Climate art creates social change

'Underwater HOA', a participatory art project in Miami-Dade County by artist Xavier Cortada examines the overlap between the vibrancy of the region's neighborhoods and their shared future.

Artists have considered the natural world since prehistoric times. From early cave paintings to Flemish landscapes, from the Hudson River School to today, there has always been a relationship between nature and the arts.

These days, creating art about climate change is not a new idea, but with the urgency of the moment, it is prudent to consider how artists are addressing this crisis, and whether or not these works can change opinions and biases or inspire action.

Art can impress upon us in a way that facts often fail to, and the issues surrounding climate change have been represented across varied mediums, including film, sculpture and painting. But it is the work that appeals to our senses, that engages us cognitively in more ways than just the visual, that can create a response strong enough to inspire action. In this way, it is the immersive and public projects that have not only increased consciousness but, in some cases, transformed communities.

One such community is the Village of Pinecrest in Miami-Dade County, one of the most at-risk places in the country. Local artist Xavier Cortada has brought the village together through a participatory art project called Underwater HOA, a direct response to the threat of rising sea levels.

To raise awareness about this threat, which could displace 800,000 residents of Miami-Dade county by 2100, Cortada created yard signs that evoke political campaign or for sale signage. Watercolors of melting glaciers are a backdrop for numbers representing how many feet above sea level a property stands. He encouraged other Pinecrest residents to place signs in their yards, demonstrating the risk that everyone shares. The project also involved a community action piece, whereby Cortada launched a homeowner’s association to discuss the resident’s eco-related issues.

Cortada’s project is an example of art inspiring direct action, where people not only made their own yard signs, but attended HOA meetings and took actionable steps to address an issue. The participatory nature of the project was crucial in not only emphasizing that the threat is immediate, but that it is a shared problem.

Another artist who believes in the power of collective action is Mary Mattingly. The Ecotopian Library, her collection of art, literature, and ideas, acts as a toolkit for ecological change. Since the project began in 2020, the library has grown organically, with around 230 individuals contributing over 3,600 books and objects that range from wildlife photographs to bottles of sand.

For Mattingly, the library represents her belief that art can foster systemic social change. “I think that the Ecotopian Library presents an unusual set of tools that, alone, are accepted and expected, but that together can be powerful and instigate a change of purpose,” she explains.

In addition to an online archive, the library travels, and has been exhibited at the Colorado University Art Museum as well as the Anchorage Museum. Through its diversity of tools and its increasing reach, the library champions transdisciplinary action, which Mattingly believes is the key to combatting the climate crisis.

Beyond these community-based projects, there is also something to be said of an immersive experience. One example is Arcadia Earth, an interactive and Instagrammable installation in Manhattan.

Spanning a series of rooms curated by different artists, Arcadia Earth addresses multiple environmental issues. The problems of the meat industry are explored through Tamara Kostianovsky’s animal carcass sculptures made from recycled garments, and overfishing is represented by Jesse Harrod’s fishnet weavings. Educational information, researched and organized in partnership with Oceanic Global, is incorporated throughout the installation. One room, created by Basia Goszczynska, is filled with 44,000 plastic bags, the number of bags New York state residents use every minute.

In putting scale in context like this, art can be its most powerful tool for change. The exhibition not only addresses many ecological issues that can often seem like an abstraction, but also includes actionable ways that visitors can change their habits to help reduce their carbon footprint. While Arcadia Earth is momentarily closed due to the pandemic, the installation is a popular phenomenon, and proves how a glitzy experience can still underscore seriousness.

Another important immersive installation was Allison Janae Hamilton’s film project Waters of a Lower Register, on view in Brooklyn Bridge Park this past December. Set against the East River, the film played on a constant loop, with lower Manhattan’s towering skyscrapers jutting up behind five 70-inch screens. The unexpected juxtaposition between the urban landscape of New York and rural North Florida, where Hamilton filmed the project and where she grew up, was able to attract viewers’ attention in a city rife with distraction.

The implication, it seems, is that even the seemingly untouched landscape of Florida is impacted by mankind’s destruction, as the area where Hamilton filmed had been recently ravaged by a tropical storm. After a year of pandemic-related difficulties, racial injustices and ecological disasters, the installation couldn’t help but invite reflection when comparing and contrasting two seemingly disparate, yet intimately related landscapes.

There are also projects on a global scale, such as Jeppe Hein’s Breathe with Me. What began as a participatory art project during the 2019 United Nations General Assembly has since become a worldwide venture. For the project, Hein has installed walls in different locations – the UN headquarters, New York’s Central Park, Switzerland and Denmark, with more to come. Community members are encouraged to paint parallel blue lines onto the walls, with each brush mark representing an individual’s breath, emphasizing that we all breathe the same air. In September 2020, the project was reported to have reached over 93 million people worldwide and has seen participation from world leaders as well as scores of school-aged children.

It is this participation – across multiple countries and generations – that inspires hope for the future. A fifteen-year study led by Dr. Felton Earls, a Harvard professor of public health, found that it wasn’t wealth, crime, or other measurable factors that are most critical in determining the overall health of a neighborhood. Instead, it’s “collective efficacy,” or coming together for a common good. With this in mind we can hope that, in coming together for art, we may also come together for the future health of the earth.

Emilie Murphy graduated from the College of William & Mary with degrees in art history & French and received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Kent, and is the creator of the blog Art for Real People. She is based in New York City.