Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 012: ICE ICE BABY
JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. 15,000 years ago, in the Altamira caves in northern Spain, our ancestors used charcoal and okra to paint pictures of bison roaming on the Iberian plane. Since that time, our desire to connect and express how we feel through dance, poetry, theater, pottery, film, literature, photography, sculpture, drawings, and music has only increased. We are naturally social beings and art helps us create community through a shared sense of the world around us. The huge changes facing our planet need to be understood and internalized if we're going to take meaningful action. Unfortunately, because messages around climate change are often explained through data and scientific jargon, most people are left overwhelmed and confused. Unlike environmental advocacy, art does not tell people what to do. Instead, it reconnects us to our senses by pointing to something beyond itself.
Art can shake us out of our numbness. I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard AC/DC for the first time. It sent electricity through my 10-year old body. Even today, listening to the song “Problem Child” picks me up and helps me fight another day. Whether it's Van Gogh, Bjork, Jane Austen, Beyonce, Ansel Adams, Rodin, Miley Cyrus, or Mozart, once the spark has been lit, it leads to an emotional and physical reaction that we can carry with us for a lifetime. People don't want to be convinced, they want to be moved. And that's what this episode is all about. In the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans, environmentalists have spent a great deal of time unsuccessfully pursuing intellectual arguments around science, obligation, and the importance of being right. Climate change, clean water and eliminating toxins are presented as complex challenges that are best left to scientists to resolve. We have completely missed the boat when it comes to engaging curiosity and wonder. Art Is seen as a distraction that will slow us down in our urgent battle to defeat climate change. But in our rush to solve the problem, we forgot to connect with people emotionally, to meet everyone where they're at. As a result, we're not getting a lot done.
Art is one of the few remaining venues where people with radically different world views can come together to share an experience. It turns out that both Democrats and Republicans love watching the TV show the Big Bang Theory. It doesn't really matter why people like the show. The key is that in this deeply polarized world, we need as many shared experiences as possible. Unlike with our politics, in the arts, disagreement is embraced as a critical ingredient. Engaging in the arts allows us to transcend the rigid worldviews that created our current mess. Getting artists involved and creating work around climate change is an investment in the belief that uncertainty and intuition are as valuable as data and logic in securing our survival on the planet. Because artists are skilled at breaking rules and adroit at finding unorthodox pathways, they're the perfect navigators for our age.
In this week's episode, we talk with five artists who are exploring conversations around climate change through photography, music, and ice sculptures. We start with David Buckland, whose photographs are in London's national portrait gallery, the Pompidou Center in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of New York. Fifteen years ago, David founded Cape Farewell, a project to bring the world's leading artists on a boat trip up to the Arctic to experience the changing environment, which he did nine years in a row. David, how did you begin this adventure?
DAVID BUCKLAND: First, a passion for our oceans, I’m a passionate sailor, so that then led me into oceans and I also then came across geography. They're saying well, the oceans are heating up and climate change is a real reality, but 18, 20 years ago, most of the public didn't know or have any of this information. It was in the domain of either really good environmentalists, some politicians, but in the science world they were going, why is nobody listening to us?
JARED BLUMENFELD: So how did you get the idea to go to the Arctic and then to do it in this old schooner? How did all these things come together?
DAVID BUCKLAND: It's a mystery in a sense. You know, as an artist, you seek inspiration. I was working with a scientist and I thought, wait a minute, what would really inspire media coverage, inspire people to hear our story? And the fact that you put 20 artists and scientists on an old sailing schooner that we sailed ourselves. I mean we had a captain, a cook, and a first mate, that was it. We had to move the boat. And it was such a captivating story, just the essence of it, that then we could then talk about a, what we were doing, but at the same time, talk about climate change in a way that is a cultural conversation and narrative rather than abstract concepts of figures and data.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, tell us a few stories about what it was like to go out. I mean these aren’t calm seas.
DAVID BUCKLAND: The first time we ever set off, we set off from northern Norway and we went north for five days and we went over something called the Devil's Dance Floor and we figured out why it's called the Devil’s Dance Floor. I've never seen seas like that. So, by the time we arrived in Spitsbergen, which was our target, I think there were only four of us left standing. The rest were - it was like, ugh, it was hell.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And at that moment were you thinking, “holy shit I can’t believe I’ve done this. I brought these artists here to die.”
DAVID BUCKLAND: Exactly. I thought they were going to throw me overboard. But actually, when we arrived in May and it was 24-hour daylight. So, the sun was just doing circles above your head. We arrived, and we edged ourselves into this beautiful kind of field that we actually had to break the ice to get in and for the first time it was so quiet, so beautifully calm. And when we were in there, we had a lovely sound artist with us, Max, and he had a hydrophone and he put it in the water. And the bearded seals in May were mating. So, the sound of seals having sex in the water, it like blew everybody away. And as we went to bed that night, the steel hull of the ship resonated all the sound. So, you’d be sleeping in your bunk and on the other side would be the ocean where the bearded seals were just calling. So, the magic unwound itself. So, after this battle through the storm, you have all this magic unfolding that you've never experienced before.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And did the artists create work when they were there or were you encouraging them to just experience it and then go back and make the work?
DAVID BUCKLAND: We had some artists, sculptors, who would make work immediately. I mean the photographers and the filmmakers were making their record, but people were carving using ice. I mean, ice, there are so many different kinds of ice. It’s just a magical material to work with. Also, you can put it in the water, you know, and it freezes.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, when you think about that intersection of culture and climate change, not many people are - maybe now they are - but certainly for the last 20 years you've kind of been a lonely voice.
DAVID BUCKLAND: My argument is that one of the roles of being an artist is you always gravitate to the kind of the dominant subject of your time throughout history and the dominant subject of our time is how we are going to preserve the habitat we live within. That is, you know, it's a big existential question that we have to solve. It's non-negotiable, so therefore it's not surprising that you have artists working with this subject matter. What is the challenge is that you are not dealing in classical art form narratives. You're actually dealing with the issue, which when artists play around with issues, it can be very challenging because it can be propaganda. So how do you manage to still stay true to form, to practice being an artist, and at the same time pick up an issue? That's an equally fascinating balance, but pretty much all of the artists we work with had figured ways to do that and come up with incredibly creative solutions.
JARED BLUMENFELD: How do you keep your climate art from being propaganda?
DAVID BUCKLAND: First rule, don't preach.
JARED BLUMENFELD: I’m with you.
DAVID BUCKLAND: As soon as you start preaching, you start, so that's a good one for the arts. It is a big cultural challenge to us all.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Can art still play a powerful role in shaping how we view climate change?
DAVID BUCKLAND: I bet that every single person carries around with them a piece of art that informs who they are. You know, it's like, it could be your favorite movie, or a piece of music and it tend to last with you for five, six, seven, even longer years. So, you carry it around with you as something that really informs the character of who you are. That's how powerful art is. You know, it’s the way that human beings, you know, it's the way we share our culture, but it's also the way we tell stories to each other and for each other. And it can be a pop song, you know, it can be anything - a painting or the latest Hollywood movie. I mean, one of the things we found is that when making a piece of art and you're engaging an audience, the audience nowadays want to be part of the piece of art. They then take ownership of something, the artwork, and then that then becomes much more. That really moves you to change.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Tell us about Michael Pinsky's immersive art piece where you get to experience what it's like to breathe the air in Beijing, London, Sao Paolo, and New Delhi.
DAVID BUCKLAND: So, it's pollution domes, and there are five geodesic domes and they're see-thru and you walk into one environment of each dome. But one, because it was first staged in Trondheim in Norway, the air in Trondheim is beautifully clear. You walk into this dome, you have this incredible experience with lovely clean air. So then from that dome, you go into the next dome, it might be Beijing. And suddenly, you end up with a hugely, you know the temperature suddenly hits 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the air is almost unbreathable and has a particular odor and a particular smell. And then you walk into the next one and you are London. So, you have four or five big different air qualities of cities backed up right next door to each other and you walk from one to the other to the other to the other, to the other and then out. And it's a visceral experience and you think, oh, you can't possibly live in an area like this. The people who enter these domes who are telling the story and they'd become part of it.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And the picture you showed me, the color of the air also replicates what you'd get.
DAVID BUCKLAND: The artist Michael Pinsky is still developing the air that goes into each of these domes and he's working with scientists to get it right and also making sure that actually it is not too damaging because the public are inside. But the quality of the air, the smell of the air, you know, how you feel being in the air, how it affects you is all of those things he's trying to create.
JARED BLUMENFELD: As an artist, how's it been working with climate scientists?
DAVID BUCKLAND: Scientists initially thought you get all these artists and they will illustrate the scientific story and what they soon found out is they don't illustrate. If anything, they absorb everything and then reform it into a different narrative. And I think for the scientists, they went, oh my God, this is a very different way of telling a story of the same kind of information you want to get around, but in a very different way of doing it. In a human scale, human stories and that I think was it was a very exciting time for both the scientists and the artists to realize that kind of interchange.
JARED BLUMENFELD: To better understand how artists are working together with scientists, I meet up with a climate music project. They bring together world class composers, musicians and scientists to make climate science personal. I sit down with the founder, Stephan Crawford, the producer Fran Schulberg and the composer Eric Ian Walker. Stephan, let's start with you as a sculptor. What was the catalyst for combining music and climate change?
STEPHAN CRAWFORD: I found myself deeply frustrated by the fact that here we are in the 21st century and we're facing a climate crisis and we seem not to be moving really fast enough in the right direction and looking for a way to communicate the issue in a way that would be more visceral for people, in a way that would be more personal, and in a way that would be therefore, more understandable for a person who is not a scientist. As a sculpture, I was looking for ways to combine the science with the art because I thought that that would be, it could be a powerful avenue for expressing the issue in a new, fresh way. And in the course of doing that, I actually initially was thinking of making a kinetic sculpture that would mimic the carbon cycle. I ran into the issue or the idea of rhythm as a function of that thought process. And through rhythm that naturally led to music. I made a number of very crude models on garageband. And one of them essentially took “America The Beautiful” and I came up with a very simple algorithm and then laid over some data from just one study, just as an experiment, and essentially deconstructed “America The Beautiful” over about a thousand years of climate data. And I took that very crude model and it was very crude, and I showed it to a few friends and one of them was Fran Schuberg, who's sitting right next to me here. And the, the impact was palpable. People were moved by it. And that was really, I think the sign that we should take it further.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Fran, when Stephan came to you and said, you know what, I've got this idea, I want to make music about climate change. What did you think?
FRAN SCHULBERG: Before I heard it, I was skeptical that the music could capture the science. And then he played “America The Beautiful.” And you can hear the deconstruction of the song. It was painful actually to listen to how the song was changed by the climate science. And I thought, yeah, this could be something.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Eric, then they came to you and as a composer who had been writing for theater and television and dance, what did you think?
ERIC IAN WALKER: So, the idea of working with the climate data was very interesting to me. So, I said yes. And like Stephan was just saying, we were just planning on doing kind of a little mockup.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Here's a clip of their “America The Beautiful.” This is towards the end of the piece is things start falling apart at the seams. So, Stephan, what was the reaction?
STEPHAN CRAWFORD: There were tears in the audience. And so, we took that as a sign that, okay, we have to do, we have to take this further. And then we started working towards a much more complex piece that which is the one that we're performing now with Eric. And that process took about nine months of very frequent meetings with our science team, with Eric, altogether looking at how are we going to take this data and turn it into something that audiences will want to hear. And that's really an important point because what we're not doing is we're not just doing direct data sonification because that would just be noise and not doing just a subjective or composers’ subjective interpretation of what climate change was sound like because that has no basis in reality. There's no objectivity there. We're walking a middle line, so to create music that resonates as music, that people will want to listen to, but at the same time that reflects an objective reality that's embedded in that and inherent in the data.
