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I am a voracious consumer.

I hanker after knowledge that will provide insight into the way we live, so my consumption habit is not for material things, but rather for information.  The New Scientist is a favourite read so when it featured a nine-page special on The Meaning of Stuff  (29.3.14) I was captivated.

My viewpoint on consumption is skewed by science – the questions why and how occur frequently – only ever partially answered in my research as theories become disputed and overturned by specialists.

“The rise of a biographical approach to things has documented the myriad of taxonomies, uses and valuing regimes that objects can move through before they reach the end of their lives, if they ever do.  Framing things as rubbish doesn’t just help us eliminate things from our lives, it also helps us experience the fantasy of self sovereignty and ontological separateness”.

Gay Hawkins, The Ethics of Waste (Rowman & Littlefield 2006).

Anthropologists suggest that our historical nomadic lifestyle prevented a great accumulation of possessions.  The first hunter-gatherers slowly evolved to carry fire, tools and clothing, starting to mark themselves out as individuals by garnering objects that reflected status and skills, as they travelled. This “extended phenotype” ( proposed by the eminent scientist Richard Dawkins, adds weight to those archaeologists who argue that our sense of self was established early and its sophistication distinguishes us from other animal species.  As a sedentary lifestyle developed it allowed the accumulation of possessions and defined hierarchies within communities.  This form of society nurtured a material culture where the display of tokens of grandeur and power reinforced respect and authority – evidenced in the wearing of fine clothes and jewellery.  The level of sedentariness drove settlers to accumulate more goods and more livestock to insure against disasters, which entailed acquiring containers for hoarding and buildings and pens for housing the animals.  The gradual sprawl of settlements can easily be linked to the history of food, as discussed by Carolyn Steel in Hungry City (Chatto & Windus 2008), whilst embryonic politics and economies emerged with goods being bartered to oil the wheels of peaceful relationships with neighbouring communities.

“The consumer age is predicated on the idea that we no longer consume to live, but live to consume. This ideology of consumption determines how individuals perceive and interpret the world around them; making consumption the dominant social paradigm.”

Hidden Mountain: The Social Avoidance of Waste , Edd de Coverly, University of Nottingham, Pierre McDonagh, Dublin City University Business School, Lisa O’Malley & Maurice Patterson, University of Limerick–the+social+avoidance+of+waste.pdf


Today, we clearly recognise that the possessions we buy tell others about our extended selves.  It is not simply about owning things but which things – the right things – this of course changes depending on who you are.  Objects reveal “Who we are, where we have been and perhaps where we are going” states Russell Belk, York University in Toronto, Canada whilst Catherine Roster at University of New Mexico, Albuquerque suggests that they are “repositories of ourselves”.  She believes that the value can vary significantly from each individual and that its material value does not always influence the actual value to the owner.  Here an emotional underpinning is prevalent, starting very early in babies as revealed in their relationships to basic things such as a favourite blanket or toy.

Humans get emotionally attached to certain possessions – usually those that hold sentimental memories.  Scientists have found that triggering an emotional response to an object will lead to greater sales of goods.  The current innovative project Shelflife, run through Oxfam charity shops, is cleverly tapping into this theory by enriching an object’s narrative through the potential purchaser being able to digitally read the story behind it on an Oxfam app.

Andy Hudson-Smith in the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London originally devised the project in 2012.  Hudson-Smith reasoned that a digital society could connect with the story buried in the physicality of an object and thereby tap into an emotive thread, but through electronic means.  The idea has led to an increase in sales for Oxfam and a widening of the project’s scope to include more retail outlets.

So how does this information inform and guide my art practice?

My own struggle against the fabrication of ‘stuff’ is well documented, made particularly difficult as a sculptor driven to create yet not wanting to contribute to an already ‘over-stuffed’ world.  Consequently, my practice ethos is to work with existing objects whenever possible so not to contribute to the mountain of possessions but instead to seconder and reinvent.  The conceptual underpinning is vital leading an approach that demands the innovative use of found objects and a considerable amount of searching for that particular metaphorical ‘thing’. Cognitive battles ensue with a rewriting of the discarded and their repositories of memories redefined.

“We are embedded in our trash – there is no way to leap beyond it and build a utopia without garbage, to address the contradiction between the world’s limited resources and our seemingly unlimited ability to manufacture trash.  Its production is rooted in survival, represented in every culture, and magnified by economic success. To purge the earth of garbage would be to destroy our own reflection.”                                                  

John Knechtel, Trash (Alphabet City Media Inc 2007)

My passion for the tactile and the eroded emerges in sculpture that in its corporeality reveals brooding degradation: the peeling layers inviting a meditation on the narrative exposed.  The work appears in distress – juxtaposing incongruous matter to create visual poetry is precarious.  Balancing a metaphysical perspective to harmonise or argue with scientific evidence is challenging.  This disputed landscape is inhabited with vigour until I retreat leaving the work to command its own domain.

“Artists don’t aim for a reductive simplicity but they, too, have an encompassing sense of what Coleridge called ‘cohaerence’ – ‘the clinging together’ of all the elements in a work to make some kind of whole which is psychically satisfying.  This is not to suggest that there is an ultimate fixed reality to be found but the artist’s personal vision will re-inform and reinvent a view of it, sometimes honing in on things that are apparently redundant and inconsequential and paradoxically presenting us with a coherent reflection of a corner of reality that we perhaps should not overlook.”

Siân Ede, Art and Science (Taurius & Co ltd 2005)




China looks abroad for greener pastures


China buys land to farm across the globe after covering vast tracts of its own fertile land in concrete – the price of explosive urbanisation?

Originally posted on Climate Connections:

By Barbara Demick, March 29, 2014. Source: LA Times
The Shenzhen River separates the high-rises of Shenzhen, China, from farmland in Hong Kong. China has come under criticism for the amount of agricultural land it has paved over in its push for economic development. (Brent Lewin / Bloomberg / December 19, 2013)

The Shenzhen River separates the high-rises of Shenzhen, China, from farmland in Hong Kong. China has come under criticism for the amount of agricultural land it has paved over in its push for economic development. (Brent Lewin / Bloomberg / December 19, 2013)

BEIJING — When Ma Wenfeng was a boy, his father earned so little money growing wheat and corn that the family mainly ate mantou, a steamed bread that is a staple of the poor. The last thing he would have dreamed of was becoming a farmer.

Now it is his greatest ambition to start a farm, but not in China, a country where the very word for “farmer,” nongmin, is synonymous with “peasant.” Many Chinese farmers are long past retirement age but still tilling tiny, inefficient plots of land.

Motivated by the search for big expanses of land…

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Image of the Week: Varroa Parasitic Mite


More bee stories to keep us on topic although the artificially coloured mite is not my idea of good art or science.

Originally posted on Wellcome Trust Blog:

B0009404 Varroa destructor, honey bee mite, SEM

This week’s image is of the little mite that might cause the end of food production as we know it. The varroa parasitic mite attacks the honey bee populations needed to pollinate a range of valuable crops including sunflowers, almonds and tomatoes. After attaching itself to the underside of the bee, the mite sucks the hemolymph, a substance that surrounds all the bees’s cells.

It is only possible to see this varroa mite so clearly because the image was created using a scanning electron microscope. Verroa mites are actually only 1.5mm by 1mm making them almost impossible to see on a live adult bee. In reality this mite would also be a red brown colour providing camouflage against the surface of its victim. All images created with a scanning electron microscope are originally colourless, and in this image the purple and green colouring was added later to help us see…

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Evidence of acceleration of anthropogenic climate disruption on all fronts


Frontal attack on climate change

Originally posted on Climate Connections:

By Dahr Jamail, April 10, 2014. Source: Truthout
Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout

Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout

This month’s dispatch comes on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent report, and the news is not good.

“No one on this planet will be untouched by climate change,” IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri announced. The report warned that climate impacts are already “severe, pervasive, and irreversible.”

The IPCC report was one of many released in recent weeks, and all of them bring dire predictions of what is coming. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a report warning that “the rate of climate change now may be as fast as any extended warming period over the past 65 million years, and it is projected to accelerate in the coming decades.” The report went on to warn of the risk “of abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes in the Earth’s…

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Trees, trash, and toxics: How biomass energy has become the new coal


Real clean air is more scarce than we realise – yesterday east England had unprecedented levels of air pollution and in this article so called green energy has serious implications on air quality and climate change.
Any suggestions where to go from here?

Originally posted on Climate Connections:

Note: If the biotech and biomass industries have their way, many of these facilities would source wood from fast-growing plantations of genetically engineered trees, which are being fast-tracked by the US Department of Agriculture.  Demand a ban on the release of GE trees into the environment by signing our petition here:

-The GJEP Team

April 2, 2014. Source: Partnership for Policy Integrity

Biomass incinerator in Amsterdam.

Pelham, MA. -  Biomass electricity generation, a heavily subsidized form of “green” energy that relies primarily on the burning of wood, is more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 states.

Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal, released today and delivered to the EPA by the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), concludes that biomass power plants across the country are permitted to emit more pollution…

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The Distance Between


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dig-6There is a considerable distance between Guildford, where Dr Simon Park in the University of Surrey is based, and my studio on the Lake District fringes. A factor that impacts on my collaborative project with the microbiologist, Immortal Worlds?, and the development of my scientific understanding of methanongens.  To assist in addressing this distance I decided to create my own Winogradsky columns last weekend.

silberthwaite-common-site-welliesA Winogradsky column is a device for culturing a diverse miniature ecosystem – a process developed in 1880 by Sergei Winogradsky. Basically, a column of extracted mud, plus added nutrients, creates am aerobic/anaerobic gradient plus a sulphide gradient over a period of months.  The two gradients vary depending on the added ingredients but all promote the growth of different organisms: Clostridium, DesulfovibrioChlorobiumChromatiumRhodomicrobium, and Beggiatoa, as well as many other species of bacteria, cyanobacteria, and algae.

notebook web copy

As child fond of making mud pies in the middle of our unmade, puddled lane the silent infant within was excited at the prospect of revisiting that joy. And the process didn’t disappoint – mixing 0.25% egg yolks (calcium sulphate), 0.5% ground eggshells (calcium carbonate), shredded newspaper (carbon) and mud together was gloriously messy. Clearing up took longer than mixing the recipe.


The mixture was paddled into the base of a clear glass demijohn filling it to a third, then adding another third of mud on its own from the same site, adding 1/6 site water and leaving 1/6 as space. The containers were tightly sealed with a rubber bungs to prevent evaporation and then placed in the large windows of my studio, as light is key to the development of the ecosystems. Demijohns are great for sturdiness but the entrance hole being so narrow proved a challenge – a homemade funnel made out of an old drinks bottle proved the answer.

The mud was sampled from two sites – one freshwater, the other seawater – the differences will enhance the study over the next three to six weeks as the ecosystems become established.

subberthwiate-common-site Morecambe-Bay-dig

Unlike the Winogradsky columns I created last December in Norfolk with Dr Park, these will not be kept in the heat cabinets. The columns are not part of our trial to monitor the impact of climate change on methanogens, but rather a way for me to reduce the distance between my artist’s understanding and the science, whilst being inspired by the wondrous process happening live in my studio.

Images below show the mud on day 2 – left freshwater mud from Subberthwaite Common, near Ulverston Cumbria,-3.124666,1711m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0x6b70d063a5334d7a and right demijohn has mud from Morecambe Bay,+Aldingham,+South+Lakeland+District/@54.1531111,-3.0881751,1716m/data=!3m1!1e3



Exquisite Dance


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“Science is a quest for the most intimate understanding of nature.  It is an adventure of the free and enquiring spirit that thrives not so much on answers as unanswered questions.  It is the enigmas, the mysteries and paradoxes that take hold of the imagination, leading it on the most exquisite dance.”

The Rainbow and the Worm                                         Mae-Wan Ho 2008

rust-on-paper2-nest-webAre you a scientist?

Are you an artist?

What do you see?

I am currently reading The Rainbow and the Worm, or in truth I am trying to understand this scientist’s viewpoint to gain a basic level of the physics of microorganisms. The writing is quite poetic in places, as I hope this quote illustrates, but when Mae-Wan steps from the rhythmic prose to the real science of equations etc I involuntarily glaze over – my brain does not understand the language. This cognitive response is making me question whether I need to comprehend, or should I accept my role as an artist is different from that of a scientist? Both disciplines attract people with enquiring minds but with different strengths. So should I glean what I can from the study and focus on my skill set or push to fathom scientific phenomena?

The Science Bubble


This science article is fabulous as it illuminates how the discipline has changed from enquiries into the big questions to that of money-orientated research. Well written and understandable for us non-scientists it encapsulates our current narrow focus. Thanks Matthew Russell for sharing it.

Originally posted on Just Science:

The following link is profound. The current issue of EdgeScience takes a brilliant look at how the current era in science is more about rushing technology to market to benefit society than the underlying universal truths that must first be studied. The consequences have been strikingly similar to the ‘Housing Bubble’ and may not have fully burst yet.

Please take a look:

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Who’s in Charge?


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Who’s in Charge?

I have learnt that working with scientists is unpredictable – I like this – it’s what we research together that stimulates my curiosity, sustains my wonder at the world and therefore acts as inspiration for my art practice. If I knew where I was going why make the journey?

