As an artist, I have spent the last couple of decades trying to imagine a path through complex environmental issues such as climate change. The point I am most convinced by is that artists have an integral, complementary role along with planners, scientists, educators, community stakeholders, and policy makers if we are to address the complex issues we face. Artists—novelists, poets, designers, musicians, and dancers—bring their exceptional capacity to imagine to the table and in doing so can enable others in their neighborhoods to actively imagine and build shared futures of sustenance.
A scientist I worked with noted that it takes 1000 small steps to degrade an environment and that with the same number of steps we can begin the process of rebuilding it. To do this it is essential that we begin to imagine and construct a new narrative around climate change, one that respectfully, democratically, patiently, and collaboratively engages everyone in an ongoing basis, in their own communities, not only coming to attention when another catastrophic event occurs.
At City as Living Laboratory (CALL) we believe that artists can contribute to taking the first 1,000 steps by focusing on the following aspects:
- Experiences that connect us with the natural world
Despite their best efforts, the data shared by climate scientists has done little to change perceptions, policies, and practices in the United States. CALL has developed a framework of engagement to begin to address this issue by providing accessible experiences that people can have in a familiar context such as their own neighborhood. This framework addresses what the novelist Amitav Ghosh describes as “crises of culture” (culture as the generator of desires) and therefore a “crises of the imagination” where nature and culture have become separated. It also provides a context for scientific information where connections can be made between individuals and their communities and these issues.
A recent intervention with artist Bob Braine beautifully illustrates the power of experiences that build connections. At a recent CALL event to focus on bringing a stream in the Bronx, Tibbetts Brook, out of sewer pipes to once again see the light of day, Braine painted temporary tattoos of the meandering form of the original stream on the arms, necks, legs, and backs of the people who eagerly lined up. In the half hour he spent with each person, he spoke with them about the history of the stream, what it looked like, what lived there. They, of course, went home and for the next few days were queried about what this strange body marking was about. Familiarity, recognition does not require data or words to lead to a sense of ownership and responsibility.
- A constellation of heroes reflecting the multidimensional complexity of challenges and opportunities
Rather than presume that a few singular leaders or a hero will lead us to resolve our challenges, at CALL we envision a different path. For example, we collaborated with the New York City Department of Design and Construction, to develop a strategy to engage many artists to participate on the thousands of construction projects the city does every year. The artists will help people better understand the infrastructure and natural systems supporting their lives and the process of improving this infrastructure. Through artists’ projects of engagement, if a water line is being replaced in the street, we can invite residents to know more about where that water is coming from and how it gets to their homes. This is one example of how CALL imagines a constellation of artists empowered to address the immediate concerns of people in their own neighborhoods, working across the city not just on the cross roads of the main streets.
- Co-constructing the next positive world
Trying to elevate fear about how we are living our lives and the impending climate crises has had a limited impact. When the challenges can be seen as understandable and individuals feel welcome, respected and empowered in an engaged way, we can imagine and build positive and sustainable communities. CALL strives to address issues in ways that are appropriate for the immediate context, respectful of the community, democratic, and imaginative. In a recent project in collaboration with a NYCHA housing project in Harlem, the designer Elliott Maltby has worked through many sessions with local residents and the environmental group WE ACT to design a kiosk where residents can have access to information in the face of emergencies whether at the domestic scale (a child’s asthma attack) or a larger event such as Hurricane Sandy. The resulting design honors the stated needs of the community and provides a platform to build a positive future.
- Recognizing the complexity and interconnection of the challenges we face and embracing the full agenda of sustainable development
Over the past five years, I have been working on WaterMarks: An Atlas of Water for the City of Milwaukee, a project to build a citywide network of engagement that starts with the topic of water. It focuses on the complex history, present state, and future of water in the city and Lake Michigan. The goal is to engage citizens throughout the city to become part of the “green infrastructure” by marshaling their use of water.
The central beacon for this citywide project is the smokestack of the waterfront sewage treatment plant. This structure, which is visible through the city, is lit and changes color when there is danger of a sewage overflow into the lake. To complement the stack there are also individual WaterMarkers planned for neighborhoods across the city where the lighted character on top, pulses sending the same message about overflows out to the immediate neighborhood.
Connecting all these WaterMarkers with each other and the many communities of the city is an ongoing process of community engagement. Following the aforementioned CALL practices, we are imagining and co-creating new, positive narratives of a sustainable future in Milwaukee. Each neighborhood has different issues that will be reflected in the Marker as well as the reality that water is a shared resource that connects us.
As the resource of water and issues around its availability and protection are raised, multiple aspects of sustainable development—health, social justice, employment, infrastructure, education, nutrition, wildlife conservation—also come to view. Water serves as a platform to engage the full agenda of sustainable development. It also highlights that we must address the universal human needs for equitable lives of dignity and freedom in order to effectively take on the challenge of climate change.
The creation of an uplifting, empowering narrative about climate change must recognize interconnections at every level: between nature and culture, between knowledge and experience, between opposing political views, within communities with diverse perspectives, between art and science. The number of steps is infinitely more than 1000, and we must make sure that the first 100 steps are taken with imagination, dialogue, collaboration, respect and embracing the complexity of this endeavor. This new narrative demonstrates how we can link our everyday lives to a future of sustenance.
I am grateful for the many conversations with the social ecologist Adrian Cerezo, the writing of Amitav Ghosh and the presence in the world of Rebecca Solnit.