Lisa PettiboneMA Art and Science at Central Saint Martins, reflects on her recent one-week residency at Domaine de Boisbuchet, France.

Tucked away in the unspoiled agricultural backwaters of Southwestern France, this 19th Century chateau and rambling farm buildings is the picturesque location for contemporary summer design and architecture workshops at Domaine de Boisbuchet.  The pedigree of the international teachers, its support by the Vitra Design Museum and the beauty of the location were sufficiently tempting for me to apply. But it was the work of American artist Janet Echelman and the possibility of creating a large­-scale collaborative artwork using sustainable solar powered cells that really drew me in.

After my degree show on the MA Art and Science course in May 2018, I was keen to push the scope of my installation work and her approach to creating monumental ‘self­-forming’ outdoor sculptures was alluring. The Solar Futures project goal was to design and construct a site-specific self-illuminating installation using thin film solar photovoltaic technology provided by German company Opvius. I had my doubts how 13 participants and Janet’s colleague, landscape architect Trevor Lee, would be able to navigate such a large project in five days. The experience and the resulting work were filled with fun and folly, wavering from brilliant focus to full-on chaos along the way.

On the first morning, director Mathias Schwartz-Clauss toured us around the site, including the Vitra sponsored exhibition in the faded grandeur of the chateau. Aside from this impressive building, many small buildings were the result of previous architectural projects using experimental techniques, several using bamboo structural construction or others concerned with sustainability.Large sculptures randomly adorn the landscape, some more permanent than others, creating energetic punctuations in the scenery.

The Textile House (pictured) was designed by a group from RISD in Rhode Island, US, and employs a solar panel cooling system.

The Textile House (pictured) was designed by a group from RISD in Rhode Island, US, and employs a solar panel cooling system.

The hub of our activities took place in the well-equipped workshop; woodwork, steel welding and all manner of tools, with large sturdy tables and an open work area. Rebecca Bönnighausen from Opvius GmbH gave us a quick tutorial on the nature of Organic Solar Photo Voltaic (OPV) technology. ­We soon learned there was no way to connect the cells except by mounting with clips or glue (not ideal) but they had ordered hundreds of polypropylene sheets and clips on which to mount them. She later showed us how to solder wiring on to the connectors; still, it was all quite confusing how our burgeoning ideas would materialise with such limitations. Calculating the currency capacity for the lighting circuits was another task and CSM student, Abbie Adams, a BA Product Design graduate, knew the maths. One of many useful skills she and others contributed to the team.

A first experimental model was cobbled together from fabric and fishing line on a cork mat ­– the first of many times I wished I could play alone with my ideas. I had to learn to play with others in a new, open way… could I be patient? Putting that to one side, we ended the day exploring the possible installation sites, including a spot near the river by the mill building and a tall tree facing, but some distance from, the chateau.

Dinner became a community ritual, a time to get to know each other, linger over conversation at long tables outside and discuss the day. English was the common language. Our group seemed to really gel in spite of our diversity; several students from Taiwan plus Indian, French, Belgian, German and American professionals including myself. We had a fantastic range of experience to draw on, something we would have benefitted from knowing earlier, as we discovered during an evening presentation of participants’ work on day four. It must be said, though, that the good mood was enhanced by exceptionally fine food prepared by a dedicated chef with an enthusiastic team of volunteers, their time donated in lieu of payment for other courses. This is one way they establish an upbeat ethos at Boisbuchet. Other bonuses included a swimming and canoeing lake where we took end of day dips, evening bonfires and a Wednesday night costume party at the Mill House with free booze and a DJ. Some likened it to an adult holiday camp.

The hard work truly started on Tuesday morning, though we still had no clear direction. Janet and Trevor, to their credit, were quite democratic in letting every voice be heard during the design process. Unfortunately, by day three many of us wanted them to decide as the wavering between options became exhausting and, for me personally, quite frustrating. I was concerned that we hadn’t found a firm theme to drive the design that at this point was bitty ­– a tree swing idea, a series of hexagonal solar collection units and eight strands of tiny copper wired LED lights with batteries.

They all had to fit together somehow. We had discussions about how harnessing sunlight for energy production was similar to the biological production of chlorophyll. I spoke about how primordial life in the universe erupted in the perfect conditions present on our precious planet. So Janet set to work on her laptop looking at the chlorophyll molecule while I thought about the light and shape of galaxies with clumps of stars. My impending residency at Mullard Space Science Laboratory in September was on my mind and I began to hope the design of the lighting could reflect this interest.

Several models were generated over these initial days as we imagined how the various parts might fit together. Once the tree location was agreed on, the swing concept took hold and it turned out that the other American participant, Windy Chien from San Francisco, was an expert knotting artist and was happy to suggest a design for the 120cm woven platform. Materials were found and a team of five came together do this after a trial practice model was completed. The main technician Carlos was consulted about our plans (he and his team would have to install and maintain the artwork) and he suggested structural changes.

Janet and Trevor were both keen to create an ‘experience’– not just a sculptural work ­– insofar as the movement of the swing during the day would give way to a light event at night and the solar cells would enable this ‘unplugged’ experience. The natural setting had the potential to create a dwelling spot in the field where we could sit at night to play, chat and gaze at the stars. This, for me, was a new way to think about think about an installation.

With a background in sculpture and having studied light installation artists on my degree, the lighting shape emerged as my primary interest. We decided a copper wire structure was needed to attach the thin LED wires to fabricate a kind of galaxy-like chlorophyll cloud. This involved stripping hundreds of feet of leftover electrical wire and winding it together in ropes that were then bent into interlocking shapes. This was slow, hot work but I loved working with the material and felt in my element. I could visualise where this was going and could imagine using copper wire for one of my pieces later. However, this was not to be.In the evening, when we took the wire shape to the tree along with the chlorophyll molecule lighting rig, the idea was suddenly abandoned when, as we winched it up 35 feet to the branch, the mysterious clumping quality of the bunched up lights became apparent. Janet was thrilled with the organic, random twinkling arrangement near the hanging branch and felt the wire shape wasn’t necessary. I was disappointed and many later expressed doubts. The reality was that we needed more time to develop the idea but time had run out.

On installation day morning I, along with Trevor and others on the team, were keen to test the lights before installation so a beautiful conference room, a surprising place with large carved doors, was put to use. It became apparent that we would have benefitted from better leadership in the planning stages, defined tasks by the midway point and less mind-changing along the way. All of these have improved the final piece.

Although Janet sold it expertly at the presentation night, my hopes of creating an impressive and expansive work would not be realised. In the end, only 16 solar cells could be used, as only two pair were needed per set of eight lights, an important technical detail that scaled back the work. The swing with its expert weaving was extremely popular though and the visitors were mainly delighted (admittedly some were perplexed).

Overall I adapted well to new circumstances (including six nights in a dorm room) and understand better how one must carefully manage a large group with diverse voices to create a satisfying and productive experience for those involved. I hope to be involved in future projects where this knowledge will be useful. But, more than that it was the people I met at Boisbuchet, a fresh network of colleagues and the marvelous scenery that will stay with me.

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