JARED BLUMENFELD: This is kind of marrying how the world is seeing empirically with that kind of emotional response.
ERIC IAN WALKER: Yeah. I settled on the idea that we would have a piece of music that was trying to go its way, kind of like humans are trying to do what they want to do, and follow the path they want to follow, and the data comes along and interferes. And as a composer, there was many moments that were hard to deal with because you would not get to hang onto something, like you might get some cool effect going, or like all the harmonies are really neat right here and in 30 seconds that's the end. You know, you don't get to have that anymore because the data has now shifted everything. So, there was a lot of trial and error with the band to come up with the right vocabulary and the right thematic ideas so that when the data was modifying the music, you could still feel like you were following it.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Fran, you came to this from a completely different background than Stephan and Eric. You've been a lawyer working on environmental issues. Tell us what it was like when you first heard the music.
FRAN SCHULBERG: It was like a eureka moment because you could see that these people who probably understood that there was climate change, they but didn't really understand how urgent the issue is and how we really need to take action, they reacted so strongly and so viscerally and emotionally. There were people who were crying, and we had a really nice exchange among the audience at the end and the feedback was phenomenal and gave us the incentive to keep going. There's a visual component as well, so people can not only see the data, but sort of put it in a context and see year by year how the climate's changing. At our very first performance, this woman got up and said it really touched her at an emotional level because she could see where she was born and how the climate was sounding pretty good at that point. But then she saw what the climate was doing when her daughter was born and when her granddaughter was born…
JARED BLUMENFELD: With the benefit of having many of the key players in the room, I thought Eric, Fran and Stephen could walk us through their work called “Climate,” which is their first collaborative composition. The music’s tempo is influenced by the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The music pitch changes as the planet's temperature increases. And finally, the Earth's energy balance, which describes how the incoming energy from the sun is using your attention to space, controls the amounts, the music is distorted. If you were listening to the music in a concert hall, you would see all those values and a moving timeline between 1800 and 2250 projected onto the wall. So, Stephen, let's start at the beginning.
STEPHAN CRAWFORD: It starts out just as the industrial revolution is beginning.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Eric in 1800, are we hearing any of the science in the background?
ERIC IAN WALKER: At that point, it doesn't mean anything because the data's not having any effect on the music. So. I was able to write a piece of music that is just how I felt the human spirit should sound as it's going through the 19th century. Then when the data comes along, it's quite literally like running it into it.
JARED BLUMENFELD: What's the next piece we're going to hear in this progression?
STEPHAN CRAWFORD: So, the next piece a begins essentially as the 20th century rather is picking up speed and we'll take us just past where we are today till about 2025.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, we're going to hear Eric's original melody overlaid with data.
ERIC IAN WALKER: The music takes a turn. We even call the section “The Winds of Change” and a drum set comes in. Sounds almost like a rock tune is beginning. There's a beat. The part before didn't really have a beat to it. So now you can really feel the pulse and the tempo is driven by CO2 increase. So, as the CO2 goes up, that that piece speeds up. It's introduced by the bass guitar and the drums and then everybody slowly piles on and it gains momentum as we go through time. And you really feel it - 25 years for every minute. I think the thing that is really effective about the piece is the sense of time that everyone gets because the music covers time and we're talking about time. So, it's not a frozen thing, it is not just some data that people look at on a piece of paper.
STEPHAN CRAWFORD: So, the last thing we're going to hear is towards the end of the piece as the piece reaches a crescendo towards the year 2250.
JARED BLUMENFELD: So, the good news is, we are still around.
STEPHAN CRAWFORD: Well, we're still around. Yes.
JARED BLUMENFELD: I mean in 2250 the music continues, so that's good. I'm feeling positive already.
