Art is a test site and a learning tool. A case for environmental-awareness art.

The intertwining roles of art, research and communication are often behind the intentions for many art residencies and projects. But what puzzles me, is the tiny number of opportunities or requests for arts practitioners to raise public awareness of environmental issues, and to communicate or create conversation about solutions in this area.

Instead, I keep coming across art projects and initiatives that are abstract, removed from visibility and open conversation, due to access restrictions or use of jargon and trend-based graphics/art vacuum imagery, that appeals only to those who are trained in graphics theory.

So, I’m feeling a bit let down by the arts and cultural institutions and funders. Where is the visible, emotive, responsive, clever art that reacts to environmental issues.

With my personal interest and work history of communicating the importance of a more sustainable and ethical fashion/textiles industry, I found the current art installation ‘The Secret Garden’ by Ian Berry interesting.


The installation was made using denim offcuts and deadstock – particularly denim donated by the Cone Mills White Oak factory in North Carolina – the last remaining selvedge denim factory in The US. The factory closed on 31st December last year. No more sovereign selvedge denim for America. A legend has died.

With it, numerous jobs. And with it too, the chance for low fuel-mile ‘Made in America’ cotton denim, that also feeds the US economy.

The history and future of fabric and fashion production in the current environmental and economic climate are worth widespread consideration. Most of us wear clothes, even if we don’t consider ourselves to care about style or fashion.

To me, art is the best ‘test site’ for communication about important issues, because the stakes are remarkably low compared to those in farming (if we’re thinking about cotton and other fibre crops), fabric and garment production and sales industries. With art we can test public perception and gauge and inform opinions, needs and wants of people.

Art can be used to formulate and develop social and environment design models too; It’s a test site for ideas and considerations, but without the huge amounts of money and the 12-year long contracts that happens in production.


My piece: ‘The selvedge edge of the New World Order’, 
Reclaimed denim, hand-painted fabric remnants, screen-print, shirting fabric.

Visual art can also get away with saying more, by saying nothing specific at all! Art produced in a free manner, in a free world, maintains peoples’ ability to speak ro relate truths, usually outside of bureaucratic or corporate restrictions, about industries in relation to workers rights and the environment. And art does the same for many other issues.

For this reason I highly applaud art that gets people talking about things we need to know about.
And whilst some people may dislike the art, others love it and learn from it. The people who hate it will come to the knowledge elsewhere, another time. But art works as a learning instigator and conversation starter for a great many people.

The beauty of The Secret Garden installation is that it is on display in The Children’s Museum for Art, in New York. Children are key in the intended audience. Children are a great ‘tool’ – (horrible word to use, sorry) for activism. This is because they tug on their parents’ sleeves and ask ‘why’ and ‘what’ all the time. And that means the parents must find out, and explain or react. It’s a double learning curve. It’s fantastic.


When I posted about The Secret Garden on twitter, fashion activist Allie McConnell responded (which is great in itself – the art is clearly creating a talking point, regardless of what you think of it) and said she considered it to be a poor tribute to an important, historic textiles factory. While The Secret Garden installation may, to some, appear a little aesthetically twee in light of the sadness of the Cone Mills factory closure, I think it’s a great site for discussion and for making a case for longevity in the ways we receive important and topical information too. By this I mean that the moment of experiencing activist art – whether you like it or not – can have longevity and effect. For example; The kids that visit this installation, and their parents too will remember the day they spent there, maybe for years to come. Although many of them may forget the meaning behind the art, they could have told their friends about it when they first went, creating an infinite chain of knowledge.


I’ve been working on communicating the history and future of the denim industry, in relation to environmental and labour concerns, for a few years. My angle on denim comes from it’s presence as a cult item in many a subcultural scene. I’ve written pages and pages before about the ways in which the punk rock scene is sustainable – the dedication to a staple pair of jeans being just of the ways. The reverence for denim amongst denim fans keeps jeans and jean jackets in use for decades. The items become sacred, cared for, passed down.

So when Allie and I had a discussion about the success (or not in Allie’s case) of The Secret Garden installation, and she mentioned she felt uncomfortable about Ian Berry’s use of flowers as a symbol in the installation, I was encouraged to finish my most recent denim-related artwork… as it contains very different symbolism.

Incidentally, I appreciate Ian’s use of flowers. They could be considered to be flowers of remembrance – although they are not laid solemnly at a grave. They instead communicate to me the serenity and staying power of a beautiful natural landscape; like the confidence and staying power of a beautiful pair of jean. The regenerative and restorative abilities of a garden system are a model framework for the future of the fashion and textiles industry.

