How arts and advertising are bringing their skills to help us rebel against extinction
Great piece from The Guardian, covering the rise of eco-pop culture.
As the climate crisis has become a political emergency, artists have discovered a crucial role for themselves, making an issue that sometimes seems abstract instead feel emotional and urgent.
Alison Tickell runs Julie’s Bicycle, a charity that helps the creative community to act on climate crisis and environmental sustainability. It has been running for 12 years, but she says that “over the last two years we’ve seen this wave of creativity and commissioning around climate. We’re seeing many more musicians, many more pieces of theatre, that are creating these links between climate crisis, biodiversity and inequity.
“The community have had a slow start, but they’re realising that to fix this problem we need to change our culture, and they’re best placed to do that. This is where art really comes into its own.”
Few of these new creations feel worthy or scientific; their priority is to make a human connection. Julian Oliver will be talking at Manchester international festival this month about the Extinction Gong, his installation that chimes every time a species is wiped off the face of the Earth (about every 19 minutes).
Last year, the conceptual artist Mel Chin created an app, Unmoored, that uses augmented reality to display Times Square flooded and abandoned but for a few boats.
And ahead of his current retrospective at London’s Tate Modern, Olafur Eliasson brought blocks of ice from Greenland to the streets of London where they were left to melt. He said he wanted to stop melting ice caps seeming hypothetical, and to “give feelings to things that are otherwise unemotional”.
In music, scorched-earth dystopias have been crafted by artists such as Anonhi, whose 2015 single 4 Degrees was from the perspective of a nihilist ready to let the world burn, singing: “I wanna hear the dogs crying for water / I wanna see fish go belly-up in the sea”. Grimes told the New Scientist (yes, in this new era, that’s where Grimes does her interviews) that her forthcoming album Miss_Anthrop0cene explores what an “anthropomorphic goddess of climate crisis” would be like.
“Is she sexy and goth and rude?” she pondered. “It’s like, hipster neoclassicism. I think an artist’s role is to weave the collective human experience into a narrative; to distil the most interesting aspects for posterity.”
We were particularly interested, given our own liaisons with the creative industries, to see this:
The bigger impact can be felt in how climate activists have engaged with, and pushed back at, popular culture. Extinction Rebellion did not exist a year ago; it is now the fastest-growing activist group in the world. It has understood how art, advertising and popular culture pushes people to consume and waste more – and how it can be exploited to make a quick and permanent change.
The group travelled to 2019’s Cannes Lions, the insanely luxurious week-long advertising awards where execs rub shoulder pads with movie stars and rappers. This year, the big winner was the powerful “Dream Crazy” Nike advert starring Colin Kaepernick, widely praised for its support of refugees, disabled athletes and the Black Lives Matter movement.
It is reflective of how brands have become effective at commodifying dissent, all while promoting environment-destroying fast fashion reportedly made by underpaid workers and taking advantage of major tax loopholes.
Extinction Rebellion wasn’t buying it. Its activists unfurled a banner down the steps of the Palais and quickly became the talk of the festival. “We’re very worried about greenwashing; there’s a big fad around brand activism but the people we spoke to at Cannes said that brands are still concerned with profit over impact,” says Alanna Byrne, one of the protesters.
“We were there to tell them: it’s not enough; the impact they’re having on biodiversity is huge and trying to jump on the activist trend isn’t going to change that. They need to relay the emergency rather than continually make people buy things.”
Crucially, Extinction Rebellion is not simply decrying advertisers, it is trying to get them onside. “The ad industry has incredibly creative and talented people working in it. We’re saying to these people: use your talents for good instead of selling people crap they don’t need,” says Byrne. “A number of people who were in the advertising industry have left their jobs and are now with Extinction Rebellion.”
Adland’s influence on Extinction Rebellion can be seen in the group’s logo, which has all the hallmarks of an agency-led branding. It is simple, clean, immediately recognisable and, most importantly, easily replicated. It can be printed on existing clothes and signage meaning zero waste.
It has also partnered with Glastonbury this year, launched a podcast and released a heavily stylised collection of essays with Penguin. Although it is not a tag many of them might choose, they are environmental influencers with a powerful reach.
We profiled Culture Declares Emergency earlier on this year - and we now discover that Music Declares Emergency too. We have been blogging on the power of artists to dynamise localities, and the great future themes of technology and climate crisis, for years now.