The Big Invisible

“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. A new flag attempts to give this invisible gas, this international risk, an image, a way to represent itself. I like to think of it as a flag for a new kind of world order.” —John Gerrard, Artist

A hidden treasure, like many great treasures, is to be found on an unassuming, charming, and quiet square in Vienna’s 6th district. Peeking through the large windows on Loquaiplatz might reveal a beautiful minimalist studio where a flat screen shows a frog floating through space or a digital simulation of a flag of never-ending smoke – a haunting image that was presented earlier this year as a public art project in London, but developed here in the production space of media artist John Gerrard. While (still) hidden in Vienna, Gerrard’s work found international acclaim, securing the artist’s position as pioneer of new computer technologies and bringing urgent issues about nature, consumer culture, and power systems to art audiences. The flag of perpetual smoke depicts a dystopian and barren landscape – a simulation of the real site of the world’s first major oil find in Spindletop, Texas in 1901. Gerrard reimagines it as an unrelenting menace. It was presented in early 2017 as a multi-disciplinary public art intervention – online (YouTube), on TV (Channel Four) and at the heart of the European art establishment (Somerset House, London).

Gerrard is part of an international group of artists using their creativity to address the need for new structures in society. It has become clear that climate change is, at least in large part, a cultural problem – a direct consequence of our lifestyle and consumer behavior. But if we want to influence human behavior, we have to go beyond communicating the science of climate change, and this is exactly where the work of artists like Gerrard comes into play. Creative approaches to climate change speak to people on an engaging, emotional, human, and accessible level. Art and culture can be effective tools with which to advance new ideas, explore alternatives, and influence social norms.

To understand the framework of artists, curators, architects, designers, policymakers, and other arts professionals in Austria who engage with these issues, Jade Niklai and I established the Kunst Haus Wien’s inaugural Curator-in-Residence program. In early 2017, we conducted close to 50 interviews with key protagonists in Vienna, Graz, and Salzburg, and ran a weekly reading group with co-hosts and members of the public. Our research confirmed that the City of Vienna is acutely aware of, and making efforts to, engage with the international discourse on climate change. The Viennese art world, however, is only slowly waking up to the problem’s relevance and immediacy. Though we learned about many individual and institutional initiatives, we found there was limited knowledge exchange, interdisciplinary collaboration, and organizational partnership on the subject.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is known to spark innovation, but a big obstacle to art/science collaborations is language. The professional language of both the artist and the scientist has become so specialized that it requires an open mind and much patience on both sides to understand each other. One of our interviewees, Markus Schmidt, co-founder and director of Biofaction, a research and science communication company based in Vienna, put it this way:

“Artists and scientists speak in different languages. I work with artists because I’m interested in new perspectives that go beyond scientific insight. Science is a great tool to better understand the world, but the scientific method can also be limiting. Artists bring in different arguments, additional layers of meaning and help us to explore complimentary futures.”

essen-prototype-nature-exhibition-biofaction
Biofaction. Prototype Nature exhibition in Essen.

Another point that struck us was how people – even in the cultural and academic sectors – find it hard to relate to something that is not visible or immediately obvious in their own lives. As long as flooding and scarcity of resources (energy, food, water) are not part of the daily struggle, climate change remains an “alternative reality.” While this attitude is not unique to Austria, it is accentuated by the country’s protected and regulated position: it is land-locked, benefits from a stable social welfare system and access to alternative sources of energy, and still enjoys localized agricultural practices. The challenge of how to relate to latent natural forces led to our concept for The Big Invisible, an exhibition and public program we are presenting at the Kunst Haus Wien, October 19, 2017 – January 14, 2018.

The Big Invisible addresses five invisible forces that interact with us in subtle but powerful ways, and influence our potential for life and longevity on the planet. Though this may sound like a superhero story, the reality is less fantastical and cli-fi-esque: the exhibition confronts real-life issues such as viruses, air pollution, heat, nuclear radiation and an imaginary oil spill. The main question that is posed is: How do we relate to nature’s drastic changes if we cannot see, feel or hear the causes and directly experience the effects? The selected artworks offer a renewed understanding of the wonders of the natural world by using publicly accessible data and tools so that we may see, hear, touch and smell our environment in ways that go beyond what initially meets the eye. This sense of heightened awareness is crucial in times of environmental degradation, with artists playing an important role in making the issues visible.

Markus Hoffmann_Bikini Atoll Containment 02_2015_Artist
Markus Hoffmann. Bikini Atoll Containment 2015.

Artists probe and contextualize the status of current and potential environmental situations in different parts of the world, bringing new questions and knowledge into the conversation and opening up the imagination by engaging with the realm of the invisible. From the effects of radiation on coconuts on the Bikini Atoll to the Pepino Mosaic Virus on European tomatoes, the exhibition provides new insights into the invisible world around us, bridging art and citizen science.

(Top image: John Gerrard, Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas) 2017. Installation view, Somerset House, London. Photo: Damian Griffiths. Image courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Simon Preston Gallery, New York.)

This article was published in German by the Austrian magazine HIEB.

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Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues.

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