Category Archives: Transition Towns

Asleep at the wheel

‘We are culturally asleep at the wheel’ Janek Schaefer

Inside car
View from the inside of a car

The inaugural International Festival in Milton Keynes is a 10 day festival bringing international artists to Milton Keynes.  Having recently relocated to the city of cars and roundabouts, I was interested to be invited along to the opening of the festival’s artist in residence Janek Schaefer’s installation ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ on Thursday  15 July.  The installation is housed in a disused Sainsbury’s store in the Milton Keynes Food Centre.  It is a unique response to the strange new city of Milton Keynes.

There are three elements to the installation.  The cars themselves which are located at the far end of the store, the ‘alternate route’ library and the services, the former cigarette dispensary offers free tea and coffee and sells other fair-trade refreshments.


10:10 Services

All of the store’s windows have been blackened, so there is nothing in particular to indicate the installation inside.  Using the entirety of  the large abandoned shop floor, Schaefer has created a virtual three lane highway where he has positioned ten deserted cars.  Inside the cars audio systems have been programmed with Schaefer’s blend of interviews, radio programmes and clips from documentaries and films such as ‘The Story of Stuff’ and ‘The Age of Stupid’.  If you are to start at the last car and work your way to the front, a type of story begins to emerge.  It’s a story about the condition of consumer driven oil and car dependent society and its fate.  Schaefer is careful to consider the entire story, he doesn’t merely bemoan the consumer society without considering alternatives.  The alternatives offered are positive and considered, and include work from Transition Towns and the 10:10 initiative.


Poster outside the store

It’s a strange prospect to enter the abandoned cars in order to listen to the sound pieces.  You realise that cars are very personal spaces, and it’s astonishing how the cars all have different smells, particular car smells developed from years of use by their various owners.  In fact some of the comments in the guest book noted the strange smell of the cars. The car wind shields have been treated so that there is an effect which looks like water.  It’s difficult to see out of the cars, as though you were stuck in a rainstorm.  All of the cars are parked with their hazard lights on, leaving you wondering where are the drivers? What happened to them, why did they abandon their cars? Schaefer incorporates the sound of traffic and rain into the mix of atmospheric music and audio clips mixed with the static that comes from tuning a radio.

The cars
Three lanes of cars

The first car features a clip from the film ‘The Age of Stupid’ with the voice of Pete Postlethwaite bemoaning  ‘we could’ve saved ourselves’ and it is this initial lament that sets the scene for Schaefer’s narrative.   Messages have been printed onto the rear view mirrors and have statements such as: ‘Does our future have a future’, ‘None of us are as smart as all of us’, ‘Taking a fresh look at the world, good lives don’t need to cost the earth, indeed they offer our best hope of saving it’, ‘Every action creates ripples of change personal action is meaningful even if no one has heard about it’, ‘The world does not have to be this way, we can change it’, ‘A good life is a conscious life, one lived with awareness.’

rear view mirror

Rear-view mirror

Having attended the exhibition the first night without listening to the sound works in the cars and then returning later to listen, Schafer’s talent as a sound artist is clear.  The work’s depth and power is located in the audio clips in the cars.  It enriches and layers the work in a way that the assemblage of cars in space and the other elements can’t do alone.  These other elements lend to the atmosphere of the sonic piece itself.  The piece is successful because these two elements really work in parallel.  The cars, lighting and location add to the ambience and strangeness of the piece which is enhanced once you begin to interact physically with the cars.

The use of the audio clips, staggered between the cars allows Schafer to build a distinct narrative about our current consumer/oil based/ car centred society, the problems and unsustainability of this lifestyle and offer alternatives to it.  This is enhanced by the visceral, emotive power of the cars themselves.  Sitting in cars once owned and driven, with the associated banal and familiar feel, one is haunted by their own memories of car culture and the role of cars in their own life.

By virtue of these cars being so familiar, we are implicated, reminded of our own role as participants in this society.  Fortunately, Schafer doesn’t seek to merely confront us with the problem.  Solutions are offered in the informational videos and library of books about sustainable living and the information on the 10:10 programme.  This part of the installation is carefully thought out and well researched.  This completes the story suggesting ways we can improve our lives, make changes,  and positively introduce sustainable behaviour into our lives.

library table

Alternative routes library

This installation will be open until Sunday 25 July.  If you are unable to visit the installation yourself, information and resources from the exhibit are available on Janek’ s website:


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Filed under Climate Change, Installation Art, Milton Keynes IF, Sustainability, Transition Towns

Is climate change a zombie concept?

