See Monster!

SEE[ING] MONSTER[S] 

Billed as an “extraordinary act of collective creativity”, and one of ten projects which form part of the controversial Unboxed: Creativity in the UK, SEE MONSTER is conceived as a fusion of environmentalism, creativity, fantasy, and play. Standing 35 meters tall and weighing in at 450 tonnes SEE MONSTER sits in a shallow pool at the former Tropicana lido on the beach at Weston-Super-Mare on the west coast of England. Its bones are a de-commissioned North Sea oil rig. Its purpose is to provide a temporary art exhibition and high-rise garden designed to inspire conversations about the climate emergency, renewable energy, and sustainability.  

“It’s going to be less than a half hour walk from the train station, let’s walk”. As Irini Barbero explains, our visit was on a pleasant, sunny November Friday afternoon, in a fortunate rare exception to that overall rainy week. Our group of curious pilgrims/academics headed over to the Tropicana, while discussing vividly, in an excited anticipatory mood. As we arrived at the Weston Super Mare seafront, the SEE MONSTER was revealed in the distance: a black imposing silhouette in the horizon. The sun was staring at us, from behind it, through the clouds, and one could see its black skeleton against the blue sky, in an impressive sight. When inside the site and throughout the experience, and despite the intensity of the structure, there was a relaxed atmosphere, and we were not bothered with many formalities (except for a couple of signs for safety). The entrance was free, the staff were engaged and happy to help, and people seemed excited to be there. We visited it during the day, yet the night-time experience seems equally fascinating, as captured by photography found online.  

Dilara Yaratgan saw SEE MONSTER as a metal giant placed on the beach at Weston-super-Mare to consider the legacies of petroculture. The installation, which is a repurposed oil rig, seems a continually altering and moving construction with the infrastructure elements blasting out of it when viewed from the opposite side of the road. Similarly, it holds a 10-meter waterfall, shimmering scales designed to ripple in the wind and several kinetic sculptures that generate energy using wind and solar technologies for a wild garden, all of which represent that it is alive. The industrial structure does not inform visitors about its design and functionality, despite the fact that it is intended to prompt conversations about reusing, sustainability, and a greener future. However, it would rather disclose itself and its purpose through a temporary practice. In other words, the monster conveys its message regarding energy and natural resources through the sensory experiences of visitors. As you explore the structure, the waterfall on the ground and a water atomiser on the Cellar Deck spray water in your face. It leaves a rumble of the kinetic installation moving with the wind and waves in your ears. Then, as you ascend the monster, you become aware of your changing breathing rate and the salty breezes blowing in your face on the Helideck. While you wait to experience the slide at the top of the platform, an image of a lifeboat you have just seen remains in your head. With this body experience, SEE MONSTER inspires us to rethink whether there is a turning point to survive in the future.  

The repurposed oil rig, for Aidan Tynan, feels like something halfway between an art installation and an amusement park. There are echoes of Banksy’s Dismaland, which occupied the same spot in 2015. But whereas Banksy’s piece was a dystopian détournement of Disney’s hyperreal playgrounds, SEE MONSTER is a fragment of the all-too-real infrastructure of our fossil capitalism washed ashore. The lack of any on-site information about the rig’s history or the petrochemical industries it served heightens the sense of estrangement. One gets no direct sense that the intention is to raise questions about reuse, renewables and greener futures, as the website claims. Boarding the rig, though, one notices the lifeboat hanging from the monster’s dark underbelly and can’t help but think about the terrible trouble we’re in, about that awful thing sometimes called ‘lifeboat ethics’–who to save, who to let drown. Banksy, for all his gritty dystopianism, still occupies the postmodern aesthetics of surrealistic play, of images recycled in endlessly startling juxtaposition, always old and always new. The rusting skeleton of SEE MONSTER suggests something else: salvage, the old made present and retooled for survival. On the upper decks, the garden, metal slide and wind sculptures are the incongruous elements of an assemblage of left-over things patched together. Can play and joy be modes of survival, and vice-versa? 

The aesthetic of SEE MONSTER aims to channel an environmentally conscious image of a (re-purposed) monster but, for Keir Waddington, this presents a post-apocalyptic vision redolent of Waterworld or Mad Max. That the installation was an oil rig plays it part here. As both films see its protagonists scavenge for petrol and scraps the imagery is perhaps fitting, but such associations suggest a darker future familiar to CliFi. If the aim of SEE MONSTER is to inspire conversations about reuse and the weather, curiously the site itself does little to encourage these conversations. No interpretation boards encourage the visitor to ask question or think. No information is provided about the plants or that the sculptures generate power. With many visitors looking out from the vistas offered by the three platforms, rather than stopping to consider the space they are in, the perspective many visitors have is not an inward looking one to challenging the legacies of petroculture but of looking out over the beach, the seat, and the landscape Weston inhabitants. For those in the queuing for the top deck and the slide, the view is of who is in front of them, rather than who will be in the lifeboat (easily missed between the first and second platform) if we don’t pay attention to the warnings of the UN and the rapidly advancing climate crisis. 

