Words and art by Samantha Hambleton

Artivism. Eco-art. Hippies with a paintbrush? 

To answer the question of ‘what the hell is artivism,’ I thought we could begin by first asking another (seemingly) simpler question: what is art? 

There are many different answers to this question. I once walked into an art museum in Munich to find a collection of pickles arranged on pillars. While my philistine self wants to say this is not art, many would say otherwise. 

We’ll turn to our old friends, Plato and Aristotle. According to Plato, all art is imitation. But maybe that’s just because he only ever made snakes out of play-doh. Aristotle was a bit cooler and liked poetry and drama, saying one can gain “cognitive value” from appreciating art. Retweet. 

Let’s move on to Romanticism, which gave rise to the expression theory of art; basically, what it says on the tin—art as a form of communication. We could go on and on, but I think we’ll settle here, and in this vein, we’ll think about a quote from French novelist Andre Malraux:  

“Art is a revolt, a protest against extinction.” 

So now that we’ve established that art is a way to express yourself, or in other words, communication, we’ll talk more about what it means to be an artivist in the climate movement. 

Perhaps one of the biggest names within the realm of climate artivism is Jenny Kendler. I was introduced to her through an exhibition entitled The Long Goodbye at the MSU Broad Museum. Kendler’s work has been exhibited around the world, and since 2014, she has been the Artist-in-Residence with Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC). I walked into the exhibition and came face to face with what appeared to be a wall of glass jellyfish. Tassels hung from each glass dome, and inside, fossilised whale ear bones floated in the air. Every so often, staff members would come by to ring them like chimes.  

Humpback whales are known for their vocalisations, or songs if you will, but this language and their survival are threatened by acoustic pollution. The fossilised bones inside of the hand-blown glass originated from a prehistoric species of rorqual whale in the Miocene Epoch, similar to modern humpback whales. According to Kendler, the sounds from these bells carry a message from these extinct whales to today’s endangered whales and ultimately serve as a reminder of what we have to lose. 

A bit closer to home here in Scotland, artivists Pekka Niittyvirta and Timo Aho aim to raise awareness of rising sea levels with their interactive light installation in the Outer Hebrides. The installation, Lines (57° 59′ N, 7° 16’W), provides the onlooker with a peek into the future. LED lights indicate where the sea level is predicted to rise, offering a bleak look at what is yet to come. 

Climate artivism takes many forms, including music. In 2013, University student, Daniel Crawford, composed a cello solo, “Song of Our Warming Planet.” Surface temperature data sourced from NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies served as the foundation for the composition, with each note corresponding to a year spanning from 1880 to 2012 and the pitch denoting the average temperature relative to the 1951-80 baseline; high notes indicate years that were relatively warm, and low notes denote years that were cooler.    

The outcome is stirring, allowing people to conceptualise climate change in an unconventional way. 

Artists have long been utilising their craft to shine a light on prevalent social and political matters. However, artivism in the context of climate activism has become ever more important. We’ve all heard the cheesy quote, “Earth without art is just eh,” but it seems we need to start questioning: what about art with no Earth? 

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