Plastic Fantastic…… in memoriam

As I sit typing, in a brand new Premier Inn, on the eve of my Art in Manufacturing residency in Blackburn I can’t help but think of the huge changes witnessed by Queen Victoria during her reign in terms of the 1st Industrial Revolution. Her statue is situated just metres away from the entrance to the hotel and it feels like she’s still surveying the prospects of a town where twice the national average of people are employed in the manufacturing industry. It’s a population facing massive change, on the verge of the 4th Industrial Revolution, where a type of innovate-or-die mentality may soon alter the face of factory-based creation, employment and technology.

It’s against this backdrop that I’m working with MGS Technical Plastics as a project partner heading towards the first ever National Festival of Making (Sat 6 – Sun 7 May 2017). The Art in Manufacturing residency offers an unparalleled opportunity to engage with both heritage, and heritage stories, whilst referencing ‘the future’ in terms of the technology driving the success of the Northern Powerhouse and Blackburn’s contribution to its prosperity.

Post Brexit, facing Climate Change, we find ourselves in incredibly fascinating, complex and unique times in terms of the potential behind our ingenuity regarding industrial processes. Environmentally, echoes abound; we must adapt-or-die in terms of the impacts our actions are having upon the planet. Physical, digital and biological worlds are becoming increasingly co-dependant. Stresses are innately present in a landscape where it’s estimated that during 2015 alone 8 million metric tons of plastic waste entered the oceans from land-based actions.

It is perhaps embedded in this latter statement that the urgency of my practice, and personal responses, create the most pressing questions concerning how the production of plastic can offer solutions to the pollution it creates. I’m keen to explore such acute questions during my residency with MGS Plastics because whilst being a production partner to some of the worlds leading brands they also embody a company ethos of being ‘passionate about reducing their environmental impact and committed to recycling at every opportunity.’ This, to me, introduces some fascinating juxtapositions in terms of the provenance of a material that continues to infiltrate our ecosystems in planned and unexpected ways.

I hope that the residency can develop an embedded series of conversations that references these points in ‘real-time’ whilst raising engaging questions and solutions as well as creating a new Artists Moving Image work and installation.

In term of practice…

I began working with plastic waste in 2007 when I acquired 7500 rejected ice-cream containers for my graduation show. What followed were installations that contained 45,000 plastic bags, 132,000 knives and forks and 3.6 tonnes of post-consumer plastic. Yet my relationship with plastic began as a child as I spent my youth surrounded by the futuristic potential of the material as a ‘wonder substance’ due to the nature of my fathers profession:

Roy Woolston was a senior sales rep within the injection moulding industry in the West Midlands for his entire career and the language of manufacture seems as common to me as nursery rhymes. Up until now one thing has been missing from my story: the opportunity to work, in an embedded way, with industrial leaders within the plastics industry to raise questions regarding globalised sustainability and localised solutions. The opportunity to close-the-loop via arts-based collaborative enquiry.

So tomorrow I begin that journey and I can only say, from the bottom of my heart, that I wish my dear dad was still alive to witness and contribute to my conversations.

This one’s for you Roy xxxxxxxxxxx


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On Friday I spent the morning interviewing staff at MGS Technical Plastics for my film. Three have worked with the company for 26 years, another just 7 weeks. It’s interesting and enlightening to be given access to a manufacturing work-force in this way as it enables me to ‘helicopter’ above the business, to form an overview, whilst drilling-down into details of how it all functions on a human level. Add to this the fact that I was given the creative-space-to-breathe by interviewing them on my own and hopefully we have a series of touching, first-person, narratives captured on film (well digital files at the very least). The resultant Artists Moving Image work will accompany a floor-based installation that contains thousands of waste plastic elements.

Later in the day I spent time and contemplation with some of the machines that fuelled the beginnings of the 1st Industrial Revolution. The Spinning Jenny, designed by local man James Hargreaves in 1764, can be found within Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. Its original function was to increase the amount of yarn a person could spin at once. Its name is likely to be a corruption of the word ‘engine’ and therefore its title literally means an engine for spinning yarn.

Echoes abound within both environments. From manufacturers to museum, they both manifest a desire to increase performance in the name of creating improved products… and greater profits.

Today delivered the Leeds to Liverpool canal, and a section that runs around Blackburn town centre. In its heyday many a mill and factory clung to its arterial life-force for transport and export purposes. The ghosts of such large-scale, revolutionary activity, remain intact. From masonry to metal work via chimneys and company signs. Admittedly I found rusty trolleys (3 in total) and polystyrene food trays to-boot but I also passed families and runners, cyclists and dog walkers. Add to this the sound of ice-cream vans, moorhens and geese plus a Polish telephone conversation and you’ve the makings of a rich, multicultural, audio-scape. A palimpsest if you will, time and trade, layered thick, whilst being densely concurrent.


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Engaging in a detailed way with industrial manufacturing means immersing oneself in a world of language, techniques and processes that are at times utterly surprising.

The products produced in the factory today have ranged from a very high end car manufacturers automotive part to an electrical widget that will no doubt be installed into the homes of millions of domestic customers.

It’s a fascinating and elaborate mix. Some of the items are assembled out of component parts sourced from all over the UK whereas others are stand-alone in nature. From wood rollers to cardboard boxes via high-end, micro-engineered, jigs. Environments such as these, running 24 hour production lines, are busy complex places that require a vast array of human skills to succeed. Inextricably linked to these ‘banks’ of human expertise are a series of tools, or large-scale machines, some of which are computerised, all of which are highly engineered. Problem solving is a continual process, people are responding to quality control issues whilst others are amending, altering and adjusting.

…some of the most extraordinary objects I’ve encountered so far are perhaps unexpected. They are globular pieces of ‘purge’:

Def: Purge

The product of a changeover process between colours or materials. Created when the old colour is forced through the machine by the new one at the start of a new production run.

It’s a waste product essentially, and in the case of MGS, it’s discarded from their production line and dispatched to an external recycler rather than ground-up onsite for reuse.

It’s a visually absorbing object to behold and bears all the hall-marks of being fluid (as it is in it’s ‘hot’ state) whilst being absolutely rigid once cold. It’s organic in form and yet seems like the antithesis of the highly engineered parts it contributes towards creating.

It leads me to consider the derivation of the word:

Latin / PURUS (pure)

Latin / PURGARE (purify)

Old French / PURGIER (medicine) to purge (to eliminate from the body)

Middle English / PURGE (clear oneself of a charge)

 

Further info: http://festivalofmaking.co.uk/news/art-in-manufacturing-exciting-new-art-to-roll-off-production-lines/

Exciting new art will roll off the production lines of British factories this spring as nine artists negotiate heavy machinery, industrial production techniques and up to 160 years of making heritage in Art In Manufacturing.  Combining nine artists with the expertise and history of traditional and contemporary British manufacturers, the ground-breaking series of residencies will engage hundreds, if not thousands of workers to develop challenging new ideas. The resulting artworks and performances will be revealed as part of The National Festival of Making, taking place on Sat 6 – Sun 7 May 2017 in Blackburn, Lancashire. 


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I’m 48 hours into a residency that’s as focused upon manufacturing timelines and heritage-based narratives as the Fourth Industrial Revolution and competitive strategies.

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and supported by arts commissioners Super Slow Way, the Art in Manufacturing residency is generating a densely layered and dynamic set of conversations. Spanning decades as well as materials, these dialogues are intergenerational in terms of their environmental impact and historical significance.

So far I’ve met the management team, warehouse operatives, and tonight, the lovely lady who cleans the offices. I’ve also learned that one of the company directors shares a similar family background to myself as his father worked in the mouldings industry during the 1950’s. As a child he remembers waking up to a revolutionary new toy in the form of a plastic gun (minus additional component parts).

Unbeknownst to me, until today, we even share an acquaintance as he knows a former employer of my dads. So between us our families have worked within the industry for at least 67 years. With relationships spanning Lancashire, the West Midlands and beyond.

Contemporary coincidences concerning geographically diverse counterparts like this are built upon monumentally solid 18th Century foundations. Firmly situated in the mechanisation of the first Industrial Revolution where agrarian and handicraft economies were rapidly overtaken by a burgeoning world-wide trade with enhanced material efficiencies. From socioeconomic to cultural impacts via mass-production and factory-systems, rapid technological growth equalled rapid expansion in terms of population centres and the workforce required to service such new demands.

A visit to the Lancashire Archive today also provided many a symbolic manifestation of these developments. After reviewing a map from 1892 I was able to count over 36 mills spanning the length and banks of the Leeds to Liverpool canal. Radiating outwards from these power-houses were what look like banks of terrace housing for the workers needed to power the revolution.

A review of the trade directories of the time further adds to the story with listings such as Carriers by Canal, Cotton Spinners, Cotton Waste Dealers, Iron and Brass Founders, Millwrights & Engineers and, finally, Loom-Makers to name a few.

Tomorrow brings day three at the factory and I can’t help but think about the impending Fourth Industrial Revolution and its impacts. From Smart Factories to computer automation with cyber-physical systems which communicate and cooperate with each other, alongside humans, in real-time.

Q: Will such expansion lead to a more sustainable product where waste is minimised, or even cancelled out? And Triple Bottom Line objectives are championed in terms of the equal value of planet, profit and people? Time will tell regarding such meta-questions but what remains physically and emotionally, from memories to maps to waste, tells us as much about who we are as individuals as the values our culture champions. Here’s hoping the planet can sustain it all, and us.

 

Further information:

Triple Bottom Line http://www.economist.com/node/14301663

Fourth Industrial Revolution https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/

MGS Technical Plastics http://www.mgsplastics.co.uk

Lancashire Archive http://www.lancashire.gov.uk/libraries-and-archives/archives-and-record-office.aspx

Artists Website http://robynwoolston.com

Festival of Making https://festivalofmaking.co.uk

 


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