Q&A: Art vs. Climate Change

With all the talk about climate change, many of us still find it hard to connect with the crisis. Yes, we intuit that we’re facing something huge and life-altering, yet we continue to wallow in a state of denial. As frequent and devastating storms swoop down in our neighborhoods, we know something is very wrong.  Nevertheless, we’re too distracted or paralyzed to spring into political action. A new online competition, the CoolClimate Art Contest, is meant to help us recover from our political paralysis. Its organizers believe that artists and designers, with their well-known abilities to reach into our emotions, can help mobilize us to push for policy initiatives in energy, alternative fuels, and green jobs, among other subsets of climate change. To learn more about how artists can turn us into political activists, we asked the organizers of the CoolClimate Art Contest to share their hopes for their timely initiative. Our respondents are David Ross, the former head of the Whitney Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and a judge of the contest; Josh Wattles, advisor in chief at DeviantART, the largest online social network for artists and art enthusiasts with over 13.5 million registered members; Karl Burkhart, an expert in social media and the environment; and Sarah Ingersoll, the director of the CoolClimate Art Contest.

Why put art in the service of climate change?

Karl Burkhart: Just last week an unprecedented event occurred in Greenland. An iceberg twice the size of Manhattan broke off one of the largest and oldest ice sheets in the world in less than twenty-four hours. Scientists are still scratching their heads to figure out why global warming in certain regions is happening faster than predicted. The famous ‘Al Gore graph’ turns out to have underestimated the scope and speed of climate change.

Despite these facts, much of the public is clueless. At least half of Americans do not believe climate change is real and thus are completely inactive when it comes to advocacy and engaging their elected leaders. There has been a critical failing in communications around climate change and a big part of the problem has been a lack of ‘imagery’ that evokes and symbolizes the global changes that are, as we speak, changing the shape of the planet we live on. That is why we are turning to the artists.

Historically, artists have been on the leading edge of social and cultural movements, giving shape to the unspoken desires of a populace on the brink of change. Through time they have given us images that become rallying points for progress. And never before have we needed those images so urgently. Climate change is vast and complicated, yet it will continue to have impacts on our own backyards. It’s the difficult task of connecting these far-flung dots that the artist lives for.

Sarah Ingersoll: Artists and designers have the capacity to translate heady policy and global problems into concrete images that move people to action.

Josh Wattles: From the first time one person asked another to draw a picture or write a song to convey an idea, art has been in the service of communication.  The actions required for a global response to climate change start with communication, and the arts communicate more than information. They can communicate the human soul. They can make you laugh. They can make you sad. What better place to go than the arts to make us cry out for help in saving the planet?

David Ross: A definition of art I hold dear is that it is a site for the contest of values and ideas. In this regard, the fact that artists produce works that raise serious questions about significant issues in our lives makes sense to me. Climate change, and the broad range of social, scientific, and political issues that underlie the debate on its cause and cure, has been front-and-center in the work of artists for quite some time now—in fact, several generations of artists have engaged the topic.

What can artists do for the environment that designers can’t?

SI: This contest is open to artists and designers and anyone who can create visual imagery.

Has anyone else done this kind of competition before?

SI: As far as we know, the CoolClimate Art Contest is the first of its kind.

KB: A few nonprofit advocacy groups like NRDC have done contests. AAC ran an interesting one. In the lead-up to Copenhagen, the Danish government funded a call for entries for art related to the climate, which yielded some good results.

CoolClimate is unique in its approach. It is being launched on the world’s largest social network of artists—deviantART, which has millions of active users. And the final top five artists will be judged by the public on Huffington Post’s innovative social-voting platform.

melting-men-berlin-germany-nele-azevedo-1In 2009, the Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo placed a thousand sculptures of tiny ice men on the steps of the Berlin Concert Hall. Azevedo is one of several contemporary artists whose work engages climate-change issues.

Are there artists whose work comments on the environment, who to this point have done the most provocative work?

KB:  In today’s art markets, art that is ‘about something’—like climate change—tends to be overlooked or undervalued. In 2010, art is supposed to be about art, not about making overtly political statements. Furthermore, the efforts of well-funded conservative think-tanks have helped politicize climate conversation. This makes art that is overtly about climate change a rarity. I write a column on SHFT.com where I am constantly looking for real artists that are intelligently responding to climate change. And I will tell you it is difficult. A few come to mind: Adam Wolpert, Jass Kaselaan, Mark Coreth, and Nele Azevedo.

SI: Three of the CoolClimate Art Contest judges have produced powerful work related to the environment. Mel Chin’s Revival Field (1989–ongoing) has verified the use of plants to remove toxic metals from the soil. Chin has also used Operation Paydirt: The Fundred Dollar Bill Project in creative ways to provoke greater social awareness, responsibility, and action. Dianna Cohen has produced gorgeous hand-sewn collages from the colorful plastic bags most people throw away. Carrie Mae Weems, while not explicitly ‘environmental,’ has provocatively explored space and our place in it through her photography in Roaming (2006), Sea Islands (1991-92), and others.

There are hundreds of others we’ve documented who have done great environmental work: Chris Jordan, Mary Taffe, Diane Burko, Anglea Palmer, Wendy Abrams, Kim Abeles, Sebastian Copeland, Mark Coreth, Maya Lin, Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele, Shepard Fairey, and the list goes on!

DR: Yes, the list is long, but to name several from different generations I would start with the late Robert Smithson, California artist couple Helen and Newton Harrison, Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, Australian-born New York artist Natalie Jeremijenko, and Scottish artist Katie Paterson.

What do you hope this competition will do for the public’s understanding of climate change?

JW: First and foremost the CoolClimate Art Contest will collect the combined representation of hope among thousands of artists from all over the globe, each of whom will invest themselves in a deeply personal expression on climate change and its challenges. This scope of involvement will vibrate to all of the artists’ circles of friends, associates, professional contacts, fans, classmates, and families, renewing awareness of climate change for each them, rippling to unseen shores. The winners’ works as selected stand to become important tools in communicating the urgency of these issues in the public sector, helping to guide citizens to further inquiry and understanding.

DR: I hope that the works that emerge will generate meaningful discussions within communities not already engaged in the climate-change discourse, and contribute to a deeper understanding of the complexity of our current condition.

SI:  In particular, I hope the CoolClimate Contest will engage the creative public—amateur and professional artists of all kinds—in thinking about the issue and how they can make a difference.  Then, I hope CoolClimate will engage the politically conscious public who vote on the finalists on the Huffington Post. I hope we can encourage the environmental community to use the winning art to communicate the issue of climate change in new ways.  Finally, I hope the winning art will engage the general public, especially those who still do not understand what is at stake, and move them to action.

KB: Artists are the top of the influencer pyramid, and when they start producing art that communicates their response to climate change, the public will, I hope, start to wake up in a more visceral way to what is by far the greatest issue threatening mankind. Right now we’re stuck in the land of facts and figures and graphs. The public is never going to get what climate change really means until artists start giving it shape.

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