Energy Cafe was an experiment that explored means for sustainable food production and cooking methods by London-based collective Pilot Publishing, which comprises artists Amy Plant and Ella Gibbs. Situated on a half-acre piece of land within Gunpowder Park in Greater London, Energy Cafe reflected the historical notion of ‘common land’ whereby the community had rights to use land to maintain and gather resources, e.g., to collect firewood or allow livestock to graze. Over a six-month period the project focused on developing community involvement within the park area and in turn monitored how people used public land. The project commenced with the construction of a sustainable kitchen built entirely from recycled materials, including a second-hand horse trailer. Pilot Publishing sourced local volunteers to help assemble the portable kitchen, which operated completely off-grid and included a wood-fire stove, manual water pump and water recycling unit, and solar panels.
Pilot Publishing recruited a team of ecologists, permaculture specialists and members of the public to harvest wild food from the park and to source farmed or home-grown produce within a six-mile radius. Energy Cafe conducted research on renewable energy, methods for sustainable cooking, and foraging native foods, whilst providing resources in the form of a library, harvesting walks and events, and permaculture workshops. Essentially Energy Cafe provided a meeting place or common space for people to exchange knowledge and discuss ideas. It enhanced the social network of the area.
Aesthetic/Visual: Amy Plant and Ella Gibbs intended the aesthetics of the process of building Energy Cafe to be present in the artwork. They planned to create the work with found and donated recycled or re-purposed materials, which were collected over time and gradually added to the structure. Hence, there was no direct outcome of the visual elements of the work at the start of the project. They wanted to emphasise a handmade feel and to bring out the personal touch of all the volunteers who helped build the kitchen in the trailer. The kitchen needed to be compact and portable, and the layout was designed collectively during the pilot phase of the project.
Innovation/Risk (Conceptual and Technical): Amy Plant and Ella Gibbs spent the pilot phase of the project researching and spending time in Gunpowder Park, meeting local residents and visitors to gather community input and collective ideas about how the Energy Cafe should be formed and should function. They didn’t have all the necessary skills to build the work and relied on help from the community to create a sustainable project. One of the most important aspects of the project was the creation of an off-grid kitchen. For each of their projects under the Pilot Publishing umbrella, the artists devise a set of rules that govern the work. With Energy Cafe they decided to only source local food for the kitchen from within a six-mile radius of the park.
Audience Engagement: The Energy Cafe evolved over time and there were plenty of opportunities for people to be involved in different aspects of the project. People could volunteer to help in the planning, design and construction of Energy Cafe and there were extensive events and programs created to encourage visitors. Plant and Gibbs made leaflets to distribute around the area to attract interest in the project. They wanted people to feel very involved from the beginning and started a blog to update people on the progress of project and what the next stage would be.
Social Activation/Debate: Reflecting on the historical commons, the artists wanted to return ownership of the Parklands back to the community. They instigated discussions about public land, asking questions about who uses it and how it is used. The establishment of a meeting place was intended to create and initiate community-based activities. They wanted the Park to be utilised in new ways, and in place of traditional activities, e.g. sport, games, walking, picnicking etc. It was important to the artists that the project build community relationships that would continue after the Energy Cafe ceased.
Waste Reduction and Management, Energy Efficiency: The original idea of Energy Cafe was for it to become a sustainable project over the long term. The artists intended to construct The Energy Cafe using recycled and re-purposed materials collected from local neighbourhood streets and skips, in addition to donated items from local organisations. They wanted to build a fully functional kitchen that was off-grid, including a wood-fired oven, solar stove, foot pump to draw water into the sink, and off-grid electricity system with built in solar battery.
OUTCOMES & IMPACTS
Innovation/Risk (Conceptual): The project exceeded the artists expectations surrounding community input and participation. Although the artists did not have personal expertise in several relevant fields necessary to realise the project, they were able to find volunteers, friends and local community members who could offer their input.
Innovation (Technical): The artists’ intention to make Energy Cafe entirely off-grid interested different engineers and inventors, who created sustainable energy units. Extensive research was done into how the horse trailer could be transformed into an off-grid kitchen, and this was achieved.
Audience Engagement: When the artists commenced their research they realised that Gunpowder Park was relatively quiet and unused. Once they had been there a few weeks, installing the trailer, local people became interested in and intrigued by the activity. While exploring local food sources within a six-mile radius of the park, Plant and Gibbs met with many local producers and foragers, who later became closely linked to the project. They also met people when finding recycled materials and invited others to bring items to the park. Many of people who became actively involved in the project were people the artists met through the research phase. Plant and Gibbs developed a public program that naturally drew people into the project, e.g., they invited local food producers to a breakfast. They have identified the development of these relationships as being crucial to the creation of Energy Cafe.
Social Activation: Ella Gibbs and Amy Plant opened discussions in the community about public land, who uses it, and how it is used. Many people became actively involved in creating Energy Cafe and were part of the decision-making in how the work would be created. At the end of Energy Cafe’s time in Gunpowder Park, a group of youths who had been involved in the project were inspired to submit their own proposal to the Lee Valley Authority to create a skate park and cafe in the same location. They were successful in their tender. Gibbs explains, “The local community got together and nearby they have actually made something, an idea that came out of Energy Cafe, which was fantastic.”
Community Development: Due to the success and popularity of Energy Cafe, the artists wanted to make the trailer more of a resource in itself, available for people to utilise for their own events. As Gibbs describes:
We’d have all these portable cookers that were handmade, we had solar cookers, hay boxes, and swirl stoves, rocket stoves and so the idea [developed] that one could get in touch with Energy Cafe and if you needed to use these mobile portable resources it would be possible.