STEPHAN CRAWFORD: The music continues. It's not anything like how it began and it's not really recognizable. A lot of people still don't really draw a direct line between those strange things and climate change. But in the music, it's exactly reflected what's happening. The music in 2018, it’s still music, it's still beautiful. It's still what we recognize, but strange things are starting to happen. Fast forward to 2250, and it's completely and utterly unprecedented. There's no reflection of what it was. And I think that's what our scientists tell us is that essentially - what we're essentially doing is hitting the accelerator button on the carbon cycle over millions of years. If we don't get off this path, it will be a world that is unprecedented for humans on the planet, a world that no human will recognize. And that is something that we're trying to get across with this piece of music. We essentially took a time machine ride through music. It's like a time machine. Music enables us to go in a half an hour to go from the past to the present, into the future, look at different possibilities for the future and then come back to the present in time to act.
FRAN SCHULBERG: Moving forward, what we're now doing is developing are what we're calling a compositional tool so that musicians anywhere around the world, in any musical genre, can create their own climate music that will resonate with their communities, that will resonate with their fanbases. And so that we have a way to really reach out to broad audiences, not only in the US, but internationally.
JARED BLUMENFELD: And now back to climate art. Something that David Buckland said earlier about the beauty of ice struck me. So I went in search of an ice artist and found Carter Brooks who loves ice and he brought two big blocks of it to our interview.
CARTER BROOKS: Well, it's all about ice. I melt ice as an art and as an aesthetic and as a practice. It's the obvious aesthetic of the age. I also deeply moved by our grand ice that's older than civilization that's melting, and we may be one of the last few generations to really see the glaciers, the mountain glaciers in their glory. So, I like to bring the ice into the room.
JARED BLUMENFELD: I love just the physicality of seeing it and, and how dynamic it is. It feels and is a living part of the room when you bring these. They're very sculptural, but they're also very geologic.
CARTER BROOKS: Exactly. It is that aliveness. It turns out it's really cool. Particularly when you let it melt on metal as I do - the optics of it, the way light hits it - I mean people will sit around and watch the ice just like sitting around and watching a fire.
JARED BLUMENFELD: What kind of started you down this journey of becoming a climate artist and philosopher?
CARTER BROOKS: When my daughter was about two, there was a scientific paper that pointed out that the ice cap was going to melt in 70 years. And there's my daughter playing with my mom, her grandmother, and it hit me. I'm like, if my daughter lives to be a grandmother, she's going to see the ice cap melt. How do you prepare for that? What's the meaning of that? What is important about that? This is literally the end of the world is we thought we understood it, so I take it for granted that some level of civilization and humanity may ride this out, but whatever that is going to have to come up with ways of thinking, ways of doing that by definition we can't even define right now. Keeping things like curiosity alive are way more important to me than giving people an answer. You know, keep keeping people interested in questions that we don't even understand yet. So, the role of the artist, to come at it from the perspective of an artist, is in some ways just simply license to be able to think about it differently. So, the idea of being a climate artist is, can you define a whole new genre or a whole new, a whole new discipline? So it's not just art and it's not just culture, but it's really how do you combine the two and now you've got a climate culture thing where your solution to the problem is this cultural thing. It's not just raising awareness, it's the actual solution or it's the answer. It's the action. Art allows the communication of metaphor without having to get through language in a way that's really important.
JARED BLUMENFELD: How do people respond to your ice sculptures?
CARTER BROOKS: Well, the most common response is, “that's so cool,” which is great. Others get right away that it's related to our grand ice melting. And so, it's a metaphor for that. Some people go right into, “oh, it’s so sad.” So, you have that too. You even have people that go, well, how much energy does it take to freeze that ice? Is that a good use of this ice? You know, that energy kind of thing. Don’t get me started on that. The ice that's melting is older than civilization. It's got records of the climate going back older than civilization. As we were discussing, it's incredible that we've got bubbles trapped in the ice and that we can figure out the average temperature from isotope ratios and I mean, it's fascinating.
JARED BLUMENFELD: It’s spiritual at some level.
