Stop and Stare

By Yennah Smart

It’s halfway through 2021. The climate crisis is as real as it’s ever been. As activists continue to try to engage more people and enact more change, how can art help to communicate the issues at hand?

With everything in the news at the moment, COVID-19, internal government disputes, crypto-currency and more, climate change appears to have taken more of a back seat within mainstream day-to-day media. This contrasts with last year where the environment was at the centre of international discussions and global protests, partly due to the actions of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg. Activists are continuously thinking of new ways to engage the wider public and draw attention to the importance of acting now in order to tackle the impending threat of the climate crisis. Having had many conversations about climate change with friends and family, it seems to me that people pick up phrases from the media, as if by osmosis, without really feeling anything towards them. This superficial level of engagement does not seem enough to drive the push for change, underlining the need for new approaches.

Power of Feeling

The use of eye-catching placards, rhyming chants and performances within protests demonstrates the power of art to attract attention. The physicality of art provokes an experience, whether that is visual, oral or textual, which demands feeling. There’s a reason why the colour red features across a multitude of different campaigns. It has such strong connotations of urgency, fear, trauma that people can’t disassociate the image from the cause. The Extinction Rebellion Red Brigade embody the impact of employing colour to communicate the message of climate change activists. Their silence was made up for by their bold image which generated curiosity within the surrounding area and also in mainstream media. If you walked past a mass of people, with faces painted white, dressed in bright red flowing clothing, it would be difficult not to stop and stare for a while. Murals of Greta Thunberg have been painted on walls across cities in the UK, including Bristol and Dublin, marking her ominous presence within urban culture. Her stern stare, knit eyebrows and trademark plaits now occupy a place in our streets, reminding passers-by to keep her message firmly in their minds despite the criticism she has received. The presence of art in both culture and society only asserts its relevance and asks its audience to pay attention.

Following some of the negative media attention that has unfortunately been linked to climate change activists, art also offers a more passive way of attracting interest. Although some art is public, it is also often a choice to go to an exhibition or cinema. People approach art for a number of different reasons. Take the documentaries narrated by David Attenborough for example. Some people watch them to learn about the world, others enjoy the animal scenes, some people follow them simply because they love hearing the voice of a national hero. Many of these series have a strong climate crisis vein however this is not their defining feature. Displays of creativity, such as nature programmes, often receive a better reception because they are seen to be less ‘in your face’. Ultimately, the way someone responds to a photograph, painting or film is entirely up to them. 

The way that we react to art is entirely different to how we respond to words on a page or facts on a screen. It’s more involuntary and less rehearsed. It is harder to ignore our own emotional response than it is to ignore someone else’s. It is only when people truly believe in a cause that they transform their individual opinions and begin to take the necessary actions needed for long-term change. Therein lies the power of art in making climate change tangible. People find it hard to understand the need for action, with statistics seeming vague and having little obvious impact on day-to-day life, particularly in the UK. Art brings these realities to life and relies on an emotional response which is more powerful than standalone facts.

Face the Facts

Activists are turning to art as a way to make the statistics feel personal, make the headlines seem real – ultimately make the invisible visible. For example, the reality of rising sea levels seems so abstract and so distant that no wonder the ordinary person feels disconnected from it, despite hearing any number of ‘percentage-increase-over-ten-years’ figures. The familiar time lapse of a melting glacier depicts the loss of the natural environment in a way that scientific facts cannot. The Tempestry Project produced a series of tapestries representing change in temperature in a given location over time. Whilst being beautiful, they were also informative, demonstrating the potential for collaboration between artists and scientists to communicate the climate crisis. In 2018, activist and architect Olafur Eliasson extracted thirty blocks of glacial ice from around Greenland and placed them across London, where they were left to melt. The installation, titled ‘Ice Watch’, forced the public to look at physical evidence of climate change. The size of the blocks, the beauty of the ice and the puddles of water growing around them presented the message of the art loud and clear. The environment is at risk and we’re not doing enough about it. There’s only so much someone can deny when glaciers are disappearing right in front of their eyes. 

Climate change art does not have to be entirely fatal. Although many pieces reveal the growing sadness, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness amongst activists and intend to trigger fear, art can also be  hopeful. A celebration of the planet which evokes emotions such as responsibility, care and solidarity invite the audience to see the future as changeable. A study by psychologists Sommer and Klockner actually suggested that climate change art has more influence over people’s opinions if its message is positive and provides ideas for individual contribution. People need to see themselves within the solution in order to decide to make an effort in shaping the future. The Art Works for Change project in 2015 featured a series of installations demonstrating the options available to the public to reduce their own emissions and personal impact on the climate crisis. One piece used a load of old shoes to create a vibrant picture of the world whilst also highlighting the issue of material overconsumption. 

With small changes to our day-to-day routine, we can only hope that groundroot compassion for the environment will transpire into wider shifts within society’s attitude to the environment. Maybe by placing hope and change at the centre of activism, positive art can achieve positive results.

Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves.