Initially emerging from a Creativeworks London Researcher-in-Residence placement, Robert Knifton reports on the latest manifestation of a burgeoning research relationship with Helen Storey Foundation.
“Do you have anything to declare?”
Instantly a lump forms in my throat under questioning: that presumption of furtive motives despite innocent intentions, the punctilious manner of the bureaucratic official piercing my defences. Is there something I’ve overlooked? Are they scanning my bag right now, will they find things that shouldn’t be there?
Am I in big trouble?
Except I’m not at the airport, and the person behind the desk isn’t border control. I’m in a glass-fronted studio space on the South Bank for Climate Change: Designing for a New Reality, part of the Inside Out Festival, and the person addressing me is an MA student in Sustainable Design from Kingston University. “Do you have anything to declare,” she asks again, “about your climate customs?”
Rewind two years, I’m at a Creativeworks London workshop at the National Archives. That was when I was first introduced to Caroline from Helen Storey Foundation, and the unexpected research journey we’ve experienced ever since began. As an early career researcher working on the history of Kingston University’s many storied art school, I was aware that Helen Storey was a graduate from our notorious Fashion course. She went on to blaze a trail through the fashion industry, with her passionate designs and flair for sensation making her a leading light of the London style scene. Later, when her fashion business went under in the 1990s, she reinvented herself as a social artist, using her design skills to address issues that affect us all: birth and life, human contact, and the environment. Caroline was alongside her for every stage as business partner and project manager.
So, when Caroline said that they were looking to digitise and re-order their archive, it was a fantastic opportunity for me to gain access to a resource vital to my research. A researcher-in-residence grant from Creativeworks London enabled it. Boxes and boxes made their way to Knights Park: a treasure trove of documents, photographs and the most stunning design drawings from every era of Helen’s career. I sifted through and digitised the collection, bringing together a thousand images plus documenting a creative life. We were looking back at one biography of a creative life, assembling the story of a designer through the material culture that surrounds them. I was, in effect, ‘in-residence’ within the archive itself, and we used it to explore connections and modes of displaying creativity. Participative workshops with students tested our ideas around how the archive could be used in different ways for teaching, and funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to exhibit the history of Kingston School of Art allowed us to host a small display at Dorich House Museum in February 2015.
One of the exhibits at Dorich House Museum was a prototype dress that displayed images from social media associated with climate change. It is this subject of climate and sustainability of human life on our planet that Helen Storey Foundation are focused on now. This preoccupation with climate is what led to the development of a collaborative brief between Kingston University and Helen Storey Foundation to test methods that would engage the public with the language and imagery of climate change. We all know that the issues of climate change are urgent, we know we should be doing something about it now, and yet still we don’t act. Can art and design solve this, and spark action where there was inaction?
So, this is where we came in. Have I anything to declare? Well, it turns out I brought processed food and cheap chocolate into the space, whilst that plastic water bottle in my bag is contraband as well. But my shirt is made in the UK from sustainable wool, so it’s not all bad. The MA students led me through the declarations card, listing the good and bad customs in my climate biography: what transport methods do I use? How do I use water? Do I take a pee in the shower? How about food? Would I consider eating road kill perhaps? At the end of these questions calibrated to jolt me from my complacency, they worked out my climate ‘score’.
Tasked with developing methods of public engagement, the MA students devised this Kafka-esque journey of participative theatre to highlight the global implications of climate change – how it will affect each and every one of us, albeit in different ways. Passports offered case-studies from a range of countries of at risk populations, whilst a cupboard of seized goods included science-fiction MacGuffins designed to hammer home the point that we can’t just rely on science and technology to bail us out this time. A programme of talks and events at the South Bank pop-up studio researched the conundrum in more depth: looking at social media interaction with climate; thinking about the provenance of our clothing and whether it might be possible to source and produce clothes entirely within the M25; and introducing clothes made entirely from fungi – would you wear a mouldy T-shirt?
Reflecting on the pop up studio, the rich interactions that our students elicited from members of the public were testament to the power of applying design creativity to real life situations, just as I had found earlier in Helen Storey’s archives. The possibility of thinking through research practice’s relation to creative response is at the heart of both the studio and our continuing relationship with Helen Storey Foundation.
So, what comes next? At the end of November 2015, Helen Storey will be unveiling a brand new public installation Dress For Our Time, timed to coincide with the crucial Paris Climate Summit. Kingston students will be part of the public consultation team, harnessing the lessons learnt from their public interactions at the Climate Customs open studio to shift opinions – applying their creative design thinking to this most pressing of issues. So you can think too: “do you have anything to declare?”
Picture caption: Kingston MA students take part in discussions at ‘Climate Change – Designing for a new Reality’ pop up studio