Royal Academy hails Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency

Art and auctions, Exhibitions, Paintings and Sculpture — By on December 3, 2019 at 10:04 PM

Island House in Laguna Grande.

Royal Academy hails Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency

By James Brewer

A world at the point of no return. Climate shocks devastating landscapes and populations, noxious emissions beyond control and species threatened. The warnings are frequent and stark, the proposed solutions may be too late and are sometimes counterproductive.

What has a distinguished institution like the Royal Academy of Arts to offer in the edgy polemics of the eco-sphere?

Island House in Laguna Grande (detail).

The answer is its new exhibition Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency which gives a platform to 21 visual artists, designers and architects – architecture is one of the Academy’s specialism strongpoints – to illustrate their responses to the complex and diverse challenges.

Creative practitioners set out not just their interpretations of the problems, but float notional new ways of living.

Their processes are Utopian with a touch of Jules Verne imagination; but then a Utopian vision might be what is needed urgently to halt the uncontrolled gallop into Dystopia. Among participants are teams of avant-garde architects who win prestigious commissions from renowned clients.

Since their “workshop” is Planet Ocean, it is natural that there is emphasis in many of the speculative models on what marine biology and technology has to offer. For the benefit of current and future generations, exhibitors are seeking to draw attention to the fragility of endangered ecosystems.

A panel from Dolphin Embassy.

They engage with the subject variously in ways political (a film collage includes the assertion: “Our economic system is a war against the planet”) and emotional: “Allez, Captain Planet, allez!” from the same production.

A pan-European project, the exhibition features film, sculpture, immersive installation, architectural models and full-scale prototypes.

One vision is Island House in Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas, a project started in 2015 by Andrés Jaque/Office for Political Innovation with Patrick Craine. Office for Political Innovation is an architectural practice in New York and Madrid “working at the intersection of design, research, and critical environmental practices.”

The 50-island archipelago of Laguna Grande, on the south coast of Texas, “contains some of the most ancient animal and vegetal species adapted to saline aquatic ecosystems and protects the lagoon from the pollution resulting from the nearby presence of oil platforms,” say the authors of this project.

“The islands are the habitats where mammals and other coastal species overnight, and they are endangered by the combined effects of climate change and the incremental increase in the acidity of the water.”

3.c. city: climate, convention, cruise.

The Island House they envisage is not designed for humans, but to empower the environmental diversity of Laguna Grande. The structure collects and preserves rainwater and, through the mediation of sensors on the ground, sprays water to dilute toxicity and combat drought.

Recent assignments of the Office for Political Innovation practice have been for Thyssen Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Art Institute of Chicago, Lafayette Anticipations, CA2M, Real Madrid, Colegio Reggio, and Grupo La Musa.

Dolphin Embassy, from the architecture and art collective known as Ant Farm, is a proposal dating from the 1970s for a floating communication station to develop long term human/dolphin interactions in the wild. The double-hulled craft was designed as a temporary home, laboratory and studio for artists and scientists interested in learning from dolphins, using trans-disciplinary research.

Ant Farm first proposed The Dolphin Embassy in Esquire magazine in 1974. Later after meeting the owner of the Dolphinarium in Australia the team developed it into a full-fledged proposal, with a show at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

They transformed the scheme from an underwater building into an open, mobile laboratory craft to facilitate human-dolphin interaction in the wild, planning to use video technology to create a common language with the dolphins.

The Green Machine.

Ant Farm was established in the counter-cultural milieu of 1968 California by two architects, Chip Lord and Doug Michels, later joined by Curtis Schreier. The San Francisco studio set out to provoke cultural introspection rather than address commercial viability. The studio run by Ant Farm burned down in 1978, but Doug Michels, who died in 2003, tried to continue with the project, although funding fell short of target.

Similarly, a New York-based studio focused on climate change and its impact on architecture, Work Architecture Company (WORKac) brings to the Royal Academy 3.C.City: Climate, Convention, Cruise (2015). This is a speculative project for a floating city “designed to facilitate dialogue and debate between people and marine species,” inspired by the work of Ant Farm in the 1970s.

At the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2015, WORKac teamed up with the founders of Ant Farm, using as a reference, drawings salvaged from the 1978 fire. This led to a new concept described as a “vehicle of dreams.” This would blur the boundaries between ecology and infrastructure, public and private, the individual and the collective. The design includes a vessel with housing, research lab and inter-species congress hall.

The final scheme “belongs to no country.” The perimeter would have a horizontal layer of inflatable spaces for housing. The inner portion of the city contains the community spaces – an “interior landscape of participation that includes not only people but also dolphins and whales that can participate in the discussion.”

Stephane Malka of Malka Architecture, a firm with offices in Paris and Los Angeles, has developed a phenomenon called The Green Machine, a mobile platform combined with an industrial city that would regenerate dry and barren landscapes. The authors are interested in the purity of the desert and its untapped potential. Rapid, ongoing desertification leads to economic and social instability; so Malka’s proposal fertilises dry ground and supplies local populations with food and water.

The Breast Milk of the Volcano.

Working alongside Yachar Bouhaya Architecte, the concept looks to exploit the Sahara’s rich resources and possibilities, with a design capable of producing 20m tons of crops a year. The structure forms a mobile city, with housing, schools, community restaurants, and places of recreation.  With its giant caterpillar treads – originally designed to transport NASA rockets – the machine can be driven over undulating terrain. The self-sufficient structure generates its own electricity through nine solar towers.

