Without Walls TALKS: Art in a Climate Crisis by Emma Powell

8 December 2022

Emma Powell reflects on the responsibility and role of art in a climate crisis

Emma Powell is a creative artist and a member of Air Giants, a creative robotics studio building inflatable, pneumatically-controlled, wonderful creatures.

Emma talks here about sustainability within Air Giants and the role that outdoor art plays in keeping the climate conversation moving.

One of the things I love the most about my work with Air Giants is presenting huge, multi-sensory spectacles in public spaces. We make huge, interactive robots which are bio-inspired, meaning their design and movement draw heavily from nature. We aim for the works to provide enough scale, strangeness and other-worldliness to provoke awe in the traditional sense, and above all, to create joyful experiences for audiences.

This could be an end in itself, but I believe that art experiences that disturb everyday perceptions are key to enabling people to question what is possible and why things are the way they are. Everything which is unusual is a challenge to the status quo. 

The best of outdoor art is about more than just spectacle. It’s an invitation to see the world in new ways and to see new possibilities. It should provoke thoughts and discussions.

A person with long blonde hair is enveloped by a white pillowy installation. The sun beams down to form a cosy sepia tone to the image.

“Looking at the climate crisis facts straight on is terrifying. In recent years ‘climate grief’ is a term that has become widely used, describing the feeling that comes with being confronted by the news of the disaster unfolding before us, whilst the rest of the world appears seemingly blind to the truth.”

Facing what we know about the future of the world in which we live, makes it harder to justify producing outdoor art. Like many others, I feel the pull of laying down my life for the climate change movement. There, after all, is no art on a dead planet.

Every person needs to balance their own responsibilities, conscience and creative drives and there are no easy answers. I have come to feel that the arts should be one of the tools we use to survive (and thrive) in this new era.

Because thriving is not just about living. A society without art is a lifeless society.

I am happy to see more outdoor art work which is specifically about the climate crisis, climate justice and endangered species. That this increases the public awareness of the issue is obvious, and it’s fantastic to have this messaging coming from as many directions as possible. These performances and installations are a platform for conversations about the BIG THINGS we all face. I’m pleased that climate justice increasingly shares the frame in these outdoor works so that we recognise how people are disproportionately affected by the unfolding catastrophes of climate breakdown.

I also want to make the case for outdoor arts and art across other disciplines which is disruptive, penetrates the bubble of the everyday, or makes people have emotional responses. Personal responsibility can only go so far in fixing this crisis. We need systemic change and things to shift in the mechanics of the world in ways that are exceptionally complicated. Some of the things we need to get there are willingness to work together, incredibly creative thinking and a belief that we can shape the future.

In the immediate future, we will need to draw on empathy with others more than we ever have before. Work that creates a shared experience makes an impression on people, giving a sense of belonging within a community and power from being one of many. 

Whether engaging directly with environmental themes or not, those working in outdoor arts have a responsibility to lead by example in practice. Companies and artists need to commit to environmental policies and review how they can minimise their own impact in delivering work.

This is not just important on a direct sustainability level but also because everything a company or artist does will communicate back to audiences. It’s counterproductive to make directly or tangentially related work about the climate while being thoughtlessly wasteful and polluting. 

All its outputs are part of a companies’ messaging, impact and power. Even works that aren’t ostensibly about the environment can still have a positive impact in the way that they are produced and delivered. Presenting work with minimum environmental impact tells the wider world that the environment is important.

Festivals I have worked with also do a great job of recognising climate impact in their internal and external messaging. Most festivals are explicit about the environmental protection measures they are taking (alternatives to driving, recycling at venues, green power suppliers). I think that this in itself helps to shape cultural awareness. It raises the bar of what people expect from what they consume and it’s another reinforcement of the need for change.

“Arts can’t ‘solve’ the climate crisis. But it is important for artists to recognise both the power and responsibility they have to make people feel and think in new ways.” 

A person with a beard leans on and hugs a mushroom shaped installation. It is dark except from the glowing light of the mushroom.

The environment and the climate crisis is something that every artist and company should always be considering in their practice, irrespective of the thematic content of their work. The arts are one of the tools society has at its disposal to lead positive change, and we desperately need it.

Find out more about Air Giants: https://www.airgiants.co.uk/

Image credits:

Unfurl, Air Giants at Timber 2022 © LE65 Photography

Unfurl, Air Giants © Mark Grey

Unfurl, Air Giants at Timber 2022 © Samuel Mills Photography

Unfurl, Air Giants at Timber 2022 © Samuel Mills Photography