I began thinking about using public art to engage people on climate issues in 2008. I was late to the party of climate artists, but not as late as the general public. I was practicing architecture at the time, and trying to build a green practice when I realized that I could offer green choices, but the client was the ultimate decision-maker, and there was little will to choose green. I heard confirmation at conferences – we have solutions but there is little interest in using them. We needed culture change on a massive scale, and I decided that I could have the greatest impact by working on that. I wanted to make a series of public sculptures that would generate renewable energy to create dialogue about renewables because data, and the way it was presented, clearly was not reaching people. In the US, there was widespread doubt about the veracity of climate change. When I would tell people of my idea of using art for climate engagement, they would look at me, puzzled. Art and climate?
Times have changed. Although it may seem like Americans are still skeptical, according to a report by Yale University, 70% of Americans believe that climate change is happening, and 62% are worried about it. Now when I talk about climate engagement using art, people nod enthusiastically and even help make it happen – “yeah, we want that.” I never did make the sculpture series, but instead make ephemeral projects which can be done quickly, cost effectively, and are scalable.
The first scalable project that I made was Rising Waters, which marks, in natural and built landscapes, future flood levels due to sea level rise and storms. The project is simple and direct, boiling down complex projections to three data points that you can relate to with your body as you walk past the lines. A lot of experimentation and 16 installations led me back to where I started – simple lines. Students helped make many of the installations, and going forward they will be made with local Rising Waters Chapters. The installations carry a URL to my website resources page which lists individual action items and links to research and other organizations.
Climate communicators – including climate artists – face a dilemma: show problems or show solutions? While it is tempting to show the problem, because that is what motivates us (climate activists), I try to link the impacts of climate change to information about personal actions. Climate change is a terrifying existential threat. Most people just want to shut it out, so only showing the problems can be self-defeating. But sometimes showing only solutions can make people feel like it is not an urgent problem, or they don’t need to take action.
Like many climate artists, I turned to art so I could communicate information in a way that allows people to absorb the message before they shut down, to appeal to their emotions, and make data intuitive and personally relevant. We need “both/and:” to show solutions alongside problems, empowering people to act.
ASK was an outreach project for the German Embassy and Transatlantic Climate Bridge that shows personal contributions to solutions. I made pith helmets with tiny wind turbines and sandwich boards that said “I’m a scientist, ASK me about climate change.” Companion information cards included individual action items and “Facts vs Myths” about the costs and benefits of renewable energy and aggregating small actions. I made ten sets, and volunteers wore them at public events. I addressed the question we hear so often – “the problem is so HUGE, what can I do?” While it seemed perhaps desperate to resort to one-on-one conversations, it really appeared to work. People would laugh at the hat, and then ask a question. The humor put them at ease, and allowed them to be receptive.
My projects invite, and sometimes require, participation, engaging people at the outset and providing some social buttressing. Rising Waters, Ask, and MISSING! involve people in the making/distribution of the art, and give information about possible actions. With MISSING!, people make missing pet posters about endangered species. The activity is always offered in a social group setting like public events or workshops. While they are deciding which animal to draw, participants browse information about endangered species, effectively learning without realizing it. By the time they finish their poster, I am hoping they have made the analogy between their pet and a wild animal. Why do we make a distinction between animals we care for and those we don’t? At the end, they take home the poster to make copies and post in their neighborhood in an effort to educate others. On the poster is a URL pointing to educational resources on my website. Simple, direct, and fun while learning about biodiversity, extinction and possible actions.
The response has been enormous and gratifying. So many people have told me how they remember the installations and have taken steps to have a lasting impact on climate change. I meet people who say they saw Rising Waters and now, whenever they are near the water, they wonder: “Where will the water be? How high and when?” These positive reactions keep me going.
(Top image: Rising Waters, Courthouse MBTA, Boston, Massachusetts, 2014.)
After 20 years of practicing architecture, Susan Israel founded Climate Creatives to make environmental issues accessible to the public, empowering and inspiring people to take action. Previously, she was a Founder and Principal at studio2sustain, Energy Necklace Project, and Susan Israel Architects. She is a licensed Architect, a LEED AP, ArtWeek Advisor, and long-time member of the Harvard Alumni Association Board of Directors. Susan speaks at events nationally and internationally. She holds an A.B. from Harvard College, Master of Architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and attended the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston.