An interview between HeHe, initiators of Nuage Vert and Mathieu Marguerin, independant curator and artsitic director of the festival Mal au Pixel.

You are preparing a second edition of Green Cloud, an interactive installation which draws a contour around the vapour cloud emitted by an incinerator, for Saint-Ouen, a suburb of Paris. Where did the idea to draw directly onto the cloud come from?

HeHe: Before we made the first images for Green Cloud in 2003 we had worked on different ideas of how to make pollution audible and visible in different forms. However, we were searching for the most direct link between consumption and its effects, which we found when we moved to Saint-Ouen near Garibaldi, with a view onto the incinerator. We found this enormous cloud very beautiful and at the same time terrifying, and were thinking about our own relationship, as local residents, to the incinerator. In the beginning we wanted to dye the smokestack with coloured particles, however to draw the outline with a laser is more sustainable. And of course, we like the idea of using a technique of laser animation that is usually used for marketing purposes to make a giant neon sign for reducing consumption.

MM: You are designing for a site that is particularly sensitive in terms of its relationship to the urban environment. What kind of ecological vision of reality are you referencing?

HeHe: The factory smokestack has changed its significance throughout history, reflecting contemporary issues. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, it as first as a signifier of prosperity, and since the 1980’s, it is used most often as the ultimate icon of pollution. So, we are aware that playing with the aesthetics of made clouds is a very comfortable conveyor to trigger a passionate debate.

The reality of waste is a reality that the public do not generally wish to think about once we have dropped our waste into the yellow of green bin, and historically, the city of Paris wishes to provide as image of the city as edifying and expulses everything dirty to the outskirts, keeping all it’s infrastructures underground and invisible. This has created a sense of irresponsibility. Meanwhile, the politics of waste management is a huge and growing industry and it is a domain dominated by a techno-scientific culture. However, waste generation is also a cultural issue. We hide our waste in opaque bins whilst our newest incinerators will have no visible emissions. Generally, the techno-scientific culture wishes this whole process could designed to be as imperceptible as possible and believes that technology is the solution, closed in a logic that refuses to recognise that some things are uncontrollable. This is part of the problem. Waste production is as much a cultural issue as an ecological one! Our project is to make the process of waste treatment more visible by giving a new aesthetic value/meaning to the cloud, which represents the final step before elimination.

MM: At a fundamental level, this operation involves interactivity. By its scale, the installation addresses everybody within a large urban area. What do you expect from the public?

HeHe: Green Cloud is a social process and a formal-material exploration of the smoke coming out of the chimney. We want to engage into the layers of perception of the people who are involved with the smokestack today. In this sense the work consists for us in dialoguing with associations engaged in sustainable development, politicians, cultural actors and of course the people living near the factory. Therefore the outcome is not positive, negative, didactic or educational, but rather a reflection of our effort in the eyes of everyone involved; a play on energy: the energy we invest, the energy we hope to safe. So, the audience is naturally given.

MM: What has been your experience, until now, in the way that a public problem – in this case a subject of political debate and an industrial activity - becomes appropriated?

HeHe: The reality of each individual smokestack is particular for every urban setting and is not something we can create or imagine: in Helsinki the power plant burns coal to provide electricity and district heating and the precise way in which the cloud grew in size was developed during the project process in dialogue with many local actors. In the case of Saint-Ouen, the public perception of the incinerator is currently problematic, due to the proposed project to develop a new eco-town in the area next to the incinerator. This public debate surfaced just in the moment when we re-proposed the project last year and has meant that the industry is highly defensive and the current dialogue has been very limited.

This process is similar to our formal deployment of the light, the projection on the cloud. To realise it, we have to engage into a process of finding a site in the urban landscape from which we can project, our base so to speak. We have to source technical equipment and request local authorities and public services for unusual permissions. Who does the Cloud belong to if it doesn’t belong to us all?

Our ideal is that is that all of these activities, this energy should lead to the impossible dream that the whole of Saint-Ouen, and the Paris region, will for a brief moment in time consider waste as a collective resource.

What is clear so far is that the idea of a toxic cloud is more persistent in the minds of Francilians (residents of the Paris Region –ed) and the activities of eco-responsibility are very far from being established. Perhaps these two realities are linked?

MM: What were the results of the first experience of Green Cloud in Helsinki 2008?

HeHe: Initially Helsinki Energy the local energy provider was also sceptic towards Green Cloud, when we first proposed it to them in 2005. However, since the company eventually agreed to participate, the joint process and the success of Green Cloud had many positive repercussions for all concerned. For Helsinki Energy it was an excellent way to show the local community their commitment to transparency. For the local residents it created an aesthetic event that was valorising for their neighbourhood. Local residence collectively saved 800MVA of energy during the unplug event. Helsinki Energy developed a local electricity consumption meter for the duration of the project. This was the first time local energy consumption was collectively monitored and made available in real-time. Helsinki Energy has now decided to be the first city to lay open publicly real time data on energy consumption and is continuing to work with artists to find new forms to show this information.

What stage are you at in the preparation for Green Cloud in Saint Ouen?

HeHe: Technically speaking, we are ready to illuminate the cloud! But before this, we invite the inhabitants of Saint-Ouen and all the actors concerned to come and participate, discuss and develop together strategies, so that we can soon contemplate together the Green Cloud and make it grow!