Inspired by Amazonian shabono dwellings typified by an exposed central communal area surrounded by sheltered living space, The Black Cloud is a pavilion-like structure made from panels of charred timber. The open-air structure is a hybrid public sculpture, temporary shelter and venue for social events. The work was designed in collaboration with architect Sash Reading and built using the Amish method of barn-raising, with volunteers from the community constructing it over one day. The title of the work is borrowed from a 1950s sci-fi novel of the same name that details the catastrophic event of a cloud of gas blocking the Sun and destroying all life on Earth. The Morisons’ adaptation is an ominous post-apocalyptic structure, functioning as a reminder of the impending effects of Climate Change. The scorched timber is created by an ancient Japanese method for charring timber to better protect it from the risk of fire; this aesthetic gives the impression that the wood has been burnt by the Sun.
Aesthetic/Visual: The artists weren’t given any direct guidelines for the public artwork, except to create a work for the City of Bristol. As Bristol is developing into a sustainable city, the artists wanted to incorporate this element into the work. Inspired by different forms of vernacular architecture, the artists drew on the forms of Amazonian shabono dwellings to create a shield-like structure that intimated the effects of extreme weather. The artists wanted the structure to reflect the possible impacts of Climate Change in the future and make a structure that appeared scorched by the extreme heat of the sun. They also wanted to create a work that did not immediately appeal to people, that did not utilise the usual aesthetics of a public sculpture. They hoped that this approach would encourage people to think about other aspects of the work, rather than its physical appearance.
Audience Engagement: The artists aimed to create a work that would be a gathering place for the community. They wanted to attract people of all ages to use the structure for different purposes and to create interaction and a sense of community ownership.
Social Activation/Debate: The artists wanted to incite conversation and debate about the work and the ecological issues it was addressing. They felt the visual attributes of the work would produce strong reactions from the community and hoped people would rally for and against it.
Social Inclusion and Community Development: The artists wanted to make a work that was free for people to use and open to different interpretations. They initiated three public programs, including an Amish-style barn-raising event to build the structure, a forum with speakers discussing sustainability topics, and play written by the artists. They hoped that these programmed events would encourage the public to use the structure for their own events.
Climate Change Adaptation: With Bristol’s ‘green’ profile, the artists wanted to push the community’s mindset about environmental change and stimulate its thinking about the notion of adapting to cope with future change. They wanted to create a controversial work that would garner mixed reactions from the community and open channels for discussion. They hoped that this would strengthen and empower the community to discuss their ability to prepare for change, whether it be climatic or social. The artists wanted people to think more realistically about the future and to learn to accept the likelihood of greater, or more devastating, change then they had previously imagined.
OUTCOMES & IMPACTS
Audience Engagement: Many people rallied in support of the work and by the end of the installation period the community as a whole embraced the structure. Over 700 people helped build the structure during the barn-raising opening event, which involved not only those who physically helped construct the structure but also a large crowd of people who celebrated through feasting and live music. Local residents created impromptu story-telling and den-building workshops.
A booking system was established for people to reserve the structure for private occasions, otherwise it was open for people to use at anytime. Over time, occupation of the shelter increased. The structure was used for various events, including wedding ceremonies, business meetings, religious ceremonies and casual picnics.
Debate: The main opposition to the work came from differing interpretations and opinions about environmental artworks. Some people opposed the materials and means being used to create the artwork. People protested against trees being cut down to make the work and the use of propane to scorch the timber. There were also discussions about whether the local council should spend money on public art.
The artists tried to steer the debate to be more constructive, initiating discussion about the ideas of the work, and felt that by the end of the installation period most of the community grew to appreciate to work.
As part of their Arts and Ecology program, The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, now better known as the RSA, invited Heather and Ivan Morison to undertake a residency in Bristol. The result of this residency was to produce a public artwork for the City of Bristol. It was an open invitation to the Morisons to make any type of public work in the City. They chose the location of Victoria Park and planned the concept from research they had done about Bristol.
Their initial concept proposed creating five different structures, all inspired by vernacular architecture to withstand different types of extreme weather, to be placed around the city. However the budget was limited and they decided it was better to construct one artwork properly rather than five structures of lesser quality.
The budget was further reduced from the original amount, requiring the artists to re-plan their approach to constructing the work and to become more inventive. As a result they used timber from their own arboretum in Wales and relied heavily on volunteers to help build the structure. Although the lack of budget was problematic and prevented them from realising some of their initial plans, these elements significantly added to the work and to a degree became part of the work. Having over 700 volunteers participate encouraged a sense of community involvement and ownership that carried on throughout the entirety of the project.
One of the major issues was that the structure was extensively vandalised. This initially began on a daily basis, therefore a caretaker/carpenter was hired to maintain the work and mend any damage or graffiti. The vandalism decreased over time and by the end of the installation period it was minimal. This experience enabled the artists to develop a strategy on how to manage vandalism for future projects.
IMPACTS OF ARTWORK PRODUCTION
Decisions in respect of materials were largely dictated by budget constraints and the artists chose to source timber from their arboretum in Wales to construct the work. This action not only contributed a sentimental aspect, but ensured the wood was ethically and relatively locally sourced. Inevitably trees were cut down to build the work; however, because they came from the artists’ own property, there was an assurance that they would be replanted.
The propane used to scorch the timber, using the traditional Japanese technique of shou-sugi-ban, released some carbon emissions; however this aesthetic emphasised the idea that the shelter was the result of a climatic catastrophe. It was essential to the concept of the work itself.
Since the Bristol iteration, The Black Cloud has been installed outside The Hepworth Wakefield, an art gallery in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, UK. There have been discussions about a permanent installation at another location.
McQuay, Marie-Anne. “A Commissioned Response to Heather and Ivan Morison’s The Black Cloud, 2009.” Situations. http://situations.org.uk/commission/ivan-and-heather-morison-black-cloud/ (accessed August 23, 2012).
Morrison, Ivan. Interview by author, August 23, 2012.
“The Black Cloud.” Situations. http://situations.org.uk/commission/ivan-and-heather-morison-black-cloud/ (accessed August 23, 2012).