Brown leaves dance around my feet as I make my way towards the Signal Film and Media building in Barrow-in-Furness to visit its recent immersive installation Nebula (12 Oct-3 Nov). It’s blowing a hooley and I’m swept along by a northerly breeze that ushers me in off the street directly into a large, exposed brick exhibition space. The air is filled with the excited sounds of children playing and a squall of white, papery confetti. The transition from outdoors to indoors is congruous, as if I’ve entered a climatic chamber, where the scientific effect is heightened by the issuing of a pair of white, disposable overshoes.
The confetti is everywhere; ankle-deep and wall-to-wall. In the center of the space, nine floor fans are arranged in a large circle within which a number of children are gathering and hurling great armloads of the fluttering paper fragments; their movements activating the motion-sensored fans which whir into life and scatter the feather-light flakes into a blizzard. The piece, commissioned by Signal Film and Media, is part of its digital arts programme Platform and is the work of LAB212 – an art and technology collective based in France. Emerging as a response to a short residency in Barrow, the artists considered the impact of the weather on the area’s natural resources and reflected on global connections between environmental forces and the trail of human industry. Like most coastal towns the wind is a constant element; evidenced by the rows of turbines, blades turning like clock hands, some miles out in the Irish Sea and which represent the world’s largest collection of offshore windfarms.
The installation is primarily experiential, encouraging the viewer to engage physically with the material. As I walk within the circle – my presence sufficient to trigger an effect – invisible currents of air eddy and stir, drawing attention to the exchanges between things and how I have an impact on the world around me. Becoming immersed within this fluid landscape, I’m reminded of the interconnectedness between the winds that shape the earth’s surfaces; how trade winds influence the ocean’s currents that in turn guide the flow of marine life and ships around the globe. Everything becomes inter-relational and transformative; we are all part of a commonality of atoms that constitutes the universe, merging and transmuting like molecules or matter in a nebula. I think of a gesture as subtle as a breath causing whorls of motes to float and settle, settle and float, and wonder what trace are we, as humans, leaving behind as we destroy our forests for agriculture, frack our lands and pollute our cities?
Contextually, Nebula draws its influences from both local and global interactions, and the impact human endeavour has on the earth’s natural systems. There is a sense of the micro and the macro; the transient, impermanent nature of matter represented by the restless dispersal of particle-like material. Facing current environmental uncertainty means acknowledging the duality between culture and the natural world, and Nebula addresses these underlying themes while encouraging the audience to ‘play’ within the artwork in an instinctive, elemental way.