Retrofitting the Earth
The art, invention and collaborative work of Cedric Carles
Cedric Carles is an artist and inventor and also the organiser of collaborative projects like the SolarSoundSystem, a worldwide network of radio transmissions transmitted by solar power and paleoenergy.org a multi-collaborative project to list retro-technological inventions from the past and the future. Rob La Frenais asked him how his creative and ingenious solutions could be applied to a planet about to enter a climate catastrophe.
In re-inventing the history of energy, what do you think the most important innovation could be, given that our current technologies are heating the planet towards a climate catastrophe?
With an impact of 25% of worldwide greenhouse gases, transportation is one of the main issues. To reduce the impact on the environment we need to find a solution and reduce the amount of CO2 mobility is releasing. This is a difficult topic because the capacity to move freely is considered part of our freedom. People say “don’t touch my car because it’s a part of my liberty”. Cars are also a strong social marker, which creates a bigger resistance to change. We have to work on that psychosocial aspect as well. Today, there is a very strong market inertia on conventional vehicles such as the heavy SUV type. There are 40 million vehicles in France — most of the fleet is second-hand with an average age of 11 years and a large part of which is diesel. How can we imagine that we will be able to replace 40 million vehicles with new ones, without any productive means, in terms of costs and resources? We don’t believe it. We have to retrofit and also use the network of more than 30000 garages in France, instead of having vehicles manufactured at the other end of the world, as ecological as they are. Nations are all making green growth plans and will be forced to change millions of vehicles to electric, using lithium-ion or hydrogen fuel as a solution to reduce their green gas emissions. Costs, lack of metal, and other needed resources make this scenario impossible. It just doesn’t work.
For me, retrofitting is the only solution. It means transforming an existing vehicle by only changing the engine or a small part of the engine. This solution is conducive to adaptation and the reversibility of uses (we can return to thermal if necessary as a new agro-carburant emerges). Retrofitting would apply to for cars but also for every means of transport such as planes and boats. The transformation solutions are agriculturally produced fuel (although not GMO) and gas and electricity. We can also use hydrogen in retrofitted thermal engines. A thermal engine is not efficient as most of the energy is turned into heat. However, these retrofitted hydrogen cars are low-tech and resilient and are not subject to resource-scarcity. As an example, have a look at these two guys transforming a truck after the Second World War and also Jean-Luc Perrier who retrofitted a car and made his hydrogen with a solar concentrator. In both these examples, they auto-financed their project. It was not a big company or state project!
To retrofit a large number of vehicles to have the strongest impact we need to use the network and knowledge of these 30,000 small garages. It’s a common effort where small actors have a huge role to play. Retrofitting is the best solution if we still live the way we do today, but we need to go further and talk about less mobility. Questioning the kilometres traveled each year and asking if they are really useful is an even better solution to reduce green gas emissions. Then there is the concept of demobilisation. We should not be moving for no reason, for example, just to drink a cocktail on an island. Air transportation is a great topic too, returning to Icarus’s dream of flying. We are working on the history of low-carbon flight, balloons, and bicycle-powered flight. We are also part of the Aerocene community in France. For me, ballooning is interesting for the transportation of materials. On the water, there are also sail transport projects and to retrofit boats we can put kites on them as skysails or improved sails, such as the Michelin project with inflating sails.
Innovation is not necessarily the solution for everything. We even looked into the Paleo-Energy research program network for solutions from the past which could be solutions for tomorrow. You can see these in our books, Retrotech and Lowtech, “Retrofutur, une contre Histoire des innovations énergétique” in French.
Your work has historically been about creating communities, such as Solar Sound System and Paleo-energetic.org. How do you see yourself featured as an individual artist within those communities?
As an artist, obsessed by the climate emergency since 2001, when I met people from the French IPCC I was shocked when I realised that extreme weather conditions are coming and seeing the inertia of society (and even my friends and family on these topics). All my energy as an artist and inventor/innovator is focused on the impact we can make to change this situation. I grew up in a ‘big family, sharing everything from the beginning, learning the value of living altogether. I’m from a generation of artists who work collectively, rather than as a ‘solitary genius. As Emmanuel Tibloux, director of the National School of Decorative Arts expresses it: “In art and design schools, the priority is not to train solitary geniuses, but to contribute to the emergence of groups capable of reinventing our ways of living and inhabiting, underlines, in a ‘forum of the world’. I feel like being part of a group, part of a tribe.