Once Energy Cafe left Gunpowder Park it was a mobile service that moved around London and sometimes further afield. People approached Plant and Gibbs to attend their events and temporarily set up the work.
Skills Acquisition and Education: Creating Energy Cafe partially involved developing new skills and learning from others. Plant and Gibbs initiated ‘Energy College’ as part of the work’s public program. They arranged courses on subjects such as building a wind turbine, solar cooking, and making bike-powered generators. They conducted ‘Critical Mass’ food searches and initiated a drawing club. Gibbs describes Energy College as, “a testing ground for off-grid experiments and having that little bit of land was fantastic initially because it was a playground for lots of different ideas.” People were able to propose ideas for workshops.
The historical Royal Gunpowder Mills in Greater London produced gunpowder for over 300 hundred years until the 1960s; after which it became an industrial wasteland. The Art of Common Space was a five-year major international arts program curated and produced by Haring Woods Associates and Landscape + Arts Network Services for the renewal and development of the Royal Gunpowder Mills site, transforming it into a public park. Interdisciplinary practitioners working within art, science, design and environmental fields were commissioned to create new works in response to the idea of ‘the commons’. A series of public artworks, seminars, exhibitions and events that explored the notion of public space were produced. Projects fell under four categories: Dialogues, Experience, Research & Development and Mapping. Pilot Publishing (Amy Plant and Ella Gibbs) was one collective commissioned for the project.
The Energy Cafe at the Field Station by Pilot Publishing reinvigorated Gunpowder Park with a feeling of the original ‘commons’—land which was used as a resource for all. The construction of Energy Cafe, which began in Autumn 2008, turned normal planning procedures on its head, and developed organically out of necessity, through the involvement of people from the local area. Plant and Gibbs were invited to create a project for The Art of Common Space based on their reputation for working with the public and activating sites to bring people together.
The project went through three stages—Energy Cafe at Gunpowder Park; Energy Cafe at Hawkwood Community Garden, where the trailer was further developed; and finally, Energy Cafe at various locationsaround London and nationally, based on invitations and spontaneous events.
At the end of the commissioning contract for Energy Cafe at Gunpowder Park, Plant and Gibbs submitted a new proposal to install the project permanently. The project had become very popular in the area and people in the community expressed interest in Energy Cafe becoming a permanent fixture. Gibbs describes her experience, “They just felt like this was what they needed in the area for people to come together and do things.” However, the proposal was unsuccessful, with the main issues being around health and safety, and public liability insurance. When the project was temporary, the artists were not faced with the same concerns; but once they proposed the work becoming permanent, the conditions became too restrictive.
At this time they experienced a few unfortunate incidents, in which the Energy Cafe was broken into and damaged. Gibbs states, “After that happened there were loads of kids and young people who loved Energy Cafe [that] came and decided they wanted to take care of it and helped repair what had been broken.”
After Energy Cafe left Gunpowder Park and continued to operate around London, the artists realised they needed to apply for more funding. They submitted a grant application to The Big Lottery Fund’s Awards For All scheme and were awarded an additional £10,000. Plant and Gibbs put the grant towards building the trailer that made the original structure mobile and running more workshops that had been suggested by volunteers and local community whilst the work was in Gunpowder Park. The grant enabled the people who had been involved to stay connected with the project, in addition to enabling the artists to pay the carpenter who installed the trailer and to paythemselves.
Insurance became a further issue when Energy Cafe became a mobile unit in London, as Plant and Gibbs were not able to obtain insurance for the trailer. The work was too ambiguous to insure—it was both artwork and cafe and did not fit into any category. Eventually the Energy Cafe trailer was stolen and not recovered, and because the artists had not been able to insure the work, they could not make a claim and the whole project was lost. Gibbs reflects of her experience after the work was stolen:
[T]his is something that comes up I think as artists working in the public space and what happens after the commissioning timeframe ends and your put out into the real world. If you want the work to continue then there’s no support really for you and that did come up because we had no support in terms of insurance or how to get it or anything.
IMPACTS OF ARTWORK PRODUCTION:
The artists were clear from the beginning that Energy Cafe was a research task looking at how they could create a project that was entirely self-sufficient and off-grid. They wanted to create a ‘micro example’, which could be up-scaled or transferred to a domestic setting. Gibbs describes their approach:
We tried to keep that in its purist form as much as possible. All the materials that came into the project were found and resourced and we wanted to, as well as environmentally, we just wanted to be as resourceful as possible.
The artists would address every requirement with a sustainable solution. For example, when they needed water, they approached one of the volunteers who had been helping out and had knowledge in this area to create a bike-powered bio-diverse unit that attached to the bike-powered station and the water-harvesting unit on the roof. Over the duration of Energy Cafe in Gunpowder Park the artists were approached by different volunteers with suggestions on new sustainable additions for the cafe or if they felt something could be improved on.
A huge effort was made to construct Energy Cafe with recycled and re-purposed materials including recycled timber palettes and other wood for tables, roofing, and a platform for under the trailer. Lucy Sheldon, an engineer, created ‘Sally the Power Trolley’, which was a solar powered mobile unit with a rechargeable battery. It was used to power laptops, listen to music and use kitchen equipment. Gibbs felt that having the power trolley was a “real breakthrough for Energy Cafe because that was a model and definitely a real inventive way of dealing with and sharing energy.”
One area the artists felt was unsustainable was the energy consumption required to transport the Energy Cafe trailer. It was quite heavy and a truck or ute was needed to tow it, which in turn created carbon emissions. At the time Energy Cafe was stolen, Plant and Gibbs were looking into how they could make the trailer lighter and more transportable.
Gibbs, Ella. Interview by author, November 21, 2012.
Pilot Publishing. Energy Cafe Blog. http://energycafe.wordpress.com/ (accessed November 21, 2012).