ICM, abstract close-up photo of aspen leaves trembling in the wind, by the photographer Joan Sullivan

Solar Sisters

In the future, we may well look back on 2022 as a watershed year in the global energy transition. The year when we finally realized that “technological infrastructure alone does not an energy transition make.” The year when we finally understood that all previous energy transitions (yes, there have been several) overlapped with and were influenced by concurrent shifts in cultural and aesthetic values.

The 21st century’s version of an energy transition is no different. As we transition from extracting fossil fuels out of the ground to harvesting multiple sources of clean energy from the sun, wind, and water, our values are shifting from a “culture of consumption” to a “culture of stewardship.” As Barry Lord explains in his book Art & Energy: How Culture Changes:

When an energy source is incipient, the cultural values that it engenders are seen as innovative and open to dispute, just like cutting-edge art. Once the new energy source becomes dominant, the values that it brought with it become mainstream. With the renewable energy culture of stewardship, that process is happening in our own time. 

As in the past, it will be the artists, poets, architects, and designers who shine a light on the way forward.

Two revolutionary solar designers from The Netherlands are already doing so. Marjan van Aubel and Pauline van Dongen have spent the past decade – independently of each other – experimenting with harvesting solar energy from objects in our everyday lives: furniture, textiles, windows, clothing, and accessories.

As just one example from dozens of their innovative projects, van Aubel’s design for a table that generates electricity from diffused indoor lighting (see video below) provides a beautiful and concrete example of the important role that solar designers will play in the second Copernican revolution.

In a strange twist of fate, the two Dutch solar designers did not meet until quite recently. The infamous meeting took place in a Saint Petersburg bar, while drinking White Russians (true story). They immediately bonded and, ever since, have considered themselves Solar Sisters.

This is the power of collaboration. Within a year of their first meeting, van Aubel and van Dongen had laid the groundwork for the world’s first design biennale inspired by solar energy. As co-founders of this global event, they share a vision to create space for an alternative “solar movement” that shifts the conversation from the glorification of technology to a new perspective about the cultural, social, and aesthetic values of a post-fossil future powered by the infinite energy of our star.

The Solar Biënnale will be held in The Netherlands from September 9 to October 30, 2022. The host city of the inaugural biennale is Rotterdam, with tandem activities programmed for Eindhoven, Maastricht, and Amsterdam throughout the seven-week event. The main venue for The Solar Biënnale is Rotterdam’s Het Nieuwe Institute, which will host a central retrospective exhibition “about designing with, for and under the sun” curated by Matylda Krzykowski. Closing week of the biennale will take place in Eindhoven during Dutch Design Week.

The organizers hope that future solar biennales will rotate between other countries and other continents. A detailed calendar of events will be released soon. You can sign up for email alerts here.

In the months leading up to the official launch of The Solar Biënnale 2022, I will update readers of this Renewable Energy series with occasional posts about the cultural importance of this global event as well as information about some of its warm-up activities such as a lecture series and side-programming at festivals. COVID-permitting, I hope to participate in person and to finally meet the two Solar Sisters.

Here comes the sun…

(Top image by Joan Sullivan)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer and writer focused on the energy transition. She is a new member of Women Photograph. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her eco-anxiety about climate breakdown and our collective silence. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

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