Following on from that, tell me something about the most recent work, Mutatio at FIAC and Space To Breath at Somerset House, London.
Space to Breathe was at the invitation of David Buckland from Cape Farewell, which brought together artists, activists, and scientists on air pollution in London. We performed with artists and audiences from London inside and in front of Somerset House and in the streets with very good DJ’s including Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker, it was super-fun. Jarvis was also acting as ‘MC Bike’ encouraging people to ride to make electricity. Air pollution because of our massive atmospheric emissions deserve actions, reactions, and collective mobilisations.
About Mutatio, at FIAC in Paris, the installation with SolarSoundSystem was with birdsong only, not music but a message from the machine, an attempt to communicate with nature. When the machine becomes a bird to denounce when the machines take the place of the birds. According to experts, the current extinction will be the 6th extinction. After thirty years of monitoring, the National Museum of Natural History, the French Office for Biodiversity, and the League for the Protection of Birds drew up an assessment that is just as dismal as in 2018. The population of birds of towns and fields in France has declined by 30% in 30 years. Of 123 species, 43 are regressing, 32 are expanding -which is not necessarily good news — and the rest are stable. The effects of global warming are also being felt. Birds have to deal with it and migrate north to continue living at a temperature that suits them. I am fascinated by research on animal languages and a book that has inspired me a lot is ‘intelligence in nature’ as mentioned by Jeremy Narby in his books. We don’t see intelligence in nature and for the moment intelligence is resilience. Here humans are not so clever, they are destroying their ecosystem in thinking there are no limits.
What was your role in the Saraceno project Albedo?
We met Tomás when he came for the FabCity meeting in Paris. He was looking for artists and communities who worked on energy and climate issues. Ewen Chardronnet from Makery knew us and put us in touch. We had opened StationE, our ecological wasteland with autonomous containers.
He came to visit it and discovered the paleo-energetic frieze, the solar sound system and Regenbox (a device for recharging non-rechargeable batteries) the wasteland, and the energy around it. A few hundred people were on the site, an atmosphere and collective energy existed there, and Tomás immediately offered to collaborate around the Aerocene project at the Palais De Tokyo to set up Aerocene France. So I participated in advancing this great history of solar balloons, exhibited some posters and references as well as Retrofutur in the ‘On Air’ exhibition at the Palais De Tokyo. We also helped with the logistics and the takeoff of the Aerocene solar-powered human flight balloon at Fontainebleau, adjusted the orientation of the reflectors on the site and despite the weather conditions, the balloon flew. I was among the few privileged to fly for a few minutes! Later Tomás called us back to take part in Art Miami. For Albedo, he was suggesting that we be part of the installation with SolarSoundSystem and we came up with a sound design for the installation. On several occasions, Tomás has also asked us to present our work, solar as well as paleo energy research, which echoes with the Aerocene research community. Albedo Miami was a superb facility, with huge satellite dishes, solar cooking, a form of conviviality, direct free access for residents, schools, including a few homeless neighbours, and veterans from the Iraq war without pensions. What meetings! The generosity of Tomás is beautiful and touching. We also had cocktails on the beach.
What areas are you planning to work on in the future? I see you are planning a work about water.
Yes, water is a big topic, even in France, and climate change will shake our capacity to access water. The methodology, the good inspiring results and the success of the paleo-energy project have been proven and we wish to transpose the method to water.
You mentioned the extraordinary fact that disposable batteries can indeed be recharged. What could the role of art be in exposing this incredible story? It seems to me that the industry has covered this up.
