Where is the (cycling) revolution?

By Professor Martin Hurcombe, Professor of French Studies, School of Modern Languages

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in May 2020. The sun is glinting off Chew Lake. There is the sound of birds I’m too ignorant to know the names of. And on both sides of the road there is a steady stream of cyclists. Not just the regular MAMILs* like me who you’ll always find out here this time of day, but cyclists of all ages and sizes, many of them on bikes a lot newer than mine. I count them over an hour; there are six cyclists for every motorist.

During those awful first weeks of lockdown, many of us found some respite from the horrors unfolding around us in our ability to cycle, run or just walk away from the homes and the online world to which we were otherwise confined. Bike sales went through the roof as we all realised that, once you take away the bulk of the traffic, roads make pretty good cycle paths and cycling is both an efficient and pleasant way of getting about (particularly when the sun shines).

There was also a lot of serious debate about how the pandemic would transform our working lives. Most of us would probably be working from home for years. Time saved by not commuting could be reinvested in leisure; not the constant consumption of those tiresome pre-pandemic weekends spent trudging around out-of-town retail outlets, but what researchers call active leisure (running, walking, cycling, etc), activities that we could now integrate into our daily lives. Perhaps, despite the dystopia of a health service under constant strain, we could emerge healthier and happier as a nation. ‘A better world is possible’, the slogan painted onto the main road through Long Ashton declared as I cycled towards it on my first trip into Bristol coming out of lockdown.

Yellow heart painted on road surface with image of a bike within the heart

We caught some of this spirit in Active in Lockdown (AIL), a project that Dr Melanie Chalder (Bristol Medical School) and I ran in collaboration with Knowle West Media Centre. By collecting social media posts, and helping volunteers to capture and reflect upon their experiences of cycling, running, or walking during the three national lockdowns, AIL attempted to record the huge surge in active leisure in Bristol and the surrounding area.

I still see that slogan as I commute through Long Ashton on my bike. It’s beginning to re-emerge after being painted over by the authorities eager perhaps not to raise our hopes. It’s re-emerging because the paint used to cover it is being eroded by the cars that have now returned to our roads. Traffic levels are rapidly approaching pre-pandemic levels and congestion is returning to our city centres. It is hard to remember that, only a year ago, we stood on our doorsteps applauding keyworkers and swearing to protect the NHS. In our headlong rush to get back to our old way of living, though, we seem determined as a society to spend even more time in its care.

So, I’m left asking: Where are all the lovely new bikes of 2020 and the revolution we dared to dream of? We hope that global leaders will emerge from COP26 with the roadmap to a world that looks better than the course we are currently set upon. But is ‘A world not as bad as it could have been’ our only hope? And what is it that towns, employers, and individuals can do to help our roads contribute to our wellbeing rather than to be a major source of global decline? The stories captured by AIL can help here. They tell us about the wellbeing that comes with active leisure, but also the conditions needed to facilitate it: safe, clean, congestion-free spaces available for all.

*Middle-Aged Man in Lycra

Redrawing our Environments

By Dr Paul Merchant, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Film and Visual Culture, School of Modern Languages

Can art change how we relate to the environment? Might the experience of watching a film, observing a drawing, or visiting an installation help us to understand the current ecological crisis in ways that scientific reports and data can’t? As the crucial COP26 climate summit in Glasgow continues, these questions are taking on added urgency.

On Friday 5 November, visitors to the First Friday event at Watershed in Bristol will have the opportunity to explore these questions. They’ll be able to learn about some contemporary art initiatives from the UK and Chile, and take part in some drawing exercises led by the illustrator Jasmine Thompson (no prior experience required!).

Waves crashing on the Vina del Mar coast, Chile
Vina del Mar, Chile

The event draws on the work of the research project Reimagining the Pacific, which is led by Dr Paul Merchant and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project explores how artists in Chile and Peru are responding to environmental challenges on the Pacific coast.

One way in which contemporary artists are seeking to engage their audiences with environmental issues is by creating works that use a range of different media to create a multisensory experience. For example, Claudia González’s installation Hidroscopia / Loa (2018) uses drawings, videos, and electronic apparatus to present the effects of copper mining on the Loa river in unexpected ways.

Closer to home, the Bristol-based artist Dan Pollard’s Liquid Noise installation project creates a link between the movement of visitors’ bodies and the vibrations in pools of water to visualise the effect of underwater noise pollution on whales.

The value of projects like these is that they make issues that can seem distant or abstract (like marine noise pollution, or ocean acidification caused by uptake of carbon dioxide) feel present, by engaging our senses and our imaginations. It would be too simplistic to draw a straight line between an experience of an artwork and a specific political commitment. But if works like Hidroscopia / Loa and Liquid Noise, or even the simple act of drawing, can make us look again, listen again, and pay better attention to our environments, then there’s much to be said for them.

