Circulating Energies

Circulating Energies is a four-month cross-border programme between Open School East, Margate and École Supérieure d’Art, Dunkirk, designed to consider the relationship between energy production, ecology and contemporary art, by examining their shared politics, forms and futures.

Geographically separated by only 80 kilometres of water, Dunkirk and Margate are enmeshed within a web of shared industrial and ecological relations; these extend beyond their immediate localities, with globally distributed implications and effects that unevenly impact people, places and the natural world.

Over a four-month period, artist Hugh Nicholson led an integrated programme of mentoring, reading-groups and seminars to consider how contemporary art might respond to these conditions, considering artworks’ limits and possibilities.

Circulating Energies will co-produce a workshop as part of the closing weekend symposium of Chaleur Humaine, Dunkirk Art & Industry Triennial 2023-24, held at La Halle aux Sucres from 12-14 January 2024.

Circulating Energies features Gwennan Thomas (OSE), Ming Wang Wang (ESA), Alex Vellis (OSE), Max Lelostec (ESA), Clara Borteele (ESA), Lucia Coppola (OSE), Mariana Neitzel (ESA), Silvana Gordon Valenzuela (OSE), Kenny Mala Ngombe (OSE), Oumaima El Bari (ESA), Chen Rouyu (ESA), Middleton Maddocks (OSE), Yasmine Ouali (ESA), Emelia Kerr Beale (OSE), Ayla Aktan (ESA), Rafik Kerkouche (ESA), Milena Nastasi (ESA), Jas Dhillon (OSE), Nikki Sheth (OSE) and Hugh Nicholson (Project Lead).

Curated by Anna Colin and Camille Richert, Chaleur Humaine is a large-scale exhibition presenting more than 250 works by nearly 130 artists, primarily from France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the U.K.

Find documentation below from days 1 & 2 of the workshops in which participants were asked to respond to a set of artefacts, each imbued with specific ‘energies’, using a set of performative prompts.


Circulating Energies

What is energy and where is is found? How does it flow through people and places, materials and forms?

How do bodies conceal these relations, these histories, these processes of production? How are their forms produced by abstractions: by rules and regulations, by borders and labour power, by debt and financial speculation? What are their properties? What are their limits? What are their afterlives?

As conditions of intensifying crisis become naturalised, what new modes of enclosure, surveillance and border control will be enacted? What novel forms of value- production will be imposed? Under what conditions will life be lived?

And yet, from within this wreckage, what collective modes of thought and action might be generated? What strategies of resistance might be cultivated? What new forms and structures might be realised?

ArcelorMittal Steelworks, Dunkerque (2023). © Hugh Nicholson

Circulating Energies has set out to examine some of these questions through a programme of collective study sessions, workshops and reading groups – some online and some in person. This spatial and temporal dimension has shaped the programme; few participants grew up in either Margate or Dunkirk, and for the online sessions themselves, many have participated from geographically dispersed locations, whether that’s the U.K, Belgium, France, or North Africa. This context has been stimulating and vital, informing discussion of the two anchors of Dunkirk and Margate, whose relations extend between and far beyond their immediate localities.

Collective Mapping (2023)

Given this, it is unsurprising that the map is a form which has recurred throughout the programme: from corporate flowcharts depicting Dunkirk’s circular economies, to Borges’ short fable, On Exactitude in Science; from monitoring services charting the passage of cargo vessels in the Channel, to detailed images captured by satellites on the edges of the Earth’s atmosphere. In one workshop, we attempted to devise a visual language adequate to map the energy relations between participants within the room. Alongside this, a reading group considered American historian Jeremy Adelman’s essay The End of Landscape, to reflect upon the need to think simultaneously across different perspectives, scales and magnitudes. Another workshop exploring the histories of art criticism sought to question and challenge the boundaries and limits of artistic forms, considering the legacies of site-specific art and institutional critique by examining artworks by Otobong Nkanga, Edward Burtynsky, and Thomas Hirschhorn. Subsequently, a further reading group turned its attention to the model of the art triennial, considering the different interests they implicate and publics which they encompass and engage.

O8 Black Stone from Carved to Flow, www.carvedtoflow.com, (2017 – ongoing) Otobong Nkanga
Super Pit, Kalgoolie, Australia, (2007), Edward Burtynsky

Throughout the programme, discussions have returned to ask: What is critical role of art in a time of ecological desecration, material exhaustion, and intensifying crisis? For while on one hand, artworks are inevitably bound to these relations, on the other, they hold certain potential to reflect or resist, to make tangible or visible, or to present new speculative possibilities. Quite how this resistance is possible, and quite what forms this mode of artistic production might – and perhaps should – take, is another question.

Extinction Rebellion mass protest action, London (2020)
FedEx® Large Box FEDEX 139751 REV 10/05 SSCC, Priority Overnight, Los Angeles-New York trk#795506878000, November 27-28, 2007. Walead Beshty (2005)

As we enter December and think toward the new year (2024), we are beginning to plan and prepare ideas for some kind of action, intervention, or workshop, which we will collectively present in Dunkirk at the closing conference of Chaleur Humaine, the Art & Industry Triennial, on the 12th and 13th January 2024. In reflecting upon the research materials we have explored and generated together, Circulating Energies will aim to realise a new collaborative work capable of critically challenging the audiences who may attend the event.

It’s here that we will all come together in person for the first time. In this moment, ideas previously circulated through laptop screens and wi-fi networks will become grounded and articulated in the physical location of Dunkirk.


Led and co-ordinated by artist Hugh Nicholson, this project is only made possible with the generous support of The Straits Committee; the FRAC Grand Large; Open School East, Margate; and L’Ecole Superieure d’Art, Dunkerque. 

With special thanks to: Keren Detton, Director of FRAC Grand Large; Anne Rivollet, Director of ESA; Polly Brannan, Artistic Director of OSE; Melissa Ryke at ESA; George Harding at OSE; Maria Rabbe, Chargée de diffusion, FRAC Grand Large; Natalie Ross, former Operations Director, OSE; Fiona Kingsman, current Operations Director, OSE; Anna Colin and Camille Richert, curators of Chaleur Humaine, Dunkerque Triennale 2023; La Halle aux Sucres; and all others who gave their time and support.

Circulating Energies is a Straits Committee small project initiative, co funded by Kent County Council and the Département du Nord