Cycles, construction and continuum

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Continuum – Mixed Media (cast concrete, iron cog and construction waste)

The building of the new ‘m-sparc’ Menai Science Park on Anglesey in 2017 was all about the spirit of innovation and ambition.

Running alongside the main construction project, several projects were offered to art practitioners in the area, and I was lucky enough to be offered one of these with my new collaborator Becky Colley-Jones.

The idea of the Tanio ‘ignite’ project was to take a creative and innovative look at the materials that are discarded in the construction process. Becky’s professional standing as a ‘Circular Economy’ specialist with particular experience in the construction industry, and my reputation as the ScrapYardQueen working with other people’s discarded materials were an ideal combination.

We spent time over the next few months resident on the building site, getting to know the building, processes, materials and of course the construction team. I particularly enjoyed this aspect of it as I think initially the more traditional staff on site weren’t sure about having an artist around (!) but they soon realised that I respected them, understood a good bit about materials and construction (it helps that I am qualified welder) and that we could have a laugh. I am sure they still found it odd that I spent so much time looking in the skips tho!

I created a huge catalogue of materials, discussed the waste management policies of the site with their excellent site manager David, and started to focus in on materials that presented particular challenges or opportunities.

Whilst the scraps of material in the skips were of interest to me, and I collected all sorts to take back to my workshop and experiment with, the thing I was most struck by was the inherent wastage in the way that concrete is used on a building site. Typically, concrete is brought to site in the big churning ‘readymix’ trucks, and poured wherever it is needed I.e. floors, steps, platforms. In one way this outsourcing is quite efficient but the issue is in needing to order quantities in multiples of 4 cubic metres – which is quite a coarse measure. Those who specify the quantities to be ordered will already build in a margin, so by the time you have worked to the next increment of volume, there is potentially a large number of cubic metres spare. The real problem with concrete of course is that you can’t keep it for another day, it ‘goes off’ so anything not used would have to be dumped, set, and just be broken up and usually used as filler or hardcore elsewhere on site. In this way it can at least be used, but given the high environmental cost of producing concrete this does not represent value or wisdom.

So, I decide that I wanted to investigate what I could do with concrete. I started making moulds out of the timber in the timber skip (that had often already been used to ‘shutter’ poured concrete) and when concrete was arriving on site I would arrange the moulds, and use other found objects to create small castings. I also experimented with embedding other waste products into them.

On concrete pouring days I would have a little work area set up and ready to go and a couple of the construction guys helping me out, making sure everything was safe and teaching me how to get the best, clean castings. I really appreciated their time and patience in sharing their knowledge with me. I think they enjoyed thinking about things differently and seemed open to both artistic and environmental perspectives.

We concluded that in an ideal world, the construction industry would embed a parallel creative process to minimise wastage and possibly create additional benefit for the community if something could be produced that they needed.

Alongside these activities, Becky and I were going in to the local tech college and running sessions with the BTEC construction students. We took them on a site visit, discussed how materials are made, used and why they are discarded. We got them thinking about designing waste out of the process, and challenged assumptions about re-use. We also gave them an opportunity to do their own creative making session with material samples.

We were working with the building while it was at the ‘superstructure’ stage which meant there was a lot of concrete, timber, plastic and metalwork. At the later ‘fit out’ stage this profile would shift towards fixtures, electricals and paint, and it would present a whole different set of challenges. It is interesting to consider what would happen if this project were to run for the whole construction cycle of the building, and even beyond. Becky and I had ideas that you could create an evolving land-art piece or outdoor sculpture that grew as the building did, and represent in an almost geological way the passage of time and the layers of material deposited as they are discarded, in the way that actual geological sediments are created, and would be visible if you sliced through a landfill site. In other words, creating an artwork based on the new Geological concept of the Anthropocene.

other work in the ‘Tanio’ project series

Although we were not able to work on this scale, it influenced how I went about creating the final pieces for this project. We took the geological concept and I created a series of samples, sections and cores, with a nod to the language of the geologist or civil engineer. Finally, I created a piece called Continuum, which also incorporated a beautiful iron cog from the workings of the mill that had previously been on the site, and to me it was  pertinent to the project and the building as a comment on both changing technology and life cycles of materials.

The project was showcased at the National Eisteddfod this year (2017), simultaneously on display in the Art space and the research aspect of it being demonstrating by us in the Science tent.

Becky and I are hoping to collaborate again in the future.

on the construction site… photo credits Iolo Penri

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