"
 

A conversation with Islanders Magazine about sustainability and how we can design a better future

 
 

NB.. this article was originally published October 2021 at Soneva Islanders Magazine.

Q.     What does true 'sustainability' mean to you?
AJH. I truly believe that the word ‘convenience’ has and is continuing to destroy our natural world, we must learn to shed this concept and live more in harmony rather than forcing our will upon the world. 
 
One simple change that can have a vast impact on this very conversation is that it is convenient to buy a plastic bottle of water during your day, rather than carry a ‘life-can’ and refilling it with filtered water. Over 50% of bottled (mineral) water sold today is in fact just filtered tap water at best, with no health benefit aside of it being plain water. However the footprint from the packaging, logistics and industry alone to support the 'convenient lifestyle' of being able to buy a plastic bottle of water rather than carry your own is vast.
True sustainability for me is the capacity to endure in a relatively ongoing way across various domains of life. The capacity for Earth's biosphere and human civilization to co-exist. For many sustainability is defined through the interconnected domains of environment, economy and society.

According to Our Common Future (Brundtland Report published in 1987 by the United Nations), sustainable development is defined as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
 
Moving towards true sustainability of course will involve social challenges that entail international and national law, urban planning, transportation, supply-chain management, local and individual lifestyles and ethical consumerism. Ways of living more sustainably can take many forms, such as:
 
• reorganizing living conditions (e.g., ecovillages, eco-municipalities, and sustainable cities)
• reappraising economic sectors (permaculture, green building, sustainable agriculture) or work practices (sustainable architecture)
• using science to develop new technologies such as green technologies, waste technologies, renewable energy and exciting possibility of sustainable fission and fusion power
• designing systems in a flexible and reversible manner
• adjusting individual lifestyles to conserve natural resources, personal choices that make a difference
 
Despite the increased popularity of the use of the term "sustainability”, the possibility that human societies will achieve true environmental sustainability has been, and continues to be, questioned—in light of environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, climate change, overconsumption, population growth and societies' pursuit of unlimited economic growth in a closed system.
 
Right now the worlds attention is on COP26 united Nations Climate Conference in November this year, I hope this time political leaders will act on the decisions made and not let the moment pass as before with AICHI BioDiversity Targets set in 2010, none of which were met by a single country present at the table. I was there in Tokyo in 2010 advocating for change, as indeed I am there again this year presenting a piece titled ‘Enjoy’ to President Biden. A molotov coke bottle bomb made from 1,000 recycled coke cans rescued from land fill. 
 
'Enjoy' Molotov Coke Bomb, 2021.
1,280 grannes, 22 x 6 x 8 cms.
 
Q.      How does your own ethos complement that of Soneva?
AJH.  It was a revelation for me to discover Soneva purely by a chance introduction. Seeing how the founders regard themselves as ‘guardians' with a genuine respect for the environment. Their range of community, education, water and recycling projects undertaken is to be applauded. By rethinking architecture to work with the landscape; recycling of every available resource and a cultural education program so that the huge numbers of visitors can be shown how they can make real change and have a direct impact on the environment and take the message back home with them. It is after all these lands that are affected at source by the rest of the worlds activities, so surely the message should and with Soneva does in fact start here.  
 
Soneva are continually looking for, and actively exploring through breakthrough projects for ways to build around a celebration of integrating design and environment for all our futures, not only in this place, but a global movement of rethinking ‘convenience’ and how its effect can be far reaching, even to these remote shores.
 
Soneva, like myself I believe are rooting their business practice within community engagement.
 
 
Q.      As an artist - why is it important to use your platform to advocate for the environment?
AJH.  for some people accepting the world is the way that it is, is not enough. and, faced with that knowledge you still have to live your life somehow to exist within these confines, hoping not to go bashing into the walls too much. 
 
But life, can be much broader; once you discover one simple fact… and that is, that everything around you; all of it that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you or I. Giving rise to the potential that you can change it. You can influence it. Build your own ideas that other people can use.  To shake off this erroneous notion that life is just there and you are just going to live in it; verses the potential to embrace it, to change it, to improve it and make your mark upon it with your time here. 
 
Once you learn that, the world for you will never be the same again.   For me using my work to further explore the natural world in a complementary and non invasive way, I hope to engage in the viewer with the need for a spiritual reawakening with nature.
 
