Indestructible language: interview with the artist and the artisan

Indestructible language: interview with the artist and the artisan

friday 03 december 2021 | Interviews, Art, Events, News, News&Press
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A monumental red neon artwork to illuminate the Glasgow skyline during 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) is the last F/ART collaboration in the art sector.

“Indestructible Language” is a three-meter high illuminated red neon characters made of lead-free glass, powered 100% by renewable energy (and F/ART transformers), spelling out the phrase: IT IS GREEN THINKS NATURE EVEN IN THE DARK.

The New York Conceptual Artist and Activist Mary Ellen Carroll (MEC, studios) is famous for her original works: intersection of conceptual art, social activism, urban legislation, economic processes, and is frequently durational, occupying public policy, architecture, technology and areas of civic life.

Solas Neon is a contemporary Edinburgh neon signage workshop. Redefining the tradition of neon glass bending and sign making, they are part of a new generation of makers who are passionate about making things.


For the occasion, we interviewed both of them.

 

 

THE ARTIST: MARY ELLEN CARROLL

 

1. What’s your opinion about climate change?

My thoughts about the climate emergency are that we are at the precipice and governments, businesses, organizations, institutions, families and individuals must commit and act as the facts and science around climate have been known and detailed for decades and there is no longer time to wait, there is only time to act collectively.


Mary Ellen Carroll - Photo by Pedro Alejandro Hernandez

 

2. Can you describe us the exhibited work “indestructible language” in the occasion of COP26 in Glasgow?

Indestructible language is a work that was conceived of in 2006 for the original commission by the Precipice Alliance, an organization founded by the photographer Joel Sternfeld and the publisher/editor Donna Wingate. They were commissioning large scale works on ‘existential issues’ and I received the initial commission on global warming. Given the data and scientific reports we were following, and that all of my work as a conceptual artist begins in language—it was important for this piece to be  a work in language and after about 6 months of creating spreadsheets of language and the intensity for each word/fragment to have its own autonomy it resulted in: IT IS GREEN THINKS NATURE EVEN IN THE DARK. It had to be something that would also retain its autonomy as a work of art and have the potential for the viewer to ponder their complicity or remain in the dark. Chester Jenkins of VLLG created the lettering and it is the most energy efficient manner in which the neon is illuminated; LiteBrite did the original manufacturing.

The idea was for the work to find the permanent home and then 2008 happened that had a devastating economic impact on arts organizations. Since that period things have gotten precipitously worse in regards to climate and a work titled indestructible language was a matter of timing and location, and fortunately everything Glasgow and COP26 the moment for the work to be in the world. This was facilitated by the site at that Schoolhouse that fronts the M8 and the arts program by Urban Office that is owned by Lesley and Joe Logan, and meeting Emery Boardman and the great team at Solas Neon in Edinburgh was so important to the entire process, and also to mention how integral the transformers we utilized from F/ART were for the illumination. thanks also to the sponsors at Stardust, MCM, The Kind World Foundation, and others.


Indestructible Llanguage ©Mary Ellen Carroll - Photo sweenypix ©2021 

 

3. How and when was born your interest in neon?

I have always been interested in the science of neon and in early signage that one saw as a child in California and the west. Then to understand its use in art and to see the generation of my predecessors like Bruce Nauman and his work Eat War, 1986 that resonated in particular after I came back from living in the Philippines after a number of years and what the world witnessed in that Country in terms of unrest and war and what the work of art could be and also how it would resonate on issues.

 

4. In addition to expressive potentials, neon has conservation features, durability and environmental sustainability much stronger than other lighting sources.  Are these aspects taken into account in your design choices?

Absolutely. This was important from the very beginning and material considerations are an important aspect of my work. At one point in the process someone brought up LED and needless to write, they were asked to leave the room. Seriously though (they were), and the use of lead-free glass, the power source being 100% renewable, the history of neon and what it speaks to in terms of industrialization and how this process is changing, yet neon is a material that as you mentioned is durable, sustainable, and the luminosity and quality of the light is also what was necessary to the work. There was no question about this not being done in neon. 


Indestructible Llanguage ©Mary Ellen Carroll - Drone Photo By Dougie Lindsay

 

5. The expressive researches built on light are by their nature closely linked to the technical progress and the technologies related to the production of light sources. How develops your job between creative project and technical creation?

That is a great question. They frequently go hand in hand and sometimes one starts the dialogue and for indestructible language the material of neon was both a technical decision as well as a creative one. One aspect that I love is how durable, yet how vulnerable the material is because of its base in glass. This reflects the climate emergency and the necessity to be vigilant about taking care and to use our ‘ethical imagination’ to ensure that we act collectively and commit. To digress for a moment, I am currently working on a project for Phase III of prototype 180, my opus in Houston where we will use 3D technology to build a structure from its own building waste that was started in 1999. Duration is a material.

