8 Artists Taking On The Big Global Challenge: Climate Change

“We should (and may) die trying to render climate change issues accessible."

We are bombarded with evidence of climate change. We can see the impacts through scorching summers, wildfires and increasingly intense extreme weather events. We hear about it through terrifying scientific reports that say we have just a few years before we’ll have missed the boat on holding back our slide into catastrophic climate change. And yet few people act; most don’t even talk about it.

Increasingly, artists are trying to use their work to beat back a sense of apathy and inaction, to visualize the effects and threats of climate change.

For some, this means using empathy and emotion to try to reach people; for some, it’s turning to technology to engage people in a virtual image of what our future will look like if we don’t change course; still for others, it’s about making a brutal reality visible and tangible for people, even when their own hope in change has dissipated.

Here we look at eight artists taking on the ultimate subject: climate change.

‘Climate Signals,’ Justin Brice Guariglia

Ten solar-powered highway signs have appeared across New York City providing orange LED warnings of climate doom. The signs by artist Justin Brice Guariglia form an installation running in each borough of the city between Sept. 1 and Nov. 6 as part of a project for The Climate Museum.

The signs are located in areas particularly vulnerable to climate change and are in the languages frequently spoken in that particular neighborhood. They flash a number of messages including “Climate Change At Work” and “Fossil Fueling Inequality.” 

“The arts are a critical vector for climate engagement,” Miranda Massie, director of The Climate Museum, told HuffPost. “Only 5 percent of us speak about [climate change] with any regularity. We need a cultural transformation to break that silence ― we need to offer diverse pathways into climate dialogue and action, including soft ones. Art is a crucial pathway because it works through emotion and the senses, and because it provokes without prescribing.” 

‘Ice Watch,’ Olafur Eliasson

"Ice Watch", an art installation by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, on display in Paris in December 2015.
"Ice Watch", an art installation by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, on display in Paris in December 2015.

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s work involved transporting 12 blocks of ice that came from free-floating icebergs from the Greenland ice sheet, then arranging them in a clock formation to indicate the passing of time. The ice sculptures were left to slowly melt. 

His first installation was in Copenhagen in 2014, the second in Paris to coincide with the United Nations climate change conference in December 2015. 

He firmly believes art has the power to make a difference. “There is a tendency today to feel untouched by the problems of others, to shut down at the immensity of an issue like climate change,” he told HuffPost. “Just informing people, giving them knowledge, often leaves them feeling overwhelmed and disempowered.” But a piece like “Ice Watch,” he said, “offers people an immediate experience of the reality of climate change ... It makes the larger world felt. It is my hope that this encounter and the feelings it evokes can spur action and move worlds.”

‘Unmoored,’ Mel Chin

Pedestrians walk past artist Mel Chin's mixed reality climate change themed art installation, "Unmoored," in New York City on
Pedestrians walk past artist Mel Chin's mixed reality climate change themed art installation, "Unmoored," in New York City on July 11, 2018.

New York City is one of the world cities most vulnerable to sea level rises – by 2100, scientists predict sea levels could be up to 75 inches higher than they are today along the city’s coastline and estuaries.

Artist Mel Chin’s Times Square multimedia installation, “Unmoored,” sought to show New Yorkers what their city might look like deep under water. A 60-foot high sculpture of a shipwreck sat in the square, while viewers used smartphones to see the underside of virtual ships floating far above their heads. 

“It is a surreal experience invented to connect us with our reality,” Chin said at the opening of the installation.

“We should (and may) die trying to render climate change issues perceptually accessible as a means to reactivate wonder and rekindle empathy,” he told HuffPost, 

‘The peo-ple cried mer-cy in the storm,’ Allison Janae Hamilton 

"The peo-ple cried mer-cy in the storm," by Allison Janae Hamilton
"The peo-ple cried mer-cy in the storm," by Allison Janae Hamilton

On an island at Storm King Art Center, in Mountainville, New York, are three vertiginous stacks of tambourines all painted white. They form an installation by Kentucky-born, Florida-raised artist Allison Janae Hamilton. The title – “The peo-ple cried mer-cy in the storm” – comes from a 1928 hymn, “Florida Storm,” written about the Great Miami Hurricane, which in 1926 devastated large parts of southern Florida, killing nearly 400 people.

Hamilton says the piece also references the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, which claimed between 2,500 and 3,000 lives in Florida and the Caribbean. Many of those in Florida who lost their lives in the disaster were black, migrant farm workers who were later buried in mass, unmarked graves. 

“As climate change continues to threaten our environments, so increases the vulnerability of those already exposed to longstanding environmental injustices,” Hamilton told HuffPost. “Through the narratives in my artwork, I explore the changing climate as a palpable, human experience.”

