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From baboon raps to Extinction Gongs: can climate art save the world?

In 2015, the United Nations feared that the climate crisis was reaching a point of no return, threatening our very existence. With the Paris summit round the corner and a rare opportunity to get world leaders to commit to meaningful change, it needed a way to get the message out to every citizen in order to save the world from global catastrophe.

Its answer? To commission a song featuring Paul McCartney, Fergie from Black Eyed Peas, Natasha Bedingfield and Jon Bon Jovi, artists whom one must presume were chosen because their careers were in similar danger of extinction. Their effort, Love Song to the Earth, has a melody-agnostic chorus that goes: “Looking down from up on the moon, it’s a tiny blue marble / Who’d have thought the ground we stand on could be so fragile?” The song did not chart in any country.

It is not Natasha’s fault: artists have long struggled to make environmental activism cool. The climate crisis was, for too long, framed as a scientific issue, one that could be mitigated by small lifestyle changes. It is difficult to make a moving song, art installation or theatre piece about turning off your lightbulbs and using your food-waste bin.




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But in the past few years, 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.”

Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch.





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Stay frosty… Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Grimes is tapping into a realisation that, just as comedy has been an effective fundraiser for human rights groups, not every piece of climate activism has to be po-faced. The 2019 answer to Bedingfield’s bleating has been Lil Dicky’s Earth, an all-star environmental awareness anthem that raises money for Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation, which protects vulnerable wildlife. It includes lines from Lil Jon such as: “What the fuck? I’m a clam”, and Justin Bieber singing, “Hi, I’m a baboon, I’m like a man, just less advanced and my anus is huge.”

“We were trying to do it in a way where we could actually get people to listen, and still do something where everyone’s actually learning,” says Benny Blanco, Earth’s producer, who has also worked on Katy Perry and Kanye’s biggest hits. “We really do have to make a huge change or we’re fucked, but if someone comes at you in a fun, accessible way it makes people want to look into it more, research more, because it wasn’t shoved down their throats in some way they can’t understand.” It’s certainly resonating; the video for Earth has been viewed more than 160m times.

The message is filtering further through Hollywood, with big stars now toppling over each other to find ways of addressing environmental disasters. Anne Hathaway and Mark Ruffalo are shortly to star in a retelling of the DuPont chemical scandal and the mass pollution of American water by the company. Natalie Portman has executive-produced a new documentary on the horrors of intensive farming. Even the new season of Big Little Lies, where all the characters drive gas-guzzling 4x4s to shepherd their children to and from private school, has a storyline about whether we should teach children that they may see global catastrophe in their lifetime.




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It would be easy to dismiss this as cultural virtue signalling; pop stars and artists patting themselves on the back for being aware of the climate catastrophe but doing little to actually make the necessary changes to stop us destroying the planet. But already you can see how this way of thinking about the climate is having real-world impact.

Artists have begun to get their own houses in order, particularly with regards to the pressure put on the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), Royal Opera House and Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) to end their partnerships with BP. This month, 78 artists including Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor wrote to the NPG saying BP’s role “in furthering the climate crisis” made it an unacceptable partner. Mark Rylance has already resigned his position at the RSC because of links with the company.

But 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.”

Clockwise from top left: Nike; Vampire Weekend; Liberate Tate; Grimes; Anohni; Extinction Rebellion





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Environmental as anything… (clockwise from top left) Nike; Vampire Weekend; Liberate Tate; Grimes; Anohni; Extinction Rebellion. Composite: The Guide

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.

That professional sheen is also present in the work of Doctor Nadine Kuhla von Bergmann, the founder of Creative Climate Cities, an agency based in Berlin that helps bring together different experts to help reduce their climate impact. Its website looks more like that of a Soho marketing agency than an environmental group, and they are specifically targeting governments and big construction and energy firms. She says there is a lot of goodwill towards abstract climate goals – and now they’re pushing to make them happen. A fancy new block of flats, for example, may make big claims about how energy efficient it is going to be, but no one follows up after it has been built.

“Grassroots campaigners have fantastic energy and fantastic ideas but they often don’t have the time or the access to be in decision-making moments; that’s what we’re doing,” she says. “But it has to be culturally grounded. We bring people together who have never sat in the same room before so that we can use a language and art and design to help people understand.”

Culture is not a panacea: Billy Bragg didn’t save the striking miners, Green Day’s American Idiot didn’t stop an even bigger idiot from becoming president. But environmentalism is a different struggle. In some ways, it is a more organised movement – there are Green parties all over the world, regular summits with the power to make a change; what it needs is the feeling of consistent, perturbing urgency. And so much of that can come from artists.

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