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Despite its ability to change the course of humanity, not everyone appreciates data. Jack Parsons contends that photographers and artists are uniquely positioned to deliver the importance of climate change to people who are turned off by data.

Words by Jack Parsons

The muck from our post-industrial orgy is starting to bubble over the sides. Out of inspiration and desperation, some artists are beginning to pick it up and use it in their work.

Artists have always had the ability to shape morality and be a vehicle for change through whatever medium they create in. They can covertly or plainly draw attention to injustices in a way that can be filed under entertainment. Campaigning, preaching and propaganda often falls on deaf ears because the message is lost in the medium – people don’t like being told what to do, they much prefer being seduced. And art is seductive in any language – the perfect way to subtly deliver a message without losing an audience.

Art has been representing humanity forever. Its hopes and dreams, its plights, its fears and its passions. Its repression, its oppression and its moments of brilliance. Its exact impact can be hard to quantify – it is subjective by design. But good art can capture the essence of our past, present, and guide us to a better future.

Pam LongobardiPam Longobardi, Signal Flags of Climate Change. Made from the ocean plastic life vests of climate refugees.

“The slow decline of the global environment is one of the biggest crises humanity is facing.”

In 1972, Nick Ut photographed 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc as she ran screaming down the street after a napalm attack amid the Vietnam War. In 1983, a photograph of the Franklin River used in a heavy campaign is credited with swinging an election saving it from an imminent damming. Two examples among many, but these images took two critical but distant issues and created a personal urgency around them – a sense of outrage and responsibility. Those photographs connected our past and present, and pleaded with us to consider the future we wanted to create.

The slow decline of the global environment is one of the biggest crises humanity is facing. There is growing urgency around its need of our support through lifestyle change and bold governmental policy. Global warming, pervasive industry development, deforestation and ocean pollution has been placing delicate ecosystems under enormous strain for a long while. If we consider the world’s forests her lungs, we should consider the oceans her blood, so it’s no wonder a key area of concern is single-use plastics and the rate at which they’re ending up in landfill and the ocean. It seems our modern lives are built around plastic and its effects are becoming obvious.

Climate MusicClimate Music Perfromance of Climate, Grace Cathedral San Francisco.

“There was a chance that if art could provide an emotional context for scientific data, it could become the seductive medium for the critical message of environmental activism.”

The science on global warming and the effects of pollution have been known for decades, but the data and studies haven’t had the potency or effect they should have. The numbers kicked and screamed with little visible response. Human brains aren’t wired to respond to slow moving threats. As things became more and more desperate art and science broke bread. There was a chance that if art could provide an emotional context for scientific data, it could become the seductive medium for the critical message of environmental activism.

There are several squirming heads in the climate change crisis. It’s scope is enormous. Its visibility is varied and finding a uniform approach is a handy distraction for the right. Neurological research has shown that stats around climate change go to a place of reason and our internal cost-benefit analysis systems push it away. This has meant that the hungry polar bear on the snow mountain hasn’t had the impact it should because we can reason it away. It is too far removed.

In order to bridge this divide between awareness and action, there have been some stunning collaborations between art and science. In the last decade, creative collectives have been trying their hand at making climate change’s message resonate with the masses. The Climate Change Music Project brings together scientists, composers and tech wizards who seek to make climate science personal. They map our climate’s changes and predict the future then convert it into orchestral and visual artworks.

Another example is Invisible Dust, an award-winning charity that commissions work that is based on climate science. One of the many project they support is Human Sensor by Kasia Molga called– Under Her Eyewhich explored air pollution through interpretive dance and wearable technology that sensed a change in the air pollution in real time throughout the performance. The artists’ outfits changed colour as they were affected by a different pollutant.

BP or Not BP combines performance and protest to highlight the various arts organisations that have accepted donations from the oil giant. Places like The Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Museum are all on the books. This bold approach has worked for Dutch protestors who recently ended an 18-year partnership between Amsterdam’s’ Van Gogh Museum and Shell.

In 2013, there was the Gyre Expedition which sent 13 artists and scientists to the most isolated parts of Alaska in an area of intense ocean hydro-activity to assess the impact of plastic pollution. They brought back tonnes of plastic and used it to create an exhibition of works. They discovered the plastics removed from one of the world’s most remote shorelines was from all over the world – even landlocked countries in Europe.

Photographer Chris Jordan made a series on an expedition that captured decomposing albatross with stomachs full of plastic. Seeing such a uniquely beautiful animal destroyed by something so mundane as plastic is devastating, connects the consequences of society’s dependence on single-use plastics with our personal actions.

Artist Pam Longobardi makes art from plastic she collects and was also on the expedition. Longobardi believes the ocean is communicating with us through the plastic – where it winds up, what it’s doing there and what has happened to it. She walks along beaches the way a forensic scientist examines a crime scene. She is said to have the eye of an artist, the mind of a scientist, and the heart of an activist. And you can see it in her work. She believes it is crucial that these three groups come together to fight environmental issues together.

Thirza Schaap: Plastic OceanThirza Schaap: Plastic OceanThirza Schaap: Plastic Ocean

“The climate crisis needs all the voices it can get until it works its way into the forefront of humanity’s psyche.”

A collaboration between art and science isn’t a prerequisite to effect change. Art can send a subtle or deceptive message like a trojan horse. When the Danish-born South African based photographer and artist Thirza Schaarp was younger she collected shells and other flotsam and jetsam that caught her imagination. Now, she collects plastic. In all its grim, immortal glory. She collects it, cleans it, arranges it into a sculpture then photographs it.

Her aim is to seduce the viewer with the beauty of the photograph before the reality of its material and message set in. Her challenge is that some images may not take the viewer to that critical point of realisation she set out to achieve. Schaarp isn’t pushing propaganda. She is taking direct action and turning it into art with a subtle message in a seductive medium.

In 2013 photographer Sebastian Salgado took a different approach. He produced a celebrated and dramatic work called Genesis. It focused on beauty – on what the world was and still is in some places. Environmentally minded artists are being unified by our pollution portrait – these ghosts of our consumption. They don’t bear a burden of shaking policy makers and non-believers until they wake up. And there are no rules or requirements that dictate how and what the art is. Any action should be viewed as an optimistic stand against a crisis.  They can yell or they can whisper. The climate crisis needs all the voices it can get until it works its way into the forefront of humanity’s psyche.

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Jack Parsons

Jack Parsons is a Melbourne based criminal lawyer and member of local rock and roll band The Pretty Littles. He loves writing, photography and surf. He has written for Paper Sea Quarterly, LNWY Media, Veri.Live and BEAT.