For over 25 years, Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd have worked together to produce innovative environmental art which inhabits a unique juncture between performance art and climate science, organic process and artificial preservation, personal response and public space. Their artistic practice ranges across photography, sculpture, architecture, and installation to tackle a range of issues from global warming and international politics to arboreal ecology and biodiversity loss. Following their high-profile Radical Action Reaction at COP21 last year and this year’s large-scale exhibition and architectural work at the University of Cambridge, Fred Carter caught up with Harvey and Ackroyd at their Surrey studio to discuss what it means to be an artist in the midst of environmental crisis.
FRED: I first came across your work in relation to the Cape Farewell Project way back in the early 2000s, which highlighted the threats to polar ecosystems and Arctic ice. But I think the way we talk about climate change has changed a lot since then. What do you think has changed in our relationship with climate science and the challenges to representation that face environmental art?
HEATHER: Well, what was then called the greenhouse effect just kind of pinned itself into my consciousness in 1988. That was the very first time that James E. Hansen, who at the time was the leading atmospheric scientist working for NASA, popped his head up above the parapet and said that we’ve got a major problem going on here. He said I am 99% sure that it’s because of the fact that humankind is burning so much fossil fuel. So this is always within my consciousness.
I think from a very early point meeting Dan, our work was going on in urban spaces and in found spaces. It could have been a disused domestic property or disused factory spaces and we would bring these dynamic materials into them: water, mud, germination, fire, mould, and sprouting elements. So we’d act upon these architectural carcasses and bring in these disruptive materials that we would then shape and create quite formally and aesthetically to make these pieces.
Implanted Spirit, 1991
Our work in a way was always addressing this edge, these precipices where the urban stakes claim, takes away, or erases nature. Where it takes away an orchard or takes away a garden or takes away a field or an overgrown parking lot and places in the bricks. But we just felt there was this incredible vulnerability to it. Going to places like Australia and working on the west coast in Perth, where you felt all of this colonisation which seemed very European, you saw all of these houses with their patch of grass and water sprinklers throwing water all over the place… and yet it was on desert.
DAN: It was a thin veneer of civilisation and of Europeanization.
HEATHER: You felt as though if you were a giant you could just take a palette knife and just scrape it all away and just flick it away. It felt just superficial in some way. It was that sense of tenuousness; that humanity holds its place by threads of existence at times.
So I think when we first went up with Cape Farewell to the high Arctic we were kind of enthralled and inspired and found the whole experience very profoundly moving. In a way, out of that experience came this very large piece of work that we just showed at the David Attenborough building called Stranded, where we were working with the carcass of a whale.
DAN: The whale was always one of those iconic creatures, I suppose a bit like the polar bear in some ways, and the idea was to try and get hold of a carcass and to subvert and do this chemical process on it.
But I think what I’ve found interesting since 2003, when I first went up to Svalbard with the Cape Farewell project, was that you got a feeling that actually information was getting out there and people did start to believe the story of climate change. Then suddenly there was this movement back again. Channel Four did a program called The Great Climate Change Swindle and that did so much damage. I think there are still people who believe that. There’s so much denial still going on and yet it’s so stupid because it could be so easy to actually switch now, the technologies are there. Everything is there but we’re still being led by this because the power is still in the hands of the mad men.
HEATHER: I think now what we’ve realised through all our reading and all our interactions is that even though the physics and the science of climate change is actually relatively straightforward, the political and economic machinations are huge. It plays out on so many levels to do with monopolies of power and deliberate attempts to vandalise the science. Absolutely calculated attempts to introduce chaos and confusion into the thinking. And that happened very early on. After James E. Hansen made his statement that generated all manner of revolt from the corporate ranks and from the fossil fuel industry. They sensed danger and they reacted in a very calculated and intellectually corrupt way. And that’s still playing out.
My thinking now is to ask what kind of work do we make that really has resonance and is doing something more than awakening. I think the communications in and around climate change were done very effectively by the cultural sector many years ago. We’re in a different situation now and I have to really work out how to use our artistry, our understanding, and our perception to best effect. And we did a big piece in Paris…
FRED: Yes, I wanted to ask about that as well. There’s a general trend that I can see in your work from those very domestic spaces to begin with – houses, churches, chairs – towards a more political stage. And in fact the piece in Paris at COP21 was a stage in itself. Do you think your work has changed in response to that changing space?
HEATHER: I think Dan and I have always been very adaptive in the way we work and, in a way, the found space gave us an autonomy in a way that the gallery couldn’t. The exterior space, again, gives us access to the accidental audience.
DAN: Yes, you’re not really tied to the elite or to the people who always go to galleries. In a found space people are curious to see it because they’ve walked past it and it’s always been boarded up and in a public space you’re just confronted straight away with it. So immediately you have a much larger audience.
