At Gigantic, we understand that facts and figures are important for advancing science and for communicating about issues such as the impact of climate change. But plainly presented facts are not always ideal for inspiring action and behavior change. Visual and performing arts can be very useful for helping people see the larger picture, grasp relationships through story and create an emotional response that will reinforce action. Two Bay Area examples show the way.
In downtown San Francisco, a 60-foot-high mural of climate activist – and TIME Person of the Year – Greta Thunberg fixes passersby in Union Square with an implacable look. The mural is a project of the nonprofit One Atmosphere and Argentine artist Cobre. Ms. Thunberg is an icon of climate resistance and the single-minded passion of young climate activists all over the world. This 16 year old has become a heroic and still very human and vulnerable face of the climate movement; the mural’s unavoidable stare serves as a prominent reminder of the need to raise climate awareness.
Also in San Francisco, the Climate Music Project seeks to “ tell the urgent story of climate change to broad and diverse audiences in a way that resonates, educates, and motivates.” A collaboration of world-class scientists and musicians, the Project supports science-guided music and visual experiences to inspire people to engage actively on the issue of climate change.
I recently saw a concert of pieces inspired by climate change data by San Francisco Conservatory of Music composition students and was impressed by the different creative approaches the students took to portray the grim statistics.
Artists around the world are grappling with how to express the enormity of the emergencies of climate and biodiversity loss. Their work can inform and enhance our outreach efforts and remind us of the importance of vivid communication in all our environmental work.
A stunning art installation featuring the plight of political prisoners around the world got me thinking about, yes, recycling campaigns. In addition to being a moving experience, the @Large exhibit by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei , on now at Alcatraz Island, nicely illustrates the stages we consider when designing a campaign for environmental behavior change. The exhibit takes the viewer along a path, with different appeals and presentations at each step.
People need to come to behavior change through a process, most clearly described by Everett Rogers back in the 1960s in his book, Diffusion of Innovations. His Innovation Adoption Stages model looks like this:
Intentionally or not, the Ai Wei Wei installation follows the stages, leading the visitor from awareness of the issues, through “persuasion” via a multi-sensory deepening of the experience, and finally, offers a concrete action that the viewer can take.
The @Large installation begins at the New Industries Building. It takes several forms, but the initial contact focuses on making the viewer aware of the variety and extent of political imprisonment around the world. The floor of an enormous room is covered with portraits of political prisoners, made from LEGO bricks. At this point, the artist has not assumed that the viewer is ready to do something, but rather provides beautifully crafted “information” in the form of portraits of human faces arrayed across a huge space to raise awareness of the scope of the issue. Books detailing the stories of each of the prisoners are present, but the viewer is not in any way forced to learn more facts and figures. The act of walking the length of the huge room with the 176 portraits “sets the problem” in the mind and heart of the visitor.
The @Large exhibit continues to the cell block building, where the viewer starts to live into the experience of prisoners – visitors are invited to enter each of 12 small, unadorned and definitely not prettified cells. There is nothing to look at, but each cell has a different recording playing, usually of the music or speech of one of the prisoners. By involving the sense of hearing and the physical experience of walking into the tiny, dingy cells, the viewer becomes more fully involved and engaged.
After several more stops, at the end of the exhibition visitors are given the opportunity to write postcards addressed to individual prisoners whose portraits they saw earlier. The sponsoring Foundation notes: “The postcards are adorned with images of birds and plants from the nations where the prisoners are held. Cards are gathered and mailed by @Large Art Guides.”
The viewer has been led through awareness of the issue to persuasion about the problem’s scope and importance, though information and appeals to the emotions. Only at the end is the viewer invited to make a decision to act, by writing a personal communication to one of the prisoners introduced during the first stop of the exhibition. The viewer is not urged to act before s/he has had a chance to fully digest and explore the need to communicate. And by communicating, not to a general, amorphous authority, but to a single individual, the final action becomes that much more memorable.
Not all of our behavior change campaigns can be as beautiful and meaningful as Ai Wei Wei’s @Large, but there is much to admire in the intentional layout of the exhibit that aims to touch, inspire and ultimately, change the viewer. The exhibit ends this month…go see it if you can!
Every so often we run into people doing important environmental work who deserve some recognition. This inspired us to launch a Gigantic Q&A blog series, highlighting local citizens making a difference.
Recycled Glass Artist
KN: What inspires you as an artist?
FS: I enjoy the problem solving that comes from being a reuse artist. Sometimes I have an idea of something I want to make and go and look for materials. Other times, I will find an interesting object and think, “What can I make out of that?”
KN: How do you incorporate sustainability and green practices into your art pieces?
FS: Most importantly I try to have as much as possible—if not all—of my material be recycled. I try to stay away from toxic and harmful chemicals. I use a sandblaster instead of etching my glass with chemicals.
KN: What is your favorite material for making new artwork and why?
FS: Glass! Most of my professional work has been in glass and that is where I have the most experience. Each bottle factory has its own formula for glass, and the ratios by which the glass expands and contracts are different. In short, you can’t melt different colored bottles together because they may crack. This challenges me to make the glass interesting in other ways. I can add texture by twisting, adding wire, sand blasting and tumbling. I use combinations of glass techniques—from flameworking with a torch to fusing, slumping and coldworking. Glass can be both a liquid and a solid.
KN: What kind of reactions do your art pieces get?
FS: Mostly positive. Quite often people cannot tell at first that the pieces are made from recycled materials. Recycled does not have to look rough or “trashy.” I hope I can inspire others to take a second look at their own trash and find creative uses for it. Some people turn away from my bullet casing jewelry because of the association with violence, which is understandable. I like to think of it as transforming an object symbolic of destruction into a thing of beauty.
KN: What would be your dream art project?
FS: I enjoy sharing ideas and collaborating with other artists. My dream project would be working with other reuse artists on bigger, public works projects.