Challenging global energy use through online art

Jamie Locke-Jones
Monday 18 October 2021

Global energy demand continues to rise. To meet this demand energy producers are increasingly relying on innovative methods of harvesting energy from fossil fuels, nuclear and renewable sources. At the same time, public concern about the impact of anthropogenic climate change is growing, alongside tense conflicts over the human and environmental impact of energy production, distribution, consumption and waste-handling. Recognising that this energy predicament has no simple answer, this predicament raises fundamental questions about what we consider to be right or good, and the kinds of energy futures we envision for ourselves, our communities, and future generations around the world.

This was the prompt behind the inaugural Art of Energy Award submissions that populate the second floor of the Centre for Energy Ethics’ Art of Energy virtual gallery, a completely free online interactive gallery that showcases a new way for scholars to engage with the public. Combining visual art with written prose, music and video, the gallery reaches a far more diverse range of people than could reasonably be expected to visit a physical exhibition, while also being available for much longer. 

Ed Kashi’s “Curse of Black Gold” exhibit on the first floor of the virtual gallery’s Mezzanine building

The first of its kind in the world, the Centre for Energy Ethics brings together the arts and humanities with the social, natural and material sciences.  Founded and directed by Dr Mette High, the Centre is concerned with how we might balance our growing energy needs while mitigating human-made climate change.  Driven by research and collaboration, the Centre aims to engage members of the public through initiatives like the virtual gallery, as well as inform public, industry and policy discussions.

The first floor hosts exhibits by three award-winning and world-renowned photographers (Ed KashiOwen Logan and Brook Peterson) and a commissioned sound installation from pecq, which incorporates recordings by Centre researchers from their field sites.  The second floor of the gallery hosts 30 short-listed submissions from the Art of Energy Award. All of this is held within an interactive environment which users can walk around at their own pace.  

Originally launched in February 2021, the gallery was initiated with 1,500 minutes of user engagement time on its cloud server – the average expected engagement for an online gallery over one month.  However, visitor engagement quickly exceeded all expectations: what was meant to last an entire month was exhausted within the first week. Between 18 February and 31 July 2021, the gallery recorded more than 11,200 minutes of user engagement and received an unprecedented 1,290 visitors from over 23 countries.

Visitors have remarked that the gallery has challenged and altered their engagement with energy and sustainability issues, and even changed their understanding of energy. As one visitor commented, “It really got me thinking about energy and the way I use it … I’ve learned so much during this process.” Another said that “it felt like MOMA had arrived in Fife”; a flattering but encouraging comparison. 

Following an overwhelmingly positive response, the gallery has secured funding to remain online until at least the end of the year and an expanded virtual gallery space will be re-released in October 2021.  The expanded gallery will include two new virtual gallery buildings connected by a promenade and several new exhibits highlighting creative collaborations between researchers and photographers.  

With its successes to date in mind, the CEE’s intention is to integrate the gallery into a series of events this autumn, including the Energy Ethics 2021 conference (Oct 2021),  COP26 events hosted by the CEE (Nov 2021), and the Being Human Festival (Nov 2021).These events will bring entirely new audiences to the gallery and open up new opportunities for creative engagements between visitors, artists and researchers.  They will also invite people to engage more broadly with the Centre: to come learn about the work being done at the CEE and the kinds of questions researchers ask; to join other CEE virtual events; to get involved in the CEE’s discussions, respond to its blogposts and its podcasts; and, to bring their experiences and thoughts to bear on the work that the Centre does.

The re-released Art of Energy virtual gallery

The gallery is having a significant impact on other University projects. One example is the Art of Energy Call for Composers, launched in June 2021 by Dr Emilka Skrzypek, CEE Senior Policy Fellow. A collaboration between the CEE and the University of St Andrews Music Centre, the call will result in four new musical works, inspired by the art pieces in the digital gallery that will be performed by student ensembles at the upcoming Fringe of Gold music festival. It is also the inspiration for the Poetry and Power event by the CEE at the Byre Theatre on 11 November.  This event will bring together award-winning poet and Art of Energy Award finalist Rebecca Sharp with acclaimed and award-winning poets Janette Ayachi and John Bolland to explore the questions: How can poetry help us understand the existential challenge of balancing growing energy demand with curbing anthropogenic climate change? And how can it help us envision possible energy futures?

For more information, questions or comments please get in touch with the lead organizer of the gallery, Dr Sean Field, or email the Centre for Energy Ethics (energyethics@st-andrews.ac.uk).

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