The relationship between starlight, photography and materiality: London based artist and curator Melanie King in conversation with Maria Abramenko.
How do you balance creative activities, as a curator and artist?
I organise and timetable my days so that I can become fully absorbed within each task. I use Calendars, Trello and Slack and keep in regular contact with fellow co-directors of the collectives I run. The projects that I am involved with curating are very much tied in with my work as an artist. This means that my artistic and curatorial projects feed into one another, and that my brain isn’t stretched too far when I bounce from one project to another.
Please tell us about your wonderful @lumen_london project? How do you choose your artists and curators?
Lumen is an art collective, focused on themes of astronomy and light – led by myself, Louise Beer and Rebecca Huxley. Through art, exhibitions and seminars we aim to raise a dialogue about how humanity understands existence. We are particularly interested in a multi-dimensional perspective on how humanity understands or understood the sky. Lumen first launched at The Crypt Gallery in Saint Pancras on the Winter Solstice in December 2014. Since then, Lumen has curated exhibitions about a wide range of subjects including the detrimental effects of light pollution, black holes, the cosmic sublime and the new Moon. Lumen has a gallery within The Crypt of St John on Bethnal Green which we have kept since 2015. We have organised a number of residencies for artists to view the night sky, in Atina, Italy, the Lake District, UK and Cornwall, UK. We have been commissioned to create light installations for Green Man Festival, the Museum of Freemasonry, the British Science Association and Vivid Projects Birmingham amongst others. In 2020, Lumen received Emergency Coronavirus funding from Arts Council England and we have been able to commission artists worldwide, and lead a series of online events. We produced “Our Night Skies”, a commission for artists from all over the globe to create a time-lapse of the night sky. Artists filmed a time lapse of the night sky safely from their back yard, garden or isolated park. Looking up at the sky is a shared experience and is an act that connects us to our distant ancestors as they would have seen a similar view. Due to the constellations differing depending on our position in the Northern and Southern hemisphere, we see the night sky from different angles. We worked with Anna Dakin and the Earth Society, based in Alice Springs Australia to produce a hybrid-online / offline exhibition “On Ancient Earth’. This exhibition was accompanied by artists talks from artists speaking from all over the world. We produced a reading group with Becky Lyon (Elastic Fiction) called “Reading For Uncertain Times”, looking at books such as “Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe, “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer and “Bodies of Water” by Astrida Neimanis. More recently, we led a seminar with curator Jaya Ramchandani looking at her curatorial projects “The Story Of Foundation” and “We Learn We Grow”. Jaya has produced a number of amazing projects around themes of light, space and science, within India and beyond. In the coming months, Gem Toes Crichton will be leading “Return of The Light”, a monthly group discussion which aims to reflect upon and share the ways with which their lives and creative practice have been affected as a consequence of the global pandemic. Due to the months in which the meetings will take place, we will focus on the approaching Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice within the Northern Hemisphere. During these months, light will return, bringing with it – spring and summer days. We have also been commissioned by An Lanntair in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis to produce an exhibition for the Dark Skies Festival. As part of the exhibition, we led online live events and workshops on lumen printing and solargraphy. We primarily use open calls and expressions of interest to find artists and curators for exhibitions as this enables us to continually expand our networks and find new artists. However, as we have been running since 2014, we have also developed long standing relationships with artists and curators that we enjoy working with. Each artist and curator brings something special to the collective!
How do you see London galleries art scene in last period (pre virus) and how would you imagine it in the future?
Honestly, the situation for independent London Galleries was precarious before the pandemic. Due to the rise in rents, many galleries we knew and loved had to shut down. The Lumen Gallery is situated within the crypt of a church in Bethnal Green, so we do not have the looming threat of “development” but it is still difficult to keep going. Thankfully funding from Arts Council England has allowed us to keep going.
I can see that the art scene is going to become decentralised from London. I moved to Margate in 2018 and am now living in Ramsgate. I have seen countless artists, musicians and curators move from London, particularly within the pandemic. This enables artists to have a better quality of life and more time to create. I see this as a good thing – with art and culture spread out more widely across the country. I can also imagine events continuing online. One bright light in this dark time has been how artists and curators have begun working with artists they respect from all over the world. Instead of wasting time and resources travelling, we have collectively been able to create poignant events staying in our respective towns and cities.
Where are you getting your inspirations from? Books? Music? Art? Please name some.
I have always been inspired by science, and how it continually pushes the limits to our knowledge. I love reading about quantum physics, astronomy and geology, for example. These subjects enable us to think beyond our own life span, into deep and astronomical time. I find a lot of inspiration from exploring. In pre-coronavirus times, I would often participate in artist residencies in dark sky areas to find inspiration. Now that I am situated in Kent (UK), I have been getting to know the landscape here in more depth. I go for long walks, cycles and swim in the sea. These experiences help me to come up with new ideas – for example, finding a new spot to photograph the stars or foraging seaweed and sea spinach to create new developer recipes. I am also influenced by many other artists and have found Instagram as a great tool for inspiration. I have participated in a group project called “The Sustainable Darkroom” led by Hannah Fletcher, as part of the London Alternative Photography Collective that I co-direct. Artists in this research group have done some amazing things, such as creating cyanotypes from bioplastic, recycling silver to make jewellery and making developers from lots of different plants!
What are you working on at the moment?
Since 2015, I have been working on “Ancient Light: Rematerialising The Astronomical Image” – a practice based PhD at the Royal College of Art. The work comprises of a thesis and a series of long exposure photographs of the night sky. Ancient Light was born out of a desire to capture light from distant stars directly onto photosensitive film. Distinct from photographs of terrestrial objects, light travels for thousands, if not millions, of years before reaching the lens. To me, these images demonstrate the intimate material connection between humans, the landscape we live in and the space existing beyond our atmosphere. To further explore the material connections between humans, the landscape and the cosmos – I have been using sustainable photographic processes within my work to limit the environmental impact of my practice. I aim to complete the PhD in 2022! From February 2021 to April 2022, I am Artist In Residence at the School of Metallurgy and Materials at the University of Birmingham, working with Dr Leah-Nani Alconcel to deliver related workshops in schools. I will be working on a project called “Origin Of Silver”, researching the materiality of silver; from the production of silver within the cosmos, extraction from Earth and its uses within our society. This project focuses on silver use in photography, suggesting methods of using the material that is less harmful to the environment. One part of the project will be looking into creating becquerel daguerreotypes using reclaimed silver from fixative. The results of the project will be exhibited at Argentea Gallery, Birmingham from February to April 2022. This project is funded by Arts Council England and the Royal Academy of Engineering – and will be my main focus for the next year. I am also working on a commission from Mural called “Submerged Landscapes”. According to the Climate Central app, the place where I live – Thanet, UK is likely to become an island again within the next decade. Submerged Landscapes is an ongoing project where I am documenting the affected areas before they are submerged, using the materiality of the sea (seaweed, sea spinach and ocean water) within the production of the work. This project will be launched with its own dedicated website in May 2021.