Kellie Payne reports on the Tipping Point event, held in April, where Mike Hulme suggested climate change was a zombie concept: as a metaphor it has done its work. As a concept, it connects a large swathe of issues combined through the scientific narrative and perhaps there are other ways to make progress.

Much less the as-billed scientific update, the Tipping Point event held on Wednesday 13th April at Kings College, London was a philosophical exploration of the status of our current conceptualisation of climate change.

Hosted by Tipping Point, the arts organisation that seeks to build bridges between artists and climate scientists, the afternoon featured Mike Hulme, UEA climate scientist and author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change, climate change adaptation specialist Emma Tompkins and Greenpeace’s Senior Climate Advisor Charlie Kronick . In attendance were past Tipping Point conference attendees, a mix of artists, academics and a few scientists.

Hulme is a veteran climate scientist whose career has included serving as the founder-director of the Tyndall centre and contributing scientist to UK climate change scenarios and reports for the IPCC. However, writing his recent book led Hulme to take a more philosophical perspective: his interest being more in the positioning of our larger conceptualisations of climate change and interrogating different epistemological constructions of climate change. Moving beyond the merely scientific understanding of climate change, he investigates how climate change is understood in disciplines varying from economics, ethics, politics and humanities. In particular, he argues that climate change is a value laden concept that reflects our views of the world, nature, the economy and ethical frameworks.

Hulme’s presentation was largely an explanation of the four myths he explores in his book: lamenting Eden which draws on a sense of nostalgia, presaging apocalypse based on a sense of fear, constructing Babel (hubris) and celebrating jubilee which builds upon our sense of justice. In essence, what Hulme argues is that every individual brings their own agenda, applying the challenge of climate change to their own problems, that is, climate change is the raw material that is used to work on our individual projects. Hulme suggested we ask ourselves whether stabilising the climate was indeed our ultimate goal or whether stabilising climate was instead a means to an end, and we were using climate change to achieve our other goals.

Emma Tomkins on the other hand bases her work on a belief that climate change is happening and asserts that the government is leading the way on adaptation. Based at Leeds and the Government’s Department for International Development, Tomkins outlined types of adaptation currently being implemented including risk management policies and attempts to build resilience. When Tomkins asked the audience how many were currently taking adaptive measures, it became clear that the line between what constitutes mitigation activities and adaption is often blurred in the minds of many. The government makes a clear distinction between mitigation measures (limiting ones emissions) and adaption (preparing for the impacts of climate change). For instance when asked about what types of adaptation individuals were taking, some audience members mentioned the work of the Transition Town movements, but from the government perspective Transition Town activities would constitute mitigation measures as their main focus is reducing emissions.

Tomkins conducted an exercise to see how we as an audience would allocate adaptation funds, whether we would base our decisions on: equitable distribution of resources, reward mitigators, help those facing the most exposure, help the most vulnerable, or offer developmental assistance. At the moment, current government policy (Adaptation Policy Framework) is based on risk mapping and awareness and therefore has its focus on those who face the most exposure to risk. Tomkins stressed the need to be aware that in any adaptation policy there are a number of decisions to be made about the type of losses we are willing to take and warned that there is a potential to make serious mistakes unless we seriously consider the issues.

Charlie Kronick weighed in with the activist viewpoint, reminding the audience that in the past adaptation wasn’t even considered because to do so would be to accept defeat. Further, he didn’t see the need to separate out adaptation and mitigation as he sees them as one and the same. For Charlie, climate change isn’t about science, or art, but about power politics, ‘the deal makers and takers’ and inequality is a major driver.

Hulme agreed that it’s about politics and our ambitions about what type of society we want to inherit. Hulme suggested that perhaps climate change was indeed a zombie concept, and as a metaphor it has done its work. As a concept, it connects a large swathe of issues combined through the scientific narrative and perhaps there are other ways to make progress.

This piece was previously published as a guest blog post on Ashdenizen (

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Filed under Climate Change, Mike Hulme, Science, Tipping Point, Transition Towns