Wednesday, 15 May 2013

CCC4: Creativity

Photo credit: Jordan Stevens

I can think of no better way to explore the importance of creativity in communicating climate change than with a highly multi-disciplinary audience, surrounded by 21 imaginative works from artists, designers, photographers, film-makers and performers. The AIR: Pressure week in the Academy of Innovation Research building, Tremough Campus, Penryn, offered just such an opportunity. AIR: Pressure was a combined effort, organised by staff from Falmouth University, AIR and University of Exeter. The AIR building was taken over for a week in the middle of April, transforming it into an exhibition space and focal point for a diverse series of events.

The fourth Communicating Climate Change event was held to coincide with AIR: Pressure, starting off the week as the first event, on the Monday evening. The participants were a diverse mix of academics, businesses and public sector employees. The evening began with a talk by Holger Zschenderlein on the Ice Traffic project in which he was involved. Following Holger's talk, we moved into a CCC workshop event. This involved participants considering different aspects about the work on display at the exhibition, and drawing their ideas together as a group. The aim was to inspire and help creative professionals to learn new techniques and ideas for communicating climate change.


The exhibition itself featured work by 21 different creative practitioners, which responded to the challenges of communicating climate change. Every artwork, performance and installation was interesting in its own way, but to give a quick flavour of the exhibition, I'd like to talk here about just four pieces of work that really stood out for me:

Work: Chloe Meineck
Title: Carbon Kit - Food Project
Photo credit: Robin Hawes

This imaginative piece is designed to give a very tactile and easy to understand message about the embedded carbon in different foods. Chloe made models of different kinds of foods, and weighted them according to their embedded carbon using lead weights. The (out of season) asparagus was surprisingly heavy! 

Personally, I think it's a very engaging piece. I'd really like to see the concept extended. Perhaps similar-looking vegetables could have different weights for different seasonality, organic production, etc, potentially giving a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the issues. At the exhibition, a few arguments were caused because of how light the banana was. In my opinion that debate is an interesting outcome in itself, but could have been strengthened if some link was given to the data source, or some reason could be provided for this surprising finding. This also does show the importance of careful data sourcing. 

I'm really interested to see where this project goes next. I know Chloe would like to make a kit for schools to make their own models in future, which is a great idea.

Work: Carolyn Arnold
Title: LLL7.4 A Self Portrait
Photo credit: Robin Hawes

Carolyn's work is another great example of an imaginative way of presenting data using physical objects. In this case, she has cut the clothing labels from all of her clothes, and used them to create this large piece on a 1.5m square canvas.

Again, to me, this is a very effective way of showing the viewer something that makes them stop and think about the quantity of clothing that we collectively consume. It reminds me of a lot of information graphics, which attempt to show the relative scale of something through relation to different real-world objects. The difference here is that Carolyn has directly used real objects to give the sense of scale.

Work: Forlane 6 Studio
Title: Posidonia

A Beautiful series of photos were submitted from Hortense Le Calvez. The rather eerie images also have an interesting relationship to climate change. The message is a little more subtle than the two pieces above, but they do make me think of the submersion of our every day objects and lives due to sea level rise. Having said that, I am already quite familiar with the relationship between climate change and sea level - it would be interesting to know whether this link is clear to a wider audience, and who would respond in a similar manner to myself.

Work: Diana Bechmann
Title: CH4
Photo credit: Robin Hawes

For me, one of the real show-stoppers was this piece by Diana Kristin Bechmann, a fine art student at Falmouth University. Part of the reason I'm so fond of it is that methane emissions are an unusual subject - most people think about carbon dioxide, which is fair enough, but it's nice to reinforce that there are other greenhouse gasses as well. There's also a clear choice presented to the audience about whether we need to eat so much meat, considering the effect that this has on greenhouse gas emissions.

Also, I love the use of humour. It was a feature of several works in the exhibition, and I think it's really effective. The surprising context also works in its favour - in the environment of an office building, you don't expect to come across a life-size model of a cow.

Some of the more scientific amongst the audience pointed out that a large proportion of a cow's methane emissions come from the front of the cow rather than the rear, and there were some questions about the accuracy of the data (again, stating the source is always good). However, for me, the visual impact is striking, the message is clear, and the piece seems very effective.

