James McKay manages a centre for research into renewable energy, called EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Low Carbon Technologies and Bioenergy at the University of Leeds, and he is also a science communicator. His work involves creating a lot of visualisations of different scientists’ research as well as doing a lot of public engagement and outreach. He also creates the best images I’ve come across of what a low carbon future would look like. I was fascinated by his work, how plausible and possible his drawings felt, and how un-‘Utopian’ they were. I talked with James on the phone (the quality was too poor to enable a podcast sadly). I started by asking him how the beautiful drawings that Paul Chatterton uses in his book ‘Unlocking Cities: a manifesto for real change’ came about?
They came out of a previous project that Paul had been involved in. I spent that last 5 years or so doing some big projects trying to visualise what a positive, optimistic, sustainable future would look like. We produced a couple of graphic novels that showed all these visualisations that had come out of peoples’ research and the outreach we had done with community groups and with children, and writers and artists.
Paul had been involved in that, and then he was producing his book, and he asked me for permission to use some of the existing images that we’d produced for the previous book. But because what he wanted was slightly different, I thought it would be a great opportunity to do some new images because he had some quite strong ideas about what was going into each chapter and how that would represent what he wanted to communicate.
I used a lot of the ideas that had come out of the previous project, and then did some rough work, that I sent to Paul and then he gave me some feedback, and I produced the final versions. I didn’t have to do too much additional research, it had already been done. I was really pleased with the way they turned out, because they looked like a really nice unit of work which fitted with the chapters really well.
Do you work on paper? And how do you start to imagine that in your head? What’s your process?
The ideas for the work I’ve done in this area have come out of five years of intensively doing hundreds and hundreds of sessions where we’ve worked with schools and community groups and researchers, to ask them to come up with their visualisations. We go into a school, we tell them about the problem of climate change, or we try to find out what they know about climate change, and then rather than focusing on all the terrible things that are happening, we get them to imagine it as a problem for them to solve.
We might work with children who are 10 years old, or 18, or with community groups of professors, so every different group you can imagine, and we get them to visualise their ideas. My philosophy is that in order to try to solve a problem you have to sketch it. Once you have something down in rough on a piece of paper, you can react to it. If it’s just in people’s heads, or it’s just text, that’s very limited.
We get people to produce their own visualisations. They might be just sketches or stick figure visualisations, but those have given the ideas, and we’ve collated so many pictures and large finished pieces of work that we have a really good feel for what people think about the future in terms of what it would look like. The books that we’ve produced have developed that. We got some professional comic artists to develop some of the artwork, and then some of the artwork from some children and people who contributed that so good anyway that we didn’t need to change it and we just included that in the books.
The work that I’ve done comes out of my background, as someone who works with scientists to communicate their ideas. Usually I’ll get a brief from a scientist saying “our research is about this particular piece of knowledge that we’ve just come across, for example it might be someone who’s just found an archaeological site or a dinosaur skeleton or something, and they want to visualise what that would look like.
They would give me a brief with all the technical details, and I will go away and think about what kind of picture I’d like to do, produce a rough sketch, and take it back to them, and usually that triggers the process of them saying “well actually this is not correct, you need this here, or that there”, but also that helps them deliver their own ideas, because once they do that that rough visualisation, it enables people to see in a different way than any other kind of approach that I can think of. Sometimes some new knowledge comes out of that process.
Once I’ve got a rough sketch and some feedback then I produce the final image. In a lot of cases it develops. The image on the front of Paul’s book that’s from one of our previous projects. It developed over about 2 years while we were running the project. I developed the composition around some rough ideas, and then during the project I kept updating it and updating it, until it’s really dense, really full of information. At the end of the project I was able to work it up into a final piece, and that seems to have become the key image for the project, one that Paul wanted to use for the cover and for other things as well, it’s been a really successful image.
I work by hand, and I mess around with photocopies and scans and turning things around and working on top of them, usually the rough drawing process for me is very quick, very manual, so all I do is scan in a rough sketch so any updates just go on top of that. I just don’t get on with computers in terms of doing artwork.
I have seen a lot of work where people try to write about, or capture visually what that kind of positive future looks like, and often they are unbelievable, or they try to hard for things to be perfect, they don’t feel true. But what I love about your work is that it feels really believable and true. I wonder as an artist, what is that balance point between it being fantasy and it being something that feels tangible and credible and that we can actually imagine ourselves in?