The Immortal Worlds?  collaboration with microbiologist Dr Simon Park from University of Surrey, has slowly evolved.  It’s a tiny embryo of an idea worthy of some attention and initial experimenting to see if it would mature into a fully-fledged project ripe for appeals for funding.

Immortal Worlds? Our Focus

Our habit is to gaze in our frontal plane, turning occasionally left and right, above and below – but what of the world below the below – the disconnected landscape of Archaea?  Archaea are microorganisms with an ancient evolutionary lineage that traces back to the very origins of life on Earth, and yet which will still play a vital role in our future.

The focus of the Immortal Worlds? project is on mapping this unseen world of methanogens and how climate change will impact on these major producers of methane.  This gas is a significant greenhouse gas, far more so per unit than carbon dioxide, and the Archaea form a domain of single-celled microorganisms that is responsible for 70% of methane in the atmosphere, thereby making them a potent force on the Earth.

Immortal Worlds? aims to create provocative and innovative collaborative studies, that will not only experimentally and critically engage art and science, but will also spark debate about our rapidly changing world.

What will happen to this parallel world, hidden from our view, as the planet warms up?

What impact will this change have on the Earth and on us?

27 jan 20 degrees column Detail of mud sample in sealed column on 27 January 2014

So far…

In December Simon and I met on a site of saltwater wetland on the North Norfolk coast to extract some mud samples containing methanogens. The four columns of mud collected had to be kept airtight and left to establish ecosystems  – about seven weeks.  Simon placed the sealed glass receptacles in the university’s heat cabinets where they are now being monitored under laboratory-controlled conditions. The aim is to study the nature of the changes when the methanogens are subjected to a sustained rise in temperature of 20 degrees and 30 degrees centigrade.

After seven weeks there was little progress, Simon discovered that light is important, so the samples are now illuminated – this helped enormously but even after nine weeks it was too early. We also decided to expand the research and extract some mud from different types of sites to create a larger body of methanogens to monitor and study.

So who’s in charge? Nature of course – she won’t be rushed and the outcome of this collaboration in mid February is still uncertain. Both Simon and I will have to wait to ascertain the results to see if the project is worthy of more research and applying for project funding.

If you’re interested to find out more please regularly visit this blog or my website





Talking Sculpture – Listening in 3D


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Exciting news.

My second reference book, The Language of Mixed-Media Sculpture, will be published  by The Crowood Press Ltd in  Spring 2014. ISBN 978-1-84797-699-4


Catch a glimpse of the cover above.

The book will be a lavish celebration of mixed-media sculpture from around the world that highlights the prodigious talent of contemporary artists

The Language of Mixed-Media Sculpture is both a survey and a celebration of contemporary approaches to sculptures that are formed from more than one material. It profiles the discipline in all its expanded forms and recognizes sculpture in the twenty-first century not as something solid and static, but rather as a fluid interface in material, time and space.

 The Language of Mixed-Media Sculpture embraces the expanded notion of sculpture, including: perspectives on the roles of the body (as object, performer and canvas), found and discarded matter, living and dead organisms, wax, gelatine, crystals, textiles, soap, sugar, air, sound and light. It reveals innovative approaches towards ideas and materials – the journey from inspiration to outcome, including the thinking behind concepts, practical processes adopted, technical information required and the dynamic final outcomes.

         Insightful revelations of the creative journeys of ten renowned sculptors

         Useful technical information on a myriad of processes and materials

         Twenty-eight international sculptors showcased

         Inspiring imagery with over 200 colour photographs

This sumptuously illustrated volume will inspire those intrigued by and interested in contemporary sculpture. Suitable for artists, enthusiasts, students and practitioners alike, the book will form an invaluable guide to the great plethora of twenty-first century art.

Available globally online and in good bookshops from Spring 2014 – I will keep you posted on the exact date.



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I have just finished reading Art and Science written by Siân Ede – have you read it?

The last chapter had the strongest resonance when she discussed the understanding of multiple realities and how the two disciplines approach this concept.

“Artists don’t aim for a reductive simplicity but they, too, have an encompassing sense of what Coleridge called ‘cohaerence’ – ‘the clinging together’ of all the elements in a work to make some kind of whole which is psychically satisfying.  This is not to suggest that there is an ultimate fixed reality to be found but the artist’s personal vision will re-inform and reinvent a view of it, sometimes honing in on things that are apparently redundant and inconsequential and paradoxically presenting us with a coherent reflection of a corner of reality that we perhaps should not overlook.”

Art and Science 2005  Siân Ede


This image from Monch beautifully illustrates the notion of fractured realities but which disfiguration on the link do you identify with?


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