Art to Save the Arctic
Chantal Bilodeau discussed how to tackle climate change through art
It’s not easy to fit a playwright, translator, director, founder, co-founder, two-time recipient of the First Prize in the Earth Matters on Stage Ecodrama Festival, curator and writer on a single podium in the Merrick Theater, until you realize they are all one person.
Chantal Bilodeau was invited to Brandeis on March 24 to discuss the strategies artists use to engage with climate change. Her work focuses on the intersection of science, policy, art and climate change. Bilodeau is the artistic director of the Arctic Cycle, which uses theater to foster dialogue about the global climate crisis and create an empowering vision of the future and inspire people to take action.
The Arctic Cycle is also an umbrella organization serving as a bridge for three main initiatives: The Plays (a cycle of eight plays written by Bilodeau that examine the massive social and environmental changes taking place in the eight Arctic states), Artists & Climate Change (an international network and online platform that features essays, interviews and editorials by artists who engage with climate change issues) and Climate Change Theatre Action (a series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented internationally to coincide with the United Nations Conference of the Parties).
Through this line of work, Bilodeau has come to view climate change as “a set of unsustainable systems — economic, political, environmental and cultural — that harm all creatures and undermine our ability to survive as a species.” Bilodeau does not want to disregard the scientific definition of climate change. Rather, she wants to dispel the stereotype that climate activism revolves around tree hugging or some idealistic idea of pristine nature. She sees the climate as “all the systems that form the life we have.”
Bilodeau used an “ego” versus “eco” model to visually convey her definition. Both sides of the model contain a group of symbols representing the various creatures that inhabit the earth, but while the ego side organizes them in a pyramid with the human at the top, the eco side organizes them in a circle with no clear top. She explained that the ego structure represents the current system, where creatures at the bottom support the power and wealth relationships above them, while the eco arrangement represents the system we need, where power and wealth relationships organize laterally in multiple directions at the same time.
Bilodeau believes this is where the artists get drawn in, using their stories to promote climate activism and shift culture from the ego system to the ecosystem. “And by stories, I don’t necessarily mean narrative,” she clarified. “I mean a set of values and beliefs that then goes out into the world and that serves to organize how we live, and the people who control the story are the people who control the outcome.”
In the ten years that Bilodeau has engaged in this line of work, she has observed five strategies to promote climate activism: sounding the alarm, celebrating the natural world, making the science visible, envisioning a positive future and giving agency to communities.
Sounding the alarm emphasizes making people aware of the problems and danger they pose to everyone’s well-being. Since the mainstream media relies heavily on this strategy, Bilodeau says artists must use it carefully to avoid oversaturation. Examples she gave of art projects that use this strategy included a circular arrangement of several chunks of a Greenland iceberg in a Paris plaza that attendees to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference could see on their way into the conference building. Another example was a collaboration with a French fragrance company to create a line of scents that could disappear due to climate change: honey, the coastlines, coffee, peanuts, ice, hardwood trees, wine and eucalyptus.
Celebrating the natural world shifts the emphasis from the negatives to the positives, or as Bilodeau put it, “a powerful reminder that there’s still something left to fight for.” It involves looking at what humans want to protect and persuading them to actively protect it. She said it also emphasizes promoting interconnectedness and time as cyclical rather than linear — “what goes around comes around.” Examples she gave of art projects using this strategy included meticulously formed sculptures from objects found in nature, such as rocks or leaves, and an album of people photographed with animals in different positions, such as a person swimming with whales or another staring down at the camera while leaning against an elephant’s trunk.
Bilodeau differentiates making the science visible from merely illustrating the science by explaining how this strategy requires viewing science through the lens of art — an artist should attempt to portray the science in a way that relates to a wider audience, not unlike citizen science. Examples she gave of art projects using this strategy included a documentary called “Chasing Ice” that deploys time-lapse cameras to capture a multi-year record of the world’s changing glaciers and a website called “What Is Missing?” that functions as an interactive map to highlight the loss of biodiversity from climate change.
Envisioning a positive future focuses on solutions. “These are artists who really are telling the stories of tomorrow,” explained Bilodeau. “Instead of saying ‘we’re here, and this is how we got there,’ they’re saying, ‘We’re here. Where can we go next?’” Examples she gave of art projects using this strategy included those from a biennial worldwide contest sponsored by the “Land Art Generator Initiative” to create a piece of public art that doubles as a potential renewable energy innovation, such as a piezoelectric generator in New York, a solar hourglass in Copenhagen and a solar bike path in the Netherlands.
Giving agency to communities focuses on the process more than the final product. Bilodeau described it as “engaging community and creating something that will then empower them to move forward.” Examples she gave of art projects with this strategy included drawing chalk lines in cities around the world to show where the flood line would be if sea levels rose and an “eco stage” designed for “echosonography,” which she defined as “ecological design for performance that combines horticulture, theatrical design and community engagement to create recyclable, biodegradable, biodiverse and edible performance spaces.”
To conclude, Bilodeau clarified that the strategies are not meant to be set-in-stone guidelines, but rather, to help artists developing projects consider what they want to do, where they want to be and how they can best get there.