Learning how to create public art & make change.
HQ: My name is Heidi Quante and I primarily work in the realm of creative communication. For the last year-and-a-half, I worked with 350.org, the largest international grassroots climate change organization, to use creative communication to educate the public about the impacts and solutions to climate change and ideally to spark them into action.
AR: Is art a particularly important tool in your organizing work?
HQ: Yes. I would say that if you look throughout history, whenever you look at revolution or changes that occur in society, culture is where it really happens. Every revolution has artists at the forefront. At the end of the day culture is going to drive politics more than politics is going to drive culture. The role of the artist is to be a visionary and to help show society what is possible before it actually happens so that people have something to work towards.
I received a science degree and an arts degree, and for a good decade or so, the primary jobs I had involved running corporate accountability campaigns. In short holding natural resource-extractive industries, primarily oil companies, accountable for the human rights and environmental destruction they were causing in their operations. And I always thought that art was something that I had to give up because there’s only one thing you can do in life and I was needed more to speak in the trenches, on the frontlines organizing shareholders, educating shareholders about what their company was doing.
But ironically, I always worked with other artists to convince shareholders to take action. So if I had to go to a union meeting and I had two minutes in front of all these sometimes really burly union guys, I had to convince them in 2 minutes why they should care where their retirement fund was invested in. And I always used photographs, and I always used hard-hitting powerful videos, and I would get them inspired within 2 to 5 minutes, and I was increasingly realizing that the power of a good story is so critical to convincing people. You have to first reach their heart before you can get them to take action.
AR: How do you define success?
HQ: An example of success would be the work we did during the earth art project for 350.org. EARTH was the world’s first ever global satellite art project. In over 16 locations around the world, artists collaborated with communities to create art that highlighted a local climate change problem or solution. For example Santa Fe, New Mexico has been designated as a high water stress area, which means that by the year 2050, they might not have enough water to support the local population. This is primarily due to the fact that the snow pack that feeds the Santa Fe river is melting faster than ever before. This is a really depressing subject to bring up with locals. For example you’ve bought a house and the house that you bought might not have access to its current water source by 2050. No one really wants to spend their free time at meeting at night talking about this really depressing, but real issue.
So we used art to engage people in this critical issue. Our local partners, The Santa Fe Institute, met with the people of Santa Fe and together they decided that they wanted to fill the now dry Santa Fe riverbed that runs through the city with thousands of people, all wearing blue to show where the river should be. As part of the lead up to EARTH, the Santa Fe Art Institute organized water and climate change workshops, but because they were connected to this crazy participatory art project, everyone wanted to check them out. The city put up free posters and buses. There were announcements on the radio. Kids had art workshops where they would paint blue things, and everyone really got engaged because it was this participatory art project that was unusual and everyone was invited. It was free, and throughout the course of it, the whole city for the first time started talking about water. I think that was a success where there was a boring, depressing topic and art provided an “in” to break this critical issue.
Similarly in Egypt, where we also organized an EARTH art piece (a scarab holding a sun to represent Egypt’s amazing solar potential), the organizer there on the ground—and this is before the revolution—was saying few people would come to their environmental meetings. No one saw themselves as an environmentalist, and it seemed really boring, and it seemed like work. But because this was art and the BBC was traveling all the way to the Egyptian desert to film this participatory art piece, everyone wanted to participate in it, and then the funny thing is once they engaged, they wanted to do more. So I think it’s a way to engage the general public in something that seems easy and fun, and then for those whose curiosity has been piqued, a way to take them to the next step or the next level.
AR: Are their certain qualities that you’ve observed which make these types of projects very successful?
HQ: In the case of 350.org I would say projects that are really successful are ones that reflect the local values and cultural values. They decide the messaging. They decide the medium. They decide how to engage their local community on the issue.
Egypt would be a prime example. The words you use, the solutions you highlight, are totally different than what you use in the United States. But even though it’s informed by local cultural values, when you’re dealing with a global issue like climate change, people then also find a way to connect globally. So you don’t feel alone. One of the things we heard from Egypt is, “The reason we felt confident doing something so unique and different - again this is before the Revolution - was because we could tell people, they’re doing this in the United States, they’re doing this in Europe, and then the teenagers were like, Okay, we want to do this too.”
Another story is from the Dominican Republic, the 350.org organizer there, Vanessa, is a phenomenal on-the-ground organizer. Vanessa would try everything to get on the radio, to get in the newspaper, to talk about global warming because as an island state, the Dominican Republic is going to really be severely impacted by climate change before any of the larger continents are.
And no one would listen to her. And then she said she was doing this art project with Dominican Republic youth and she said she was amazed, all of a sudden, the President wanted to participate, the military lent them helicopters to take aerial photographs of it, because at the end of the day, the government is the one who’s going to have to deal with sea level rise, with increased hurricanes and floods. They know this and this was an opportunity to do public education in way they knew would grab people’s attention because it was unique art, not a depressing lecture.
It’s a good example where someone was trying for years to get her country, island country, to talk about climate change and no one would, and then all of a sudden, she does an art project and all key stakeholders are participating.
- Heidiis inspired by her grandmother, Henry David Thoreau, Bjork, Michael Verhoeven, the Yes Men, Nelson Mandela, Ursula Sladek, and fellow ArtRoots interviewee Eve Mosher!
- See 350’s climate street art here and their awesome “insert here” public art project by one of ArtRoot’s interviewee’s Eve Mosher
- Join the movement at 350.org and follow @350 on twitter