Art in Real Life: Addressing the Sustainability Challenge

Ahead of its big new Olafur Eliasson show, Tate Modern hosted a discussion about the potential of culture to address sustainability and inspire change.

Two things motivated me to attend Art in Real Life: Addressing the Sustainability Challenge: (1) Olafur Eliasson has long been my favourite artist, for reasons I’ll explain next month when I review the show, and (2) in a world of closed down, binary thinking, I’ve become increasingly interested in open spaces that encourage independent thought. Eliasson has spoken often about the need for democratised civic space for things not easily verbalised, and of art’s ability to offer a sense of shared identity, so this was a perfect opportunity for me to pick up a few threads of my research and look for next steps. It was also an excellent opportunity to catch up with Cennydd.

The event took place in the vast Turbine Hall on the evening of 8th July. Eliasson was joined by Clare Farrell, designer and activist, Malini Mehra, climate campaigner and Commissioner to the Mayor of London and Mary Robinson, Adjunct Professor of Climate Justice at Trinity College Dublin and former President of Ireland. Bidisha chaired the discussion and Frances Morris, Tate Modern’s Director, gave the introduction.

Below are notes from my crappy recording. These quickly became far too extensive, so I’ve reduced dramatically. The notes may seem biased towards Eliasson and Farrell, but their views were the most directly applicable to my interests.


Art in Real Life: Addressing the Sustainability Challenge

Bidisha: How can individual artists address the reality of environmental challenges?

Eliasson: I don’t think as an individual artist, I think ‘what can one do as an individual?’, and every one of us works within our fields and what can we do within our field? As an artist I am interested in addressing this topic through my work, that is one way. For me, this has become very interesting. I was always working with natural phenomenons, the perception of nature, the perception of atmosphere and the environment, so it was a natural thing for me to get more and more involved with it.

I also think that me as a private person, part of civic society, as a co-producer in the world in which we live, has a responsibility. As I am a relatively exposed artist or very exposed artist, I carry an extra responsibility in this case because I can speak on behalf of a necessity to also incentivise the cultural sector towards more climate education, be more progressive on these issues and so on. And I can use this power to inflict on those I collaborate with, that I won’t work with you unless you make an offer with regard to sustainability. So, being well known also comes with an added responsibility.

Bidisha: How do you see the role of the artist in raising consciousness, even though that’s not mandatory for every artist?

Farrell: Earlier, we were talking about how we have left the work of observing climate and ecological breakdown to the scientists, and that’s rather a mistake because they are not tasked with creative ways of envisioning the future or trying to imagine how things may be better. They’re tasked with assessing data and looking at what they can find in trends and attempting to project, but they don’t have to try to imagine a better world.

I think the role of the artist is sometimes seen as to reflect society back to itself, and I think that at a time like now it’s very much apparent that the role of art is to enable new things to be seen and to be imagined, and for somewhere new to appear to be possible you can open up brand new spaces when you act in a way that nobody ever has done before. If we have world-renowned creative minds not working on this issue then I think that they are failing society.

Bidisha: Let’s consider the idea of coming to this issue so late. We’re pulling together scientists, artists activists, thought leaders, but why weren’t we talking with so much emergency ten years ago?

Eliasson: I think we have been growing into this sense of well, here is a topic, the climate emergency; it hasn’t been articulated really well yet. It started with the politicians talking, and we look at data sheets and think ‘what has that to do with me? It's so difficult to understand.’ Culture, I think, is one of many ways where you can make it beautiful, make it tangible, and say ‘oh this is what the ice in Greenland actually looks like; it's quite nice to look at; it's beautiful.’ It is a beautiful future imaginary.

I’ve been so impressed with Extinction Rebellion and so on, because they somewhat successfully gave voice to an emotional need. Everybody had a feeling, and suddenly someone went in with a language and form and activity that gave language to what I think was already an emotional void, or deficit.

Farrell: Coming out of a dark phase, where I thought, 'so now I spend the rest of my life watching world fall apart and then I’ll die and that will be a relief', but then I met the hunger striker, got engaged in tactics in London, a UK network called Rising Up which gave birth to Extinction Rebellion.

I found that through undertaking a sacrificial process there is a catharsis in that. If you feel that you live in a society and social conditions that is utterly immoral, that you can’t bear it, then its actually excellent to become a peaceful lawbreaker and convert your actions towards virtue in your life. It doesn’t matter to me any more if we win, but it matters greatly that I’ve met people who want to live together in a way that makes it more bearable.

Bidisha: How can artists become engaged without accusations of tokenism, cliche, trivialisation, creating a pretty picture to gloss over reality.

Eliasson: Artists can work together, be a part of the system, redesigning the system, reimagining the future. We live in a time where we see a shift, where we are going from being guided by the past, to being guided by the future. We need to create a future narrative that is better than the one we had yesterday.

We do need to have some sort of sense of, well, this is the direction, these are institutions we’re not gonna vote for or support, and these are the private sector companies we won’t buy products from. We need to take a civic society position and understand that from the immediate micro there is a way to impact the institutions and the private sector, etc; it’s only a question of organising yourself into movements, and having the self confidence to say, well, “I matter.”

What I particularly think art is capable of is — unlike a politician, unlike a pair of sneakers — art can say ‘this is an option, this is a possibility’, and you as a visitor to the Tate Modern, you say ‘I know that feeing in that painting, or in that book, or in that dance… This is how I feel. Someone giving language to my feelings.’ Leaving Tate Modern, you might have the impression that, well ‘I went to the Tate Modern and I was listened to, I was seen. I didn’t go to see a work of art, I came here to be seen.’ And if you think about politics and so on, where are we being seen? The reason why there’s so much populism is because there are so many people saying ‘Nobody’s listening to me, I’m just gonna go for this short-termism and the immediacy of populism.’ So what art, I think, most fundamentally on a deeper level is capable of, is to create a space — a safe space — for difficult conversations where people can leave and say ‘I was allowed to express myself. I’m probably good enough. I’m gonna vote. I’m not gonna buy the sneakers.'

