Lars Jan: “Art can make people feel climate change in their gut, rather than just understand it”

 

Flood victims scramble for food rations as they battle the downwash from a Pakistan Army helicopter during relief operations on September 13, 2010 in the village of Goza in Dadu district in Sindh province, Pakistan. Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Flood victims scramble for food rations as they battle the downwash from a Pakistan Army helicopter during relief operations on September 13, 2010 in the village of Goza in Dadu district in Sindh province, Pakistan. Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

The multiple recent papers and reports highlighting the true impending cost of climate change are a relief, right? The ramifications are clearer than ever, the media outlets are taking more notice than ever. People must be taking notice. They must be…   

But are these reports enough to make us change our behavior?

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Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I’ve been riveted by media images of comparatively frail human figures at the mercy of surging waters, their bodies and movements transformed by this life-giving element momentarily turned against them.

During the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan in 2010, I began a personal inquiry into the increasing incidence of devastating floods around the world because the pattern seemed undeniable and relentless — and because a single photo captured by Daniel Berehulak moved me unexpectedly and deeply.

By 2012, the pattern had reached my apartment in Brooklyn in the form of Hurricane Sandy.

At that time, my interest had already turned more broadly towards the mechanisms of climate change. Having achieved a basic understanding of the relevant science and data, I began investigating the real mystery: us. That inquiry has led me to new research on how we make decisions, how we both form and break habits, how our brains evolved to consider the long term, and how we developed as both visual and empathetic animals.

While consulting with several scientists working across such fields as climate paleontology, social cognitive neuroscience and decision science, I kept hearing essentially the same question:

How can the complex, oversaturated topic of climate change be communicated in ways that hit people in their gut?

The implication being, of course, that a visceral response is the most likely path towards behavioral change on a personal and societal level.

When Sandy hit, I remember several scientists responsibly — though almost reluctantly — admitting in the national press that, No, Hurricane Sandy could not be attributed directly to climate change. The devastation climate change wreaks is a macroscopic trend, not a single event, so it’s been nearly impossible to give this complex phenomenon a symbolic face people can mobilize around.

That’s a problem that begs a solution. I believe art is a solution worth trying because its essence is to both articulate the inarticulable and to hit people in the gut, hard.

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Earthrise. Photo: NASA

Earthrise. Photo: NASA

It’s generally accepted that the environmental movement reached mass scale when the photo known as Earthrise — among the first color images of our planet taken from space — reached the public.

A world of people and nations divided and fraught in late 1968 saw instantly that in fact, they together were part of one single system: Earth. With the barren surface of the moon looming in the foreground, the uniquely hospitable nature of our collective home was wordlessly apparent.

Of course, Earthrise is a piece of art, taken by an amateur photographer who just happened to be a very professional astronaut. The space program — a terrifically precise integration of science and engineering, fueled by a jaw-dropping brew of national(ist) will and resources — ultimately found its most powerful expression in the artistic form of photography.

The environmental movement had many heroes up to that point, but this photograph moved people and changed popular consciousness more than any one person or piece of legislation ever had.

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Holoscenes 3 aquarium concept rendering. Image: Peter Zuspan (Bureau V)

Holoscenes 3 aquarium concept rendering. Image: Peter Zuspan (Bureau V)

As an artist and citizen concerned about climate change, and overwhelmed by the thickening stream of fearsome reports and headlines, I find inspiration in this example.

For three years, together with a team of engineers, scientists and artists, I’ve been developing HOLOSCENES: a public art and performance project that collides the long-term patterns fueling climate change with the short term-patterns of our everyday behaviors.

The project features three massive aquarium-like sculptures, sited in urban public space, that each fill and drain with up to 12 tons of water in less than a minute. Inside each aquarium, a single performer simulates an everyday behavior that collaborators around the world have submitted by video — such as making ramen in Japan or fixing a fishing net in Rwanda. Driven by streams of environmental data, water surges in and out at varying speeds, deluging the performers while they adapt their behaviors to this cycle of endless mini-floods — a collision of the patterns both making up our lives and transforming our biosphere.

I’m working in the legacy of Earthrise, but with crucial updates for the 21st century.

Already living amidst a flood of images, I — and I believe many others — hunger for the local and the live to counterpoint and complement an increasingly screen-based world. HOLOSCENES will translate into many images — photos, videos — but the beating heart of the project is an epic live experience. This urban intervention will travel to one community at a time, manifesting in a visual, visceral experience in public spaces across North America (for starters), accessible to the broadest audience possible, at no cost to them.

And, today, astronauts won’t take the photos; everyone will.

Then again, as a hero of the environmental movement, Bucky Fuller, said, “We are all astronauts.”  Who wants to take the picture?

Lars Jan is the director of Early Morning Opera, a performance + art lab. Learn more about the Kickstarter campaign to fund HOLOSCENES at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche Festival here.

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