Eco-art, design and architecture can be agents of environmental change in the public domain

Many of us are aware of the environmental crisis and the need to change the way we operate. On a daily basis, various media offer images illustrating the effects of climate change to help us understand the extent of environmental damage – for example, in the form of scientists infinite data and metrics presented in the form of graphics or topical photographs.

Visual imagery was central to how people develop a sense of the meaning of the Anthropocene – the era we live in, the first time that human activity is the dominant influence on the climate.

In recent decades, new art, design and architectural practices in the public domain have helped raise awareness of pervasive waste, pollution and global warming, as well as the social injustices associated with it.

With my colleagues, I catalog public art, design and architecture projects in Canada that aim to teach about the environmental crisis, to reveal what eco-lessons are conveyed to the public and what the public can learn. Our work draws on art and design which has helped initiate a dialogue of experts and the community on the types of visual images and artistic practices that could engender positive action for our environment.

Green arithmetic

Environmental historian and professor of sociology Jason W. Moore explored how environmental researchers and policy makers have sought to help the public understand how global warming is affecting Earth through environmental change data and metrics – what he calls “green arithmetic”.

Although these quantifiable modes of representation have been a powerful model for understanding the “What” of our planetary conditionit is not clear whether people have understood the effects of the current crisis on the biological and socio-economic aspects of our interconnected world – or what changes we need to change course.

Graphic charters show exponential damage, but who can understand what a kilogram of carbon dioxide is or what it does to the environment? This visual imagery format is far too abstract and the the information represented is defined at a scale that is difficult for many to imagine.

As TJ Demos, professor of art history and visual culture has argued, graphics developed by environmental organizations or researchers rarely motivate people take positive environmental action.

Edward Burtynsky’s “Oil Fields # 19ab”, color chromogenic print, taken in Belridge, California, in 2003, seen at the Nevada Museum of Art in July 2019.
(rocor / Flickr), CC BY-NC

Sublime images of disaster

Some artists have created sublime images depicting disaster situations. Photographer Edouard burtynsky and other artists have developed artistic investigations that tell stories that reflect what environmental transformation means.

Photographer J. Henry Fair is another artist who uses beautiful images document “the hidden costs of consumption. “

This type of art is often placed in museums, which in most cases are not an open public space. And only a small part of the population sets foot in a museum.

However, it is not only museums that exhibit such images. The media sometimes reaching the general public share photos of disasters linked to climate change which they present as “magnificent” and “superb. ”

Such images can indeed be “breathtaking”. The problem, however, is that such images, whether generated by professional artists, photojournalists or by individuals sharing on creative forums, are often so sublimely produced that the public wants to consume more. Still, there is not much certainty that it will help raise awareness real causes of environmental damage, not to mention causing changes. These types of works of art, which can become very popular cultural products, can be counterproductive in enabling change.

Public eco-art facilities

On the other hand, the public art installation Ice watch through
Icelandic Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, first created in 2014, was a seminal work intended to provoke immediate responses to our ecological crisis.

In the words of the artist, this work has seen: “12 large blocks of ice detached from the Greenland ice sheet are harvested from a fjord outside of Nuuk and presented in a clock formation in an important public place.

In its second installation, the work was placed in front of the Place du Panthéon in Paris in 2015, during an international meeting on climate change, COP21, used to take place.

The installation was simple, but it did climate change immediately felt for those present, as people could see and touch the large chunks of melting ice. This too people connected all over the world through his Instagram feed.

A statement about the artwork noted that the ice cap from which these blocks were harvested is “lose the equivalent of 1,000 of these blocks of ice per second throughout the year. “There were no charts showing data on melting glaciers. Yet witnesses had a resounding experience of the climate catastrophe.

The facility has helped people cope with the environmental crisis in a direct and personal way, as people have seen, as writer Rebecca Solnit noted, a “beautiful disturbing and dying monument. “A feeling of dread and eco-anxiety is at the heart of this experience, a concept called “Solastalgia”, in 2005 by sustainability professor Glenn Albrecht.

Public digital art

Another example is Falling particles, by a digital media artist Andrea Polli. This job was first public screening in 2010 and has been shown in a variety of locations, including Philadelphia in 2013.

Falling particles projects a visualization of the air pollution data of the surrounding area and projects it like a waterfall. When the waterfall is calm, the air pollution is low. When the pollution is high, the waterfall looks like choppy boiling mud seeping down the side of the building. Anyone walking the city streets can come across this visualization and be directly affected as it displays real-time data that can be viewed and used.

Falling particles screened in Philadelphia.

Towards systemic change

These public works are successful in their ability to make catastrophic situations visible, invisible to most people. They can even activate small changes in behavior.

Are such creations successful in fostering systemic change? Combining real-time data with visceral experiences in public spaces is a first step. May be the ability to involve civil society so deeply in these public works can enable the transformational changes needed.

Eco-art and design projects in public spaces aim to offer powerful experiences to passers-by and where they become witnesses of a devastating global situation. Through these experiences, people come a little closer to situations than they might not have otherwise imagined. And, after imagining these situations, people may then be motivated to resolve them.

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