‘Hydro – Solar – Wind’ – Interview with artist Sarah Calmus
by Emma Thomson
‘Hydro – Solar – Wind’ – Interview with artist Sarah Calmus
The second artist from the exhibition that I am writing an article about is Sarah Calmus.
Sarah’s work at the exhibition was called ‘Hydro – Solar – Wind’ (2020), a video piece that incorporated data on renewable energy. Blocks of colour, which formed the essence of the video, appeared on the screen, and eventually merged to create images. The most interesting part of Sarah’s piece was the abstractness of the whole work and the concept behind it. It showed that you don’t necessarily need to create a literal piece for it to have an impact. Sarah’s work pushes the boundaries between disciplines and mediums.
I have conducted an interview with Sarah to find out more about her practice and work. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
How did you come up with the idea for your video?
I was approached by Mella Shaw, the curator of the exhibition, to build a commissioned video piece. I think this was before the pandemic, in January 2020 or around about then. It was her idea to invite me to work responding to the themes of sustainable energy and looking at renewables, and she wanted me to make three films as a triptych. At that time, we weren’t sure how it was going to be shown. Originally, for quite a while, I thought it might be three actual separate films on three separate screens as I normally work more with projection outside of screens. Therefore, in my head, I thought I could merge all three as projections. The film sort of changed a little bit because I had a lot more time to think about it due to the fact that the exhibition kept getting pushed back because of the pandemic.
In terms of the process and how the video took shape, I recently went to a self-funded artist’s residency to Cove Park, which is this space on the West Coast of Scotland. During the residency, I became interested in layering and using different levels. It was really near where the Ministry of Defence is situated so I started playing around with data and looking at sonar data. As I was thinking about data, I started to change numbers into graphs, and the graphs into coloured codes. I then projected them, turned this into film and abstracted it. Mellow Shaw saw this and really liked it so she asked me if I could repeat the process with different data. So it was a combination of these two things that formed the creation of the video.
Did you collect the data yourself or use already available data?
I used already available data. It took quite a while actually to find what I wanted to find, even though it’s public information as every website that I found would redirect me to another website. I eventually found information on the Scottish Government and the UK Government website about renewables, but I ended up just using information from the UK Government website as they collect data from each of the four nations in the UK. The stats that I found on the UK Government website, from 2011 to 2020 and on a quarterly basis, were very specific so I just used as much as I could.
There was so much work that went into gathering the data and making graphs that you can’t see in the final film. I also had to do some maths. One of the categories was wind and for this, you have both onshore and offshore wind. As a result, I just added them up. The only thing you can see in the final film is blobs of colour which is nice in a way, however, I feel it has become a bit too abstracted. Therefore, I may make prints of the graphs so that you can see some of the data a bit more.
How did you interpret the data?
I knew from the offset that I would be just doing a very simple thing where I’d be gathering the numbers and then building graphs, but I didn’t know how to do it. That took me the longest because I processed it by copying it out onto a spreadsheet, but then I had to figure out what I wanted to say because it just downloaded all the information so I needed to simplify it. I did this by making four columns, one for each quarter of the year, which showed the total renewables added together. That would fluctuate and go down, so you can sort of see that in the beginning; that there’s something going on.
I made three films and all the graphs have the same format, which is that there’s a graph per quarter. Two of the most important concepts for the films were that they were abstracted and that you saw some level going up and down to create a sense that there was energy. It was also really important for me that the numbers were going to turn into blocks of colour really quickly to get people to understand that something is happening in the films.
Where do you get your inspiration from or what inspires your work?
I get a lot of my inspiration from my peers, such as fellow Scottish artists and young women artists. One artist that I like is Jane Detainee, who’s a sound engineer. She works with touring musicians for concerts and festivals. I don’t really notice people in boxes so I see what she’s doing as a whole art form, her work is great even though it’s invisible because she’s sort of managing things and it’s about sound. I also find the fact that what she’s doing is in a male-dominated industry so inspiring. I’m inspired by women who, visually with art, are working across disciplines.
