A new wave of creative projects is addressing our shifting environment through art, activism, and innovative design
An article in A/D/O by Laura Feinstein.
The Earth's average temperature increased by two degrees Fahrenheit during the 20th century, according to NASA. While this may seem minor, it has already had an outsized impact on our global climate, from the increase in extreme weather events like flooding and forest fires, to ongoing food and water shortages. But what global governments have been frustratingly slow to address, artists and designers are tackling full-throttle, using their talents to create powerful visual representations that force us to grasp climate change more tangibly.
Coinciding with the 2019 Venice Biennale, in the satellite show “Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy,” prominent artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kiki Smith made climate change a dominant issue; nearby, Lorenzo Quinn's compelling installation depicting a pair of hands emerging from the city's famous canals to support the sides of the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel – a statement on rising sea levels – underscored this sense of urgency. At Milan’s Triennale Museum, just a few hours west, the exhibition Broken Nature, curated by MoMA's Paola Antonelli, presents 22 international artists exploring and addressing issues ranging from deforestation to coral reef depletion, while Louis Vuitton’s newly appointed artistic director Virgil Abloh recently unveiled a series of climate change-inspired furniture pieces. If three makes it a trend, this may be the beginning of a movement.
Obviously, there’s no template for visualizing climate change. Some artists embrace a literal interpretation, like Finnish designers Pekka Niittyvirta and Timo Aho, who illuminated ghostly “flood lines" throughout the Scottish countryside, and New York-based artist Eve Mosher who, as part of 2007's HighWaterLine project, traced swaths of Brooklyn with a baseball field chalker to create a 70-mile flood line for a storm projected to hit the coast within three to 20 years. Five years later, Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the region. Still other artists prefer what Margaret Atwood called “speculative fiction,” a vision of a not-too-distant world that’s easy to imagine but hard to bear. American artist Zaria Forman’s ice glacier drawings explore in vivid detail the melting of the poles, while painter Jill Pelto utilizes scientific data to create illustrations depicting issues like ocean acidification and deforestation, overlaid with vibrant watercolor paintings of the affected natural areas.
Murals influenced by climate change have also appeared across the world, from Pangeaseed’s ocean-inspired murals throughout North America, to Kyrgyzstan's Aida Sulova, whose vivid designs are inspired by the heaps of trash left around the city of Bishkek. But in its most basic form, visualizing climate change is simply the documentation of our ongoing environmental degradation; for David Maisel’s The Lake Project, the artist explored, through a series of photographs, a once thriving 200-square-mile lake in California that has since been depleted by LA’s water shortage. Today, it exists as a blood-red ooze of minerals and bacterial growth.
Still, there are optimists, like Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde, whose works have included Waterlicht, an aetherial series of aquatic projections depicting rising tides, and the Smog Free Project, an award-winning collection of smog-reducing structures. “We live in a world where there is not a lack of technology, but of imagination – how we want the future to look,” said Roosegaarde, whose ultimate aim is to envision “the city of tomorrow,” where light-emitting algae can be used in place of street lamps, and smog-clearing jewelry can be purchased as engagement rings. “These are proposals for how I would like to see the world, not as a utopia, but as a ‘protopia’ – a way to show, learn, fail, and upgrade the world around us.” Currently, Roosegaarde’s attentions are focused on expanding the Smog Free Project, which has successfully launched in China, Poland, and the Netherlands, with additional plans for Korea and Mexico.” It’s a campaign for clean air, using design and technology to improve the urban landscape,” he said. Roosegaarde has now set his eyes on the skies with the Space Waste Lab to visualize, capture and upcycle the current 8.1 million kilos of space waste created by satellites and rockets floating in the universe.
Swedish artist Johan Elmehag has also put a playful spin on environmental devastation with his Coastline typeface and climate-change maps. Originally intended as “a fictive help-guide for climate refugees in the year 2100,” the project has morphed into a dystopian topographical rendering, based on a post-glacial earth and utilizing projections from floodmap.net and National Geographic. “I began to see different letterforms in particularly exposed coastal areas and understood they could be used for organizing and presenting geographical information in a structured and innovative way,” he told The Journal. Utilizing four variables – dissemination of geographic areas, exposed areas, scalability between letters and aesthetically appropriate letterforms – he was able to tell a story for each letter, presenting a diverse picture as well as a downloadable typeface. “If you’re trying to visualize climate change, it’s important to create a perspective people haven’t seen,” Elmehag said.
“More designers, and especially design students, are focusing efforts on sustainability and, by extension, climate change,” said Steven Heller, MFA Design co-chair at the School of Visual Arts, explaining the recent boom in climate-related art. He reasoned that over the last decade, climate change has gone from a hypothetical to a daily feature, the unintended effect creating a shift in consumer patterns, and by default, affecting the livelihood of product and graphic designs. “Consumers just don’t want to buy into wasteful or world-destroying products,” he said.
"Artists have always responded to what is culturally central,” added Julia Buntaine Hoel, Director of the SciArt Center, which co-organized the Visualizing Climate Change symposium with Cooper Union in 2015. “Climate change differs from other current culturally central topics because of its global reach and pressing timeline. In many ways, these artists are giving voice to a science which, for the layperson, is too complicated to understand quickly, and too nuanced without the assistance of a platform like the visual arts.” Artists, unlike scientists, have the ability to give data meaning through form and image, to create empathetic connections between an audience and a data set. “Non-scientists don't empathize and change their behavior or actions because of a graph – they respond to images of a seahorse carrying a Q-tip, or of a polar bear floating on the only ice in sight,” Hoel said.
Others are more skeptical of the climate change-inspired design trend. For over a decade, anonymous Spanish collective Luz Interruptus has created environmentally sustainable and politically minded works, often involving large-scale, illuminated waste items like disposable baby nipples and plastic bottles. But, ultimately, the group found that gaining access to recycled materials to convert into art installations is difficult to secure and manage, and involves complicated processes that eventually end up being unsustainable. "When we recycle plastic it is often mixed with other containers, rendering it unsuitable for artistic usage,” they explained. “In spite of this unquestionable reality, museums, festivals, institutions, companies, and events of all kinds want to join the trend of big and bold messages and statements, and impose this theme on their artists."
"Afterwards, they don't know how to manage these projects,” Luz Interruptus continued. “In short, the ‘raising awareness’ boom in the art field is promoting illicit practices wherein artists become accomplices, sometimes knowingly, sometimes due to lack of awareness, in which organizers and artists buy new plastic and try to pass it off as recycled. Well-intentioned messages are delivered by the hand of prestige artists, but there's not enough time or resources to create serious work, so in the end, people like us, interested in the outcome and the process equally, have a more difficult time keeping our principles and values safeguarded.” Aware of these concerns when building Ice Watch, the newest public work examining global warming by Olafur Eliasson, the artist tapped Julie’s Bicycle, a London-based arts sustainability charity, to ensure that his project was constructed and exhibited ethically.
There is no doubt that climate change will continue to be a muse for the art and design world. According to UN reports, we are pushing many animal species towards extinction and hurling our own towards an uncertain future, with whole swaths of the world projected to be uninhabitable within half a century. While it may be a “trend”, it’s also a global reality, which is what these creators are responding to. Ultimately, to critics who believe that artists who explore climate change are just cashing in on a fad, and that concerns for our unstable environment will soon lose their urgency, Daan Roosegaarde asks a simple question: "How is the weather on your planet?"
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