‘What Future Do You Choose for Miami?’, Miami Murals/Before It’s Too Late

A viewer uses their smartphone to view ‘What Future Do You Choose for Miami?’, an augmented reality mural in the
A viewer uses their smartphone to view ‘What Future Do You Choose for Miami?’, an augmented reality mural in the city.

Miami has been called the ground zero of climate change. By 2030, Miami sea levels are projected to rise by six to 10 inches above 1992 levels. Extreme weather events have battered the city – 2017′s Hurricane Irma swept through Florida leaving a trail of devastation in its wake and claiming more than 80 lives in the state. 

A group of artists and technologists, anxious to better engage people in the threats posed by climate change, have banded together to create an augmented-reality mural in the city under the banner of an initiative called “Before It’s Too Late.”

The 96- by 14-foot mural features a canary, designed to symbolize the city’s status as a “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to climate change.

Viewers download an app that allows them to point their smartphones at the wall and see it come to life by way of an augmented-reality film. The film shows two future realities for the city. In one, no action is taken and the city becomes unliveable – flooded, decaying and dirty. The second shows a hopeful future powered by renewable energy.

“Our message is in order to create change for a better future, we have to first be willing to shine the mirror on ourselves as we are each participants who help create the moral and cultural values of this world,” “Before It’s Too Late” founder Linda Cheung told HuffPost.

‘Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas 2017),’ John Gerrard

Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas 2017), a virtual art installation by Irish artist John Gerrard, uses a haunting image to symb
Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas 2017), a virtual art installation by Irish artist John Gerrard, uses a haunting image to symbolize our complex relationship with oil.

Spindletop, Texas, is the site of the world’s first major oil discovery, made in 1901. Where once 100,000 barrels of oil were extracted in one day, the land is now barren. Irish artist John Gerrard flew a drone over the area, taking 10,000 to 15,000 photos, to recreate it virtually for his artwork Western Flag.

The focal point of his work is a towering, computer-generated flag belching out black smoke. The flag runs as if in real time: The landscape turns dark when the sun goes down in Texas and is lit during the daytime. 

Gerrard wanted to take on oil as something that is central to our reality, a material that has become essential to the way we live our lives both in terms of the advantages it provides and the climate damage it causes. 

The flag aims to make manifest this uncomfortable dichotomy. “One of the greatest legacies of the 20th century is not just population explosion or better living standards, but vastly raised carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere,” Gerrard told HuffPost. “This flag gives this invisible gas, this international risk, an image, a way to represent itself.” 

‘Cascade,’ Alexis Rockman

Cascade, 2015, oil and alkyd on wood, Collection Grand Rapids Art Museum
Cascade, 2015, oil and alkyd on wood, Collection Grand Rapids Art Museum

Alexis Rockman has been tackling climate change through his art since 1994, when a paleontologist described the danger heading our way and why he was frightened about it. Rockman decided to used his position as an artist “to visualize these things that were very abstract and remote in terms of people’s life span and comprehension,” he told HuffPost.

“I realized that art was one of the few places where you don’t have censorship pressure from capitalism from powerful industries,” he added. “They don’t have a say if you decide to focus on ideas that might challenge their business model.”

Many of his images show landscapes ravaged by climate change and environmental destruction. “Cascade” is part of his “Great Lakes Cycle,” a series that explores the past, present and future of America’s Great Lakes. These lakes form one of the most important ecosystems on the planet, holding over 20 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves. But they are exploited and vulnerable to climate change. Rockman depicts both their beauty and the devastating threats they face. 

When asked if he thought art can spur change when it comes to global warming, he replied: “No. When there is open warfare on empirical facts my feelings include rage and disgust to go along with despair.” But, he added, “Part of the reason to be an artist is to get yourself out of bed every morning and try to do something about it, or at least cope. The thing about being an artist is that it’s so self-motivated and self-determined that it has to be an act of defiance to get through it.”

‘Rococo Remastered,’ Noel Kassewitz

"Rococo Remastered," by Noel Kassewitz.
"Rococo Remastered," by Noel Kassewitz.

Washington, D.C.-based artist Noel Kassewitz makes “climate change ready” art. Using found flotation devices and color palettes from different periods of art history – such as rococo – she makes pieces that aim to bring attention to climate change with humor.

“Today, we are facing unprecedented levels of chaos with our climate,” Kassewitz told HuffPost, “While there are myriad ways the change is occurring, one most concerning to me – an artist and Miami native – is rising sea levels.”

She has been floating down the Potomac River on her artwork, showing its buoyant abilities as well as trying to send a message to those who ignore the problem. 

“Humor catches people off guard, and through my current bodies of work I am often able spark conversations with people otherwise reluctant to engage with the topic. As for my own amusement, I imagine some day in the flooded future an art collector will be safely sitting on top of their floating artwork exclaiming, “Thank goodness we bought a Noel Kassewitz!’” 

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