RE:CYCLE Viktor & Rolf collection


Think of a seasonal cycle of a garden, or of compost; A natural ecosystem is the ultimate feedback/recycle/reuse system. This ideology and design approach – a circular design approach – should be applied to fashion collections and fibre crop cultivation.

Viktor and Rolf in fact are the most recent high profile fashion retailer to edge towards the circular economy model. Their recent collection RE:CYCLE reuses deadstock and remnants of fabric from their previous collections. This is of course practical waste reduction, but also adds a spin to the collection that may give the garments a longevity; they are more historical in fashion terms with this unique attribute.


Viktor & Rolf looking fly in denim

So whether you like Ian Berry’s ‘The Secret Garden’ installation or not, your small friends may like it, and it has started at least one conversation between Allie and I, and we’re both active in spreading information in our local and wider communities, through business ventures, campaigns, or simply in conversation.

So thank you artists and designers who make visibly art that starts conversation and help people feel activated and knowledgable.

And funders – get funding.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Karen says:

    An interesting read, but all set up on a false premise for seemingly the authors perspective of why she thinks the piece was made.

    While there are elements of side points to be made on the environment, it seemed to be rather incidental that the denim came from the last mill to close down, he could have used any other denim, but chose to take the American denim offered to him. Being in the US, it was a good decision.

    It was never made to be a ‘tribute’ it was made with the kids in mind and to inspire them, to try and get them to visit the communal gardens and get outside in new york and also with in mind that the kids will experiment with making some things like flowers in denim. A place of wonder and magic, not to lecture the kids or parents.

    Granted, he may have changed his style a little bit but its an special piece that has left many minds very happy and willing to get working on creating.

    Often ‘activists’ like to jump on something to make their own points, blinded by their own perspective of things. This more often than not alienates others who may have been willing to listen if it was presented in a much better way.


    1. Thank you for reading Karen.
      I can see that you feel i’ve written this from my perspective; putting my own angle on it. Of course this is the case, and point!
      I purposefully did not go into the actual intended purpose of the artwork as an inspirational piece for kids. The reason being, that I had had this long, interesting conversation with the artist Ian Berry, and with another person who so happens to be a fashion ‘activist’ (by that I mean that she is a business woman with a triple bottom line approach – not what is widely considered activist, but I think you’ll agree is one of the most important ways to implement change – very different from the ‘alienating’ way of activism I think you are referring to).

      Anyway, the reason I chose to write the article, is this: Said fashion activist/businesswoman has responded to my tweet about how much I loved the aesthetics of the installation, and how it appealed to me as I work professionally with sustainable denim suppliers in my job.
      Her reaction was that the installation was ‘a poor tribute’ to the Cone Mills closure. This is where it got interesting; we were suddenly in a conversation about the voice that the installation, and indeed art, gives to people and to issues. Because art is an open-ended, very personal vision/presense, it is a wodnerful tool to start different types of conversations. And this means that different viewers will pick up on different suggestions or personal stories within the art; as I hope all the children it was intended for do too! For me this installation reminded me of two things; my Grandpa’s garden, and also of the time I was fired and abused at work when working for a textile manufacturer. This was a very upsetting time in my life, and you will see how I have put my own spin on this through my article.

      I appreciate your feedback about activism, but let me tell you this – there is nobody more aware of this than I. You can call me an activist, it’s what I am. But I have spent many years studying communication theory – I am not a protesting, shouting activist. I don’t believe in that. But this blog is the one place where I write things from my perspective, with my angle on things. And that is the very reason I use art, and not words. You can see here that my words have already been taken on as being too personal. Whereas art can remain personal yet also be open-ended. So I thank you for your comment; it backs up my theory that non-verbal communication is more personable, and personal – more inviting, and inclusive.

      This article was less of an article about Ian Berry’s garden installation, and more about the power of art to have the aforementioned traits, and therefore is a stronger learning and awareness tool than it is given credit for.

      And of course I am blinded by my own perspective of things – you are too. We all are. The key function of humans is that we have rationale and the ability to then put things into perspective. So when I saw this installation and thought of the way I was abused, I could have started ranting about that. Believe me it took some willpower not to! But I wanted to write about how we all perceive art in different ways, and it really doesn’t matter what meaning or function the artist intended – each viewer will always put their own spin on it.

      I want to frame it to you that your response to my writing, is perhaps blinded by a dislike for trending and widespread activism tactics. (which I myself also dislike!). I think you consider me an activist in a negative sense. Again; proof that my use of the word activist in the article has closed door of perception for you. Again, back-up that non-verbal communications have stronger presence, and may mean more to the individual.

