I had the opportunity recently to attend a talk with Lars Jan, the artist responsible for Holoscenes, a performance project exemplifying people’s reactions to sea level rise, who was paired with social scientist, Sabine Marx, from CRED (Center for Research on Environmental Decisions) at Columbia University.
Watching the video of Lar’s work, I was struck by it’s clarity. It was one of many similar examples of live performances of people doing ordinary things, like food shopping, taking a nap or, in this case, playing the guitar, in 360 degree viewable vitrines over the course of 12 hours. The hook in this video is the fellow playing the guitar is doing so in a vertical, human-sized aquarium, or vitrine, that fills and empties with water in time with the rise and fall of BP’s stock prices for the year over the course of one hour. Sitting on the chair calmly playing guitar the water rises until he must stand, and then begins to float with the guitar above his head, and then eventually letting the guitar go in order to breathe and swim.
In time, the water recedes, depositing the player on the ground where he rights his chair, raises the soggy, water-filled guitar above his head and empties it behind him. And then resumes playing as if nothing had happened.
The scene repeats itself with variations – the water level rising not always to the top but always enough to disturb the activity of guitar playing, but not enough to stop it altogether or cause undue alarm.
The guitar player is subjected to this irregular and unpredictable onslaught of water pouring in and out for one hour. The other examples of activities are the same. Equally poignant is the nap video. As we sleep, sea level rise is happening all around us. There seems to be little we can do but ride the wave of water that disturbs the now swimming sleeper who has to catch the floating pillow and blanket as it swirls all around, until finally the water recedes and the nap resumes, only to be disturbed yet again. But the result is the same: retrieve the pillow and go back to sleep. An attention grabbing allegory for the overwhelming crisis for the ordinary man that is climate change.
The message I retained from this experience is in line with the work CRED does – the social science behind climate change perception and action reveals that as humans our memories are short, our attention spans shorter. Our flight or flight biology rules us whether we know it or not. One is almost always in the mindset to fix the immediate problem, not consider the possibility of its repetition, and maintain status quo. We empty the water-filled guitar, seemingly having solved the problem, give little heed to its larger, overlying cause, and continue playing. Immediate needs come first, last, and always.
George Marshall, author of “Don’t Even Think About It, Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change”, illustrates during a trip to New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, that it was accepted among the locals that climate change was happening, but no one wanted to talk about it, they just “want to go home, and we will deal with the lofty stuff some other day.” This is the effect of tragedy of any kind: “The pain and loss of the event generates an intensified desire that there be a “normal” state to which one can return, making it even harder for people to accept that there are larger changes under way.” This idea is paired with CRED’s Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Change Communication where the finite pool of worry often takes precedence: in general the huge concept of global climate change is well down the list from daily concerns such as work, relationships, mortgages, and children. Which brings us full circle – in and among your daily activities, how does climate change play a role? Lars has hit a nerve by choosing to highlight that which personally effects us.
That is the crux of Holoscenes and it makes it’s point clearly and powerfully. First displayed in Toronto, there are two more site specific runs of the work to come this year, one in Sarasota, FL in March and San Francisco, CA after that. New York is hopefully going to be added to the list.
I highly recommend checking out the works and finding it if it comes to a town near you. Or contributing a video of an ordinary daily behavior like so many have from around the world.