A light skinned person with greying hair has their hands on a round pine table, they are wearing headphones, they are looking at the table in contemplation. Behind them is a drawing of a coastal landscape attached to a pine board with bulldog clips. There are blue and black bean bags near the table.

Blue Futures:
In conversation with Suzy O’Hara

Exhibition view of Blue Futures at The Word, South Shields. Photo credit: Colin Davidson

Christie Chan speaks to Dr Suzy O’Hara about Blue Futures, an interactive multimedia exhibition at The Word: National Centre for the Written Word in South Shields, featuring three projects: BE THE SEA, Sound Dig, and Renewable Blue. Curated and commissioned by O’Hara, this exhibition illuminates the dynamic and intricate relationship between humans and water in the coastal communities of South Tyneside.

BE THE SEA was led by artist Louise Mackenzie and composer Hayley Jenkins; Sound Dig was developed by Shelly Knotts, Prof. Caroline Mitchell, and Robin Daniels; and Renewable Blue was created by artist Paul Dolan.

Christie Chan [CC] Can you tell me a little bit more about the exhibition? How did it come about?

Suzy O’Hara [SO]  Since 2021 I’ve been working with a cross-consortium partnership called SeaScapes, Tyne to Tees, Shores and Seas. It’s funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, and revolves around how we connect our coastal communities, from the River Tyne to the River Tees, with the natural, cultural and industrial heritage of our coastline and marine environments. 

This exhibition came out of some of the conversations that I’ve been seeding with and between artists and consortium partners from the SeaScapes project, and our local coastal communities, as well as academics from the University of Sunderland’s Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries. South Tyneside Council have an amazing cultural development team, and Katy Milne, the Cultural Cultural Programme Officer at the time, had been at one of my events. We talked about how – given that Tyneside is very much in and of a coastal community – we can bring some of these conversations into this particular area. Katy has since left for pastures new, and I’ve been working in collaboration with Anne Fountain, South Tyneside’s Cultural Programme Officer, who has also been a dynamic creative force instrumental in bringing the Blue Futures exhibition to fruition.  

South Tyneside Council are leading on constructing a series of cutting-edge energy network schemes that use the latest innovative technology to harness energy from the River Tyne to generate electricity and heat to residential and public buildings. They will significantly cut annual carbon emissions by more than 4000 tonnes. We wanted to commission an artist to come in and respond to these pioneering ‘green’ energy sites through a piece of work that would be showcased in an exhibition here at The Word in South Shields. That also enabled me to bring in two other projects that I had already seeded in my wider SeaScapes CoLab programme. 

[CC] What is the significance of having this exhibition at The Word in South Shields? 

[SO] The Word is a beautifully executed example of a contemporary library that works as a vibrant community hub. I think because it’s not necessarily exclusively an art space, but much more of a multi-use space for communities, you get a breadth of demographics coming into the venue – different kinds of people who are interested in having conversations about the things that matter most to them right now. I also love the fact that it’s located on the river, so you can see water as part of this whole space.

An exhibition space with a tiled floor and light grey, slightly curved walls. In the foreground are two round tables with stools, behind these are walls with images on them and a plinth with a perspex case on top. There is a figure, blurred, moving toward the plinth.
Exhibition view of Blue Futures at The Word, South Shields. Photo credit: Colin Davidson

[CC] The exhibition does feel like a great place for people, especially for young people, to come and learn about ecological topics and social history. Are there any aspects of the exhibition that were designed specifically with young people in mind?

[SO] Young people and their unique perspectives have been a thread that runs throughout each of the commissions presented in the exhibition and the exhibition design itself. What’s been really fascinating for me working with South Tyneside Council is that the library team and Principal Librarian Julia Robinson were very involved from its inception. They understand the needs of the visitors that come to use this venue. We knew that the exhibition was going to be on throughout the summer period, so engaging young people and families with the exhibits was a priority from the very first conversation.

