Beyond the Bubble: Environmental advocacy and the arts

by Andrea Nease | 4/13/15 5:46pm

Few people would question the assertion that art can have an impact on social change, but, as can be expected, some changes are easier to address than others. We have likely all seen works that call attention to gender inequality or racial injustice, for example, but how often do we see art about environmental concerns?

According to the World Wildlife Fund, deforestation efforts destroy an area of trees equalling roughly 36 football fields every minute, while the Food and Agriculture Organization reports that about half of the world’s tropical forests have been cleared. In addition to these appalling statistics, even more disturbing is the United States’s position as the world’s largest trash producer, at an annual 1600 pounds per person, according to research from the University of Southern Indiana. While the U.S. represents only five percent of the world’s population, it is responsible for 40 percent of global waste.

Making art about humans’ irresponsible behavior toward our natural world may feel shameful and critical of our actions in a way that doesn’t encourage change, but rather encourages denial. There are artists, however, who have found a resolve, and there are museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, that have found a solution.

Many artists have found success in producing works that are primarily fueled by first-hand, science-based experiences, as well as works targeting a youth audience. To facilitate hands-on experience with climate change and environmental deterioration, British artist David Buckland created the Cape Farewell projectwhich sends artists and scientists on joint expeditions to observe climate and environmental change.

I find that there is immense value in informing artists as Cape Farewell does, but I personally believe that reaching out to younger generations is the most valuable method of information dissemination. An installation such as “Sandstars” — which features over a thousand found objects from the Isla Arena, Mexico, trash repository arranged by artist Gabriel Orozco — presents an image of a polluted natural world in a way that is both visually appealing and potentially impactful for youth who see it.

A child looking at the amount of waste Orozco displayed on the floor of the Guggenheim Museum may feel a greater urge to change than older generations.Experiencing the MoMA’s “Rain Room” presents the opportunity to spark a child’s interest in the natural world while creating a bonding moment within families. By making art that interests younger generations, artists have the potential to incite environmental lifestyle changes that take advantage of family dynamics.

There is a range of plays, music ensembles, dance groups, films, fine art and other various installations that explore our ecological relationship with the earth. Groups such as the United Kingdom-based Nutmeg Puppet Company are dedicated to educating children on the environmental issues that plague our planet. Nutmeg Puppet Company offers workshops and shows available for schools that feature puppets and masks crafted from recycled “junk” or natural materials.

Paulo Grangeon is a French sculptor whose work rouses youth interest in a straightforward approach. In his piece, “Pandas on Tour,” 1600 papier-mâché panda bears are displayed for all to see. These inanimate sculptures represent the diminishing number of pandas that remain on earth, their declining population due to human disregard for the natural world and our impact on animal populations.

Grangeon’s sculptures are yet another example of well-designed work that speaks to undesirable environmental effects without shaming his audience into becoming more eco-conscious. Other groups, such as The Nile Project, are utilizing music as a medium for their environmental concerns. The Nile Project is devoted to creating awareness about the Nile River Basin and the necessary changes in sustainability practice and conservancy that must happen in order to preserve the ecosystem.

The Nile Project prides itself on its family-friendly performance style and its resulting widespread inspiration to change the way children, students and adults interact with the Earth. The group will be holding a family-friendly concert in Spaulding Auditorium on 2:00 p.m. and a full-length concert at 8:00 p.m. that same night, followed by a concert Saturday at 11 a.m.

If their noble mission and the nature of environmentally conscious art hasn’t already peaked your interest, the Nile Project has said that their goal is to transform the conflict over the Nile through educating and inspiring a global network of students who focus on sustainability of their individual ecosystem. As the Project says on their website, “The project’s model integrates programs in music, education, dialogue, leadership and innovation to engage students across disciplines and geographies.”