Case Study
  • Posted on December 1st, 2022

Connecting nature through art and design with Invisible Flock

Person holding mushrooms

In January 2020, we moved our studio out of Leeds city centre and over to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Our studio allows us the space and freedom to prototype and iterate at scale, to host an ongoing residency program and maintain autonomy to design and lead on our sustainability actions and agenda.

Our studio (Invisible Flock) is designed as a space and a resource to experiment with new technologies and techniques, to collaborate and take risks. To do that, we prioritise formal research and development periods, cross sector collaboration and the adoption of new technologies.

Our focus on innovation comes hand in hand with our commitment to activate art’s role in the mitigation, creative response and global fight for climate justice and ecological repair. Questioning the environmental cost of innovation while we iterate allows us to continually build new forms of practice that push the boundaries of how a sustainable practice can be defined.

There are a number of ways we look to do this, within both production methodologies and prioritising materials development. For instance, we strip down every installation into component parts so that each element can be stored and reused either by ourselves or by artists in residence. We maintain a monthly ‘Materials Day’, where we experiment with new processes, ranging from photo development with naturally derived ingredients to making pine resin sheets.

As an outcome of experimentation with bio materials, during 2021/22 we saw that there was a real need for a dedicated space in which to push the boundaries of bio arts practices. This area of activity became pertinent in asking questions around how an artistic practice could positively impact an ecosystem. This has led to the construction of a Bio Arts Lab as part of our Cost of Innovation project, generously supported by a Small Capital Award from the Arts Council England.

The development of the Lab has been led by Ashley and Aurélie Fontan from Osmose Studio, as part of a long form artist residency. Their practice spans across sustainability, regenerative design and bio-fabrication. One key organism that they use is mycelium, the root of mushrooms. Their residency has a dual focus developing the lab, while using the resources of the studio to follownew paths of interest from within their practice.

Once completed, the Lab will support and foster the use of interdisciplinary practices connecting nature with art and design through scientific and laboratory protocols. The space allows scientists and artists to share practices and come up with projects or research that has the potential of benefiting our wider environment.

The Lab will also allow us to manufacture our own mycelium insulation panels in order to reduce heat loss in our studio space. The panels are created using local organic waste feedstock, our own studio waste (sawdust and compost) and local mycelium species from surrounding forests. This type of insulation is 100% biodegradable and made with agricultural waste, creating a circular manufacturing process.

The Lab will continue to be a space for development of our own practice and that of future resident artists as well as a place to educate and train a number of different community stakeholders to understand and collaborate with other life forms in the making of artefacts and artworks.The Lab is able to further support a circular economy by tackling one of our major operational issues; waste. All cardboard produced from packaging associated with the building of the space itself is used as a material in the growing of mycelium.

Other ways we look to reduce our waste is by eating together through communal lunches, sharing a freshly prepared meal that we take turns in preparing. While being a great social thing to do it also means we bring less packaging into our studio ecosystem and compost all of the potato skins in our garden. However, we still end up with tins, glass and plastic containers. Plastic represents a particular problem and even if we wanted to resort to more conventional recycling processes, our rural location means that it needs to be taken by hand to a recycling centre.

We previously built a Precious Plastics shredding machine when we were developing a project that took discarded plastic beach waste and turned it into filament in order to create 3D printed sculptures. Working with plastic is not straightforward, it requires a lot of trial, error and patience throughout all of the processes including: collecting, sorting; washing, shredding; melting, pressing; shaping, and sanding. Our Studio Manager and Lead Fabricator, Klavs Kurpnieks, has his own plastic recycling practice, which he iterated using this machine and went on to develop an efficient system for taking plastic waste and turning it into beautifully pressed sheets of plastic that could be used for multiple applications; such as stools and table tops.

It is however important to consider the hidden environmental elements that come with new processes. One example is the exponential rise in Microplastics both in our environment and within our own bodies. It’s important to note that Microplastics are being created through a variety of processes, from landfills to putting on a polyester-based t-shirt every morning.Artist in residence Bhavani Esapathi conducted some experiments in the Lab with Ashley recently, discovering that microplastics are everywhere and you can quickly create a journey of someone’s day just by mapping the colours of tiny threads visible under a microscope.

One of the biggest studio outputs over the last year built from recycled materials was a large multi-dimensional table consisting of four separate parts that can be reconfigured depending on that moment’s use; workshop, meeting, and lunch. The table was created from recycled plastic; production off cuts and a deconstructed stage are no longer in use. The table is one of the central design components of our current Hub Award residency at the Wellcome Collection and visually articulates a complex layering of our Land Body Ecologies research project.Taking an iterative approach to our relationship with materials means that we can keep searching for more sustainable relationships with both the ‘stuff’ we consume as a studio; and the materials we create and use as part of an artistic practice.Opening up a collective approach to exploring with materials means that the possibilities become endless and prioritises the relevance across both our own and our peers’ practice.

There can’t be a one catch all solution in terms of sustainability, each and every action needs to be carefully considered and understood at every stage of a process. As a studio, we hold onto an ethos of take only what you need, reuse; and whenever you can, give back. Advocacy, through the work that we make, remains our most focused environmental output.