Incidentally, I don't think it's intentional, but the large black patch on the cow's side looks a little like South America to me... I actually had to check a photo of the other side to make sure I wasn't missing something important, but no. A Friesian planet might be interesting though...

The exhibition featured a huge amount of engaging, exciting and meaningful work from a diverse range of artists, designers and other creative practitioners. The pieces above are four that particularly spoke to me, as a designer and climate change communicator. However, I greatly enjoyed many of the other pieces on display, and I wish I had time to write about more of them here. If your work is not featured, it is not because I didn't appreciate it, but because I wanted to give a quick overview of a small number of pieces that relate to my aims with the CCC group.


Photo credit: Carolyn Arnold

The exhibition provided the perfect opportunity for a discussion of the importance of creativity in communicating climate change. To do so, the workshop delegates were asked to work in seven groups to consider different aspects of the communicative power of the works in the exhibition. Each group was given a theme to consider - described as a "lens" through which to view the exhibits. Groups had a very short time (around 20 minutes) to explore the exhibition through their "lens". They then assembled in groups to discuss their theme.

Below are the theme titles, the verbal prompts that that I gave before they started, and the groups' responses, which were captured on electronic whiteboards in the AIR Sandpit during the workshop:

Audience / People
Which people or groups would respond to particular works in the exhibition? Are there others not targeted?

The group considered children as an important audience, noting that those works targeting them were also effective for adults. They seemed to feel most inspired by exhibits that successfully used simple, powerful messages that could speak to a broad range of people - particularly those inspiring emotional responses and use of humour. I think this is a fascinating discussion, as much climate change communication tends to focus on very negative and shocking messages - which as we have discussed at previous meetings might have little psychological impact as many people tend to ignore or deny those inconvenient truths...

Do the media used by exhibitors allow for replication / distribution? What are the advantages and disadvantages of different media used?

Do the works deal more with mitigation or adaptation? Are there any conflicting messages between works?

These two themes were considered together (on adjoining whiteboards). However, in hindsight, it might have been more productive for the "message" and "context" groups to be placed together.

The "media" group was quite small by the end, and I'm not sure how much time they had to turn their thoughts into notes, but again they picked out the effectiveness of the "real" experiences - probably referring to Chloe Meineck's weighted fruit in the above example, but also the information from Holger about how almost all people visiting the Ice Traffic installation wanted to touch the ice block.

The "message" group output is somewhat hard to read. The sandpit boards do take a little getting used to - the pen has to be pressed firmly into the board for the computer to record what's being written. From what I can see, they talked about C02, and about blame. I think there is a comment about cows and whether they could be blamed, or whether their emissions are our responsibility. I think this may have been the inspiration for one of the videos that was made as part of the Swarm TV collaborative film-making project during the week... (my favourite version is towards the right of the page).

If anyone from this group (or any group) would like to fill me in on anything I've missed, please do leave comments here and I'll try to edit them in.

What kinds of impact might the works have? How long might these impacts last? Are these intended or unintended?

How might these impacts be measured and evaluated through research?

It seems that the impact group may have (at least in part) discussed the impacts of climate change rather than of the works, for which my instructions are to blame I'm sure! However, there is also a comment relating to context - that the unexpected placement of objects might lead to particularly good impact. I'm sure that is quite testable with research...

The research group also seems to have discussed technological research into climate change "solutions" which was not really my intention, but there were also research suggestions related to communicating climate change. One suggestion was to try and measure how long an impact lasted for. Another was to examine the effect of different "sensual" experiences - which I think relates to using different sensory information (vision, hearing but also touch, taste, smell) to communicate. It could be interesting to do some kind of factorial study with different combinations of senses employed to communicate, investigating how they contribute to promoting understanding or motivation.

Are the motivations of the creative practitioners revealed through their works or accompanying statements?

I particularly like the chicken and egg illustration. I believe this was drawn to represent a discussion of whether ideas came first and then become art, or whether artists start with the artwork and generate ideas about environment / climate change through the process of their work.

The group seems to have picked up several possible motivations at the top of the diagram. Some of these focus on providing some kind of experience (interaction, play, humour). Others relate to transferring information (educate, demystify, engage). What is written as "aescetic" I think is probably meaning aesthetic (rather than ascetic), which would fit better into the first of these two categories.

