Art In Unusual Places - Cochineal

As my travel 'wish list' continues to grow, I find myself becoming more and more infatuated with the idea of merging art and travel. 

More than simply visiting a country and its galleries and museums, I want to understand the true roots of a region's art-making, and for some reason natural dyes seemed like a good place to start.

As luck should have it the perfect jumping-off point fell into my lap a few weeks ago, when I watched an art documentary that mentioned cochineal. Admittedly I have absolutely zero knowledge of the making and uses of natural dyes, so it's safe to say that up until now I've taken them for granted.

Really, how often do we consider where the colour in our paints, dyes and make up comes from?

I guess if I had to really mine my brain for solutions I'd say that dye was made from a vague combination of plants, or that all dye nowadays was just made from soupy chemicals, but as it turns out, cochineal is made from huge quantities of parasitic insects, and is still widely used today.

'Cochineal' (aka Carmine, or the pigment shades 'Crimson' and 'Scarlet') is the name of the dye made from tiny parasite-like bugs that live on cacti, commonly produced in Central and South America. 

Once the bugs have cultivated a gross, crusty surface on the cacti, they're brushed off and then boiled, sun-dried and crushed to make a powdered dye. Oh, and it takes 70,000 bugs to make 453 g (1 lb) of cochineal dye.

Now I should probably mention at this point that the cochineal bugs aren't really bugs at all, rather 'scale insects', which seem to be somewhere between insect and plant-parasite-growth thing. 

They don't have any visible legs or antennae, so really the only thing making them bug-like is their hard outer shells. Despite possibly angering some vegans, I find the whole process fascinating.  

Before the discovery of cochineal by colonial explorers, Europe had never seen such a vibrant red. Despite succeeding with colours like blue and purple, European-made red often turned out to be murky, dull and underwhelming, often comprising a mixture of cow dung, plant roots and bull's blood. 

It's thought that Mesoamerican peoples began utilising the cochineal bug as early as 2000 BC, and the process of cultivating and harvesting was fine tuned by indigenous peoples over the ages. The societies of Central and South America had hundreds of years to perfect and economize the cochineal bug, and it was used as a status symbol amongst the dignitaries of the Aztec empire.

Once conquistadors invaded, and stole sack-loads of cochineal to send back to Europe, its popularity, not to mention demand for the product, exploded. European Renaissance painters finally had the 'perfect red', and immediately set to using it in grand portrait paintings. 

This is just one example of the importance of ancient processes, and their relevance to this day. Cochineal is considered a natural dye, and is used in lipstick, yoghurts, juice and even, most bizarrely, some cheap meats like frozen crab.

If it weren't for the indigenous civilisations who first discovered the cochineal bug and figured out it could be used to make dye, Europe may never have produced the rich red pigments we have today. Stuff like this motivates me to keep exploring, but to approach such creative possibilities from a point of collaboration, not exploitation.  



Street View

Long before coloured walls became a backdrop for Instagram bloggers, they made up just one aspect of intricately decorated city architecture. 

The appearance of a city is a projection of its people, I think, so it's always fascinating to browse photos of far-reaching multi coloured buildings, and imagine whose hand painted them. 

Before travelling to Panama next month I'm easing myself into the world of amateur (very amateur) photography. I have absolutely no experience as a photographer, but have massive amounts of respect for those who do.

Similarly to this inspiration post from a few weeks ago, below I've rounded up some of the photos that inspired me this week. They weren't taken by me (Flickr really is an inspiration goldmine) but they do have that spark of colour and interest that I think I might adopt in my own photography someday.

Wild Within @ Guest Projects Hackney - The Exhibition For People Who Don't Like Exhibitions

In a city with plenty of museums and galleries conscribing to the classic (dare I say - boring) model of displaying work, Guest Projects has stepped in to shake things up. 

The canal-side exhibition space gives artists and art collectives a free (!!) month-long period in which to display their work, affording them the time and space to test out new ideas, encourage collaboration and feedback and promote their work and their cause.

From July 21 st - August 8 th, the space was occupied by a collection of work curated by La Wayaka Current, a UK-based art initiative, whom I happen to be doing a residency with in September. They organise residencies in remote locations - Arctic, Desert and Tropic - and encourage artists to explore the implications of working in these environments. 

La Wayaka Current packed their allotted exhibition time with talks, workshops and film screenings, and managed to smoothly arrange 21 pieces of work in a single square room. With a selection of works ranging from sound installation to traditional Panamanian Molas, the catalogued items were as diverse as the countries they came from. 

The work celebrated the diversity of plants, cultures and biomes whilst promoting the potential of earthy materials like wood, cotton canvas and clay. With many artists exploring themes of climate change and the increasingly strained relationship between city and wilderness, the collection of work could have easily become accusatory or preachy. 

The actual result was far from it, rather a celebration of the professionalism and potential of a collection of diverse artists, in which the viewer is subtly nudged to ruminate on the fragility and transcendence of the last few wildernesses on Earth (one of the best ways of turning people on to the realities of climate change, in my opinion).

guest projects 3.JPG

The 'gallery' was reminiscent of an informal pop-up exhibition or artist-led space. It was refreshing to see so many works of art in a space that wasn't the least bit intimidating, nor creaking under the weight of institutional norms (no 'Do Not Touch' signs or gallery reps pushing to make a sale). 

I visited on the exhibition's final day. I hate to say it, but if there wasn't a solid 'end point' or fairly short duration to the show, I probably wouldn't have made the effort to travel down to London to see it, which piles credibility onto the 'pop-up exhibition' model. The work felt new and exciting and wasn't like anything else I'd seen over a few days in London.

Everything had a place - it didn't feel like anything was included just for the sake of it, and unlike older, more established galleries, there wasn't the slightly morbid sense that the work had been wheeled out of a store room for a few weeks, just to be stuffed back in when the exhibition ended. Furthermore, since each piece was, if not created, then at least conceptualised whilst on residency in a remote location, the work maintained a sense of ephemerality.

The one gripe I did take away, was the lack of clear marking against each piece of work. There was a floor plan posted near the entrance, where the works were named alongside corresponding numbers, so I guess if I was really concentrating I could've made a mental map, but I ended up feeling a bit blind. 

Call me old fashioned, but I love traditional gallery plaques that at least tell me the artist's name, the medium and a short description of the work. If I have to work hard to unearth this information, chances are I'll give up out of frustration. The thought of artists not being fully recognised for their work gives me anxiety, and it seems as if the process of forgoing traditional museum placards is making this a real possibility.

I remember first seeing this method at Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester whilst I was at university. Rather than using traditional information plaques the curators decided to number each piece and provide a laminated sheet with the titles of each corresponding number. This did allow for more paintings-per-wall, but I found the whole thing immensely confusing. Not to mention the fact that museum hand-outs have a 90% chance of being left in the cafe/cloakroom/handbag of an elderly lady and so half the visitors didn't even get to see the listed titles. 

I have a hunch this will be the next challenge for contemporary curators. Until then, more inter-disciplinary pop up shows, please.


Guest Projects, 1 Andrews Road, London, E8 4QL