In this latest Creative Networks event, SAIL, and multimedia artists Hannah Fletcher and Aphra Shemza, discussed how they embed sustainability within their practices.
For this Creative Networks event we were joined by guest speakers Helen from SAIL, Hannah Fletcher and Aphra Shemza to talk about the role of sustainability in their business and art practices.
Creative Networks is Leeds Arts University’s major professional events programme with talks from high profile speakers from across the creative industries who entertain, challenge and inspire.
As we strive towards achieving Net Zero by 2030 locally in Leeds, 2038 regionally in West Yorkshire, and nationally by 2050, it is essential that all sectors of our economy actively work towards de-carbonising their activities.
The creative and cultural industries play a significant role in the region, with 6,365 creative and 1,270 cultural organisations, employing a workforce of 33,540 individuals. However, the sector also creates a significant environmental impact, with high energy and resource consumption, waste production, and carbon emissions.
SAIL (Sustainable Arts in Leeds) is a community interest company, and a membership network of over 250 creative and cultural sector organisations and 150 individuals, based or working with West Yorkshire. Working as a collective, SAIL aims to unite the sector behind a common goal to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the sector, sharing knowledge and establishing best practice, and effectively communicating climate to their audiences.
SAIL's aim is to empower everyone in their local creative sector with the skills, knowledge and confidence to make sustainable changes within their individual work, organisation and wider sector.
SAIL work across West Yorkshire, but also work with partners who cover Liverpool, Greater Manchester, and Oxfordshire. These networks; that are currently growing into Scotland, Devon, and the North East; all collaborate and share resources. By doing this SAIL are able to accelerate progress at a faster rate by pulling on each network's strengths.
SAIL also set up education partnerships, such as the one here with Leeds Arts University. Over the past year they've been working really closely with our careers and employability team to embed sustainability by offering several life project briefs that students can work on.
Hannah Fletcher is an artist, working with cameraless photographic processes, founder of The Sustainable Darkroom, Co-director of London Alternative Photography Collective and a facilitator of sustainability within the arts.
When studying photography, Fletcher became enthralled with darkroom materials and the tangibility of working with papers and chemistry. But while working in this area she noticed practices that clashed with her personal values of using resources sustainability:
"One small example is if you go into a photographic darkroom to work for the day, the taps will be turned on, and they'll be left on for the whole duration that people are printing in the darkroom, and that's completely normal (...) It was so contradictory to the way I wanted to live my life."
From there Fletcher set up The Sustainable Darkroom. The Darkroom is an artist run research, training and mutual learning community. They develop low-toxicity chemistries and practices in analogue photography and equip cultural practitioners with new skills and knowledge to develop an environmentally friendly photographic darkroom practice.
Fletcher says of the Darkroom: "With each new residency, workshop, event, I find we get a little bit closer to understanding this word 'sustainable', and the role it plays in every aspect of the photographic industry, and way beyond."
Fletcher works with and researches the many intricate relationships between photographic and not-so photographic materials. Intertwining organic matter such as soils, algae, mushrooms and roots into photographic mediums and surfaces.
She also questions the life cycle and value of materials by incorporating waste from her studio and workshops back into the system of making. Working in an investigative, ritualistic and environmentally conscious manner, she combines scientific techniques with photographic processes, creating dialogue and fusions between the poetic and political.
From creating symbiotic gardens that are also darkrooms, and solar powered websites, Fletcher and the residents of The Sustainable Darkroom are constantly innovating, and encourage other makers to do the same:
Click here to explore The Sustainable Darkroom on their solar powered website. The residents of the darkroom regularly share their open source research and methodology for other artists to use for free, as well as publishing books to raise money for them to continue their research. You can support them by supporting their Patreon or buying a book.
"I want to encourage all of you as makers, thinkers and as doers to really have the awareness and knowledge of both the materials that you're using and the processes you work with to understand that the relationship between the things you use and the planet you live on, and how we can really empower that through our practice as artists."
Aphra Shemza is a UK-based multimedia artist. She is the granddaughter of the well-known abstract painter Anwar Jalal Shemza. Inspired by her grandfather, her work explores Modernism, her Islamic cultural heritage, sustainable practice and creating art for all. As an artist and activist, she finds ambitious ways to fuse methodologies from the past with new innovations in technology to imagine what the role of art could be in the future.
In 2019 she was awarded the Arts Council England’s Developing Your Creative Practice Grant for her project Solutions for a Sustainable Art Practice. In this bespoke artist development programme, Shemza looked at sustainable alternatives to create her work.
For this event Shemza talked of her early career living in London and selling her work through Soho Gallery, and feeling a disconnect between what she was doing and her earlier life of loving to be in the woods and working with children.
Her career flourished when she established artist collective Art in Flux, a collective of multimedia artists that work with light. Working collectively was what enabled Shemza to find new commissions and get her work out there.
While working on her Diffuser series; a commission involving sound reactive light boxes; Shemza was able to start using reclaimed plastics and lights. The work was pivotal for her career, as she says:
"This series was the start of me using reclaimed materials in buildings. In office blocks they have these metal diffusers, and they have these strip lights in them. They've started getting stripped out of buildings so they can be replaced with LEDS. In these projects I was recycling these diffusers in Canary Wharf, and using then to make these sound reactors."
With the horrifying statistic that 90% of UK plastic is sent for recycling is instead shipped out to other countries or burnt, Shemza was inspired to find new ways of sourcing more sustainable plastic for her work.
Inspired by The Precious Plastic Company, a group based in the Netherlands, who turned plastic waste into useable material, Shemza began to make her own plastics.
At home in her kitchen, Shemza took low density, flexible plastic such as milk cartons and plastic bags, heated them in her home oven and then pressed them flat while still hot, creating plastic sheets to use in her work. (Shemza stressed to our audience that many plastics, like drinks bottles, release toxic fumes when melted, so advises to research extensively what is safe to melt! Please be careful.)
Shemza then refined her process as her career progressed, creating larger, less wasteful plastic sheets, collaborating with local specialist organisations who could create bigger sheets than she could manage alone in her studio.
Shemza became interested in visually representing climate change in her work, as well as embodying sustainable practices. Once such artwork was her 2011 public artwork, Ocean Rise, was created in collaboration with two such organisations, and was built to visually represent changing sea levels.
Thank you to our speakers for taking the time to talk to Creative Networks.