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Sustainable and optimistic design in touring exhibitions

A creative response to climate emergency with Our Time on Earth by Barbican Immersive

Sustainable and optimistic design in touring exhibitions

Santuary of the Unseen Forest, 2021-2022, Marshmallow Laser Feast in collaboration with James Bulley and Andres Roberts.

from London, United Kingdom

reading time 6 minutes

What can the arts offer to society’s understanding of the climate emergency? And how might creative disciplines partner with the sciences and humanities to present radical visions for a future in which creatures of all species live in balance with one another and the environment? Barbican Immersive and Universal Design Studio seek to create a radical vision for a different world with the Our Time on Earth exhibition, embracing the ideas of sustainability and connection to the natural world at every stage of the development.

Our Time on Earth was created as touring exhibition that launched at the Barbican Centre, London in May 2022 and will then continue to our Co-Production partners the Musée de la civilization, Quebec City in June 2023. The exhibition is a creative response to the ongoing climate emergency, created alongside Guest Curators Kate Franklin and Caroline Till, that welcomes visitors into a space of exploration. Our Time on Earth presents 18 works, including 12 new commissions, from 12 countries around the world to create a series of innovative new collaborations. It brings together academics, architects, artists, activists, designers, ecologists, engineers, environmental campaigners, researchers, scientists, technologists and writers, highlighting the need to work together across disciplines to tackle climate change together.

To really ensure we could create a radical vision for a different world, we needed to embrace the ideas of sustainability and connection to the natural world at every stage of the development. Alongside creating a manifesto to show our ambitions for the exhibition, we also wanted to work with some of the most ambitious and interesting designers in the field that could create an environment that physically embraced the ideas of the exhibition. Universal Design Studio share below their process and ideas for creating the design for the exhibition:

It is important that visitors to the exhibition leave feeling inspired by the possibility of futures in which society uses materials more responsibly, as well as excited by their potential to make a substantive difference to our environment.

Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Barbican Centre

Given Our Time on Earth’s subject matter, it was imperative that Universal’s exhibition design fully embodied its message of ecological stewardship, without simply falling back on recycled materials, the concept and aesthetics of which people are already familiar with. It is important that visitors to the exhibition leave feeling inspired by the possibility of futures in which society uses materials more responsibly, as well as excited by their potential to make a substantive difference to our environment.

The design team’s approach to the space was guided by the work of economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, whose theory of radical abundance rejects the artificial scarcity driving contemporary economies. Instead, Hickel argues that degrowth and the socially responsible deployment of resources can create a more equitable, environmentally balanced future in which everyone is provided for. Led by Hickel’s thinking, Universal undertook a research programme focused on designers and companies working with existing natural materials in a more resourceful manner than previously seen within the field.

As part of this process, the designers embraced seasonality within material production, with consideration given to the growing cycles of different materials and their susceptibility to weather patterns potentially determining availability. Linking much of the research was a belief that responsible material stewardship can bring about both social and environmental benefits. Many of the materials considered, such as hemp or corn husk, employ small-scale regenerative farming methods that carry benefits for biodiversity, soil health and the communities that farm them alike.

We wanted the design to feel optimistic and show a potential future where we use resources more wisely,’ explains Lisl du Toit, Senior Interior Designer at Universal. ’We used Jason Hickel’s idea of radical abundance as our starting point for a process that could show how sustainable design can be beautiful and avoid preconceptions of it.’

Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Barbican Centre

Each material is renewable and encapsulates a ’nose to tail’ approach to design: making the most of the materials that are available and minimising waste in production.

Given that the majority of exhibits within the show are digital, the team developed a display that would provide a contrasting focus on materiality and tactility. This display prioritises undulating, organic forms, utilising materials whose natural origins are immediately clear to visitors. ‘We liked the idea of juxtaposing natural materials with the digital because an important strand of the exhibition is to remind people that we are of the Earth and we have an intrinsic connection with the natural world,’ du Toit explains. ’We’ve tried to use organic shapes to take a step away from perfect straight lines and flat surfaces – all of the attributes that would be more associated with synthetic materials. We want to embrace the qualities of the natural world.’

Guided by these principles, the team developed a modular plywood framework that can support video screens on both sides, while also lending itself to the creation of organic shapes to guide people through the exhibition. Each frame is subsequently clad in a natural material that corresponds to the themes of Our Time on Earth. Across the show, different materials have been employed within this framework, ranging from recycled cork; corrugated panels made from hemp fibres grown on Cambridgeshire’s Margent Farm; cellulose panels created from reclaimed paper pulp by Barcelona’s Honext; and Pine Skins, a leather-like material designed by the Latvian designer Sarmite Polakova, created using the inner bark of pine trees that is a byproduct of the forestry industry. Each material is renewable and encapsulates a ’nose to tail’ approach to design: making the most of the materials that are available and minimising waste in production.

Complementing the frames are a series of hemp and felted wool curtains, which serve to softly delineate discrete areas within the exhibition without taking up additional floor space. Together, the curtains and frames create a flexible, adjustable configuration of freestanding straight screens, gentle curves, and smaller, more intimate spaces that can easily accommodate the diversity of the exhibition’s content. The display can also quickly adapt to any changes in programming or relocation to different spaces over the course of Our Time on Earth’s lifespan.

Our Time on Earth is planned as a touring show, and its design elements have accordingly been selected to be lightweight, durable and stable during transportation.

Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Barbican Centre

We’ve closely collaborated with lighting designers, graphic designers and fabricators to bring something new to this to the story of material abundance and sustainability,’ says David Vyce, Designer at Universal. ‘Through those relationships, we’ve taken extra steps to ensure a minimal footprint in every respect, such as reusing existing lighting and designing out waste by working with standard material sizes.’ Throughout the exhibition’s development, the designers were guided by a principle of less, but better. Working within the exhibition’s budget, the team analysed which elements of its design were essential to the show’s concept, opting to remove anything that fell outside of budget rather than replace it with cheaper, but less ecologically sound materials.

All of the materials for the design have been sourced from within Europe and are variously recyclable, reusable or biodegradable at the end of the exhibition’s lifespan. Our Time on Earth is planned as a touring show, and its design elements have accordingly been selected to be lightweight, durable and stable during transportation. It is built from natural design elements that can last for an extended period and follow the exhibition throughout its entire journey.

Our biggest impact with a project like this is to complement the exhibition by showcasing sustainable design. Our key learning from this process has been to recognise that there are already materials out there that were perhaps used in the past and have since fallen from favour, but which we can look at again. These are beautiful, versatile, optimistic materials and, vitally, they’re already available to us.

Lisl du Toit, Senior Interior Designer,
Universal Design Studio.

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