      The ‘false premise’ under which you think my article was written (is personal reaction a false feeling!?) confuses me – as I say, it doesn’t matter how an artist intends a piece of art to be viewed or percieved, as we all put our own spin on it. My spin on this comes from my personal reaction, and my lens with which I see the world. My thoughts and words about that don’t undermine the artist, nor the children it is intended for. My feelings are not a false premise. Nor are the feelings of the people I spoke with about this piece of art – some who love it, some who don’t – we all react from our own life experiences. If we didn’t; there’d be no empathy and we’d all be bloody-minded murdering dogs!
      I am well aware of why the piece was made. But that is not what this article is about. This article is about how art, whatever its intention or positioning, can resonate in different ways. It may fail to do so – to be art that invites wonder and learning. But that doesn’t mean artists shouldnt try; as I say in my article, art is a ‘test-site’.
      This article may fail to demonstrate to you why I belive visual art to be a useful tool for community learning. But would you rather we didn’t have this conversation? I’m glad for it – what’s the point in anything if we don’t get to represent or give voice to our own feelings and what matters to us and our communities.


    2. There’s nothing ‘indidental’ or ‘side point’ about personal perception’ 😉
      Not in the world I live in! Art is supposed to illicit that in people.


  2. Karen says:

    my point was that you, or more likely the other girl, seem to have first seen Ian’s work as a ‘tribute’ to the mill. The false words of this (and i have seen articles that say this) and nothing to do with Ian’s work drew your conclusions as already it changed any semiotics in the work.

    Perhaps Ian’s work would have not had any effect on you otherwise, so it was a good thing. And of course we have our own angles – I love Ian’s work and know it well, so I come from that angle. It seems some in the press like to give some stories some other narrative, a hook, this one was false. All I meant is you started from this point, a false point, found Ian’s work presented in the wrong way, and then given your background created this story around it. From there, I don’t disagree with the things you say, not at all. You are very intelligent and these are important issues of our times. Please keep up the good work.

    The idea and the piece was designed long before he got this denim fabric. I just felt it was worth mentioning. Art is subjective, I’m sure some didnt like it, I’ve only ever come across Allie saying anything against, and hundreds if not thousands finding it amazing. Reading over it again, I think a lot of my reaction was against her and the twitter generation to shout out something based on falsehoods and base opinions with these. As i say, i agree with most you said and I’m sure a lot about what she may say about the industry – she just lost me though with the tone… that’s all.

    As for ‘There’s nothing ‘indidental’ or ‘side point’ about personal perception’’ I was merely pointing out that it was just a side point to his work and mainly after the fact he had got this denim.

    I’m not against you or anyone. I just thought that start point was very worth mentioning.


  3. Hi there
    You are right – the entire article was inspired by my confusion at Allie’s repsonse to the work as being negative. She’d read about it on the Selvedge magazine blog, which does divulge info about the Cone Mills plant, but does not specify Ian’s intention at all. This is where her information came from.
    I undoubtedly reacted to Ian’s work as a space for exploration and contemplation and play. (You won’t have seen it I imagine but I tweeted about about, exclaiming how I loved the idea of a garden made of denim. Nothing more – this is the tweet Allie reacted to, from her own angle, yes.)
    My primary concern is that people engage with the emotions that natural spaces can help with; certain paces and tones of life that are often bypassed in favour of mechanisation, digitization, the working world etc. So rest assured my own reaction came from there – which is indeed more in line with Ian’s intention.
    However – I think it’s worth noting that there can be no ‘false’ starting point.
    Only ‘unintended’ – if you need a name.
    I think that the perception Allie has, and the perception we all have of the artwork, is equally valid. Non of it comes from a false place.
    For example, I ran an art therapy workshop for people who had suffered a stroke. Somebody who has anxiety issues came too. But I didn’t exclude that person based on them getting off on a false interpretation or starting point; I think it would be too segregatory.
    That anxiety-sufferer may not have benefited as much, as my intention was to run a workshop for people with stroke, but his starting point for perceiving the experience made him garner results and experience during the workshop that were specific to his own needs and his own agency. I see this as a very similar template for how we might all experience art from different angles, none of it false at all.
    I don’t find it wrong to experience the art differently from the reason it was made.

    I also think that we can experience art to whatever end we need; without any prior knowledge of the artist or their work.
    It’s an exploratory process; not a verifiable formula for learning objectives. If it were, we might as well just sit in classroom and read it all in a text book. That’s how I feel anyhow 😉

    I really appreciate your feedback – i’m even interested how you found my blog. It isn’t something I like to publicise; it’s really just to show a paper trail as I apply for funding for some local outdoor arts activities to show my ongoing interest; it’s not an academic work at all!
    I’m interested to know where your background is too; do you work/study/view things in childhood studies or museums or art? Or something very different?


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