Earth Day 2016: Sustainability Projects from the RCA's Artists and Designers

The RCA fosters a critically engaged body of students and staff, who maintain a vested interest in environmental issues – with a wide variety of outcomes, both creative and practical. 

Held each year on 22 April, Earth Day raises global awareness and promotes activism about the wide range of issues that have an impact on the earth – from big topics like climate change and greenhouse emissions, to grassroots-level community initiatives. The annual event provides a communal opportunity to take stock of the current state of affairs – economic, political, cultural and social – surrounding contemporary practices of sustainability and protection of the environment. First celebrated in America in 1970, since 1990 Earth Day takes place across the globe with the participation of more than 193 countries.

2016 marks the 46th Earth Day, and this year sees a critical success in the scheduled signing of the Paris Agreement – a historic draft climate protection treaty adopted by consensus of the 195 nations present at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris.  The Agreement, which tackles greenhouse gases, emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance, beginning in 2020, is scheduled to be signed by the US, China, and some 120 other countries.

Earlier in this academic year – just prior to the London Climate Change protest, and in anticipation of COP21 in Paris – a group of students under the name Climate Action Collective, and in conjunction with Senior Tutor Peter Kennard, organised an exhibition of works to raise awareness about global warming, Fiddling While Earth Burns. The powerful display of works was designed to confront the hitherto ineffectual promises made by governments around the world over greenhouse emissions and other aspects that are leading to environmental crises. These students, from across the School of Fine Art, posed the critical question: how might the visual arts make an impact with regards to environmental activism, generation of dialogue and debate, public consciousness raising and the enactment of meaningful change?

Other Schools and programmes across the RCA have witnessed similar investigations across disciplines, to broad and inspired extents. In keeping with this sentiment of this year’s Earth Day theme, ‘Trees for the Earth’ – which has the ambitious goal of planting 7.8 billion trees by 2020 – Fiona Curran, Senior Tutor in Mixed Media and Textiles, recently realised a new, large-scale sculpture commission entitled The Grass Seemed Darker Than Ever, commissioned by Kielder Water & Forest Park’s public art programme Kielder Art & Architecture, funded by the Arts Council England and installed with assistance from Forestry Commission staff. 

The work was conceptualised as a response to its surroundings of Kielder Castle, Forestry Commission England’s visitor base in Kielder Water & Forest Park. Curran’s sculpture is a three-metre high blue fence that encloses a group of trees in the midst of the forest. Hovering like a cloud, its colour changes from blue to white, and inside is a floor of firewood and brash from the forest that has been painted black – a darkened hole that marks the ground in allusion to the ‘Inclosures Acts’ of 1760 – 1780. These were laws developed as a consequence of the enclosure of the open countryside, by fences and hedges used to delineate fields used for agriculture, and to close off forests and hunting areas for the sport of the leisured classes; and which had a significant effect on people used to common rights to collect firewood, to hunt for game and fish, the means for sustenance, who suddenly found themselves restricted by physical, material and ideological borders. Curran’s interest is in the ways in which the enclosure today endures as a powerful symbol of the relationship between landscape and power that persists globally in the twenty-first century, with regards to increasing scarcity of natural resources and incidents of global land-grabbing.

School of Architecture Dean, Dr Adrian Lahoud, is currently working on The Shape of the Eclipse, a project that examines new ways of communicating the effects of climate change. At the core of Lahoud’s investigation is the notion that the time scale and spatial scale of climate change are often at odds with the scale of human experience: in order to meaningfully express large swathes of primarily screen-based scientific information, its visualisations must carry a more visceral charge. Lahoud proposes the design and construction of a projection dome that will function as an enveloping and immersive space in which the experiential impact new forms of narration and visualisation might be explored as attention is re-oriented and peripheral vision is engaged.

Innovation Design Engineering hosts a number of student projects that explore the ideas and possibilities of the circular economy. John Routledge focuses on designing by cradle-to-cradle principles, and is currently working on a lighting solution alternative to LEDs. He hopes to use new developments in nano-technology to boost the energy efficiency of incandescent light bulbs, making them more energy efficient. The bulb will also be designed to facilitate recycling, and to additionally provide a better quality of light.

Routledge, along with his IDE peers, Sheroy Katila, Haidin Rahis and Laura Yeddy, also worked on the Spark Project, a local manufacturing system proposed as a means to combat the cycle of urban poverty, via a case study of Mumbai’s immigrant shanty town populations. The group considered the means by which emerging technology might be harnessed for the use of local communities to facilitate better living conditions – in this instance, local manufacture and use of screen-printed organic LED lights as a vehicle to provide rural immigrants with new trade skills for the city.

IDE student Philippe Hohlfeld has been fascinated by globalisation and the effect that containerisation has had on our world, particularly with regards to the effects of global imbalance in trade. With the aim to make redundant the 17 million empty containers that exist today, and the environmental impact of their global shipping, Hohlfeld has conceived “GrowFrame”: a collapsible hydroponic farm that uses a standard container to cultivate food. Not only does this make use of the otherwise wasted container space, it also addresses global issues of famine and nutritional access.

These are a handful of impressive projects amongst an RCA community that is growing in strength and awareness of environmental issues, combining art and design with political and social acumen to produce challenging, instrumental outcomes that address the critical state of our contemporary physical world. 

From 1 – 5 June, SU-organised Green Week returns to the RCA, where on going discussions of mindfulness and sustainability will continue as we examine our role as practitioners and as higher education institution. 

For more information on sustainable projects at the RCA, see SustainRCA.