Art, nature and energy efficiency

As an organisation that looks to both nature and digital technology for creative solutions we often call upon our Education Coordinator, artist and tech-wizard Stuart Moore for answers. Stuart articulates that “It’s easy to think of tech and nature as very different or that tech is the antithesis or adversary of nature – but I think that there is no true separation between them.”

The Oak, Heywood & Condie, 2023. Photo Elizabeth Blackie

This proved to be the case for a number of interventions in our recent Ways of knowing exhibition at Brixworth Country Park. Heywood and Condie’s The Oak was a life size replica oak tree that would mark human time with the sound of a ticking clock and chime when informed of trees being felled by tree surgeons elsewhere in the country. Sound works by various artists for Counterpoint were to be made available for the public to listen to in a listening circle at the top of the park. Solutions to both of these Stuart, informed us were, “Not too tricky” – except this was all outdoors, in a large park, away from power and wifi, and had to run as close to intervention-free as possible for three months. “The most important issue is energy. With no supply, the devices had to take all they needed with them and use it very wisely.”

Stuart explains, “For The Oak the most energy expensive and thus difficult part was the tick. Each tick was created by a tiny impulse of energy 1/100th of a second long. The tricky part is that those little fractions of a second add up! That’s 3600 impulses in an hour, around 86 thousand per day, two and a half million a month, 7.7 billion over the course of the installation.”

The solution was tiny pulses were sent to a speaker that was embedded in a drum within the tree. The resonance of the drum made the sound appear louder and longer. The pulse and resonator is a very popular trick in nature and used by many creatures from birds to frogs to grasshoppers to make sounds in order to communicate at a distance – these are known as pulse-resonance sounds.

The ability of electronics to be extremely efficient (and in that sense very eco positive) was an essential part of making it possible. Stuart’s system was close to one hundred times more energy efficient than a ticking mechanical clock would have been. “It’s easy to understand this if you think about trying to wind a mechanical clock once and needing it to run for a quarter of a year…”

An interesting trade-off from making the system so energy efficient was that it necessarily became much more responsive to its environment. “When the energy in the system is so small and fragile, it becomes obvious that it is only a tiny piece borrowed from the rest of the world, in no way separate from everything around it. Everything that happens has some effect and an example is this clock ticked a little faster when the air was damp.”

Counterpoint, various artists, 2023. Photo Elizabeth Blackie

The sound art playback devices for Counterpoint also had to be very energy efficient. Stuart explains, “the devices lot in life were to be sealed into a cavity in a wooden post for the duration of the installation. When they were placed into their posts, the devices took with them a store of energy of about twelve calories. They held this in a battery but is equivalent to taking with them a store of around four peanuts. This resource ideally had to last them the whole three months. That’s a fair bit better energy efficiency than a hibernating snake. A small colony of ants might use around the same amount of energy over the same timescale, though they would get quite a bit more work done to show for it!”

In order to house the devices and adapting to user feedback from the initial installation Stuart designed and 3D printed many of the parts, adding “While this is a wonderfully empowering way of getting stuff done, the typical plastic used in 3D printing is made from corn starch and is both endlessly recyclable and bio-degradable.”

We’ve been using the Venn diagram below to describe Fermynwoods Contemporary Art, with a typical project featuring most or often all of the four sectors. Interestingly, we have found some provocation from the inclusion of digital alongside the environmental. Through working with and listening to artists like Stuart Moore, we have shuffled these overlapping circles around so digital and environment are no longer in opposition.

Stuart Moore is Education Coordinator for Fermynwoods Contemporary Art, having taught in secondary and post sixteen phases. Stuart is a sound artist / microtonal composer that works closely with technology. His work explores the relationship between experience of the involuntary soundscape and purposeful human composition, by way of studying the roots of the perception of music. Stuart’s work is driven by his belief that sound is the most direct expression of human feeling.