you created us, the first light
that was constant in the dark.
From a heartbeat twist of tungsten
and a single breath of gas to hold
our whole lives long, you sowed
one idea in our interchangeable glass skulls;
to shine at your command.
Energetic editors Joe Smith and Renata Tyszczuk explain how the book — effectively a catalogue for a conceptual exhibition that by happy chance then did become a physical exhibition for a few weeks — “gathers insights from across this work … a representative sample of the creative writing, songs, photos and portraits, interviews, short films, performances and museum and festival events that we co-produced in collaboration with our community, creative, and research partners.” And that broad programme of work was partly inspired by the mid-20th-century Mass Observation movement, which recorded stories of change through the voices of ordinary people and communities. “Their innovative approach to valuing and supporting lay social researchers; their ground-breaking application of arts, social sciences, and media to the goals of social change; and their novel use of documentary tools were touchstones for this project.”
Playing with energetic utopias
Among the strands of creative research, therefore, a Peer Outreach Team of young people who face “a range of barriers to participation in mainstream education, employment, and training” were commissioned to gather the opinions of others and use a range of creative participatory activities, with the aim of avoiding what can be a “‘dry’ interaction” between academics and participants. And, as team member Bradon Smith recalls, this was complemented by further creative interventions in the guise of an energy policy game devised by participatory theatre-makers fanSHEN:
“A variation on the game started from the aim of creating an energy utopia … the playful tone and physical modelling element promoted speculative, imaginative and sometimes absurd suggestions, opening up space to consider afresh the challenges that energy policy faces … The task is to imagine a desired future, and identify the narrative that leads us there. All these are forms of storytelling in a speculate mode… Narratives of the future allow readers or listeners to imagine the present as history, encouraging the possibility of thinking differently about things we do not normally question.”
Whether engaged in the speculative future or the grounded here-and-now, imagination is a strong force for engaging with the world and with change. Sandra, one of the young people involved in the research, makes the point that “When you make it creative, it allows us to really think what it [energy] is in our lives, and think more openly about it … I like oil spills in water and it does that weird rainbow thing. I saw that and it reminded me how we use oil for electricity and that, and how a lot of it does get wasted.”
And, as Bradon Smith and Joe Smith recall of the My Friend Jules game mentioned earlier, “creative writing can bring to the surface (or, coyly, hide in plain sight) our relationships with energy in novel and engaging ways. All shades of opinion, and a mad mix of literary genres, were offered up by the players” in ways that “could not have been revealed by a survey, a focus group, a diary, or historical research. They have different textures and emotional reach. They do different work.”
Connecting with place and community
Like the project, Energetic traces the stories of energy through places and the communities who have co-evolved with them. In some cases, these are captured at a distance, as in The Last Miners, a BBC documentary that Robert Butler discusses for its narrative of end days in the UK’s deep coal mining industries — represented here by the 2015 closure of the Kellingsley Colliery in north Yorkshire — and which he finds curiously silent on context. For “there’s a wider story too: the closure of the pit marks the end of a 250-year-old industry that can claim some responsibility for the Industrial Revolution, the British Empire and anthropogenic climate change.” As he reminds us, “What had come to an end was quite specific, and it was certainly not coal.” The year the colliery closed, four billion tonnes of coal were consumed around the world.
And, of course, energy links every place where it is generated, distributed or consumed to the world-wide impacts of rising carbon levels in the air and oceans and to the spreading ecological and social damage that plays out in place and community elsewhere. David Llewellyn recalls the village of his Welsh Valleys childhood, where “the lower reaches of the small river, the Tyleri, that gives the valley and village its name was barely visible when I was young in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Its blackened, poisoned waters were hidden by mounds of shale and water as it dribbled pitifully towards another similarly decaying watercourse, the Ebbw Fach, which we called, perhaps somewhat affectionately, the River Stink.” Elsewhere in the valleys, and in the present day, Lisa Heledd Jones recalls her journey to a project workshop at the temporary Story Studio they set up in a closed community library:
“It’s an incredible journey. The view from the top is stunning … The view tells its own story — fields, water, trees, pit heads, and wind turbines. The impact of energy carved into the landscape in visible and invisible ways. … The mountains around Treherbert are in the process of another transformation – the Pen y Cymoedd wind energy project. This means 76 turbines dotted above the valley that will turn wind into power for over 200,000 homes and will be the largest of its kind in the UK mainland.”
Mel Rohse worked on the Story Studio project to engage and record local people’s stories and suggests that “it served different groups’ purposes without its message being diluted … although we are interested in the particular theme of energy, we engaged with people on their own terms”; echoing Lisa’s reminder “of something that is too easy to forget — communities don’t have one story. Communities are drawn from imagined lines we all draw around each other for myriad perfectly good reasons — but communities are actually made up of individual people with different experiences and backgrounds that form their opinions and stories … To really imagine what a community in Treherbert might or might not feel about 76 turbines, I would need all the hours left in my life and then some.”
Other places that feature in the multiple narratives of Stories of Change include the early industrial heartlands of Derbyshire, such as Richard Arkwright’s mills at Cromford, and Lea Mills in the Derwent valley. Filmmaker Bexie Bush has crafted an animated film, The Rumour Mill, from the stories told by local people. “Animation has its own unique and powerful way of revealing the soul of a subject” and her short film aims to “make a space for a wider range of views, times and places on the big topic of climate change and energy … But the film is not just about energy – it is also about community, living life to the full, British manufacturing, and most of all coming together to imagine change and bring it about.”
There is much well-grounded optimism — well-grounded because of the processes that brought it about, as much as the stories it contains — and one small word that emerges from the many words is the one picked out by Vicky Long in her account of the work she wove together from the voices in My Friend Jules: miracle. She picks it out of one contribution to that game — a story “about a moment on a tube train when a child learns about the miracle of energy” — and then again:
“‘Miracle’ was a word used by another contributor, and I wanted to hold onto this sense of the miraculous throughout the piece, suggesting that somehow, behind all the mistakes we make, something greater us at work, a miracle we are free to return to, work at, and reengage with in new and more successful ways.”
A large and complex multi-stranded project such as Stories of Change cannot be fully captured in a book, just as Energetic cannot be given full justice in a short and highly partial review. Fortunately, the project website is a major endeavour in its own right and offers a wealth of examples and information from across the range of places, issues and approaches.
Find out more
The Stories of Change website offers a map, a timeline and a network as ways into the rich content on offer, which you can also access as a range of media, narratives and frames. Plenty to explore, share and make use of!
The book Energetic is available to view online and download via Issuu.