Anyone headed for the TED2015 Fellows lounge will be greeted by bright lights. Look more closely, and you’ll see the word “FUTURE” spelled out with light bulbs — some illuminated, some not. This installation — created by TED Fellows Alicia Eggert and Safwat Saleem and debuting at TED2015, explores the prospects of world peace, country by country, while interrogating not only what constitutes a country, but what constitutes peace. Here at TED, we asked Alicia Eggert to tell us more.
Tell us about The Future.
Two TED Senior Fellows, Julie Freeman and Yana Buhrer Tavanier, recently launched an initiative to encourage artists and activists to collaborate on projects for social change, called Fine Acts. They put out a call to the rest of the Fellows to submit artworks along the theme of peace. I started brainstorming, and I came up with an idea to make a sign that uses light bulbs to make the word “peace”. Each light bulb would represent a different country, and the bulbs would be turned on or off depending on whether or not each individual country was in conflict or at peace.
As soon as I had the idea for the piece, the next question was, “What does peace even mean, and how do I determine the number of countries in the world?” It has raised all these issues that I’d never considered before.
I reached out to the TED Fellows community on Facebook, saying, “Does anyone have thoughts about this, or want to weigh in?” Safwat Saleem started sending me his thoughts about how you might determine the number of countries, or how you would determine the state of peace. He was so helpful, I asked if he’d want to collaborate on it. He’s a designer, and I figured he would do a great job designing the typeface and all the other little things about the work. He said yes, and the piece evolved from there.
For example, we decided to make the word “future” instead of “peace.” As you know, the theme of my artwork is time, and I’d wanted to do some kind of piece about the future for a while. Using the word “future” adds the dimension of time to the concept of peace, another layer of meaning.
How did you end up determining what conflict is?
Actually our very first challenge was to determine the number of countries in the world, which would dictate the total number of light bulbs we would use to create the word “FUTURE.” In the end, we decided to be as inclusive as we possibly could by representing all 206 sovereign states. This number includes some states that are not officially recognized by the United Nations.
Our next challenge was to decide the on/off state of each of those 206 bulbs. One of the prompts Julie and Yana sent to us was a link to an article in The Independent that talked about the Institute for Economics and Peace, an organization that releases a study every year about the state of peace or conflict around the world. This article claimed that only 11 countries in the world were free from conflict in 2014.
But the IEP’s report was several months old, and it only addressed 162 countries, not all 206 sovereign states. So in addition to using data from the IEP, we also consulted websites like warsinthetorld.com, and Amnesty International’s 2014/2015 report on The State of the World’s Human Rights. Ultimately, we had to draw an arbitrary line in the sand to make a distinction between “peace” and “conflict”. For instance, the IEP’s report lists a numerical score for various criteria, such as perceived criminality in society, political instability, violent demonstrations, and homicides. We often used those scores to make our decisions.
Safwat and I did independent research, defined our own parameters, and came to our own conclusions about each and every state. We did this intentionally to see whether there would be any countries we didn’t agree upon. There ended up being only six countries that we did not come to the same conclusions about initially, but it was not difficult to find a compromise.
How does the piece work?
Each individual light bulb’s base has been laser-engraved with the name of the sovereign state it represents. All the light bulbs are wired in, and it’s just about turning the light bulb just a little bit more into the socket to get it to switch on. We’re aware that peace isn’t binary — it isn’t an on-off thing. There’s a continuum and spectrum of peace to conflict.
But if a country’s in conflict, the light bulb will be off. Only the lights of countries at peace will be on. Right now, the future, literally, will be kind of grim and dark. Only 33 of the 206 bulbs are currently lit. But we hope that illuminating the overall state of peace around the world in this way will spark conversation and debate and awareness. And we hope people see the big picture: how conflict happening in some really faraway places affects everyone, billions of people around the world. We might not feel it here, but hopefully this will show how it is affecting us.
Can people look up the data behind the artwork, to get more detail and context?
We’d like to create a website down the line, and make that information available. What’s interesting is that I think different people would make different decisions about what constitutes peace. One of my dreams is to make this project available to people in other countries, so if an artist or an activist wanted to do their own version of The Future, they could determine their own number of countries, their parameters for determining levels of peace or conflict, as well as use their own language and typeface design. I would love to see many different versions of this being made.
TED2015 attendees walk past The Future. Video: Mike Femia/TED