Upland artists look to historic 1930s clean power project for inspiration in the struggle to create a greener future
Pennies from Heaven? – an exhibition inspired by the historic Galloway Glens hydro scheme that explores energy, climate change and consumerism is soon to open in Dumfries.
It follows a successful series of events on Saturday, including artists’ walks and a tour of the Tongland hydroelectric power station, near Kirkcudbright.
The events and exhibition are part of Energise, an arts project undertaken by internationally renowned photographers Morag Paterson and Ted Leeming, from near Dalry, with artists Jason Nelson, from Dundee, and Catherine Major from Moffat.
The weekend saw them take groups round the power station and dam, which were built in the 1930s and are still powering the equivalent of 79,000 homes with green energy.
There was a river walk from Dalry to Earlstoun Power Station and dam followed by an afternoon of talks by the team and University of Glasgow sustainability expert Dr David Edwards at the Catstrand arts centre, New Galloway.
From 11 May to 29 June the project will culminate with Pennies From Heaven? at the Gracefield Arts Centre.
It combines photography, cyanotypes, and 81 metal plaques in an exhibition designed to underline the urgent need for changes in how we generate power, the amount we use, and in consumer culture.
A centrepiece will be a large image, created by Morag, showing the lochs and rivers of the hydro scheme catchment area. The system is so carefully designed that a single drop of rain can be used to generate low cost, clean energy up to five times before it final reaches the sea.
She said: “When the hydro scheme started some people thought of its as ‘Pennies from Heaven’ because the rain on the Galloway hills was being turned into clean energy that could power thousands of homes.
“It’s hugely inspiring that this immense project, which faced resistance at the time, is still going strong after so many decades and that it has become such a well-loved part of the landscape.
“But the brutal reality is that our demand for energy and consumer goods has just continued to grow and we now face a climate change emergency. This exhibition prompts questions about these issues and what we need to do to change.
“The urgency is very real – and it’s significant that at the same time that we were preparing this exhibition that David Attenborough addressed the United Nations, that the Extinction Rebellion protests started taking place and our next generation, young people like Greta Thunberg began demanding change.”
Ted’s photographs, which have been taken in Scotland and beyond, include images that are individually beautiful while disturbing as a collection. They use innovative titles to help develop a narrative and encourage engagement and interaction. Shops packed with designer goods and jet planes high above the mountains are set alongside drowned landscapes and fields of nothing.
He said: “This residency has emphasised the imperative to act quickly. Just doing your recycling is simply no longer enough. We have to change our habits as consumers, and our energy use as a society. The consequences for future generations are not only horrifying environmentally but the costs to alleviate the impacts will increase astronomically. It makes simple economic sense if nothing else to act now.
“In terms of energy, the Galloway hydro scheme set an incredible example of how much can be achieved when there is the determination and the investment to make change. And even though they thought of it as Pennies from Heaven, the reality is that nothing comes for free.”
Jason worked with Galloway people of all ages, asking them to record a message about their hopes for the world of 2030. This is the year by which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says a fundamental shift in energy production is needed to avoid a “tipping point” of irreversible climate change and minimise the effects of the mass extinction of species we are already witnessing.
Their words have been used to create 81 aluminium plaques, each carrying a message, which will be displayed at the exhibition.
Some are global, like wanting a better environment for their grandchildren, others are homely like hoping for a family of their own – or even a pet dog.
Jason said: “These plaques show the wishes of real people for the future, and that matters a lot at a time when so many feel they are not being heard. Every voice has value, and together they become a shout.
“We are caught in a cycle of consumerism and energy use and the reasons for it are very complex.
“So it’s not about pointing a finger of blame, it’s about highlighting the issues and asking what kind of world we want, and what we need to do as individuals and as a society to get there.”
Catherine Major, a 28-year-old artist who also runs Moffat Youth Theatre, has been working with Jason to help create the installation.
She said: “A lot of these plaques were made by young people – and so many young people feel that their interests are not being thought about, and they are not being listened to.
“It’s been an amazing project to be involved with because it is all about encouraging people to think about how they can make their voices heard. And while we often feel powerless, it also helps point out that we have power as consumers – and the decisions we make can bring change.”
The Energise project has been created by Upland CIC arts development organisation and is supported by Creative Scotland and the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership.
Amy Marletta, Projects Director at Upland, said: “Energise has shown how artists and the arts can work with the community to create powerful messages and ideas about the world we live in and about our common future.
“We are very much looking forward to the opening of the Gracefield exhibition which will give the public a chance to see an important body of work that combines visual beauty with some very uncomfortable truths.”
The power station tours took place in the company of Graeme Dickie of Drax, which took over Tongland at the start of the year as part of its drive towards a zero carbon future.