Activating Charcoal


Around this time last year I did a drawing workshop at The Living Classroom for kids from the local school. They were drawing games. Loosely based on children’s party games, they are a way of getting people to collaborate on a drawing without deliberating or discussing decisions. They are also a way of getting charcoal to paper quickly without the limitations of self-consciousness. For Groundswell I will do two collaborative works. One has virtually no rules, and the other has a few. In devising these games, I’m interested in observing the process and how meaning comes from the story of how a work is made, emphasising the process over the product. 


One of the games has no rules really, except for the unwritten rules of common decency. This drawing will be left up all day. Several beautiful handmade pieces of hemp paper made by Gilbert Grace will be pasted onto marine ply and hung somewhere with charcoal nearby. The only rule is to get as much charcoal on to the paper as possible. Take out your frustration with inaction on climate change on that piece of paper. It’s a carbon sequestration work. Every material element of the piece, the wood, the hemp paper and the charcoal are sequestering carbon and that’s really the only thing it’s about. 

The second drawing is based on musical chairs. Ten people, ten pieces of paper. The music starts and you draw. The music stops and you race back to your chairs and a piece of paper is taken away. The music starts again and you start drawing, only this time you may have to draw on someone else’s piece. The game keeps going until ten people are drawing on one piece of paper. I’ve learnt that  throwing an eraser into the mix works really well too. Someone is handed an eraser and they draw by erasing someone else’s work. In these works there are three things going on; carbon sequestration, collaboration and process. All three reflect on biochar. Carbon sequestration is the first obvious one. Besides the charcoal, we’ve included handmade hemp paper by Gilbert Grace because it’s a beautiful meditation on replacing fossil fuels not just with material but with inalienable labour as well. You can find out more about the hemp project here

Hemp paper for George web.jpeg

Secondly there is collaboration, which I found to be a really beautiful element of the ANZ biochar conference that I was invited to at Tweed Heads (see previous blogpost). I’d like to talk about collaboration a little, as after all, the whole Artist, Farmer, Scientist project has been based on collaboration. 

As a culture we collaborate all the time. Sometimes it’s in a sort of abstract way, for example, we collaborate with the past when we use a saucepan that has been designed and modified over centuries. We rely on other people daily in ways that we don’t have to think about or discuss. In a more concrete way, people look after the different needs of the community in numerous non-profit organisations all the time. I know from living in a small town that has fewer services than the city, volunteer organisations like the CWA or Rotary are necessary examples. If you’ve ever sat on a committee you will know the many boring rules and processes that a committee bravely sit through before they can get anything done. As tedious as these processes are, they are necessary for mitigating the problems that come up when people work together. I love the Jean Paul Satre quote “hell is other people”. Take that as a given, place some rules around it and people get beautiful things done. 

There was something special about the ANZ biochar conference that warmed my heart. I sat in a room with around 80 people from various fields: scientists, bureaucrats, farmers and entrepreneurs. If there was one unspoken rule it was that climate change is a given. It was a relief. Nobody wasted time on questioning it, they were all there to collaborate on the work that needs to be done in this small field of action. There were papers on all sorts of research that was being done on the attributes of biochar. These ranged from reducing methane emissions in cattle, the gut health of chickens, to using biochar as a biofuel to replace fossil fuels and sequestering carbon in road base. One of the tasks that researchers are tackling is the standards involved in making biochar viable. With climate change as a given, the standards reflect the necessary rules surrounding the making and selling of biochar, to reduce CO2 emissions, and maximise the products that can be made during the process. The process of collaboration that surrounded a common goal was a beautiful thing to watch.

The third element I’m reflecting on with this drawing activity is process as opposed to product. The first question in this project that I grappled with is “how is biochar different to charcoal?” The end product of both charcoal and biochar is basically the same: wood that is pyrolyzed to contain mostly carbon, a porous and black material that leaves black dust on your fingers. I was given a few different answers about the difference between the two but my favourite is the process. The creation of charcoal is a product-focused activity:  it is made to meet a desire in our culture for a product for drawing, cooking or filtration in most cases. Each of these desires is met with a different process. Charcoal for drawing is made differently than charcoal for cooking. There are, no doubt, standards enforced by government policy that determine the pollution emitted during the process, but the overall concern is with a product that serves a cultural desire. The price is a negotiation between what it costs to make and what the consumer is willing to pay for it. 


With biochar however, the product and its price is, to some extent, a secondary issue. While the conference was certainly about the challenge of producing biochar that is affordable to apply at an agricultural scale, it was clear  to me that to define biochar as a product it first has to have gone through a certain process. I will focus now on one element of this process: the selection of feedstock. Biochar cannot be made by just cutting down trees or even growing them for that purpose, it has to be waste. It is usually agricultural or forestry waste. One of the papers was about using sewage as a feedstock. One talk was particularly shocking. Two bureaucrats from California spoke about 147 million trees that have died due to climate change. They were there to find out more about biochar as an option for dealing with the dead trees that pose a massive risk for forest fires. So you can see something quite different is going on here compared to charcoal production. 

Gilbert Grace (2019) ‘Vanitas’. Hemp paper.

Gilbert Grace (2019) ‘Vanitas’. Hemp paper.

The processes of making biochar vary, but the main priorities are selecting feedstock, minimising CO2 and determining that carbon is sequestered when it is produced. So what can we learn from this approach to process? I could easily buy charcoal from the art store and put it in the soil and the effect would be the same. I would be improving the soil’s ability to store nutrients and retain water, but would it be called biochar? If we take that charcoal and draw on some hemp paper is it just carbon sequestration? Do we get to call it art? At this point, where we are now with climate change, it doesn’t bother me if it’s regarded as art or not. I’ve fallen in love with carbon and I see it everywhere and I want to hold on to it as if my life depended on it.