Each of the artists were invited to deliver a series of workshops with young people that helped further develop their artistic concept. Paul worked with young people in Bolton Secondary School, and they talked through the different renewable energy schemes that Paul was responding to through his work. They did lots of experiments with thermal imaging cameras and got to generate their own images as part of that hands-on process. Shelly worked with year 7 students from Whitburn Academy to create new pieces of digital artworks using mixing processes inspired by Shelly’s sound art practice. This resulted in ‘Whitburn Remixed’, which people can engage with in the exhibition space too.

The interactive area was designed by the fantastic artist and creative educationalist Zoë Allen. We commissioned her to work with each of the artists to generate a series of engaging questions that were directly related to each of the different exhibited projects. These were designed to enable conversations between families, young people and the visitors that came to the space. There are really interesting questions like ‘does the sea have memories?’ and ‘how old is the sea?’, and various questions coming from a philosophical perspective as well as an exhibition artwork perspective.

[CC] I was intrigued by some of the questions that can be seen throughout the space. Do you have answers to any of those questions yourself? Have you heard any interesting responses to those questions from visitors and the young people you worked with?

[SO] The simple answer is no, I don’t at all! But I think what’s been most interesting is hearing people’s perspectives on those questions and what they can bring to the table. We’ve got a lot of young people coming into the space who are very aware of the environmental challenges that we’re facing because of the climate crises. So these questions, I think, help them give voice to some of the anxieties that they might have. There have been lots of interesting responses. One of the questions is ‘how can we care for our water?’. There are some brilliant drawings and responses from younger visitors and their parents: from practical ways of getting involved in beach cleans, through to more philosophical feedback around how we foster a relationship that’s based on caring about our environment… It’s been really nice to see those kinds of conversations bubbling up in this context.

A visual monitor Imbedded into a table. There are digital images resembling sound files or scientific diagrams on the screen.
Exhibition view of Blue Futures at The Word, South Shields. Photo credit: Colin Davidson

[CC] The exhibition is filled with multi-sensory experiences. How do you think these sensory elements aid the overall goals of the exhibition?

[SO] I think the biggest goal for me was to offer as many different routes into this complicated topic as possible. The exhibition provides a safe space for people to explore this topic through a number of lenses – we’re not in a science space, we’re not in a media space, we’re in an art space where a lovely range of artistic practices have been brought together to unpack some really complicated and challenging questions. This exhibition thinks in a holistic way around how we can meaningfully connect people with some of these questions. Rather than just taking an intellectual perspective, I think these artists have been centralising playfulness and curiosity as a way in, which has allowed visitors to use their imaginations and connect to these issues emotionally.

[CC] How might an artistic lens lend itself to raising awareness amongst those who may not initially be aware of or interested in the topics discussed in the exhibition, such as the climate crisis?

[SO] I think artists have such a vital role to play in raising people’s awareness of the implications, the reality and the consequences of the climate crisis. We have lots of spaces in society where we’re told about these things in very scary ways. For me, what I didn’t want to do was further people’s anxiety of something that we’re all quite terrified about anyway. I was interested in curating a show that was rooted in positive action and hope. This show was very much about offering ways to think through the darkness, amplifying those positive activities that are happening within areas like South Tyneside, in regards to the investments and the position that they’re taking in achieving and exceeding aspirations towards net zero, for example. It’s a fully interactive exhibition, and that, for me, speaks to inviting people to consider their responsibility within this and the active role that they can play. 

Three booklets with blue covers on a pine shelf. the tile of the booklets is 'Instructions for Non-Human Listening'.
Exhibition view of Blue Futures at The Word, South Shields. Photo credit: Colin Davidson

[CC] The artists and researchers involved in the three projects represent a range of interdisciplinary creative practices. What have you considered when bringing them together?

[SO] Within this show, we have three multidisciplinary artists working across installation, sound, data, animation, photography, new media,  sculpture, performance and film to explore our relationship with water and our natural environment. The multidisciplinary aspect of this is underpinned by a very strong sense of purpose. Each artist’s particular methodologies are all rooted in explorative, participatory approaches that are informed by a rigorous research process. They approached their communities with a very clear sense of how they wanted to collaboratively interrogate their particular topic and area of enquiry. 