Waves of Change: Youth engagement in climate change

As the world turns its attention to Glasgow and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties  – known as COP26 – we’re taking a look at some of the climate change-related research happening across the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Arts. For this first piece, we caught up with Dr Camilla Morelli, a Lecturer in Anthropology. Camilla specialises in the anthropology of childhood and youth, and the use of participatory visual methods in youth-centred research.

Hi Camilla! Thanks for joining Arts Matter. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what sparked your interest in your area of research? 

Camilla Morelli looking towards the camera and smiling
Camilla Morelli

Hi! Thanks for inviting me. I have an absolute passion for my discipline – social anthropology – and specifically the anthropology of childhood and youth. My greatest inspiration is Margaret Mead, the first anthropologist to take children seriously as research respondents.

Most of my research has taken place in the Amazon rainforest, where I started working over ten years ago. I was interested in exploring Amazonian children’s relationships – physical and imagined – with the forest environment. When I got there, all the children would talk about was the city, and how much they love concrete! Through the years, I have become very close to the community in Peruvian Amazonia where I work, and I return every year to visit them and conduct further work. I haven’t been able to travel to Peru since the start of the pandemic, and it’s breaking my heart. I hope I’ll be able to go back there soon.

My current projects are co-designed with young people, and are based on collaborative approaches. The children I started working with ten years ago have now grown up, and two of them have become anthropologists themselves! They are now my key collaborators in a British Academy-funded project, ‘Animating the Future’, and will be co-authors in our published outputs. I’m sure in the future they will be leading their own projects and transforming the field of anthropology.

That’s great – how wonderful to hear that the future of anthropology is in such good hands! What insights have you gained from engaging with young people? 

I have learned so much working with children and young people! Something that I always find incredible is that children and youth have the capacity to radically transform the world through simple everyday actions, which are often unseen by adults. It astonishes me when I work with children to see how much their own parents don’t know about what happens in children’s daily worlds and imaginations. Then one day, all of a sudden, they realise that their children are substantially different from them, and they ask: “How did we get here?” They have no idea about the small, everyday actions through which children silently shape new futures. Once we appreciate that children and young people have this capacity and agency, we can give them more credit than we do, and perhaps work with them (rather than for them) so that we can build a sustainable future together.

Waves of Change logo depicting ocean creatures and plasticsYour latest research project, based in the UK, is called Waves of Change – can you tell us more about it? 

Sure! The project is based in Cornwall, where we are working with young people aged 15 to 18 to address the impact of climate change on coastal communities and their future. Cornwall is already feeling the effects of climate change hard – ocean acidification, plastic pollution (worsened by recent tourism) and warming are threatening the rich and unique marine ecosystems there, and sea levels are rising faster than average…meaning that Cornwall is sinking fast! Young people are at the forefront of these challenges and should have a key role in structuring debates around it. Yet, the young people we are working with often feel cut out of these debates. This sense of exclusion is heightened by the remote locations of their coastal communities, the limited access to public transport, and recent funding cuts to youth centres and activities.

Our project’s goal is to engage young people actively in a conversation on climate change and to help them share a message with the public and relevant policymakers. I have the privilege of working with two incredible women – the Co-Investigator Dani Schmidt, Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol, and Sophie Marsh, professional animator and the project’s artistic director. Dani is bringing her world-leading expertise in climate change to the project, and Sophie is teaching young people how to become animation producers. We are partnering with a local charity, Young People Cornwall, whose mission is to give young people enhanced opportunities and promote inclusion.

That sounds like such a brilliant project, with an important impact on those communities. Climate change is currently at the top of many people’s agendas, with COP26 now in full swing. Naturally, much of the talk centres around the science, but your latest research project combines climate science with anthropology and visual arts – what can this interdisciplinary approach bring to the table?

This is very much a collaborative effort! Our interdisciplinary approach can hopefully bridge the field of climate science with the knowledge of local communities, and specifically that of young people. While science can tell us much about the causes and effects of climate change (Dani’s expertise), we need an approach that is centred on young people’s own perspectives and can explore their worldviews – and this is brought in by anthropology and ethnography (my own field). But in order to engage young people actively in the process, we need participatory methods. This is where animation (Sophie’s world) comes in. Co-production of animation is a great method that allows young people to write and animate (literally ‘give life to’) their own stories, and to share them with others. We want this project to do all of this, while giving young people a new sense of hope and empowering them to realise that their voices matter and can be heard widely.

You can follow the project here:

https://twitter.com/EthnoAnimation

https://www.instagram.com/ethno_animation/

Camilla Morelli is a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Bristol. She specialises in the anthropology of childhood and youth, and the use of participatory visual methods in youth-centred research. Find out more about Camilla’s research.