Art exercises our imagination and gets us to experience the world differently. It disrupts and provokes empathy – cutting through the passive manner in which we engage with digital media. Against a backdrop of distrust, fake news, and rejections of the science, traditional mediums could have the power to emote climate disbelievers and should not be dismissed lightly.
“[Art] transcends differences and reminds us that we are one human family.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, 2018
This month, we were visited by Helen Marriage, Director of inspiring production house, Artichoke. For over two decades, Artichoke has brought large scale art experiences to outdoor public spaces. From a giant mechanical spider parading Liverpool’s streets, to a Skype-powered tunnel connecting school children in London with those “at the other end” in New York, these landmarks go beyond encouraging belief in magic to having real life transformational impact.
But why is it worth increasing budgets for offline efforts? What do they do differently to engage those with influence and power? Whilst at the 74th session of the UN General Assembly with longstanding partner, Fondation Botnar, last month, I took some time to check out two art installations that were being used to amplify the climate action movement at the centre of the socio-political world.
Days before diplomats gathered at the UN in New York this September, young activists across the globe marched to demand a greater political commitment to climate action. At the same time, Danish artist Jeppie Hein, internationally acclaimed for his public experimental pieces, unveiled a participatory painting wall at the United Nations headquarters and in Central Park.
Painting a case for new tactics
The installation gets participants to exhale slowly as their breath guides the paint brush to form two blue strokes – and eventually a “universal whole”.
Underpinned by two important themes – collaboration and community action – Hein’s piece encourages reflection on the air we breathe in relation to our current climate. But how do varying shades of blue and a canvas fuel action on a mass emergency? The concept was simple, but unashamedly powerful in its ability to remind us that the air we breathe, and its relationship with the environment, doesn’t discriminate.
Amidst outcries of climate crisis rejection, a registered letter from a group supported by Australian industry and business leaders was sent to the UN Secretary-General, headed “There is no climate emergency”. We are witnessing a state of increasing disbelief and dissociation, which this is no longer limited to those with obvious self-interest. A recent article by Quartz goes as far to identify three types of climate change deniers for which most us fit into one. The third, and most insidious it suggests, is those that congratulate themselves on agreeing with the science, but deny their own responsibility to act.
For those 15-20 seconds in which Heads of State, or teenagers in Central Park, mindfully assessed their own lung capacity – Hein’s exercise made the invisible, visible. Featuring strokes from Prime Minister of Bhutan, Dr Lotay Tscherin, Secretary-General’s Envoy-on-Youth, Ms. Jayathma Wickramanayake, and entrepreneur-philanthropist Mike Bloomberg, Breath With Me united sectors, generations, and momentarily distilled differences.
Joseph Michael and composer Rhian Sheehan were the creatives behind Voices for the Future, an outdoor installation projected onto United Nations’ buildings. The 40-story-high projection captured footage of a collapsing iceberg from the New Zealand-born artist’s earlier trip to Antarctica.
For its second part, Michael and Sheenan amplified voices of 6 youth activists, like Greta Thunberg’s. Their hopes and fears for the world were transported (via projector) onto the UN building, against the backdrop of devastating climate change. They even translated them into the 7 official UN languages.
Storytelling on climate change is not a new struggle. And the means through which we tell that story has to be universally accessible for it to result in actions and mass behavioural change. Speaking to Al Jazeera on the necessity for solutions across every continent, Michael said “English is often seen as the language that will solve climate change…but the reality is that it’s not.”
Similarly, critical responses to Greta Thunberg’s contributions in the movement have questioned its local effectiveness amidst the comparable platform given to non-western activists. In a powerful article for The Guardian, Chika Unigwe criticises the media for framing other non-western activists as “the Greta Thunberg of their country”, or as “following in her footsteps” even in cases where their public activism spans years before her rise to prominence.
There is no doubt that Greta is inspiring and impactful. But the stage she has been given does limit the story to one narrator. As a conceptual piece on a global stage, Voices of the Future approached diversity in its storytelling in a way that was still emotive and moving to a mass of onlookers. It serves as an important reminder of the devastating consequences for young people, and their environments, when their voices are sidelined.
Campaigning – not business as usual
With high social media engagement, international media coverage in abundance, and tactics to scale installations (such as Hein’s Breath with Me manual to help individuals, schools or even institutions implement the activity) – the impact is, and will continue to be, profound. Large investments in outdoor activations at UNGA signal an important shift away from ‘campaigning as usual’ at a time when the facts don’t cut it for a crisis defining our times.
If art can get people to adopt new lifestyle habits – or go as far as emote a president that dismisses the science – then Artichoke’s Helen is right to assert its magic.