Radical Action Reaction, 2015
FRED: So do you see something like Radical Action Reaction to be a public piece of art in a similar sense to one of the early found spaces?
HEATHER: Yes because if you do something inside, even if the door is open, there’s still that metaphorical threshold. Somebody has to make that decision to go through the doorway. If you do something in a public space like the Botanic Garden [in Cambridge] then you’ve got people running, you’ve got children, and suddenly they’re going “what’s that?”
DAN: So you sort of hook them in. One of the beautiful things about the living medium of grass is that it has a vibrancy and a colour to it that you know instinctively isn’t synthetic and when it’s grown like the curtains we used in Radical Action Reaction it is really quite lush, quite sensual.
HEATHER: We wanted to bring our dark arts. We wanted to bring something tantalisingly sensual and seductive, so beautiful so that people would go “what’s that?” Because they were quietly enthralled with the piece and they were realising that it was living grass, they then stopped and read what was being said. I’ve never seen so many people sit and read. It was just great because what we did was that we caught their attention and their curiosity.
Actually, at that point we were framing the tree within that urban setting and saying that we need to plant our cities, following Joseph Beuys, and that we have to make our cities as green and forest-like as we can on every level.
FRED: It’s interesting that you mention Joseph Beuys. His idea of the gezamkunstwerk sees the artwork as something interactive – a social sculpture – and some of your pieces really necessitate engagement. In Seeing Red… Overdrawn, for example, the act of writing on the artwork is a very powerful thing and a way of engaging with scientific knowledge and Latin names in a way that we don’t normally in museums. Is that something conscious?
DAN: Well over the years we’ve used the IUCN Red List of critically endangered animals quite a lot, but when you look at the list like that on a computer you might only get 20 names or something up on your screen. There were 4,734 when we downloaded it and had it printed. When you actually stand in front of a three metre by seven metre wall with those names on, even if you’ve been standing in front of it for a week, you still see new names coming out. There’s something about the scale of that piece that meant that even though there was a lot of information there, you could sort of access it all at once visually which I think is something that you couldn’t do in a book or on a computer screen. It was like a huge war memorial and yet each name wasn’t a name of a person, it was an entire species. I think when you understand that, it really hits home.
We had very good invigilators with iPads looking up the species and things so that there was also this interaction with the public.
Seeing Red… Overdrawn, 2016
HEATHER: If someone said “what is that? I love the Latin but what is that?” then we could find out for you, so that became quite interactive as well.
DAN: And on the performance side of it too, you had to wear white cotton gloves before you were given the pen so you took it seriously and then maybe you had to climb the ladder to reach one at the top. I think it was a very successful piece in the end.
HEATHER: But it came through quite late. We had a meeting with Tim Cluttenbrock, who works in the zoology department, very early on in our R&D phase and he struck the table and said; “what are you going to do about the fact that it’s five to midnight on the planet?” That just stayed with us and I kept saying to Dan “I just don’t think we’ve got our five-to-midnight piece yet.” Then that piece just kind of punched through.
DAN: It’s certainly a piece we’d like to do again… the list is already much longer.
FRED: Absolutely. Do you feel a “five-minutes-to-midnight” sense of immediacy in your work now that maybe you didn’t before?
HEATHER: Yes… but I think for me a lot of it is just about tempering the anxiety. I think it’s been there for a long, long while and I just think it’s increasing. I just read a George Monbiot article online where he’s saying that unless we just do not draw up to the surface what’s there in reserves, then we’re not going to hold to the Paris Agreement figure of 1.5 degrees. We’ve also got the whole lag in the system still to play out. A lot of people I’ve met say that we passed 1.5 degrees probably about 8 years ago. I can feel the stomach tightening but I don’t wish to get depressed. I’d rather use the anger and the anxiety to creative effect, I’d rather turn it into something visible, visual, and aesthetic. I’d rather channel the emotion into that.
Yet we don’t want to hit people with it. With the Cambridge piece, we were actually working on eight different pieces in tandem. It’s like an orchestration. So you may have one piece that’s slightly more “in-your-face” or “activist” and some other pieces that are really more nuanced, very subtle and, very poetic although they may allude to various crises. The exhibition in the Attenborough building was like that. We had Stranded alongside The Polar Diamond and the IUCN Red List, then the light boxes for the spirits and the trees. So there were many different levels to it and many different emotions. It’s orchestration at times.
Spirit + Conflicted Seeds, 2016
FRED: Something that struck me in your work is that so much of it is to do with preserving, as well as memorialising. The Spirit piece uses this very antiquated way of preserving and a lot of your early work with research into grass is concerned with how to preserve and how to keep things. Is there a sense of not mourning a loss but of trying to retain something?
HEATHER: Actually we’re working at the moment on a project to do with Ash Dieback disease and Ash conservation.