Personally I feel like I’ve developed my artwork over the last few years and through these projects I’ve learned a huge amount. In some areas where I’ve worked with scientists I’m a total novice, I don’t know anything about the subject area, and I’m just being led by them. But with these projects about climate change and the low carbon future, I’ve now assimilated a huge number of ideas and influences, so I am coming from a position of quite broad knowledge of what’s going on, so I think that feeds into it.
I would also say that through my artwork I am often trying to visualise environments. So, real places. Thinking about what they might have looked like in the past, or in the future. In a lot of cases, and certainly with the ones from Paul’s book, I was using real photo reference of real places in Leeds, trying to insert the new things, or the concepts onto a real place, so I’m not thinking of fantasy or sci-fi visions, I’m coming from a photo of a real place and then trying to work out what it would look like if you had new technologies inserted into that landscape.
That’s something I really enjoy doing, and it certainly brings people up short when they see a real place, or a place they know, that you’ve done a fantasy vision of, because they can immediately see what would work and what wouldn’t work. Recently I’ve been doing pictures of real places and doing them in public as live paintings, so I’m doing the painting while people are walking past, and they contribute their suggestions to the picture while I’m working, and then I incorporate their portrait into the picture, so I might be doing a picture in Leeds, or a picture in York, or in Hull, and then incorporating the people who live there into the vision of the future that shows all the streets as they are or could be in the future. It’s about laying that concept work onto a real place…
We are surrounded by dystopian visions and a sense that it’s too late. Most of the films we see are dystopian and that’s the vision that fills our field of vision so we can’t see beyond it to what’s on the other side, namely the kind of future you are trying to capture. Why is it powerful to be able to tell the story of that future we could create? What is the power in it?
It is very easy to think of the dystopian ideas. It’s almost lazy. Thinking of the good future is actually really hard because you have to vision something that is qualitatively different. Everyone knows what dystopia looks like. It’s also exciting, in a dramatic way.
The reason that all these Hollywood movies and TV series and things are dystopian is that they’re interesting dramatically. We are all attracted to stories of disasters. When we do sessions with the public, even though we’re coming from a point of view of trying to get them to visualise the optimistic side, they still gravitate towards doing dystopian visions, and it takes a real effort to wean people off doing that.
As soon as you have even just a rough sketch of something that’s optimistic, you then have something that people can react to, the visions can be tremendously powerful in terms of motivating people to make some real changes because they can then start to see there are things that are achievable, and it doesn’t have to be the dystopian, lazy thinking that most people have in their minds.
If dystopian futures are more exciting, what can best sell the idea of the positive ones if it’s not the drama?
This is a really key point I’ve been struggling with for the last couple of years, after it dawned on me that this was what was happening with our engagement. The dystopian stuff is exciting, in the way that natural disasters and accidents do get people’s interest, whereas the good future can sometimes be boring. For example, when we tell people about the energy system and we get them to think about low carbon energy as opposed to fossil fuels, there is a case for saying that it is actually quite boring to be talking about that.
The Centre that I manage is full of engineers, so we are effectively trying to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists, but when we go to schools and talk to them about the energy system, they know virtually nothing about how their energy is produced, how their food is produced, where their waste goes. All those things are regarded as being boring. The changes we have to make could be equally boring, in terms of peoples’ interest in these kinds of practical issues.
I’ve been really struggling with that. The project that I’m currently running is a funded project where we are asking people to write exciting stories set in a sustainable future. I don’t know what we will get, but the idea is we will have some really interesting views and perspectives so we can show people that this future is not dull and worthy but actually an exciting place. But I am a bit sceptical about how that will work for the project, whether we will get people to make that jump. I imagine we will get a lot more entries where the only exciting bits are the dystopian bits, where people are talking about flooding and sea level rise and that kind of thing. That’s the hardest thing, to make it exciting.
What does that tell us about how stuck we are as a culture, heading off over a cliff thinking “this is exciting!”
Yeah, it’s a big block. The only who are really passionate about the alternatives for society are regarded as being eccentric hippies who want to go off and create little communes in the middle of nowhere. We have to fight against this huge onslaught of very exciting shiny things that we are presented with every day as being the things that we should be paying attention to.