[CC] In what ways would you say that the community’s contributions have enriched the exhibition?

[SO] There’s been a really wonderful spectrum of ways in which communities have engaged with and informed each of these different projects. Paul engaged with young people and the ex-mining community here in South Tyneside during the research and development phase of his commission. He wanted to get to grips with what energy heritage means to people who live here and to draw out some lines of enquiry that would feed directly into the outputs of the work. So, in that respect, the work was shaped by the interactions that he had with the communities from this place. 

What was really interesting for me about the BE THE SEA project was that it was more deeply rooted in co-creation. The outcome itself – such as the immersive soundscore that was created specifically for this space – is a composition made up of the co-generated sound clips recorded by the people who attended our workshops. The hands of the community are intertwined with what you experience in the exhibition space. Their voices are not only directly represented in the conversations that you hear and in the soundscore that you immerse yourself in, but also in the [exhibited] book Instructions for Non-Human Listening, which is a direct invitation for communities to engage more deeply with the rich marine life along the coastline. 

And again, this is very similar to the way in which communities are deeply and wholly embedded within the Sound Dig showcase, in that the fabric of this work is made up of the community researchers’ histories, their memories. It’s their voices, their responses, talking about where they live and what that means to them – what it means to live in a medieval coastal town in the North East of England, and how that place has shaped who they are and who they might be in the future. 

A person with greying hair has their hands on a round pine table, they are wearing headphones, they are looking at the table in contemplation. Behind them is a drawing of a coastal landscape attached to a pine board with bulldog clips. There are blue and black bean bags near the table.
Exhibition view of Blue Futures at The Word, South Shields. Photo credit: Colin Davidson

[CC] Would you say the use of sounds and people’s voices as well as the act of listening are quite powerful means to present and understand the exhibition’s themes?

[SO] Absolutely! And that’s something that’s emerged from my wider SeaScapes CoLab programme that I didn’t quite expect actually – the power of sound and sound-based approaches to reveal potent connections between coastal communities with our marine heritage. When one first thinks of the coastline, it’s often a very visual experience – these seascapes, these beauty spots, these kinds of spaces where you can immerse yourself in visual beauty… But in a very organic way, a huge number of the experiences that have been facilitated through the artists I have commissioned over the past three years have actually leaned much more into auditory experiences. When you’re physically standing on a coastline, actually it’s the auditory side of it that is fully immersive. A number of the projects have ended up really exploring what that means, and it’s been profound because we all hear it – the sounds of an ocean lapping against the shore. It’s a primal and ancient sound. I think it maybe touches people in a way that’s beyond the intellectual.

[CC] What do you hope visitors will take away from this exhibition?

[SO] I hope that people will take away some useful experiences that open their minds to different perspectives of what it means to live with water as a constant in their lives. But also, much more than anything else, I’m interested in seeing people walking away with a renewed sense of care. I really believe that when people care for something, that’s the beginning of taking responsibility for its protection. The relationship between care and protection is a profound one, and I think many people feel a disconnection between who we are, where we live and our natural environment. We understand that we often feel empowered and positive when we’re in our natural environment and particularly along our coastlines. I think everybody can say that they feel better after they go for a walk on the beach. But how do we think beyond that? We’re not living on this coastline, we’re living with this coastline. Our relationship with water is ancient and fundamental to our survival on this planet. We have a responsibility to respect and protect it – as when we fail to protect our marine environment, we are failing to protect ourselves. I guess, in this exhibition, I’m interested in opening up a space for people to consider that responsibility.

Blue Futures was on show at The Word: National Centre for the Written Word from 20 July to 3 December 2023.

Christie Yung-hei Chan is a curator, writer and artist born and raised in Hong Kong. She is currently based in Newcastle.

This article is supported by a partnership between University of Sunderland, South Tyneside Council, SeaScapes and Stronger Shores.

Published 12.12.2023 by Lesley Guy in Interviews

2,383 words