Irini Barbero felt that this offshore platform seems brought to shore acts almost like a tall rock in the middle of the ocean or a lighthouse with a 360° view of the landscape around it. It is a powerful site. On one side there is the sea, the sun, the beach, and your eyes linger towards that endless infinity. You get hit by the wind and exposed to all natural elements, from all sides. That is, Irini would argue, one of its most significant and visceral strengths. As soon as you step in, and while still on ground level, you get wet by the droplets of the 10-metre waterfall. A similar experience welcomes you at the Cellar Deck, with the Cloud Portal creating a cloud of steam. As you move upwards, you start feeling the wind from all sides, you hear peculiar deep sounds from the structure and of people moving. You can touch the raw, rusty structure with different colours in different parts of it and the several plants interwoven with it at the Garden Lab. Its skin is moving: the monster is alive, but very still, as it allows us to roam and climb inside its skeleton. You can look up, down, and around. It is transparent, and not much has been done to beautify it, which is great. There are several reminders of its heavy past and use, such as a set of circular openings on the floor, remnants from the gas pipes, which caught our attention.  

For Martin Willis, SEE MONSTER is disconnected from its origins; beached at the Weston-Super-Mare seabreak like a poorly navigating whale, lumpen but silent, one decapitated head of an extensive infrastructure of gas pipelines, container ships, and sea-blasted steel. There seems nothing to be learnt here, neither of energy nor extraction, nothing to be taken away except the banal reiteration of the perils of reliance on the very things it was built to serve. Yet SEE MONSTER does speak through other forms – the forms of those who come to see it, climb it, stomp around it, grab hold of it, or skelter downwards through it. While understanding more of energy might seem absent in cerebral terms it is clearly felt in physiological ones. SEE MONSTER’s vertiginous rise from the ground floods through the nervous system, snapping into the fizz of nerve-endings well-known to those with a fear of heights. The steep metal stairways and swaying cantilevered walkways increase respiration and make muscles work. By the top deck the wind whips around the face and demands attention to balance. Its sound makes for shouting, and for breathlessness. The quickest route down, by a narrow slide, reminds us of weight and movement. Energies kinetic, thermal and electric emerge from everyone enwrapped in SEE MONSTER’s structures. There is something alchemical in its power to make us feel those energies in place of the energy it has itself lost. It makes us remember that the most generous and critical understanding of energy must include those human physiological energies underpinned and maintained by those other energies it once helped to extract. The SEE MONSTER is not the monster it once was. It is instead another kind of beast; transformed into immersive art where the very mode of immersion constitutes the method by which understanding and reflection can begin. Ironically, it is not what one sees of the monster that counts. It is what one feels. 

Once an oil rig, now an object of art. SEE MONSTER can be understood as a readymade, “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist”, in the words of Breton and Éluard. In the style of Duchamp, an industrial object was retired from the use for which it was created – to extract and process petroleum and natural gas – to acquire other meanings. But what can we see and why monster? A monster from or to the sea? In the times of navigations, sea monsters surrounded the imagination of people, representing the strength, the vastness and the mysteries of natural phenomena. But nowadays, see this monster: it does not scare the people anymore. Humans now create huge monsters to explore, tame and extract the strength from “Nature”. Humans believe they need those monsters.  
 
The official website mentions that SEE MONSTER is about inheritance. We inherit those big structures from modernization and need inspiration to find out what to do with them. We inherit those monsters. Then, we see that we need to “renature” them.  

SEE MONSTER can be really inspired to think about our own human structures. Different pieces compose this readymade, merging the retired oil rig with plants, water, metal, and wood objects… a slide! A kind of Frankenstein that can remind us that we live in a fragmented modernization that needs to redesign our physical, social and environmental structures, as proposed by Felix Guattari. 

Looking out from SEE MONSTER, and on the other side, as Irini Barbero notes, the city is watching silently. While waiting in line, on our way to the final floor level, and looking at the city, we wondered: how do the locals perceive this installation, how do they feel about it, what difference can it make to them and their livelihood, how does it engage the community, now and in the future? I read testimonies that it was very well received indeed and brought a sense of engagement and liveliness – from Weston College, community, educational & awareness-raising activities and locals participating actively, to people traveling from across the UK to visit. One of the most evocative spaces, which stayed in my memory is the open-air small amphitheatre at the top, at the Helideck. We imagined how it would feel to watch a theatre play or a small concert in that space. Indeed, some intimate events (music performances, spoken word/poetry) have already been held there. Finally, at the top level, there is also one last surprise, one we waited patiently to experience: a metal slide, which proved to be a delightful and cheeky brief ride.  

The SEE MONSTER has many sides to it. It is alive, it is heavy and light, it sparks curiosity but also thought-provoking talks, if one is careful to what they are being exposed to, literally and metaphorically. One is impressed by the interdisciplinary possibilities, passion and efforts of the people that came together to work in this site. Art devices/installations of renewable energy surround you, different materials come together in a vivid symphony, and the old and new blend well. The SEE MONSTER is also inhabiting a liminal space. It carries a tension within it, between past and future, which can be felt by the visitor, between allowing itself to be seen for what it was, and the wider discussions around that, and letting go and visualising a creative, transformative and healing future. It acts as a first experiment that can potentially show a path ahead. As we were leaving, however, there was one burning question floating in the air: what happens with this monster washed ashore after the curtain falls? One wonders in what other concrete ways it can continue to spark discussions and fuel change, in the future, and, also, how it fulfils its sustainable and inclusive vision. Banksy’s Dismaland, which took place in the same site (Tropicana), in 2015, was dismantled and material was used to build shelters for asylum seekers at Calais, in France. It has been announced that the SEE MONSTER’s structure will be 98-100% recycled and the plants will be given to the North Somerset Council, for use in parks.  Some of its educational aspects will be continuing to be available on the website, as well as an online virtual tour. Also, recently there have been investigations into its total cost to taxpayers – a very important question.  

Is the SEE MONSTER ending a journey, or only beginning?