Nine balloons float above the travelling city, obtaining water from the air through condensation. The balloons are equipped with turbines which generate renewable energy. The hot air at ground level rises through a chimney, generating a constant flow of power while the sun is shining.

Seed Procession is part of Seed Journey, a project ongoing from 2016 Initiated by Futurefarmers, a design studio founded in San Francisco in 1995 by artists, designers, architects, scientists and farmers. Along its route, Seed Journey collects ancient grains and stories from farmers, bakers and seed savers. Each grain is inventoried and sealed into an hourglass. “We can speak of this voyage as return or a re-tracing of a very ancient route combining human and non-human initiative by which wheat was domesticated from the wild and then slowly made its way through gifts, trade, winds, and sea currents, from the highly cultured Middle East to the barbarians of the north,” says the collective.

Seed Procession.

The seeds transported have been “rescued” from locations in the Northern Hemisphere – from the  formal (seeds saved during the Siege of Leningrad from the Vavilov Institute Seed Bank) to the informal (archaeologists discovering Finnish rye).

Seed Journey is linked to a public art project in the former port of Bjørvika in Oslo. RS-10 Christiania, an 1895 restored wooden rescue sailboat designed by renowned shipwright Colin Archer (1832-1921), a Norwegian of Scottish heritage, has been used for Seed Journey. The crew’s interests influence the route, “but ultimately grains are the compass.”

Futurefarmers said that the Christiania is not only a “slow” and “safe” vessel, “but she also connects the ideas of exploration and loss to new ideas of rescue and findings.” The craft is on “a ‘reverse Nansen’, ‘reverse Humboldt’, reverse ‘Darwin’, Cook, Magellan or whatever traveller you want to choose…. The point is not to oppose technology and science but to shift control and oversight of the means of production from the few to the many.”

In The Breast Milk of the Volcano (2016–18), the research studio Unknown Fields presents findings from an expedition to Bolivia and the Atacama Desert, source of prime reserves of lithium. It questions the sustainability of the lithium-based batteries that power most electronic devices. Unknown Fields is a “nomadic design studio that ventures out on expeditions into the shadows cast by the contemporary city, to uncover the alternative worlds, alien landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness set in motion by the powerful push and pull of the city’s desires.”

Previous expeditions of Unknown Fields have included the Texaco oil fields of the Ecuadorian Amazon; the Galapagos Islands; US military outposts; a containership crossing the South China Sea; the frozen Arctic sea ice of Alaska; and the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

Royal Academy celebrates Eco-Visionaries.

Eco-Visionaries includes The Ice Melting series of 2002 from by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson who currently has a solo exhibition at Tate Modern, London. This photographic series showing the process of melting calls out the impact of small human actions on the shrinking polar ice caps.

Tue Greenfort from Denmark presents Tilapia (2017), a group of black-and-white prints arranged as a shoal of tilapia fish, one of the most consumed varieties of fish but also one of the most invasive and predatory species.

London-based architect and researcher Nerea Calvillo shows Madrid In The Air, a film commissioned for the exhibition, that monitors the skyline of the Spanish capital over 24 hours to reveal the scale of air pollution.

The UK debut of win > < win (2017) comes from the artist collective Rimini Protokoll of Germany This immersive makes use of a tank of live jellyfish, one of the few species to benefit from the effects of global warming.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s new project The Substitute, which draws on rare zoological archival footage and experimental data from artificial intelligence company DeepMind, is a life-size digital reproduction of a northern white rhinoceros. Sadly, the last male of this subspecies died in 2018.

The exhibition is designed by Delvendahl Martin Architects and the graphic design studio Daly & Lyon. It is jointly curated by Gonzalo Herrero Delicado, architecture programme curator at the Royal Academy of Arts, Pedro Gadanho, architect, curator and author, and Mariana Pestana, architect, curator and co-founder of The Decorators.

The project was initiated by Fundação EDP/MAAT (Lisbon), Bildmuseet (Umeå, Sweden), HeK (Basel,) and LABoral (Gijón), in collaboration with the Royal Academy and Matadero Madrid.

Alongside the exhibition, the Royal Academy’s Architecture Studio hosts Algae Platform a project by Atelier Luma, the design research programme of Luma Arles. This explores the potentials of London-grown algae as a bio-sourced material, and its application for architectural design.

Lead supporter of the exhibition is Octopus Energy, a company launched in April 2016 which supplies 100% renewable electricity and gas to nearly 800,000 UK homes. Octopus Energy is backed by Octopus Group, a financial services and energy firm which manages more than £8.6bn of funds.

Captions in full:

Island House in Laguna Grande, Corpus Christi, Texas, 2015-ongoing. Print on wooden panel. Andrés Jaque/Office for Political Innovation with Patrick Craine. © Courtesy of the artists

3.c. city: climate, convention, cruise. 2015. WORKac and Ant Farm (Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier).

The Green Machine. 2014. Studio Malka Architecture. Architecture project. Courtesy of the artist.

The Breast Milk of the Volcano. 2016-2018 (video still). Unknown Fields. Ten-minute video. Courtesy of the artists

Seed Procession. Part of Seed Journey, 2016-ongoing. Futurefarmers. Photograph by Monica Lovdahl. Courtesy of Futurefarmers.

Eco-Visionaries is at the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries of the Royal Academy, until February 23, 2020.

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