In honor of Solar Sound System’s 20th anniversary, Makery spoke with its founder Cédric Carles about the project’s long and winding journey. Part 1 of an in-depth interview conducted on March 4, 2019.
The Solar Sound System adventure started in Lausanne. How did you come to launch this project?
I arrived in Lausanne for the first time in 1998, initially in rather alternative spaces. At the time I was attending a design school in Orléans and was very interested in ecology, recycling materials, changing our ways of living. I even started following what was going on in Africa, especially in Dakar, a context that I discovered through an exhibition of African designers that questioned the economy of materials and recycling. I became close to people at the school, like La Cellule collective, whose work criticizes technology and consumerism, in spite of the teachers who didn’t always understand us. I was also interested in programmed obsolescence, an expression that was picking up speed. Then I met people from Lausanne who were extremely active in alternative spaces, well-established squats that were recognized by the city, who were already using solar heat on the roof, photovoltaic energy, who were collecting discarded food from vegetable farms, nearby bread factories, in what we now call the circular economy or fabcity. During my many stays in Lausanne, I found a mix of very activist people, vegans and antispeciesists who were talking about the ecological impact of food, as well as academics, engineers, associations of prototypists who were more mature and had really interesting things to say.
How did you use your background in design over there?
I knew that I had to learn more about ecology and climate issues, energy and technical fields related to ecology, and I was eager to sink my teeth into these topics. I enrolled in an ongoing program at EPFL / University of Lausanne on moving toward renewable energies, which also offered modules introducing the limits of the Earth-system. One important acquaintance I made at the time was Olivier Jolliet, a researcher who designs ways to calculate eco-efficiency in Switzerland. This gave me a lot of intellectual nourishment and reconnected me with my questions on how to design over our unsustainable lifestyles, our daily consumption, the impact of gray energy—the energy that we don’t see, that nobody talks about, despite the fact that we could have an immediate impact on it by consuming more intelligently. Then I worked in installing solar panels to understand how they worked from a practical standpoint. I took classes at ADER (Association for the Development of Renewable Energies) to learn how to build my own solar energy regulator. Between panels and batteries you need regulators, and I wanted to understand how to build a DIY version. I was fascinated by the fact that we could produce electricity with light. Those were the premises for creating the project Solar Sound System.
So it was the Swiss ecologist activist ecosystem that gave birth to the project?
You have to understand that Lausanne is very advanced in these issues, especially after the nuclear accident of the Lucens reactor in 1969, which was located about 20km from the city. One of the major whistleblowers on nuclear energy was Pierre Lehmann, a former nuclear engineer who had worked on the construction site of the reactor in the early 1960s before becoming extremely critical of the project. After the accident, Lehmann and his two colleagues created SEDE (Société d’Etude de l’Environnement) in 1971, an environmental study group to measure the impact of the accident. Then he began leading more studies and research, becoming a big promoter of degrowth, while contributing to the development of ADER. He worked a lot with ADER on issues related to decentralizing energies and proposed scenarios for communal autonomous energy for Switzerland.
It’s worth noting that a 2012 study on Lucens revealed the presence of strontium, and the accident is considered to be among the 10 worst civil nuclear accidents in the world. I remember that when we talked about it in Lausanne, people didn’t know about it. Now there’s a “Remember Lucens” Facebook page so that we don’t forget the accident and the contaminated cavern that is still very much there. We made a video interview with Lehmann where he explains all this.
At the time, geologists said that the cavern would ooze in 50 years. Well, 50 years later [the accident occurred on January 21, 1969], we can say that they were right.
So how did the dynamics of Solar Sound System actually come about?
In Switzerland, several times a year, there are referendums initiated by citizens. In 2000, residents were asked to vote on a referendum to “introduce a solar cent”, which would instate a new consumption tax of 0.1 cents per kilowatt-hour on all forms of non-renewable energies, redirecting it toward renewables, and therefore half for solar. It was an incredible opportunity for the ecologist movement, and we were fully committed to “3 times Yes”. At the time we went to a lot of rave parties, and I began to think that an autonomous solar-powered sound system, in addition to providing sound for raves, would be a good way to campaign for the “Yes”. We received some support from the Swiss green party, WWF, Greenpeace with whom we shared space, and particularly from the founder of La Bonne Combine, François Marthaler, who also directs the department of engineers in sustainable resources and construction (le Bird). Meanwhile, Marthaler was giving a lot of talks on programmed obsolescence. Along with La Bonne Combine, Marthaler is a pioneer of recycling and repairing (washing machines, toasters, etc.), who conceived a system that puts warranties on repaired objects. He is a visionary who sponsored us to buy our first equipment, moving trucks, etc. He was the one who helped us to accelerate the project. We built Solar Sound System with ADER and put it on a postal trolley so that we could take it to country stands in Neuchatel, Geneva, Montreux, Lausanne, etc.