My practice has always been driven from my interest in field observation, scientific discovery with a prominence in exploring the liquid mechanics of water. back in 1990 I stated that water is the new oil, and as the years have moved by that belief and public statement has in fact become a firm reality.
 
Today as in the past we fight battles over access to oil, soon those same wars will erupt over access to clean water. This, the great fate of humanity consumes my thoughts daily. Continuing to explore it's environmental signature is a conversation that I have made a lifelong commitment to; that of unencumbered fresh water to all living species, and, clean oceans enabling their vital ecosystems to thrive; right now across vast areas around the globe they are barely surviving.
 
In tribal Tuareg culture  it is forbidden for a family with children to camp any closer than 5 klms from water; lest their children take water for granted. The modern world is loosing these connections with the natural world a little more every day. Therefore, I believe it is my role is to make the concerns of art relevant to society at large.  A crucial means for turning thinking into doing in the world.  I believe it is important to not be limited by the architectural confines of the art world, instead my practice engages the broader public sphere through interventions within natural landscapes and civic spaces alike, arts education, policy-making, issues of sustainability and ecocide.
 
Many of my projects over the years stem from exploring current scientific research papers, for example in the series 'Glass’ (dated 2011-2013) where following a discovery I develop a process that removes all the colour pigment from flower petals and replacing it with highly purified water using cellular osmosis. I believe it takes more courage to paint a simple landscape than it does to hang a side of beef in a gallery, this act of bravery is evident by the presentation of such an instantly recognisable subject and then to present it in an entirely new way. Originality is paramount even with something as common place as a rose.
 
'Vitreous Love’ dated 2012.  from ‘Glass’ 2011-2013
C-Type print, dry mounted to 2mm recycled aluminium plate
Edition of 10.  60 x 60cms,  100 x 100cms  &  140 x 140cms 
 
 
Scientific research also formed the basis for the project 'Oil + Water’ (dated 2014-2015) which was created in the winter forests of Siberia. For this I explored the process surrounding 'enthalpy of fusion’ by super freezing crude oil formations that were entombed in an ossuary of frozen river water. The results from which are quite extraordinary and only possible once temperatures drop below minus 50 degrees allowing the process to be instigated outside of laboratory conditions. 
 
Of course the series explores two core subjects & mediums that I have continually engaged in dialogue with for over 30 years.
 
For this process I ask you to think of a very large ice cube, say 1 metre square formed very quickly in the bitter cold. The perimeter of the cube freezes very quickly, and the block then starts to freeze inwards towards the centre, as water cools it in fact expands; so the liquid centre of the block is placed under ever increasing pressure as the solidification process moves inwards. This creates intense water pressure within the Ossuary which actually heats up the central core, forming gas pockets, cracks and fissures that are constantly evolving. I feel there are still further explorations on this projects, and in fact I return for two months in early 2022 to complete the project.
 
Ptolemy’ dated 2015.  from ‘Oil + Water’ 2014-2015.  
C-Type print, dry mounted to 2mm recycled aluminium plate
Unique print framed in solid cold forged brass ’snug’ edged frame.
 
As an artist my intention is to engage scientific explorations with positive interventions within the natural world, with a mind towards designing a more sustainable future. Photography is a tool I use to negotiate my idea of reality. I feel a responsibility to not contribute with purely anaesthetic images; but rather to provide those that are able to shake the consciousness. It is the language of nature that guides me, Its texts were written far before our coming into being.
 
 
Q.      How have you developed the recycling processes at Makers' Place?
AJH.  I formed the Distil Ennui Studio back in 1990 and from the very beginning physical fabrication from recycling discarded materials has always been a thread that I have continually explored over the years. This includes the use of sophisticated water filtration systems that I have used and developed over the years in my many water installation projects.
 
The studio engages yearly with an artist residency program where young artists are invited to collaborate in the studio on specific projects. These residency projects always involve recycling at its very core. In 2019 I hosted Dark Vat where 12 young Siberian artists were invited to collaborate on a museum standard public art exhibition. The space was a raw industrial factory disused for over 40 years, together with the artists we hosted multiple recycling workshops, 3d printing design mosh ups. Together with transforming the actual space using only found and discarded materials. Even to the point of fabricating museum standard lighting from waste materials for the project, teaching these young artists how anything is possible with determination.
 
 
the 200sqm flooded blackwater reflection pool installed within 'Dark Vat'.
 
