2021 saw a complete change of direction for Culture Night Belfast, the city's largest free arts event. In part this was in response to continued COVID-19 restrictions and as a response to a review of the event. A large part of the decision to change the format of the event, however, was to reflect the importance of nature and the environment to us all and to raise awareness of the escalating climate emergency. A focus on sustainability has been a key part of Culture Night Belfast for some years, this year we endeavoured not just to encourage audiences to make sustainable choices but to be sustainable as much as possible in the work that we presented.
Instead of the usual city-centre wide open submission, street and venue-based free mixed arts programme, the decision was made to stage a single outdoor-based commissioned art installation with a nature inspired theme and sustainability at its heart.
After a call for submissions we were delighted to award the commission to Gawain Morrison's outdoor installation The Tree Alphabet (later renamed to The Ogham Grove).
The Ogham Grove invited the public to explore our relationship with our native woodland and environment through a totally innovative and spectacular artwork. Taking inspiration from the Celtic Ogham Tree Alphabet a monumental, immersive sculpture was created within Writer’s Square as the centre piece to a trail of cryptic markers distributed throughout the Cathedral Quarter. Natural materials were used in the production of trail markers, and the materials selected, fabricated and recycled were considered through the lenses of sustainability, aesthetics and safety, so that a large public art installation could be delivered to meet the themes.
Before starting we spent a lot of time considering the project from the three directions of aesthetics, sustainability and safety. Some conceptual sessions resulted in wonderful designs and sustainability but wouldn’t have been safe for an artistic structure built in a public space; and the same challenges occurred when viewed through the lens of the other parameters, so it was more difficult than conceptualising a single use structure under non-sustainable parameters.
Also sourcing materials that were suitable was more challenging, especially as it took longer to find suitable materials. Some used materials were unsafe or beyond being recycled, but we still had to journey to them to review their suitability. Both in terms of time to find them and in the cost of journeying to find them this made the project more difficult.
In this process we found out a lot more about materials, and the actuality of the process that had brought them into being, along with how they could be recycled or re-used, so it made for a deeper awareness of materials, and also in local suppliers (or lack of them in some instances). For example, we selected the rolls of HDPE plastic as it is the most environmentally stable of all plastics – giving off no harmful fumes into the environment. Manufacturing HDPE plastics requires only a fraction of the energy required to produce steel from iron ore, further contributing to its classification of being termed eco-friendly.
A large proportion of the selected materials were intercepted in their use-flow, with a one-more-use approach to their end of life, or a return-to-service for some of them. The rest were moved on to new uses, largely in the construction of fencing and furniture, with some of the broken palettes processed so that the lengths and blocks of wood could be used in further construction.
During the project, and mostly once it had opened to the public, we were approached by many Belfast city representatives, from council, business and other organisations, to understand more about the project, the thinking behind it, and in how we approached the sustainability delivery.
We also made sure that in our conversations with members of the public who attended, and in all media and online outreach we explained the goals and aspirations of our approach to sustainability, which was important in opening up the wider discussions around how we, as a society, approach the materials around us, the choices that we make in purchasing them, and ultimately in how we dispose of them or re-use them.
On reflection we would spend more time working on what happens after the structure has completed it’s use. We always knew we would return as much of it to the process flow but didn’t really know how to go about doing this, and so the amount of effort, time and money to make this phase happen was drastically under-estimated. Easy to say, a lot more effort to do. The main issue was having spaces to store all materials.