CARTER BROOKS: Totally spiritual. Anything that increases and appreciation for the beauty of ice even in its demise and it's melting, you know, I think is, is important and useful for this time. I was speaking with a geologist a while ago and he was saying, reminding me that ice is a mineral, but glacial ice is technically a rock. So, if we had no more glaciers in the planet, we will have lost a geologic species. We've already lost most of the multiyear ice in the ice cap. You know, the icecap hasn't fully melted, but it’s depth, it’s glory, it’s age is already just a figment of what it was a decade ago. I grieve for the ice. And I think the ability to take time to grieve and a willingness to grieve is essential and definitely is part of what I'd like to make some of my work become.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Is your art a means of communicating a message or is it about the experience of the art itself?
CARTER BROOKS: I can't tell you how often I have to bristle at people that respond to my art and go, “oh, that's great for awakening people and communicating.” It's like, no, it's not a marketing tool. It's the thing, it's the experience. It's not to educate people about your behavior change, personal behavior change thing you want to sell. No, please don't make it that. That's thinking too small. It's a bigger thing. How do you get inspired to bring art into your everyday, to care about the aesthetics of your every day.
JARED BLUMENFELD: It also seems like your work has a reaction to the way climate messages are currently communicated.
CARTER BROOKS: It’s been a complete failure and it's created the resistance. You know, the political resistance we have in this country, all my natural allies, have bought into, most of them have bought into something that I think is not working. It's not just a paradigm shift, it's “get good at paradigm shifting.” And the identity of an artist has the charge in a way to figure out how to do that.
JARED BLUMENFELD: How does art help us grapple with the challenge ahead that climate change is going to pose?
CARTER BROOKS: Part of it's also learning how to appreciate found materials and repurposing things. So, art is, you know, obviously, lots of art is about that. It's about taking things that have been discarded and making them something new and making them useful again in an interesting and creative way. I mean, that's an essential sort of practice and skill that I think humanity will always continue to need. The earth we learned about in grammar school doesn't exist anymore. The carbon dioxide levels already changed the system enough that whatever we learned, it doesn't really exist anymore. Actually, that's profound. So, I like to say, don't just do something, sit there for a little bit first, let that sink in. Then come up with something a little more, you know, interesting. Doesn't mean there's nothing to do. It just might be that the things to do are of a different nature than you originally thought they were going to be.
JARED BLUMENFELD: How do people respond at the end of the evening when they just see that pool of water in the metal bowl that used to be a beautiful piece of ice?
CARTER BROOKS: Well, oddly, almost never gets there because it takes longer to melt than people think, and that's also one of the lessons. Try to keep the ice away from the sunlight. It's not just because the sunlight's hotter, but because the sunlight actually disintegrates it. It gets in the middle of the ice, it actually loses it structure, the bonds seem to, you know, it starts getting fissures essentially. It'll get these long slivers that'll come off like a flake. Um, uh, but yeah, eventually it’ll just -pssh- all at once.
JARED BLUMENFELD: Thanks to David Buckland, Stephan Crawford, Fran Schulberg, Eric Ian Walker and Carter Brooks for spending time with us today and for helping us see that our emotional response to art is a pathway to understanding what's going on around us. What I took away from this week's episode is that art has the power to bring us together because it doesn't preach or tell us what to think. We are given space to embrace our differences. As a follow up to today's show, maybe think about inviting someone who holds an opposing view - It could be your uncle who you argue with every Thanksgiving - to a movie or to a gallery and experiment with not trying to agree, but instead just discuss the experience. My hope is that in the future we have more artists in the room at every environmental event, that we commission artists to paint murals in our communities about how they see the environment changing, that we remember that when it comes to the resistance, artists have been on the front lines a lot longer than the rest of us.
In next week's episode, we examine why kids in schools spend less time outside than prisoners and how a growing green school yard movement is working to change that. If you have time, please review the show on Apple's Podship Earth page. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire crew, sound engineer Rob Spate, producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a fabulous week.