These threads have been an ongoing exploration of what is possible with current technologies and available resources. Makers Place is a natural extension of these principles in an efficient working space that has its footprint examined & considered at every level. This encapsulates the closed loop wash station where final cleaning of the shredded waste is processed, a VOC filtration system that captures all harmful carbon emissions, chemicals and odour from the recycling production process.
 
These systems all emanate from past studio designs twinned with current technology to maximise creative possibilities from what are essentially the simplest of studio tools.
 
The amazing support from the entire team at Soneva has helped us overcome the many difficulties of bringing ‘Makers Place’ into a reality; and as with any project, it is not the limitations that pre-occupy me, it is the possibilities.
 
There is no attempt to be fashionable here, just an unmitigated apathy towards commercial mechanisation. I find fewer & fewer artists today have a genuine connection with their work than ever before in our digital world. Either the large scale artist studio where the so called 'maestro' rarely paints or fabricates any part of the actual piece. Farming out most or all technical elements, only ever laying a hand on the finished artwork to sign it.

From the smallest of details to the large, a true artist really must have a deep rooted connection with the materials. A young artist today would think nothing for example if a new work were to involve sand, then you can be sure the local hardware store have delivered it to the studio. If a piece involves paint for example, then rest assured that their  particular purchased version of blue pigment is among many 1000’s of other instances of that exact same blue delivered to other artists all around the world.

I merely want to ask the question.. How many of todays artists create from nothing, by using what is around them to every extent possible using their technical (renaissance) knowledge ? I imagine not many.  So many skills are being lost as each new generation of digitally enabled artists stream from their themed educational institutions; and yet unable to mix their own pigments with surety, not able to master the stretching of an oversize canvas, not able to process analogue films or photographs. In essence to not be adaptable with the ever changing situations that an artist may be presented with in the studio at any time. 
 
So of course Makers Place stems from my belief in the 3R Strategy; Reduce, Reuse and Recycle a certain level of technical awareness can make an immense reduction in an artists or indeed a commercial enterprises footprint, by adapting to what is readily available.
 
 
Q.      What is your favourite work you have created at the studio so far, and why?
AJH.  The first collection of pieces created for Makers Place was a series of discarded drinks containers such as a crushed beer can and water bottles, that were modelled from an original piece of rubbish and recreated in pure aluminium from up cycling drinks cans. They make a poignant message I believe.
 
I am looking forward to my return in November where I can get to work on the plastics side of the facility, I am very keen to explore the visual possibilities of plastic recycling into lighting and architectural features that can bring the message into daily life, really exciting potential lies here yet to be explored. 
 
So for now can I say that I always have my eye on tomorrow and its possibilities, so to answer what would be my favourite work that I have created.. that will be tomorrows news.
 
 
Q.      What would you like to achieve through the Makers' Place - and what do you have planned next?
AJH.  With ‘Makers Place’ we now have proof of concept, the facility operates with a vastly reduced (near zero) carbon footprint and shows want can be done with these discarded materials. Specifically for remote island nations I would like to see the facility replicated exactly where it is needed. To consume waste in places where processing of single use materials can be responsibly managed where currently it is not.
 
Right now I am developing a small machinery production line that can produce a well engineered ‘Life Can’. A water bottle made from discarded & up cycled land fill aluminium waste. Current technology will allow me to do this on a small footprint and low investment, this simple setup could have a real and quantifiable impact in society. Consider if you will a small facility where free raw materials (aluminium cans) arrive, and shortly thereafter a community changing product leaves.
 
You only have to pass through Male airport and realise over 90% of travellers could benefit from such a thing by the number of people still needlessly carrying plastic water bottles that will ultimately be discarded unwisely.
 
This could have wide ranging application and further engage a cultural education program for visitors and how that message can be taken back home.
 
As an artist I am constantly evolving within the studio, it is important not to loose this sense of urgency. I feel a proud sense of responsibility with what I know is possible with determination, that the real strength of a person is to be found in their hunger to act and be heard as it scratches their muscles compelling them into action. 
 
At every single point of the day we are writing the great novel of our lives, lets try at least to make it a good read. Or at least interesting.

 

Thank you for reading, please lets stay connected.

Visit the Distil Ennui Store to search for available works.