A lot of the novels people write about that future tend to be very utopian. And utopian is often used to dismiss imaginative ideas. I love how your work is not utopian, it’s not perfect, it’s a world that is OK.
Yes. A project I led called ‘Dreams of a Low Carbon Future’ is a 100 page-long graphic novel (and a second more recent volume), where we examine a positive future but fully conscious that there are lots of major issues that have resulted from not making the transition to a low carbon future as soon as we should have. We allude to various disasters: we’ve got some sea level rise, we’ve got conflicts between political groups, we’ve got issues in the Arctic, but at the same time we present it as an optimistic vision, and again it’s based on real places, on Yorkshire, so that constrains what you can put in there.
For example the sea level rise in Yorkshire of a couple of metres means we’ve got a giant lagoon in the middle of Yorkshire. In the book, rather than that being a disaster, people have learnt how to live on the water and use aquaculture and various things that mean they are utilising that new geographical feature. I put a lot of work into trying to see where there were problems, issues that some people might say was a disaster, and what an optimistic society would do to adapt to that.
Would you have any tips for anyone who is trying to engage their communities in this type of work?
A few warnings about how to approach it. A lot of people that we come across are full of despair, the ones who are not full of despair tend to not know much of the detail, so when they do find out more about what’s going on, so when they do find out they tend to become very pessimistic and worried. Anyone who’s going in to do those kinds of facilitations I would say should be careful about how you present it, perhaps gloss over a bit on the detail. Or go in straight away saying “we know there’s a problem, but we’re focusing on the positives, and when people do start going into the dystopian stuff, just try to steer them back into the positive, treat it as problems that there are some solutions to. But always be realistic and not trying to give false hope.
It’s a really difficult tightrope to walk. Anyone who is doing that kind of thing should be aware of that. It’s something I struggle with all the time. For example, a lot of things have been thrown up in the air by the 1.5o IPCC report. People have really latched onto that and become very apocalyptic. When we do a session, since we’ve been doing that, we ‘ve had to say “you can get that message from it, but there are still things we can do”.
Do you find that doing this work has made you more or less optimistic?
I came from a place where I was incredibly bleakly pessimistic. I didn’t have any hope. I was originally interested in seeing the optimistic side almost as a thought experiment exercise to break out of that thought process. The optimistic stuff came out of the whole engineering aspect. I’m not an engineer myself, but I’m working with these people who are engineers, and we’re trying to inspire children and other people to recognise the value of science in engineering in solving problems, so I’ve had to be optimistic, but I’ve found that through that, I’m now quite passionately optimistic. I find a lot of people have that lazy dystopian vision where there’s no hope and there’s nothing you can do and it’s almost like they’ve switched off. I try to fight that even though I’m fully aware and as a person I naturally find myself to be very pessimistic about human nature, so I’ve got two different things going on in my head at the same time!
When people have that ‘it’s too late’ view, you said it feels like it’s lazy, but what is happening in people with that? Is it just laziness? A form of denial? What do you think is the obstacle to their being able to make the shift you’ve made?
I think it is a form of denial. Recognising that there is a massive problem, and that we’re really going to have to think hard, that’s a tough ask and that’s going to radically change people’s lives. In a lot of cases people are not ready for that. I would say that when I meet people who’ve got that position, they tend to be in engagement activities where we meet people in the streets, in a shopping mall or at a public event where they ask a couple of questions and that’s the only engagement we have. They can come up with a glib answer and not really think any more about it.
It is very difficult to take that any further and really explore what the issues are there, what’s going on in that person’s mind. But it’s just denial, because they’re aware that if they actually took it seriously, and if they didn’t go for that lazy option of “there’s nothing that can be done”, then they’d really have to turn their life upside down…
If you were the Prime Minister, elected on a ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’ platform, on a commitment to boost imagination across society, where would you start?
From what I’ve seen, the biggest thing in making a difference to our collective imagination would be to enable scientists and experts to get out into the community at a really deep level. Not taking experts out and wheeling them out to a public lecture for an hour, but working with a community over a long period of time and bringing a huge range of different people together, so each region would set up big public debate groups involving all of the experts, to do the kind of sessions we do, but which are superficial because we only get 2 hours, but to do it in a meaningful way, almost something like jury service, but jury service where you’re involved in a group that’s debating solutions to a problem, with all the experts on hand. That’s what I’d implement.