The Grid in Arts & Culture: Electric Art

Apr 26, 2021

Electricity is mystifying. It is ubiquitous, dangerous, life-saving, and a great majority of end users don’t understand how it is transmitted and distributed in the grid. It’s also ingrained in pop culture, from Pikachoo to Thor, the eureka light bulb, and innumerable other references. A hot topic, thanks to climate change and the clean energy transition, there is transformation happening around the world when it comes to the electric grid. And transformative times are known for creating lots of innovative art. 

In our first blog in this series, Brandon Hadley---who plays many instruments---talked about energy and electricity in music and shared a playlist of songs that make some sort of reference to power, electricity, and the grid. This time we’re focusing on visual arts like sculpture, wood carving, etc. I come from a family of artists (sculptors, clothing designers, photographers, painters, poets), so I wondered what was out there at the intersection of art and electricity. It turns out there is a lot---and it’s beautiful. (For now, I concentrated on arts outside of those with physical lights, which is a larger topic, hopefully for another blog.)

Why art? Why now? 

Because of the pandemic (and resulting stresses and existential crises) many people have turned to art as a coping mechanism whether it's creating art themselves, or enjoying the art of others. Some close-to-home examples are with literature---my colleague Lynn Belken has read 25 books so far this year---but also with an increased interest in interior design when so many people were stuck at home, sheltering in place. Social media also boomed with dances, musicals, sea shanties, and other forms of expression. One blogger explains this necessity as part of human nature: 

"The urge to come together around art is older than a 45,000 year old cave painting and as recent as the #BLM street art [found in many cities]. Humans need art for inspiration, as a way to remember where we've been and express hope for the future. Artists need to create, and their journey often reflects the path their community is on---and lights the way forward."  David Seidler in the Artwork Archive blog. 

Lights the way forward---even our metaphors can’t escape electricity! For more ways to explore art and poetry, check out this NPR article written at the beginning of the pandemic, We Need Art Right Now

Wood, Sculpture, and Film

Using actual electricity in art is in some ways completely different from paints, clay, and other mediums. It's path across mediums like wood is unpredictable and it's also dangerous, with one artist using over 7 times the amount of volts that would stop a human heart. On wood, electricity can make Lichtenberg figures (branching tree-like patterns), like those seen in this video. “It’s never the same. Anytime the current goes into something, it makes something new and beautiful,” Brenden Bohannon said. “The only way I use that amp is with wire clamps and I’m from 8 to 10 feet away. I give myself some space. I don’t touch the piece when it’s working,” Bohannon explained. “At all times I treat it like a venomous snake and that keeps me safe."

Another interesting application of electricity in art is with functional circuit sculptures. These artists can make a pile of wires look (and sound) alive. The artist Kelly Heaton uses engineering to design and plan her sculptures like Moth Electrolier and Singing Bird with Chirping Baby. They also include an element of sound with chirps and tweets that sound like real birds, controlled by a photoresistor to create analog-generated noises. Heaton’s electronic art is made with only discrete hardware and she avoids firmware and code “because software simulates life, but hardware is life-like,” she says in her video. 

 "Birds at my Feeder" by Kelly Heaton. Used with permission from the artist. 

Australian artist, Sean O'Connell, focuses on capturing how electricity moves through different objects on film. This seems like an interesting way to translate something instant into something permanent. Rings made of different materials were zapped with electricity while resting on a photographic emulsion, capturing the electrical trails. The resulting patterns are like a fingerprint for the material that show “the potential energy naturally seeking out the lowest place.” (Source.

Pylons, Designed

One artistic application for the grid really made me smile and I would love to see it implemented in more places: the stained glass towers created by three art students---Ail Hwan, Hae-Ryan Jeong, and Chung-Ki Park---from Klasse Löbbert in Germany. They used acryglas to create a colorful “lighthouse” for a tower that literally enables the lights to stay on.

Several countries in Europe also have competitions for the best power pylon design. Over the years countries like Iceland, France, Italy, Sweden, Finland, and more, have developed artistic standards for their transmission towers, to make them more pleasing to the eye. One competition winner, Choi+Shine Architects, started off with a goal to create beautiful infrastructure. They found that governments, transmission operators, and regulators were interested in their designs because they helped communities accept new powerline projects that needed to be built. Jin Choi, of Choi+Shine gave an example: “For one proposal from Lyse (a utility in Norway) for a new line crossing the Lyse fjord, the local community would not accept the new line passing through their district unless it included the Giants.” 

grid art
The Land of Giants™ : Proposal for Landsnet, Iceland ©2008-2021, Choi+Shine Architects. Used with permission.


Dandelion Towers: Proposal for Norway. ©2008-2021, Choi+Shine Architects. Used with permission.


The Giants of the Wind.  ©2008-2021, Choi+Shine Architects. Used with permission.

Choi+Shine also designed structures to pair with turbines to make the sites more of a landmark or “destination”, rather than what could be considered by some as an interruption or negative addition in the landscape. In addition to the “landmark” approach, they have designs for transmission towers called Mantis that are more minimal, playing down the look of infrastructure. As infrastructure for electricity changes around the world with the addition of more distributed energy resources, I hope we will consider adding artistic elements and celebrate these towers for the essential innovations that they are and for all the life and productivity they enable. 

Historic Representations of Electricity - Prints

For further exploration into electric art, Google Arts & Culture has a series of images from the Electropolis Museum showing historical representations of electricity in France from the 1800s. This includes sculptures, posters, and images from first public campaigns promoting the new innovation with the Goddess of Electricity. In case you were wondering, there is no “Goddess of Gas”---that representation they smartly called “Queen of the Night.” These images exist because people had to be sold on the new technology and artists played a major role in showing electricity as desirable. (See the NY Times art review, The Art of Illumination in the Industrial Age for more posters and lithographs.)

Reinventing the Power Plant

Another Google Arts & Culture story, “From Power Station of Electricity to Power Station of Art”, shows how one of China’s first power plants (est. 1897) became a center for art. In 2020 it housed the “Pavilion of the Future” as part of the Shanghai World Expo and eventually became the Power Station of Art, a public contemporary art museum. 

The Guardian also reported on a German power station, Luckenwalde, 30 miles south of Berlin, that was also turned into a contemporary art center. But, the story expands from there. The plant was bought by Performance Electrics, a not-for-profit art collective that actually provides electricity through artistic means. This was patented as Kunststrom (art electricity). 

“In recent years Wendel has produced electricity from wind sculptures developed out of recycled street reflection posts and from guerrilla-style appropriations of electricity supply points using mobile battery packs. 

His first successful production of Kunststrom was in 2008, and involved him tapping into the light of advertising hoardings, attaching solar modules to them and using the resulting energy to feed art gallery lightbulbs,” writes Kate Connelly in The Guardian

What a fascinating way to incorporate art in industry, making it a part of our lives in a new, innovative way. 

While Nexant doesn’t create art per se, we can certainly relate to innovative thinking, and like artists, our experts see things with perspective. The end result is effective, insightful, necessary work. I like to think that it’s beautiful as well.