There is also evidence of a discussion about preaching, or "converting" people to a particular point of view. In a sense, an exhibition such as this is indeed an exercise in preaching to the converted. However, this fits in with our aims for the week, which were largely to provide a platform for expert communicators (creative practitioners) to interact with businesses and academics to consider communication techniques. The event could be described as a meeting of the climate change faithful to discuss communication strategy...

Lastly, there seems to have been a discussion about survival as a motivation. Perhaps there is always an element of getting grant funding to continue work, but I would argue that if money was the sole motivation many creative practitioners would have originally trained as doctors or lawyers instead... But the notes also suggest a wider issue of survival for humans in general in the face of global climatic changes.

Does context affect the meaning of the works? Would the works have different kind of impact if they appeared in a different context?

Interestingly, this group appears to have decided that the different pieces sit on a kind of continuum from "universal" pieces that could appear in any context, to more "site specific" pieces that rely more on the context of appearance, but have more of a direct relevance to a specific location.

An example of a more "universal" piece was given: Chloe's fruit (as shown at the top of this post) - and indeed this could be easily interpreted in a variety of locations (exhibitions, schools, museums). However this piece does depend on being in or around the UK for the data - I'm sure there are parts of the world in which a banana would have even less weight as there would be lower emissions from transportation.

The example given for a piece that needed more context was Janet McEwan's series of photographs depicting the construction of a solar farm near to where she lives. The notes from the whiteboard suggest that the group were thinking of context in terms of needing the written description of the meaning that the images have - that they reflect her conflicting emotions about the need for renewable energy and the conversion of green fields to a more industrial landscape. However, there may also be a cultural context of peak oil, the need for green energy and corporate vs local initiatives within Cornwall that would give an even richer meaning to an audience familiar with the full context of the work.

There were quite a few common themes that arose from the group discussions - some of which I have noticed from reading through the whiteboard notes and considering the discussions which I took part in. Also, Jeremy Richards, Head of Innovation at AIR, gave an excellent summary at the end of the workshop.

Photo Credit: Carolyn Arnold
His job for the evening was to act as a "keynote listener" during the event, and sum up any overarching themes emerging from the groups.

He noticed repeated mentions of the importance of "real" experience - being able to touch, experiment, and interact with pieces seemed to provide a lot of benefits. Chloe Meineck's weighted fruit is an obvious example of this, as were Laima Grigone's moth cabinets, on which a handle could be turned to reveal colourful weather maps under the moth's wings; John Hartley's Sandpit for Growth which projected shapes on the wall and ceiling depending on different shapes made in sand; amongst others. There does seem to be something very fundamental about being able to touch, pick up and experiment with objects.

It also seems that several people talked about "unexpected" objects. There were some great examples of interventions that surprised, such as Diana Kristin Bechmann's cow model being encountered in an office environment, or the road signs that Jeremy Tridgell posted outside the AIR building that were aimed at people walking rather than cars. Also, Alex Murdin's lifeguard chair that was positioned looking out over the dry valley made good use of its "unexpected" location - on a beach or near a swimming pool, it would not have the same meaning.

There were a couple of groups talking about emotional responses. It is sometimes suggested that responses to climate change can be quite irrational. I seem to remember that, when presented with factual research data, people can sometimes fail to take actions based on it. We might speculate that pieces which inspire emotional responses are more powerful motivators than those which communicate factual data. However, I know from my own research that factual data can also be a motivator, if it's communicated in an easily accessible format. While there is plenty of research in this area already, there may be some scope for further investigation.

Lastly, several groups talked about the use of humour to provide motivation and engagement. It's something we've seen examples of in past CCC meetings, that could potentially have a impacts, and is sometimes neglected in climate change communication. I can see why, as climate change is such a serious problem, people immediately assume that making irreverent and lighthearted media communications about it is not appropriate. However, in terms of viral message spreading and engaging people, careful use of humour could be a very effective method of communication which should not be forgotten.

On reflection, 20 minutes felt like a very short time to look around the exhibits, and we could have spent far longer discussing also. It's always tricky to get the timing right for these events, especially as the CCC meetings are aimed at bringing in small businesses to work with academics, and it's hard for them to take a lot of time out of the working day. I'm very impressed at the quality of the discussion that we had in the short time available though - thanks in part to the excellent space and technology in the AIR Sandpit, but also the diverse and interesting mix of people at the event.

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