Thunderbolt is a computerised installation that was commissioned by the Sydney Olympic Park Authority in 2010 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Sydney Olympic Games. The 5.8 m zigzag-shaped sculpture is constructed from recycled iron, and resembles a giant lightning bolt. The work is colourfully lit at night, and uses a solar powered digital interface to change the colour of the lights in response to live data streams that measure local energy consumption. Low levels of community consumption are reflected by green lights, whereas high consumption results in dramatic red lighting.
Thunderbolt results from research conducted during Bonita Ely’s residency in Broken Hill as part of the Broken Hill Art Exchange’s Sustainable Horizons and Public Engagement program (SHAPE). The project’s development is also due in large part to collaboration between Broken Hill’s Centre for Community, the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, and the Environmental Research Initiative for Art (ERIA) at COFA, UNSW’s Sculpture, Performance and Installation Studio (SPI) where Ely is a coordinator. Reflecting Ely’s long-term commitment to artistic contributions to environmental discourse, Thunderbolt represents an intersection between disciplines located in the area of sustainability.
As a sculpture that straddles the categories of public artwork and public infrastructure, Thunderbolt is an instructive tool that advocates for change. Ely describes its theme as “public sculpture as signal,” and the physical form of the work is a signal also—the zigzag lightning shape as symbol is a warning sign representing pain, shock, and danger. Like a petrol gauge in a car, the sculpture-meter forges a visible relationship between consumption and the public. As a unique gauge for usage, Thunderbolt warns against problematic, unsustainable practice with a view to encouraging changes in consumer behaviour.
The sculpture remained in Jacaranda Square at Sydney Olympic Park until early 2012, at which time it was removed and relocated. Returning to the Broken Hill area to take part in a solar art exhibition titled Desert Equinox, Thunderbolt remains a permanent fixture in the area where most of its materials were sourced.
Ely aimed to produce a public work that was instructive and that actively connected people with their impact on the environment. Thunderbolt was to be sustainably electronic, and a tool for the community as well as an artwork.
Visual & Aesthetic: Materials used to construct the work were to be directly related to the community focus of Ely’s residency in Broken Hill while more broadly commenting on issues of sustainability through the inclusion of recycled metals. The scale of the work and its topical physicality also reflect the design objective of creating a public monument that engages directly with the community and landscape.
Audience Engagement: The live data used in the project was to be locally sourced so that residents would contribute directly and continuously to the visual appearance of the sculpture.
Social Activation/Debate: Using public installation as a medium for both communication and commentary, Thunderbolt visually presents private consumption in a public space to facilitate discussion and reflexivity.
Energy Efficiency/Generation: Thunderbolt aims to effectively visualise otherwise invisible consumption modes. The aim of sustainability as well as demonstrative environmentalism is represented in the design’s ability to operate entirely off the grid while simultaneously indicating community presence on the grid.
Outcomes & Impacts
Thunderbolt uses a strikingly industrial physicality in tandem with dynamic visual elements to encourage audience engagement that is localised and personalised by the direct correspondence between the colour of the sculpture and the actions of local residents. Potential for engagement between community and the artwork is as broad and adaptable as it is related to the local heritage of Broken Hill, where the windmill from which the edifice is constructed was located. For residents of and visitors to Sydney Olympic Park, Thunderbolt was a celebration of the initial construction of the suburb and the 2000 Olympic Games as well as a visual centrepiece for local interaction with resources. A broader point of cultural involvement centres upon the reference to historical and sustainable modes of energy production. The choice of the windmill as a material reflects on changes in consumption in relation to technology both over time and in real time.
Thunderbolt was to be a tool for inciting better consumption habits. The lighting is not a passive reflection of collective usage, but a signal that the collective needs to conserve their energy. As such, the sculpture is a signal appliance or meter welcomed as a piece of infrastructure and art. Though no direct evaluations of public response were conducted, Ely reports that SOPA received positive feedback. As a result, the work outstayed its three month commission and remained at the Jacaranda Square site for 18 months.
In both Sydney and Broken Hill, the construction and installation of Thunderbolt involved community collaboration between artists, students and volunteers. Having returned to Broken Hill where the windmill iron was sourced, Thunderbolt comes full circle conceptually to represent a narrative of changing attitudes and technology in energy consumption.
In addition to community engagement with the work itself, the project involved collaboration between several different tiers of organisation. The process as a whole involved the collaborative work of local citizens and artists, community collectives, local council, commercial creatives, and creative education institutions.
As noted above, Thunderbolt is constructed from a recycled windmill, thereby constructing a conceptual cycle that connects historical and contemporary modes and trends in energy consumption and production. The responsiveness of the visual appearance of the sculpture to data sourced from the local community allows the residents to monitor their collective efficiency, potentially raising awareness that can generate change. The work also generates, using photovoltaic cells, its own operative energy, removing it from the cycle of production and consumption that it comments on.
Ely is the co-ordinator of Sculpture, Performance and Installation Studio at the College of Fine Arts where the Environmental Research Initiative for Art (ERIA) is situated. The Sydney Olympic Park Authority (SOPA) was already working in partnership with ERIA, and became interested in commissioning a public work from Ely due to a mutual interest in environmental public art. Engaging in what she calls a socio-political practice, Ely is involved in a practice based approach to producing environmental art that is typically cross disciplinary and experimental by nature. Her interest in the relationship between communities and their environment led to the development of the concept behind Thunderbolt: the construction of a public visualiser of the human effect on the natural environment. This idea for a sustainable electronic public sculpture was in accordance with SOPA’s plans to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Sydney’s “Green Olympics.”
The form of the sculpture was planned and developed in Broken Hill during Ely’s time at the Broken Hill Art Exchange. Construction took place as a result of collaboration with Allan Giddy of ERIA, Rob Largent of UNSW, Mr. Snow of the House of Laudanum, Broken Hill Art Exchange, and Broken Hill Community Inc. Contracted labour was kept to a minimum, with the assistance of volunteers and students throughout the process. Minor changes were made to the original design that accounted for its lack of fencing and open-public access. Apart from this structural safeguard against climbing, no other compromises were made to the original proposal.
The electronic-computerised aspect of the sculpture utilises technologies used in public infrastructure, reflecting Thunderbolt’s position between artwork and public consumption meter. Such technology fulfils the requirement that the equipment be both robust and low maintenance.
EnergyAustralia’s enthusiasm proved immensely helpful in the process, providing both the data for the project and ongoing technical assistance. Thunderbolt made use of the then new integrated online data collection system implemented by EnergyAustralia.
Due to one instance of vandalism after its arrival in its permanent location at South Broken Hill, Thunderbolt is now fenced. However, this remains the only post instalment alteration.
Impacts of ARtwork Production
Choices of materials for the construction of Thunderbolt were consciously made with reference to the aim of producing a sustainable and environmentally friendly public work. The recycled galvanised iron not only reduced the environmental impact of the work’s construction, but, in Ely’s words “rigorously expressed and emphasised” the overall concept behind Thunderbolt. This factor and the efficient, self-sustaining nature of the sculpture also reinforce the hopeful incitement to change that is part of the intention of the work.
The environmental footprint for the project overall including transport was not measured, but as a permanent functioning work in Broken Hill, Thunderbolt requires little to no ongoing maintenance outside of the replacement of the coloured gels that filter the light projected onto the sculpture.
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