To close a three-year post-doctoral fellowship at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), Dr Cath Keay curated an exhibition, "Looking for the Absolute" and produced new sculptures and an accompanying publication called “Extending the Glass Chain - One Hundred Years on”.

Cath’s work at ECA revisited the German Gläserne Kette collective of artists and architects who began corresponding in the wake of the devastation of the First World War, in 1919. The participants in this utopian correspondence, led by Bruno Taut, exchanged letters and designs for a better society, aiming to create a visionary future through, as Cath’s exhibition introduction puts it, “the transformative power of architecture to effect moral regeneration”. One such idea devised by Bruno Taut was his Alpine Architecture, a utopian vision so powerful he imagined it could stop further wars.

Just as that early 20th-century collective considered what ideal worlds and future technologies might be able to create, Cath assembled a group of contemporary artists and architects from around the world with a similar aim, in the run up to the centenary of the first letter from Bruno Taut to the Gläserne Kette. “My proposal was to get a dozen artists and architects together to exchange ideas digitally,” said Cath, “The original group were obviously corresponding with physical letters, but now we are able to share whole ideas and schemes with one another instantaneously.”

“It was about following their ethos as opposed to doing a recreation,” she said, “their situation was so dire and so different from ours that a recreation would be impossible. The new collective, which included other academics at ECA, I called The Glass Chain."

Image: Dr Cath Keay
Image: Dr Cath Keay

“As a sculptor, I found it particularly inspiring to be able to use advanced equipment like 3D-scanners, laser cutters and digital embroidery machines at ECA.”

Dr Cath Keay, Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow

The original letters were translated from German by Prof Iain Boyd Whyte, Honorary Professor in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at ECA. Marco Scerri, who teaches in Graphic Design at ECA, designed the publication. Cath also collaborated with the Concurrent research project based at Reid School of Music at ECA during the fellowship to explore group creativity across disciplines, with her sculptures, and ‘live’ drawings being central to many performances with improvising dancers and musicians.

1919 was a pivotal moment in German modernism, and Modernism more broadly, with many of the architects in the collective going on to be a great success in their own right. At the time, however, there was no money for such commissions, and so they were producing what is known as “visionary” or “paper” architecture – concepts and ideas that would not be built.

Collaborative event with Concurrent
Image: Full Zoom Photography
Collaborative event with Concurrent
Extending the Glass Chain publication
Image: Dr Cath Keay
Extending the Glass Chain publication

Cath completed an MFA in Sculpture at ECA in 2002, and completed a PhD at Newcastle University in 2010. She returned to ECA to do some teaching, and through discussions with the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, proposed this project. “As a sculptor, I found it particularly inspiring to be able to use advanced equipment like 3D-scanners, laser cutters and digital embroidery machines at ECA,” said Cath, “I was also over at uCreate at the main University library where I was able to scan crystals from the University’s mineral collections. One of the original letters describes being inside a vast cathedral in the form of a crystal, and we were able to do that with VR headsets in the exhibition.”

The next step is to take the exhibition to more places around the world from 2019 - 2021, marking a hundred years of when the Gläserne Kette were active. One exhibition is already planned for the SASA Art Gallery in Adelaide, Australia in 2019.




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