Yes, we found out about a patent by Karl Kordesch, a famous electrochemical engineer who patented in 1957 with Paul A. Marsal and Lewis Urry — filed as US patent 2,960,558 — an alkaline dry cell battery. We exhumed the patent with the crowdsourcing energy of paleo-energetique and re-prototyped a system of ‘micropulsing’, to recharge alkaline ‘single use’ batteries, in a hackathon. Then we made a crowdfunding with a funky video and produced a DIY kit able to data-log all the batteries on the market. Many universities, fab labs, and geeks joined us as beta-testers of the whole market. This proves that it works in the contemporary battery market! We also have the data of all the battery capacities in the market, as the capacity in milliampere hours is never written on alkaline batteries, We can help the people understand which one is the best quality-price ratio. This will be soon online on youpile.org
Also, we will send this data to fab labs and engineering schools in Africa to share the project and also collect data there, where so-called ‘single-use batteries’ are expensive and non-recycled. (Even if in France only 50% of the 33000 tonnes of batteries go to the recycling system which is not without impact). We are excited to work on this toxic waste issue and I would love to be invited to make an artwork on this topic — we have some ideas for an installation. Art can open eyes and open some serious research fields. Perhaps a collective exhibition could be great for that.
What was your collaboration with John Thackara?
He was curating an eco-city lab for the international design biennale in Saint Etienne. We exhibited and performed with the SolarSoundSystem in the eco-city at this event in 2008, We had the chance to participate in some of the same exchanges and thinking groups. I was inspired by his book ‘‘In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World’, about the complexity of durable design.
You have worked in various countries in the global South, such as India and Vietnam. What were the particular challenges there and how did communities react to your work? These were short term projects. The question is, how to ensure the sustainability of such a project?
The idea was to build a SolarSoundSystem with Jaaga in Bangalore, a community of geeks, artists, NGO’s and at the same time an incubator for young entrepreneurs. We share a common concern with this type of organisation. Therefore, we want to work together toward novel creative, and efficient solutions. We noticed that they had power cuts every day. As a result, to solve this issue we made a system that is both an energy storage and a sound system. Indeed, countries with very little electricity access, power cuts or expensive energy are particularly sensitive to our energy projects. Moreover, there is a strong interest and a growing climate awareness.
What turning points have there been in the history of energy that you consider significant, that would have changed the way we live if things had gone differently?
I think that if Leonardo da Vinci had been able to develop his project of melting metals with solar energy, the technology of solar concentration would have taken another turn and that solar energy could have had a strong development. Unfortunately, the bronze was confiscated to make cannons at the time. He was such a precursor that the impact would have been strong and above all a very recognised party scenography organizer! Today the solar concentration idea is back. We worked with Mari Keto, an artist from Copenhagen, and Jean Dard, designer of metal casting and we were able to perform at StationE, manufacturing unique pieces melted with solar energy.
As you know, I run the group Future Of Transportation. What would be your idea for changing the way we move around the planet?
There is not ‘one’ technical solution at this scale for worldwide transition, but a group of solutions, depending on the territories, the knowledge, the local know-how. But in terms of money, material resources, and time, we have no TIME! The old emission effects that occurred 30 years ago are acting now, so imagine the effects of today’s transportation and emissions in the future. I have no magic solution regarding the climate change and hot temperatures coming, but in the pandemic, with flights locked down and railways operating less, with the multiple crises of water and climate migrations, perhaps people will move less, back to castles and communities. Our liberty of movement is killing humanity. Or we should regulate by taxes because if not, ‘the party is over’ (as sung by the artist Gregorythme in this track).
Artists like Saraceno and Eliasson have also worked in developing communities such as Museo Aerosolar and Aerocene. Do you take a similar or different approach?
It is similar to a collective approach. My approach with paleo-energy is larger and focused on all the artists in the program who are using what we exhume to make art pieces and performances in a rebirth that is closer to reality and everyday people’s life.
Following on from that, if you had their scale of resources (ie. large), what would be your most ambitious project?
Open more SolarSoundSystem antennas because ‘parties finance research’ (we stopped because of Covid). Open a Retrofutur Museum in Paris (with our archives and collections), finance some animators and researchers for more exhumation of past inventions. We would start a water project — Paleo-H2O, develop Regenbox in Africa, and translate and exhume more in Russian and Chinese. We would duplicate our tool kit ECOLAB21 with the United Nations. This is a traveling container for schools with a windfarm, solar, hydraulic ram, solar concentrators, paleo-energy, Regenbox, and SolarSoundSystem exhibiting on the weekends sharing the knowledge outside the school and partying with families and kids. Finally, we would open some labs in partnership with engineering schools, cities, or fab labs in South America, India, and Australia.