Not so invisible

Invisible Dust, the sci-art and environment arts organisation have been producing exhibitions, installations, conferences and related cultural events for over a decade. In the aftermath of the UnNatural History exhibition, we talk to its founder and creative director, Alice Sharp.

The 2021 Unnatural History exhibition at the Herbert Gallery, Coventry – Photos and images, unless credited otherwise, Invisible Dust

Alice Sharp

There have not been so many UK exhibitions over the last couple of decades which sought to explore broad environmentally-related themes, while providing a degree of provocation, ideas, and inspiration regarding how the art world is thinking about these themes. When it comes to UnNatural History’s predecessors, the Barbican’s autumn 2009, Radical Nature, is the closest I could dredge up, and indeed was, confirms Invisible Dust’s founder and creative director, Alice Sharp, an influence. Both were public art projects and both arrived in the summer run-up to major COP events: the former shortly prior to the first Copenhagen COP in December 2009, the latter before the recent Glasgow-hosted COP26.

Talking to Sharp on the phone a few weeks after visiting UnNatural History, elements of these issues and points were drawn out during our conversation.

Offshore: Explore the Sea, part of Hull’s City of Culture, 2017

The Coventry exhibition came about after Invisible Dust’s Offshore: Explore the Sea exhibition for the previous City of Culture, Hull, in 2017. Sharp approached the Herbert Museum with the seed of an exhibition idea relating to ‘nature’, in 2019. Positively received, a working relation between Herbert and Invisible Dust began with the Herbert’s curatorial team and Deborah Smith, head of the Arts Council Collection, shortly after – though long before Covid was a dark glimmer on the horizon. The Smith-Herbert connection was due to the museum’s extensive collection of natural history artefacts, numbering over 180,000 pieces, which was to be a core curatorial source to help guide the eventual exhibition. Sharp speaks of UnNatural History exploring “how we study nature”, and the artists enabling new understandings and insights into how we humans look at nature, as well as the relationship between our perception of nature and the future. A starting point and aim, Sharp says, was to “bring something from the collection into the public eye and lead the research into nature”.

Offshore conference, Hull Maritime Museum

Science, and the history of natural science, is at the heart of the exhibition. Close to the beginning of Unnatural History’s chronological narrative, empire and Britain’s colonial legacy, through works by Sonya Schönberger and the young British artist, Frances Disley, are introduced. For Sharp, the overlap between colonial power and the roots of science was obvious, though helped by the discovery that the British explorer Captain James Cook was from a small village near Middleborough, before settling in nearby Whitby – Sharp partially lives in and works from neighbouring Scarborough – for the rest of his life. Uncovering Cook’s antecedents led on to Joseph Banks, the botanist who helped found Kew Gardens and travelled on Captain Cook’s early voyages, before establishing the Natural History Collection, the heart of the British zoological and botanical collections, collecting a colony of species and organising some of the expeditions which then turned up in the exhibition. Another principal source was the book The Great Botanists by Robert Huxley, retired principal curator and research associate at the Natural History Museum. Huxley became directly involved in the project.

Natural cultural poster

The exhibition is less complete than Sharp had originally envisaged. There was to be a greater emphasis on historical work, including a Leonardo print loaned from the British Museum. But with Covid turning the world upside down, and with funding delayed and only finally confirmed in January 2021, this was too late to develop further the historical dimension. Still, the Herbert’s sizable collection provided considerable work to focus on. The Natural History Museum haven’t been directly involved, but the Invisible Dust team have collaborated with Kew Gardens, researching the Garden’s collection of one of the exhibition’s historical artists, Marianne North, and her 800 plus paintings, providing one inspiring starting point. The interlinked theme was just how much of the documenting, drawing, and recording of these distant plant worlds was undertaken by “very adventurous women naturalists who undertook these extremely dangerous journeys…”, returning with these incredible drawings of plants, butterflies, and many other specimens that began to populate the era’s scientific literature and libraries. The work of one of these, Angela Brazil – better known for authoring many popular school girls books -  included, and Sharp would later mail me the name of Maria Sibylla Merian, a seventeenth century Swiss artist and naturalist whose drawings influenced Linnaeus.

Rather surprisingly, UnNatural History, was the first time Sharp had explored the role of ‘nature’ rather than climate change, pollution or related themes to the organisation’s signature art and science focus. “We do a lot of things”, she says in response to my surprise. Look at Invisible Dust’s website and the point is underlined by its list of themes, encompassing Climate Change, Environment, Biodiversity. Air Pollution, Oceans and Surroundings

From a curatorial background, Sharp began working in the science related field in 2008, influenced by the slightly earlier Arts & Ecology RSA programme (which ran between 2005 and 2009), and prior to that the Wellcome Trust’s significant role in helping establish and fund many sci-art projects. What is striking is that, despite the Wellcome Trust Sci-Art programme already winding down in the late noughties (it ran from 1996 to 2005; see the Insight & Exchange evaluation report on its outcomes here) there was at the time, Sharp notes, only one other UK organisation in the arts who occupied a comparable position: Cape Farewell. Where Cape Farewell became known for inviting all sorts of artists and scientists along for schooner-powered climate cruises to the polar edges of melting icebergs which then resulted in all sorts of follow-on projects and programmes – including being memorably turned into Ian McEwen’s novel, Solar – Invisible Dust focused on the less dramatic public arts. There were artists and others in the art firmament who were, she recalls, “quite critical of what I was doing. Are you not instrumentalising ecology and the environment?” they charged Sharp, with the underlying question of social purpose that Invisible Dust’s projects returned to. For Sharp, Invisible Dust was about opening up the discussion: “through the work I do, including climate change. Now there are many more people, addressing these issues”.

Human Sensor, Manchester 2016

This includes many, many more artists. And many artists drawn freshly into the environmental debate, whether climate, ‘nature’, or the particulars of, for instance, air pollution, analogue to the organisation’s title, in projects like Kasia Molga’s Human Sensor, an experimental piece of hi-tech clothing that changed colour depending on the level of air pollution around it, part of Manchester’s 2016 European City of Science programmes. The arrival of environmental issues in the mainstream has meant there is a much larger pool of artists out there for Sharp and Invisible Dust to consider. Indeed, as she points out, not all the artists contributing to UnNatural History are the ‘usual suspects’, resulting in some surprising and refreshing takes on the questions and concerns raised. This also dovetails into issues of who is included? At one end of the spectrum, Tania Kovats, whose environmental preoccupations have meant she has long been identified as an ecological artist, and, if one asks, is representative of the usual suspects. At the other end, there are the likes of Susan Sze or Francis Upritchard.

UnNatural History continues to be worked on; plans are ongoing for adapted versions, including potential new commissions related to various museum natural history collections to be toured in both the UK and internationally, in this and subsequent years. If nothing else, this is after all the age of climate emergency, and the exhibition and whole project is useful in helping bring museums closer to issues around the climate crisis.

Over the same 2021 summer, Invisible Dust also ran Forecast – a post-Covid project aimed at asking one of those vast yet simple questions: what is shaping our view of the future? “It looks at the future and explores it”. The programming included commissioned work by Adam Chodzko, Fei Jun and Hito Steyerl. There have also been closer to home, more regional, including 2019’s ECOde and 2021’s Wild Eye. Both engaged the senses, the former bringing in sound artist, Rob Mackay, and both focused on Scarborough, the latter in collaboration with the Yorkshire Sculpture Trust. Drawing in local communities and young people with audio and sonic arts, Wild Eye focused on an English sea programme, its lens switched towards nature and nature related tourism, dolphins and porpoises rather than traditional candy floss. Most recently, through the second half of the year, Breathe 2022, is a multi-site installation by ‘air pollution scientist artist’ Dryden Goodwin’s still drawings, photography and video, which has appeared across the South London borough of Lewisham.

ECOde participants – photo here and below Esme Mai, courtesy of Invisible Dust

As always, scientists and other non-artist figures are woven into these projects, including the former governmental chief scientific advisor, David King, and psychiatrist, Ian McGilchrist, as well as a link to the Ugandan Arts Trust. At a broader societal level in the aftermath of Covid, scientists, Sharp believes, despite gaining considerably more authority and profile, are having to be even more careful about their public statements, given the polarised level of debate.

“There’s a sense out there, including within the scientific community, of how, because of the level of the crisis, that ‘we must do this, we must do that’”, as the drum beat of responding to climate change strikes ever more frenetically. A serious uptick in apparent certainty comes with a corresponding doubling down on the uncertain. And a demonising of various paths which fall outside the parameters of the allowable.

“Everybody knows it is happening”, she says of climate change. “But how it is actually happening, what is going to happen, what are going to be the effects on us, and on nature” remain for the most part uncertain, she continues, before noting the global butterfly-effect reach of small, seemingly inconsequential changes. After observing how detached the climate debate is from human being’s day-to-day lives, Sharp allows herself some hope. Returning to the UnNatural History exhibition, she alights on the Kew Garden botanist, Rebecca Lazarou: one of the increasing numbers of open, young and dynamic new generation of overwhelmingly female scientists, who want to discuss, be reflexive, and open up the social dimension of science, and in doing so, embody new forms of inspiration. They’re one strand, so too are the rising tide of young women environmental activists inspired by Greta Thunberg’s and her co-souers no compromise environmental stance. This new generation of women, whether activists, scientists and/or activist-scientists, may be getting the attention and limelight, but they stand on the shoulders of elders. Among them is Alice Sharp and Invisible Dust, who have been preparing the ground for approaching fifteen years for the kind of actions, conversations, argument and imagination currently roiling and rippling through the Gen Zedders and twenty-something world, as well as indeed, any number of older compatriots.