‘Anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet’. Carl Sagan, physicist.
The problem with phrases pertaining to our planet home like Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, ‘Climate Change’, and ‘Pollution and Sustainability’ amongst many, is that they refer to vast macroscopic concepts so far removed from the struggles of our everyday existence, that they can make an individual feel quite disempowered, disconnected and in such a state of paralysis, that we are unable to change anything.
In 1932, Aldous Huxley wrote a book which prophesized much of what is happening now; from the mapping of genomes to the disconnection of our species from each other our as we stare into shiny, seductive screens away from our natural world (or indulge in ‘drugs’ such as the fictional Soma in Huxley’s book), migrating in greater numbers to polluted cities unable to sustain us. Bad things in society do not necessarily stem from ideological conviction, but more profoundly from thoughtlessness and an inability to ‘see’. But this extreme dystopian view of one possible future for our species does not account for the power of the things that make us most human; compassion, empathy, intuition, and creativity. Quite coincidently, the very things that I believe will make us future proof as we navigate the 4th revolution of bioengineering, robotics, and AI.
However, the macroscopic can within the space of moments, become immediately more tangible, more personal and more relevant when we have direct personal experience of it. Our perspectives can change in an instant. As an artist, I am often asked what inspires me. It’s something I find hard to qualify in the current moment of creation, but in retrospect, I realise it has been borne from a confluence of professional experience whether in physics research, public speaking, collaborations or teaching. Recently however, I realise it is now more informed by my own personal experience particularly as a parent, as I try to find a common language between the more traditional practices of making fine art, with the newer technologies such as AR across industries such as fashion, which is second only to oil in the pollution it creates.
Searching as I am for a new aesthetic to aid an understanding of our changing world, the forms my inspirations take are multiple; from nature and the conscious human mind, to Huxley’s ’Brave new world’ and the Orwellian ‘1984’, but always within a framework of that which makes us ‘human’. Our futures present a myriad of promising innovations which could tackle all the global issues we now face, but not without referencing our past history and the lessons we have learned from it.
From the Greek myths of Gaia and Narcissus, to the in-between uncertain worlds of quantum theorised by many great physicists such as Schroedinger, my work in discarded plastics, metal and geopolymers, can be both at once playful and yet also, part of a much more serious narrative of our journey as we try to navigate accelerant change the likes of which our species has never experienced before.
Render courtesy of One dome Global for The Unreal Garden.
Plastic is an amazing material (of which only 14% is ever recycled) which not only exhibits magical optical properties but can also be melted and formed into everything from roads to clothes. It just needs to be seen differently. My sculpture in plastics above, ‘To pin a butterfly’ for example, was inspired by an insect we all take for granted: easy to dismiss because of its obvious beauty and decorative qualities. Yet this flying insect may be the closest thing to an alien we might ever experience. A caterpillar’s very DNA changes to become that of its winged counterpart whose iridescence is owed more to physics than anything. From water-proof mobile phones to messages of hope in the Holocaust camps as their images were scratched into walls by young children, these tiny creatures not only help to pollinate our world but spiritually represent our souls and the promise of metamorphosis.
Whether as part of ‘Gaia for a 21st century’ in which butterflies surround a portrait of a warrior Goddess angry at the neglect of our planet home, to my collaboration with fashion house Atelier Eme during Milan design week 2018, to the sculpture of two hands capturing a butterfly which only we can set free, the ‘Butterfly’ has become my symbol of what could be achieved were we to rise above Ego. Most recently, ‘To pin a butterfly’ was turned into an interactive AR experience with the Microsoft HoloLens by Onedome Global in San Francisco, as part of an installation called The Unreal Garden; a wonderful example of technology and art meeting so that nature and the macroscopic can become a personal experience.
Yet my first experience of the miracle of metamorphosis was as a parent purchasing a ‘Butterfly Garden’ for my then young son, each day caring for the caterpillars until we were rewarded with butterflies, we set free, only to see return frequently over the summer. In retrospect, it was the start of a call to action for me as an artist to create work that reminded us of the delicate balance we have with our natural world.
The natural ecological web of which we are an integral part also provides the most basic of our physiological needs from the water which forms most of our cells, to the air that powers those cells. But these are things can no longer be taken as given as our population grows, requiring more and more to sustain it.
According to recent WHO figures, approximately 9000 people die each year prematurely from polluted air in London; a huge, disturbing number but far removed in our macroscopic world until it becomes personal.
Such was an experience of mine 3 years ago when my otherwise healthy son, suffered an asthma attack in the middle of the night as a result of infection. As I watched him on a respirator in the hospital, struggling for each breath, it struck me just how much we take for granted the simple act of being able to breathe in, and then breathe out again, respiring being common to every living thing. But what if the material we breathe in is so impure that it creates disease in otherwise healthy organs?
The two extremes of our air. ‘Suffocation’ a sculpture in plastics, light, and perspex and again in Alsitek ’s nitrogen dioxide pollution absorbing NOxtek which absorbs NO2.
This legacy of inherited dirty air for future generations who had not created it compelled me to start creating work that not only addressed it artistically but practically too. From studies in plastic to further experimentation with the sustainable geopolymer NoxTek, (which Alsitek have developed) which absorbs enough nitrogen dioxide to clean the air for thousands of people, I am now working on a public art sculpture for the Euston Road which is one of the most polluted roads in London. In collaboration with Euston Green Link, MTART Agency and The Mayor Of London, a sculpture reminiscent of the John Nash architecture that circles Regents Park, is a reminder to lift our heads and walk cleaner roads as we take a breath of fresher air. The innovations are there to solve our great global problems; we just need the vision and the collaborative will to do it.
Change, whether mundane or existential is difficult and needs to be tempered with the familiar; our kindness and our ability to think creatively about each other and our planet home. Ethical progress and learning do not exist purely in a theoretical future vacuum but require a frame of historical reference garnered from past experiences.
Our beautiful natural world is not simply ‘brave’ or’ new’, it is ancient and has supported our evolution since single-celled organisms swam in the same oceans we have now plasticized as result of our accelerant consumerism.
Gaia may be a Goddess, but she is also an ancient mother who now needs us to nurture her as she once did us. Our progress is remorseless as we enter the 4th revolution, but it could prove our saviour if we could only remember that we are an evolutionary product of processes, natural and physical, enmeshed in a complex ecological ‘world wide web ’that we have yet to fully understand. Without a more sustainable relationship with the planetary home from which we have evolved, the progress we have always taken for granted is no longer a given.
All images copyright and courtesy of Jasmine Pradissitto
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