‘Utopian Realism’ is an exploration of rural utopianism, idealism and industrialism in the North East of England and Mid Wales by the artists Mair Hughes and Bridget Kennedy.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Heading South to Wales

The next part of our project took us to Mid Wales where we received very warm and generous hospitality from many people. I arrived in Newtown, Powys, on Sunday 5th June ready for a week of adventure in Mair's neck of the woods.

Mair and I started off at the Robert Owen Memorial Museum in the centre of Newtown. Robert Owen was born in 1771 in Newtown and returned there to die in 1858. Although he travelled the world and his largest achievements happened miles away from this small town he was born and died on the same street with two or three buildings bridging the gap between birth and death. Mair and I met with Pat Brandwood (the museum curator) and her husband John. They are absolutely dedicated to running and promoting the museum, which houses the largest collection of artifacts relating to Robert Owen, many more than the bigger and better funded New Lanark visitor Centre. Pat is extremely generous with her time and let us roam the museum at will. She also gave the resource room up for us as a kind of base camp. The museum has a whole host of publications by Robert Owen, which I will mention in more detail in later posts. We had two days in the museum, taking a break on Tuesday to pop across to the Oriel Davies Gallery to talk about potential exhibition space.

On Wednesday we went over to Machynlleth to visit MOMA Wales and the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT). We met with the curator of MOMA, Ruth Lambert, who has very generously offered us some space in the gallery in October. Next we headed up to CAT. We were to give a talk to the staff in the early evening so we were a little preoccupied (and nervous) as Sylvie Fabre (our main contact at CAT) showed us round various possible sites for us to exhibit work in October. We needn't have worried as Sylvie had managed to drum up plenty of interest for us and we left that evening feeling very energised by the response to our talk.

Mair's Godmother (Hillary) lives near(ish) to CAT so we stayed with her for the next couple of nights. She lives in beautiful place and runs an exquisite B + B, so we were well looked after. Next day at CAT we walked up to the reservoir that provides some of the power for CAT as well as running the cliff railway: a most enjoyable ride up from the car park to the visitor centre all powered by water. We got some stunning views of the old slate quarrying works on our way up and I enjoyed filming the reservoir before we went all the way up to the small wind turbines to get an overview of the CAT site.

We scuttled down the hill to join the CAT staff and volunteers for lunch in Tea Chest (the staff dining area and accommodation block for short term volunteers). It was really great to be able to meet and chat with all sorts of people in a relaxed and informal way and it felt like connections were beginning to form. People seemed to really relate to the ideas we are juggling in terms of sustainable and cooperative living and a connection with and respect for the place that you live in. Ideas and thoughts of and for the future are very much on the agenda for CAT, they have recently published a document called Zero Carbon Britain, which puts forward a strategy for energy consumption and production, looking towards a more sustainable future for Britain in 2030.

On Friday (10th June) we went back up the hill to help take down a small wind turbine that had ceased working, the engineers suspected it had been struck by lightening. The lowering of the turbine was a very well organised affair, Arthur (an engineer), made it an educational experience too. He laid out some facts about wind power and turbine size and I started to understand how these spinning things actually make electricity. This was beautifully illustrated when we opened up the turbine and found some very melted magnets. Diagnosis (90% certain): lightening strike.

We only had a few days at CAT but it felt like a very privileged insight into the workings of an extraordinary group of people. Our last day coincided with the 1st Birthday of the WISE building (a wonderful educational facility on site at CAT) so we joined in the celebrations partaking of a giant cake and playing a monster game of table tennis!!

Mair and I have already made plans to return to CAT at the end of July when we hope to deepen our understanding of the issues we have touched upon and discuss them further with the people we have met.

In the meantime its back to a relative degree of normality and lots of mulling over of ideas. And blogging.......

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