And what was the result of the campaign?
Unfortunately, the solar cent was rejected, but within our circle of activists, festivals, squats, etc., many people who liked to organize parties, build them, mix in crazy places, told us, “What you’re doing is cool, it has to continue.” At first we didn’t really have a label, or even a name, we weren’t trying to be too visible, up until we were invited to participate in Art Basel, to do performances, parties, in France too. That’s how we emerged from the shadows and the project came to be called Solar Sound System. We also realized that the sun is great, but it doesn’t always work. So in order to have a system that remains autonomous at all times, we also installed bicycle generators on it. By 2004, we set up a MySpace page, had ongoing collaborations, such as with Tony Light, a pioneer of chiptunes and micromusic who invited us to Milan to play at Politecnico during the design fair, then at Synch Festival in Greece, where we performed wherever we pleased in Athens and at the festival. Tony Light is from the legendary Italian collective Otolab, one of the inventors of LepLoop, a little DIY beatmachine that they developed over the years [LEP stands for Laboratorio Elettronico Popolare], which has become a big success. We often go on tour in Switzerland too, in Zurich, Bern, Geneva, in the mountains, at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Do you continue to be involved in activism?
Yes, in parallel with our musical activities, which are also a concrete form of promoting autonomy, we are actively educating about energy. The impulse was that in 2001 we took over EPFL’s exhibition on energy and climate, with the intention of having it tour around. That was when I met Martine Rebetez, an expert from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who was working in Lausanne and showed us what was coming in terms of frequency and acceleration of extreme climate events. What hit me like a hammer at the time is now called collapsology.
All the posters, blueprints, etc., from this exhibition were going to be thrown out, which wasn’t logical in terms of gray energy, especially after I insisted on creating a chapter on this topic. EPFL gave us the green light, and we installed the first exhibition at Salon du Livre in Geneva. This first experience made us realize that deploying the system for a single occasion was complicated and too costly, so we came up with the “easy” solution of an itinerant truck. Again ADER supported us, accommodated us in its space, gave us credibility and helped us find funding thanks to their 20-year reputation. We found an old Mercedes 509D with a semitrailer, a former cattle truck all in aluminum with a transparent roof, and refurbished the whole thing, including the bodywork. We integrated flexible solar panels, installed solar heating, a wind turbine, blueprints of solar houses, the Solar Sound System. We used solar dishes for cooking, we distributed leaflets about gray energy by La Bonne Combine. Our bus ran on leftover oil from frying, we promoted agro-fuel, we also had a biogas module, a module for co-generating gas and electricity, bio blueprints of passive houses with thermometer, a heat camera… We did presentations at schools, dozens of energy-saving campaigns, supported by the public electricity and gas services of Lausanne and Geneva. Actually, there is currently a worldwide movement to restore public energy services—that’s also the fabcity!
In 2004, following a request by the Sortir du nucléaire [“getting out of nuclear energy”] network, which had learned of our prototypes, we went on a tour of nuclear reactors in France.
You are crossing the border…
The project attracted a lot of interest in France—Alter Alsace Energies, Ajena Energie et Environnement in the Jura region, Prioriterre near Annecy—, which led us to conceive an Interreg European transborder program between France and Switzerland: EDEN (EDucation about ENergy). I coordinated this program from 2005 to 2007, bringing together various people working in the fields of education and energy to exchange ideas about educational approaches on both sides of the Franco-Swiss border, mutualize and create common educational tools, brochures, web documents, blueprints, etc., but also to put their hands under the hood, touch solar panels and examine them up close, take them apart, directly show the effect of photons, provide very concrete demonstrations, even popping popcorn on a solar dish.
Our approach was to have resources that were both tangible and quantified. So in parallel with the parties, Solar Sound System also made appearances in a lot of different places: high school courtyard, organic fair, teaching academy, etc. Solar Sound System offers a laidback atmosphere around music, where we talk a lot with people and distribute trustworthy information, so that they can distinguish between serious sustainability and what are opportunistic projects.
Next week: Part 2 of this interview.