'Visual art is about the communication of ideas, and I think it's important to remember that art doesn't finish in the art galleries, art is everywhere.'
Students' Union [SU]: Sustainability is quite a heavy word, and lots of people have different ideas about what it means. What do you think sustainability means?
Lissie Cowley [LC]: I agree that it is a heavy word, and it is also a buzz word. ‘Sustainability’ is something that is frequently mentioned, but rarely understood in a wider context. We are living in the age of the Anthropocene, the first age when global changes can be attributed to human activity. We are past the point of no return. The whole reason we have this word ‘sustainability’ is because now we consume the equivalent of 1.7 planets rather than the 1 that we have. This puts an unbelievable amount of strain not only on the environment but all its inhabitants, and repercussions are felt universally. Hunger, draught, floods, overcrowding, disease, crop failure, war. Yes, it stems from the need for responsible use of environmental resources; everything from food to fuel. As well this, sustainability covers the preservation and creation of better infrastructure; socially, medically, governmental, how we use and generate energy, agriculturally, travel and transport, the list goes on. I think sustainability has to start at home, because otherwise it won’t start at all. Small changes to lifestyle can serve as a ripple effect to the wider community, providing it is simple and easy to do so. The problem is that we exist in such an egocentric era of consumables and capitalism, that it is often more expensive and time consuming to make sustainable choices. There is a famous quote from the 1987 Brundtland report: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 1987, The Brundtland Report, United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) That was exactly 30 years ago, and we still haven’t achieved that goal.
SU: Do you think it’s important for sustainability to be a part of the conversation at College, and why?
LC: Speaking from my own experience, the environment which we study in, and the staff who guide us, directly influence the choices we make. In 2016, LCA hosted their first Sustainability symposium, which was open to students and staff to come together and join the discussion. I met some very interesting people who were investing their creative energy into worthy causes. I felt so elated after it because I no longer felt alone with the things that I care about! Hopefully there will be many more like it and they will become more popular as the conversation grows, because I’d really love other students to get that spark of excitement that I did. With the college, I think there are always ways to improve. Controversial as it may sound, I would like to see all admin, module information and research files go paperless one day soon! Plus there’s other things like the constant refurbishments, or the disposal of chemical contaminated water, the sale or supply of products that are unsustainable, or the computers being left on overnight which make me question how environmentally conscious the college actually is. It’s understandable that these things happen, because often no-one regards it as a problem if that’s what they’re used to. So my answer to this is yes. The conversation is a just whisper, we’re going to have to talk a little louder for them to hear us!
SU: Can you tell me a bit about this project you’ve done?
LC: My work is an unconventional interpretation of landscape. My current installation is based on an imaginary narrative between me and my father, interwoven with subtle environmental messages. It’s a combination of sculpture, light and sound that will be completely transient. Gone without a trace. The sculptural pieces are all made from unfired clay, with the idea that they will eventually crumble and return to the environment from which they came from. I will then project my photography onto them, and I have also made a soundscape from recordings that I made in Iceland combined with an improvisational piano piece. This piece is for the degree show and it came from the idea of ‘setting up camp’ somewhere in the great outdoors, so I have clay sleeping mats, various flasks, a Trangia cooker set, a map, a compass, binoculars, a camera, a water bottle. After a residency in Iceland last June, I became interested in the Tourism industry’s shameless sell of Iceland as a ‘wilderness’ place. The truth is, Iceland receives more that 1 million tourists a year, and they only have a native population of roughly a third of that. Iceland is still a place of majestic beauty, but it has suffered from too many tourists crowding the sights and subsequently the once ‘sublime’ landscape has been altered with the building of roads, carparks, paths, hotels, kiosks and visitor centres. When I returned from Iceland, myself having participated in said tourism, I discovered that my father had been there in 1969 on a school trip, and had taken photos which were on 35mm projector slides. There was so much contrast in our experiences. He had got there on an overnight ferry, I had got there on a two hour flight, he had camped everywhere he went, I stayed in hostels, he didn’t meet anyone who spoke English, I spoke to everyone in English. This provoked me to begin a photographic series, where I artificially combined my photography with that of my father’s to create double exposures that illustrate the differences as time has passed.
SU: Working on this project, is there anything that gave you a new insight into sustainability or sustainable practices?
LC: The combination of Analogue and Digital photography triggered an idea to create things in a digital way, so that my art that left no physical trace. Often art can be a very wasteful business to be in, it’s also very trial and error so can lead to a lot of materials getting wasted whilst you are experimenting. So, I started using projection to bring things to life, and making art in the form of GIFs, designed to be viewed on screen. The Anthropocene era for me is characterised by our veracious use of technology, and as a millennial I thought it was fitting for me to explore these new methods of creating art to minimise waste. My dissertation discussed how control and colonisation of the landscape had altered the experience of the wilderness for the modern visitor. Emmanuel Kant’s philosophies on the natural Sublime and Romantic landscape painting of Casper David Friedrich were contrasted with modern Icelandic Art by those such as Icelandic Love Corporation and Pétur Thomsen. Obviously I’m not going to advocate flying to a different country to get your research, but my Icelandic residency really did open my eyes and allowed me to tap into the contemporary art scene over there, which is very environmentalist. A fresh look at things can be what triggers your most exciting project. Fine Art can often be self-indulgent and uninviting to the wider public, so the key with art is to use it in a positive way to make people really think about important issues without being too ‘in your face’.