Can art change people’s perspectives?

Veronica Simpson is in Bristol, European Green Capital 2015, looking at how arts events are first and foremost involving the city’s communities.


Words by Veronica Simpson

Can art Change the way people think about the environment? David Buckland addressed this question at the fascinating conference Restless Futures this summer at Central Saint Martins. Buckland, who launched the Cape Farewell initiative in 2001 - a series of expeditions taking artists, writers and scientists out to witness climate-change's effects on the outer extremities of our planet - clearly believes it can. Furthermore, he can point to an impressive body of artworks, exhibitions, books and performances that have sprung from these trips, from Lemn Sissay's urgent jazz-infused poems to Ian McEwan's book Solar.

These responses, as he says, 'have helped us to find a language to talk about climate change - to nominate the conversation'. But the problem with poems, paintings and literature is that their audience is generally educationally privileged and self-selecting. If you don't encounter the work, your mind will remain unaffected.

A far more immersive approach is being conducted by Bristol, to mark its role as European Green Capital 2015. It's the first UK city to win the right to host this event - that says something about the UK's general engagement with sustainability issues, right off the bat.

Fujiko Nakaya veiled Bristol’s Pero Bridge in mist for 10 days
Fujiko Nakaya veiled Bristol's Pero Bridge in mist for 10 days

And art is front and centre of Bristol's mayor George Ferguson's ambitious programme, the outcome of which he hopes will be 'significant behaviour change by us all'. That's a pretty tall order. So how is the city going about it? Six major new artworks - from a mix of local and international artists - have been commissioned (thanks to additional funding secured from Arts Council England). Luke Jerram has placed an eerie flotilla of seemingly abandoned fishing boats in Leigh Woods - their presence provoking questions about the likely impact of climate change to our oceans and weather.

Bristol's Arnolfini contemporary arts centre hosts a new exhibition of work by the international guru of land art, Bristol-born-and-based artist Richard Long; every work - from a carefully placed rock pile in the Andes to his lean, graphic text landscapes - is imbued with, and evokes, wonder and respect for the planet. Fujiko Nakaya was invited to create one of his magical fog works, veiling the Pero Bridge in mist and inviting pedestrians to 'take a step into the unknown'.

Most visible in the city centre are The Bristol Whales, designed and built by Bristol-based Cod Steaks: two enormous whale sculptures made from willow are seemingly swimming through a sea of plastic bottles in Millennium Square; thus flagging up the detrimental impact of plastic in the ocean (largely harvested from the detritus gathered after the Bristol Marathon, the bottles will be recycled when the festival ends).

The Bristol Whales swim in a sea of plastic bottles
The Bristol Whales swim in a sea of plastic bottles

One of the most spectacular events, however, will be from Theaster Gates, Chicago's Artes Mundi prize-winning artist and reclaimer of abandoned spaces, staging an extraordinary, community-led cultural marathon in one of Bristol's ruined spaces, this October.

The art in Bristol's Green consciousness raising campaign is not just to look at but also to engage with. Jerram's boats will be the setting for a youth-choir performance, a bicycle 'drive-in' film night, the final destination for a cross-Bristol family bike ride, and a backdrop for a performance of The Tempest. The Whales form the setting for a multitude of talks and workshops for schools and young people.

The year-long programme has won the support and involvement of every key Bristol institution, it seems, from universities to museums. 'At Bristol' Science Centre, for example, has created a community-led public art installation, The Energy Tree: a 5m-high metal sculpture whose leaves are solar photovoltaic panels made in Bristol; it's a work of art as well as a renewable power source, where people can recharge their phones.

Elsewhere, the University of Bristol is hosting the Uncertain World forum (17-21 October), one of several on-topic international conferences taking place in the city this year along with the Festival of the Future City.

But maybe it will be the extensive programme of community arts and engagement projects going on in Bristol's neighbourhoods that will have the biggest impact on wider Bristol consciousness. With a £2m strategic grants' fund from the council, there are 189 community projects. Activities are multi-themed, from food to music to film events, addressing green topics such as waste but also deeper social issues such as youth engagement and ageing, and doing so by drawing inspiration and skills from the communities. Bristol businesses have also bought into the scheme - more than 800 organisations, including universities, charities and commercial businesses, have pledged to coordinate and deliver projects in 2015 that will benefit the city's environment and make for 'a happier, healthier city'.

Clifton Suspension Bridge was bathed in green light to mark the start of Bristol’s year as European Green Capital 2015
Clifton Suspension Bridge was bathed in green light to mark the start of Bristol's year as European Green Capital 2015

The implementation of this ambitious event is a feat in itself, made easier by the council setting up a limited company, Bristol 2015, to allocate and administer grants and raise further funding for projects from private and public sectors - £11m so far - some of which will help learning from Bristol's experience to aid future Green Cities.

So hats off to Bristol for recognising the creative and maverick spirit that has long prevailed within its population as the asset it is, and using it not only as a tool for engagement and education, but also for seeing that you have to anchor these artistic and cultural activities within a wider and more fundamental framework for them to achieve critical mass.

As Arnolfini director Kate Brindley says: 'I think Bristol has taken on board this holistic view: that sustainability isn't just about energy or waste, it's a whole view of a city that includes quality of life.'

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