Bidisha: People might be asking why you think you can cure climate change? Isn’t this more of the populism; cynicism about elites?

Eliasson: Culture enjoys something quite rare; that is civic trust. Doesn’t matter if it’s me, if you’re famous or not. Every local area has a poetry club, theatre, writers and so on; culture has its feet on its ground; I might not, and I’ll take that critique, but essentially, people say, ‘I’m a part of this poetry club, or cultural event; I’m a part of civic society.’ I think it’s interesting as part of a culture ecosystem; something quite rare that ties people together and offers people things that are increasingly hard to find in politics and commerce.

Bidisha: Trying to tally ethics, beliefs, and creativity in the fashion industry. How do you combine without losing one of those?

Farrell: I don’t feel like I can. I don’t feel like it’s going anywhere fast enough. While Olafur’s ice was sitting outside the Tate, we had some very serious conversations in our office, because many of us agreed that we actually wanted to come down and set them on fire.

That would speak, I hope, on many levels, but as far as provocation and the cultural sector and art and many artists: if this is an emergency of the scale that humanity has never experienced before and will never have the chance to experience again unless something very serious is done — and we recognise that separation and elitism is a very big piece of this picture which has brought us here — how radical are people willing to be when they reconsider what art does, what is it for?

What is an institution like this for? When does it become a completely publicly-owned space, when do we give all of the space that we can possibly find back to Londoners so they can have the conversations they need to have, so they can start to organise, so we can talk about resilience in terms of our emotional experience, because the floods and drought and food shortages will come. London is divided, and radical work needs to be done, and perhaps it’s naive of me to say that art and cultural spaces could do some pretty radical stuff.

Robinson: We have to have hope, because hope energises. Support Extinction Rebellion, support Greta Thunberg and the student strikes, and support those in conservation, those bringing energy to the developing world. Most importantly, we have to imagine this world that we need to be rushing towards. This event is the most important [of several Climate Week events she’s attended this week] because it is about culture in itself, giving them leadership, stepping up, creating an imagination for us. I think that’s the most important thing, I really do.

Bidisha: People will be asking, 'What can I do?’

Mehra: My biggest fear is that when we talk about these emergencies, the typical political response to that is not measured; the typical political response is a highly authoritarian response. We’ve already seen a diminishing of democratic political space around the world. So do not think that if you say to governments ‘you have do it because otherwise our way of life is under threat’ they won’t act, because typically they will not act in the public’s interest, they will act in the interest of the incumbents and what you could get is a despotic, tyrannical rule that is absolutely the opposite of where we want to go. So, think about what you’re asking, making the demands of democracies and of institutions to make the change, and asking local MPs to do what you want them to do.

Farrell: Talk to your family very seriously about the situation that we are in, and please do support your local rebels. If you yourself can’t do the kinds of sacrificial actions that you’ve seen other people doing, there is much work to be done to support these people — probably the work of twenty people per arrestee. The jobs are many and varied, and some just require you to be a human being with compassion and love in your heart. If you’re facing a future of scarcity and displaced people and all the ingredients that we know can lead to fascism and totalitarianism, then please assert your voice in the name of more democracy because otherwise we will certainly have less.

Misc notes:

Morris: At the weekend in Tate Exchange, Plan B and 198 Contemporary Arts, will present All Rise for The Planet, where we, the Establishment will be put on trial for our complicity in climate breakdown. The role of art is to help us see the world in new ways and generate new ideas, to think and act differently, and that's more urgent than ever before.

Eliasson: If nature is now by definition gone, so the anthropocene refers to all mankind. But in truth, it's really the western world that has been capitalist, colonising, slave trading... so 'anthropocene' doesn’t really cover it.

Farrell: People who hold the majority of the power in in our society have had no interest in doing the right thing in my lifetime, and for all the work that people have put in to improving the work in various sectors, and all the campaigning and so on, we find ourselves on a cliff edge as species.

Robinson: The world of art and culture has to help us imagine this world that we need to hurry towards. We need to talk about millions to talk about billions, to really see the people.

Mehra: when it powered this half of London, the sulphurous fumes from this building used to make holes in women’s nylons, and yet it’s been transformed from energy provider based on oil to a place generating creativity. It's in the history of species that we seek creative ideas to express our feelings and emotions. Last centurey, artists created the vision of what the new Soviet Union would be. We need to express a better world.

In response to an audience question about collaborating with others, Robinson talked about the Mothers of Invention podcast she hosts with comedian Maeve Higgins, and its byline, “Climate change is a man-made problem — with a feminist solution!” She often has to explain this: ‘man-made’ is generic, includes all of us (so much damage has come from men but we’re all responsible), and that a feminist solution definitely includes men. She says that this solution must tackle paternalism, patriarchy, capitalism… and, Bidisha interjects that it must also tackle the macho mindset of finding new territory and bleeding it dry.

In response to a question about inspiring people in the same tier to give up their entitlements and privileges, Mehra had a good response: If you want people to get on board with you, you have to think about hypocrisy and power. An example: hindus don’t eat beef, but India is the second biggest exporter of beef. So, we each need to look at how the power needs to shift wherever we are.

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is at Tate Britain from today until 5th January 2019.