Another artist who I think is amazing is Katie Paterson. She’s got an exhibition that’s just opened in Ingleby and her work is incredible because it’s all science-based. For one of her projects, she collected moon dust, which I think is kind of romantic but quite scientific.
I’m also inspired by the fact that art can change things and using art as a way of getting people to have a discussion. What’s important to me is that I’m trying to make work that anyone can encounter and take something from. You don’t necessarily have to know what the artwork means, you can just get an energy or a bit of hope. Or maybe you take something quite gritty from it, which is what I want people to take away from the film – that there’s potential, but we’re not quite there yet. I also want people to have an emotional reaction when they see my work and to have an experience when they get inside the installations. It’s important that the experience is between them and the work and not necessarily about what I’m trying to say with my work. I’m just trying to make space for people.
Are there any themes in particular that you explore in your work?
I’m currently trying to move away from passive art to participatory art and trying to make spaces that anyone can encounter. I want the work to react to them so that they’re not just a viewer but they’re active participants. I’m learning how to program so that I can build triggers, that when you walk up to a sculpture, create a reaction such as the light changing shape or intensity, or the sound responding to people. For example, if somebody with autism went into the room, and touched something gently it’ll make a gentle sound. Whereas if a child goes in and whacks it, it will make a loud sound. So I’m trying to build things that are sensitive to people.
Then with my music, it’s a bit more about me. My music is also quite experiential, and it’s about a feeling or trying to get a reaction out of people. I’m also trying to figure out how the two things go together so that I can create art and music that is sensitive to people and that everyone can enjoy and participate in.
Are there any aspects of your work that you find challenging?
One aspect of my work that I find challenging is that I’m from a low-income background. About 16% of people who work in the arts are from low-income backgrounds. So it’s quite difficult to get enough momentum to keep going. I feel like I’ve sort of had to make a lot of choices which haven’t been the best for me living a healthy lifestyle because you’re trying to make sure you have enough money to do your work. An example of this would be the Cove Park residency, which I nearly didn’t go to because I was deep into my overdraft with practically no savings and I was doing freelancing. I asked myself, do I go to this residency and just eat potatoes for a few months once I come back or do I have enough money to buy food? I ended up going to the residency. So I think what I find difficult is the climate of being able to sustain yourself as the barrier for me is money.
As I know what this is like, I try wherever possible in my creative director and volunteer positions, to make sure that everyone is paid properly. When you’re organising and developing things such as residencies or exhibitions, you need to make sure you give artists a fee, otherwise, they’re gonna lose work. I feel that if we don’t lift each other up, we’re not going to move forward. If you’ve never had to live like this then you don’t really feel the impact of what being a working-class artist is like, and that’s why things never change because you’re sort of oblivious to other people’s struggles. However it’s definitely an ongoing part of what I have to experience and even though I face this barrier, I’m committed to working in the creative industry.
How do you hope to inspire people with your art?
I hope to inspire people with my art by encouraging people to connect with each other. The main thing that I try to do with my art is ensuring they have an experience. With Capitalism, I feel like life’s always a bit full-on when you’re running from thing to thing and you don’t really have time to slow down. With the film, it’s not necessarily about what the film is trying to say, I just want people to take five minutes, where they can just let go and be. If we evolve our lives around running around then how can we ever bring our best selves to society to change things? So if I can I’d like to give people a breather, to laugh or cry or experience whatever emotion. I think that’s the main takeaway.
With the project being part of the exhibition as a whole, it’s about what we can do to improve things and make them better, and showing amazing processes and techniques. It’s also about the amazing way you can reuse, recycle and up-cycle things, which is genuinely inspiring. I’m interested in getting messages like that across, where people just have space to think about things. Although I’m not trying to tell anybody anything in particular. I’m just putting things there so that people can take away what they want to and if they want to go on the website and find extra information they can, but they don’t have to. That it’s not the important part here.
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