Utopia Works – Part 1



On the day we were preparing for Utopia Works Energy Hack at Derby Silk Mill, with partners from across a number of factories along the Derwent and Don Valleys I found myself reflecting upon the notion of hacking, and what it means to me, particularly in relation to my work on Future Works and Stories of Change.

Hacking is the altering of an existing object to meet a new use- sometimes driven by the availability of new materials or technologies, and sometimes by the desire to make something fit a new need, or meet a group of people that didn’t have access to a tool or resource that they need. Like makers’ communities, for many, to hack is a political practice aligned with DIY, sharing as ethics, self-organisation, playfulness, and even subversion. Important and high profile ways in which hacking has become associated with activism are in supporting the fight for privacy against corporate and government surveillance, and in enabling the free sharing of knowledge that has been enclosed by companies for profit.

In thinking about energy, I consider that hacking implies repurposing, modification or challenging assumptions, design or rules, using what’s at hand to alter something to better meet your needs… This could occur at a number of different scales- from that of a boiler, or meter, to a network or complex system. What I find interesting about hacking is it implies the engagement with the issue, the physical things, and developing the skills and know-how to make change- this is not something you hand on to someone else in another place. It requires careful and precise knowledges, which situate you as active rather than passive in relation to what you use and how you use it, and often collaboration and the free sharing of knowledge. Although responding to what is there, hacking needn’t mean minor changes- there may be radical transformation through making something more accessible, sustainable, altering its capacities, or changing the relation to resources, energy, or people. To hack is not just to analyse and critique, but also to propose something new and to figure out how to make it happen.

Hacking can have an important role in terms of climate change, because of its relation to agency- both personal and collective.  An example of such hacking that we have encountered in the Future Works strand of Stories of Change includes modifying the design of a rocket stove at Portland Works so that it can successfully run from waste sawdust produced by tenants of the building, or the redesign of machines at Gripple, and manufacturing them in-house to be more efficient, and suited to those who operate them. In each case people have taken something that is existing and modified it to suit their specific needs through a better understanding of the problem and possibilities in this instance. At Portland Works this was possible because there were a number of skilled makers on site, a range of tools that were shared between people, and driven both by limited resources, and an attitude of care, a culture of reuse and experimentation. At Gripple hacking was encouraged by investment in Research and Development and, together with employee ownership take a decision not to give people job titles, but rather to invited them to both find opportunities and take responsibility wherever they could.

Tomorrow will see people, including factory owners, employers and employees, apprentices, volunteers, artists, musicians, architects, curators, academics, and those working in the arts, cultural and heritage sectors come together to hack. We will turn Derby Silk Mill into a factory for the day, which each of us levelled as workers- we hope to critique and to dream together of alternative energy futures together. The question of connecting the user and the maker seems to be an important one for thinking about the future of energy and manufacturing.

Utopia Works



Post by Tom Beesley

Arriving for an 8.30am start at The Silk Mill in Derby with the prospect of a full days graft ahead felt a little daunting, after all, the mill stands on the site of the world’s first factory and therefore the birth place of the factory system. Could we expect twelve hours of repetitive back-breaking toil, amid deafening machinery with few breaks? Fortunately not, for today we were welcomed to Utopia Works, a working day as envisaged by Sir Thomas More in his book Utopia published five hundred years ago this year – six hours of work with a two hour lunch break and plenty of time for conviviality (unless you were a slave – More allowed two per household).

I joined one of several working groups with six others drawn from the wide network of associates of the project as we grappled with the tasks set for us. The Stories of Change team had put together a series of workshops challenging us to work together to explore our attitudes towards energy use – its generation, distribution and conservation. We created pithy slogans and transferred these onto letterpress printed pamphlets, we put our heads together (quite literally) in a photo opportunity to highlight the energy efficiency of the Human brain (less than 23 Watts of power!) and we toured the Mill’s stores finding objects that conveyed the attitudes to energy use of previous generations.

I have only recently become involved with SoC, having joined Julia, Renata and the Future Works students in Sheffield to explore themes around making, automation and resource use. I am currently undertaking practice based PhD Fine Art research at The University of Leeds entitled ‘Art, the Architectonic and Functionality’. My practice evolves from the appropriation of the everyday, the discarded and the found through processes of modification and re-purposing toward assembly and construction. These sculptural installations will often combine the found object with components produced using highly sophisticated technologies of production as I seek to reflect on the misuse of resources and the potential to re-engineer our manufacturing capabilities to address more pressing social and environmental issues. My work focuses on how visual art can address and engage with the new challenges facing society, particularly those concerning migration, precarity and climate change, through the interrogation of use, disuse and reuse. I hope to develop a body of work in response to the Future Works/ Stories of Change programme that will be exhibited in Sheffield in the Autumn.

Meanwhile back at the Mill everyone comes back together again at the end of the afternoon, as all the groups have created prototypes, proposals and performances to share their thoughts. There is a truly amazing array of presentations involving music, canaries, fun fairs, poetry and puppets. Perhaps the overriding theme that emerges from the day is the need for us all to be made more aware of the connection between energy creation and its use, unlike previous generations we have become disconnected from the physical realities of power generation. As anyone who has ever peddled a stationary bike in order to recharge their phone battery will attest, having to work hard for something tends to make you value it a great deal more.


All photos courtesy of @gorminator

Utopia Works is part of Stories of Change, more information can be found on their Website and Twitter