 

6. The neon has a tradition that matches with the history of visual expressions of XX century, from the visual communication through street furniture until you get to the most experimental artistic researches.  How can we enhance this history of the contemporary and promoting even more the creative sector towards the rediscovery of expressive potential of neon?

The history of neon and its uses are invaluable to the present and in particular to art. The potential is endless and I am working on a new work with the art historian and curator Ruth Noack who co-directed documenta 12 and also started the cultural center —The Corner that is at the intersection of health and culture. This work utilizes a large piece of lithium to power a neon work that sits atop the lithium stone that is titled, A Stone is Nobody’s. We would love to collaborate with F/ART on this research and with Solas and other partners. This goes back to the beginning and the creative/technological paradigm and fortunately I will be living in Rome next year for the Prix de Rome and this will help the process and I am looking forward to the time there.

 

7. How did you know about F/ART?

I was introduced to F/ART via Emery Boardman at Solas Neon and am grateful for this introduction.
I then found out that we have been using F/ART transformers for other neon works from my studio and there has been an ongoing relationship even before I was aware that the transformers were from F/ART. Thank you as F/ART has been necessary to my work and having those types of relationships and trust are paramount to success and further creativity.


F/ART transformer for Indestructible Language - Glasgow The-Schoolhouse © 2021 Mary Ellen Carroll MEC Studios

 

THE NEON BENDER: EMERY BOARDMAN FROM SOLAS NEON

 

1. How, when and where did you learn to blow neon?

I formed Solas Neon in 2018 after working as a graphic designer for a couple years following my graduation from University. Working in signage for a while, I was introduced into working with neon signs and the aspect of commercial installations. By chance, in 2018, I met one of the only glassbenders left in Scotland, Sandy Faith who started passing down his 35 years experience in the trade. We both left our jobs, got a workshop together and started making neon full time from our workshop in Edinburgh. We have grown to a small team of 4 working on neon projects ranging from small bespoke commissions, commercial work, collaborations with artists and TV & Film prop signage. 


Emery Boardman - Solas Neon

 

 

2. Nowadays, digitalisation allows to create signs fast and affordably, even if quality is not the same (especially with flex LED, the neon imitation). You are one of the few who still handcraft the real glass neon in Scotland. How do you feel about that?

Yes - and very proud of it! With so many things these days being digitised it is so refreshing to work in such a niche craft and carefully and thoughtfully put together something from scratch, from start to finish. There is something, almost spiritual in a lot of ways, of bringing a neon sign to life. The neon craft, in essence, has seldom changed in the last 100 year and being able to continue the tradition and refocus it into a modern context is paramount to the work we do and the projects we complete. There is also something to be said in how epic the journey is of making any piece of neon glass. Being able to go on the journey, and all the ups and downs it gives, is truly rewarding, especially with projects like Indestructible Language. 


Emery Boardman - Solas Neon

 

3. How did you meet the NY Artist Mary Ellen Carroll? What is the first feeling when she asked you to work for her big project regarding the environment?

Mary Ellen and I were introduced early this year through an art agent here in the UK. I instantly recognised how collaborative she was and the desire to work with a team that could deliver such an important piece of work, for such an important moment, in the timescales we had. Her unshakable trust in us to carefully take her work and realise it on such an important stage was steadfast throughout the making of the piece and provided us with confidence and space to make it happen. From an environmental standpoint this type of neon work is extremely efficient, green and relevant as a medium for the message it was conveying. Extremely poignant and important for this to be read across the Glasgow skyline at COP26. 


Mary Ellen Carroll (MEC studios) and Emery Boardman (SOLAS Neon) - Photo by Charles Renfro Diller Scofidio Renfro

 

4. Please give us some numbers: how many linear metres of neon tubes there are in the “indestructible language” artwork? How many transformers? How long have you worked in the realization of it in term of hours or working days?

The total linear metres of Indestructible Language is just over 500m (15mm clear Lead-Free Glass) powered by 60 Transformers (ranging from 6kv - 10kv). We began speaking with Mary Ellen back in April 2020 about this project but only started putting glass to flame on September 27th, just over 4 weeks from the opening of the COP26 conference. We completed the manufacturing of 204 grid style sections, helped engineer the letter they we mounted on and installed and wired the entire piece on top for the roof of the Old Schoolhouse in Kinning Park Glasgow. We worked right up until the final day making sure all the sections we correctly fitted and wired into the 7 circuits we had designed. We received tremendous support from Joe Logan and his team at Urban Office who erected the scaffolding that the piece is fixed to and provided all the infrastructure in terms of electrical provisions and supplies. 


Install Indestructible Language Mary Ellen Carroll - COP-26

 

5. As artisan, you probably have tested many different neon transformers during years, why did you chose F/ART’s Resinblock for this big art project?

Because they are the best! F/ART transformers are known the world over for reliability and have built a reputation collaborating and supporting artists across the globe on large scale neon installations.

 


F/ART transformers for Indestructible Language - Glasgow The-Schoolhouse © 2021 Mary Ellen Carroll MEC Studios