DAN: The brief is to celebrate the Ash but when you go round these forests in Kent where 80 percent of the trees were Ash, out of that 80 percent are dead already and now, once you start to see it you see it everywhere. It’s really shocking. It’s really hard to actually celebrate a tree when you know that you’re losing it all the time.
I think with this work about trying to preserve and conserve, so much of our work has been ephemeral that possibly now in our work with the trees and so on there’s a lot more longevity to them. They’re going to improve with time, provided the trees stay healthy. There are certain trees that actually have the possibility to be immortal, to live forever. It’s only exterior things that will kill them. That, to me, is really intriguing. There’s a lot, too, that we’re still learning about trees and I find that really fascinating. That’s perhaps one of the reasons we’ve started working with trees is that they are going to be around a lot longer than we are, for one thing, whereas a lot of the grass works were impermanent.
The first grass works, the exterior pieces not the photosynthesis works, they very much go through a process of growing, changing, and finally decaying, being stripped back. With the photographic work there has always been that thing with the fleeting image and trying to fix the image, a bit like the early black and white photographers. I think that’s why we really pushed to keep photos for longer and, with the chlorophyll in the grass we use now, we can keep them provided they have a low light level. If you put them in stronger sunlight they would fade within a week or so because it’s a natural pigment, the chlorophyll. We do live in an unstable world.
HEATHER: It is that thing about bringing stability into a situation. I don’t see stability as being somehow boring or status quo. You have to work at stability, in a way. It’s not a given. Going back to how they used to preserve the museum specimens, it’s amazing how you can still see this creature that was killed around 120 years ago. It’s amazing that it’s all still there, it’s all preserved.
FRED: I was really interested in something you’d written in Signs of Life, you said you’d been interested first in the arcane arts and the folklore of grass, before you got into the scientific rigour. I wondered how you saw that develop in your work or what was the tension between these sacral spaces of the church and the more rationalistic, scientific side?
HEATHER: Well that’s the beauty of being an artist and not a scientist, you can get it all in! Actually the other project we’re working on is with an organisation called ArtAkt, it’s being curated by Marina Wallace who is also curating an exhibition that will be at the Ashmolean in Oxford called Spellbound: Magical Thinking Past and Present. We’re working specifically with Sophie Paige, who is a senior historian at University College of London, and her specialist area is medieval cosmology. So we are now steeping ourselves in magic and astrology. I’m reading C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image right now and you know what, it feels so good to be back! It’s back with the names and the people that I was frequenting and falling asleep with when I was in my twenties when I was reading a lot of stuff about alchemy and magic and Karl Jung.
DAN: It’s interesting to really understand what it was like in medieval Britain and the way the mind worked then because it’s very different from the way we see the world now. There have been enormous shifts in perception and yet we still believe in a type of magic. If you ask someone for their wedding ring and say that you can replace it with an exactly identical copy, they’ll want their wedding ring back because they believe it’s imbued with something.
HEATHER: In a way I think we tend to ascribe a certain logic and rationality but actually it’s not working like that. I keep thinking that I’m kidding myself to think that politics is logical and rational. It’s not about that.
At the moment we’ve not quite found the right form for it yet but I’m thinking you almost need something like a post-Dadaist response to what’s happening now. It’s just so absurd. I cannot take Boris Johnson seriously, I cannot take Trump seriously. It’s just absurd. It sickens me.
The Dadaists were brilliant, their response to the atrocities of the First World War was brilliant. They said; “how do we begin to make sense of this, you cannot make sense of it.” I feel a little bit like that at the moment, you know. It’s coming at it from the flank, highly lateral and subversive. I want to dig deep, to disappear and come up; to draw those arcane arts back into it.
7000 Oaks, 2014
FRED: Finally, I hear you’re also about to do a TedX talk together, which is a new kind of format for you. It’s a very short 20 minutes, so if someone could take away one thing what should it be?
HEATHER: I don’t know, I think something we will definitely talk about is how the haem molecule, in the blood, and the structure of the chlorophyll molecule are incredibly similar. It’s old knowledge for us on some levels but I think we need to understand we are of nature. We’re not superior, we’re not an advanced life form; we are of nature. And we need to find within us the guardianship and the custodianship that comes with it.
But we’ve got to pick it right, because anyone can just say, “that’s bloody worthy innit!”
DAN: I think the thing is, though, that everything is interconnected and we are part of everything. We can all make a difference. It’s not being worthy, really, it’s just being aware.
HEATHER: Yet still, in a way, that rhetoric is easy. You can use words to get everyone going “yes, yes, yes!” But I don’t think I’m going to go for a single point or a single message, I’m going to go for a chain because that’s how my brain works anyway. I think for me it’s slightly more elusive and I think I probably work more through an agency of charm and incantation… and whatever we put in their drinks!
Fred: I’m looking forward to it! Thank you for your time guys.