For the British pavilion, design team Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby created Forecast, a wind-powered installation that sits in the central courtyard of Somerset House. Cultured caught up with the duo to chat about the installation, the role of wind in the design and the Brits’ obsession with weather.
How have you interpreted the theme of Utopia by Design for the British pavilion? Jay Osgerby: This is the first London biennale and the theme is Utopia by Design inspired by the book by Thomas More, which celebrates its 500th anniversary of the publication of the book so we started with the book by reading it. Utopia is a fictional island in the book, an idyllic society and the fact that you can only reach the island by ship is something that kind of relates to the UK because we’re also an island. In those days you could only get to and from the UK by ship and so wind placed an important part in the travel and development of the UK. So wind became of the starting points for our project and then looked at the future and what’s the modern utopian vision for the UK. The UK is one of the world leaders in generating electricity, power from the wind. We have some of the largest offshore wind farms in the world and so connecting the past from the book and the future for this utopian vision of sustainable energy for the UK – that was our starting point.
Edward Barber: There’s one other point in terms of representing our national identity – the weather forms such an important part of it for us as an island. We’re always talking about the weather and it’s the first thing you’ll hear if you speak to a British person, it’ll be the first thing they comment on. So to create a contraption and in some ways tells how the weather is performing, we felt it was a really truthful link to our national identity.
Why do you think the British are obsessed with the weather? EB: Because we’re an island. The weather changes every 10 minutes. You can get a beautiful summer’s day but by 6pm it’s raining.
Can you explain how the “abstract meteorological machine” works? JO: It sits right in the middle of Somerset House and it’s massive. And it doesn’t have any mechanisms or motors or electrical power. It purely rests on bearings passively turning depending on the direction of the wind. So it’s an object that could have been created 100 years ago or 100 years hence and it can work without any other input in terms of modern technology. It’s counter-technology. It’s quite a historical piece in a way because it’s so self-reliant.
EB: When it comes down to practicality of what we’ve actually designed, it is an installation that interacts with wind. It responds to the wind in terms of the speed; it has a wind-speed anemometer at the top; it has a weathervane that shows the direction of the wind, and it also has a wind turbine that can harness the power of the wind and can revolve at high speed. So it has these three elements but they are intended to be very abstract. They’re not actually giving data. They don’t tell you the speed of the wind or how much power it’s harnessing or even the direction. It’s because utopia is more of an abstract, more of a thought than a reality. So everyone’s utopia is slightly different and utopia can be one day in one direction and another day in a different direction and the whole thing is an abstract interpretation of the idea of utopia.
What if there’s no wind during the biennale? EB: We debated at one point whether if there wasn’t any wind we should have some power but then it defeated the whole object because in the same way you couldn’t travel by ship if there was no wind, this thing won’t move if there wasn’t any wind but it’s still there and carries the same message but less interactive.
How have you incorporated the UK’s nautical history into the design? JO: Nothings’ been done literally if you think of masts on a ship or about sails on a boat but in terms of more contemporary vessels, the types of communications such as aerials and radars, there’s a definite reference to the piece we’ve created here which is between some kind of metrological machine and communication device so that’s our reference. It’s a mixture of languages.