Art in a warming world: Going Up at the Schuylkill Center

The Schuylkill Center's Anna Mueser inside Michelle Wilson’s 38.5 Kilograms. (Photo by Pamela J. Forsythe)

Though a majority of Americans believe that climate change is happening, a 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that just 41 percent of us believe that people are being harmed by it right now. And how Americans view climate change is affected more by their politics than data on warming global temperatures and rising sea levels.

Which leaves scientists in a quandary: How to make the evidence of climate change real to a public not particularly interested in numbers and charts?

“You have to engage their emotions,” explains the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education’s Anna Lehr Mueser of how to effectively reach people on this topic. Too often, statistics seem abstract, and fail to raise a personal response to the issue.

Which is where artists come in.

Translating data into art

In Going Up: Climate Change + Philadelphia, the Schuylkill Center presents artists’ interpretations of climate change.  In one corner of the gallery, music stands in for temperature, and rises to a tense crescendo. Daniel Crawford’s "Planetary Bands, Warming World" (2014) assigned each of four climate regions (equatorial, mid-latitudes, high latitudes, arctic) to members of a string quartet. Each player’s score corresponds to average temperatures in a region between 1880 and 2012. Over the course of the piece, the pitch rises noticeably across all regions. It isn’t difficult to imagine this music in a Hitchcock film.

Many of the works are visual, including Jill Pelto’s Landscape of Change (2016), a jagged watercolor scene composed of trend lines indicating rising seas, melting glaciers, warming temperatures, and increasing fossil fuel use.

Other pieces are the culmination of interactive projects, such as Michelle Wilson’s 38.5 Kilograms (2014), a room-sized cube representing the volume of carbon dioxide prevented from escaping into the environment by one person eating a vegan diet for one week. While creating the work in 2013, the artist sold credits to four individuals, for which she committed to follow a vegan diet for four weeks.

Interpreting local impacts

In HighWaterLine/Philadelphia (2014), interactive artist Eve Mosher enlisted people living along the Delaware River to paint a continuous white line marking flood zones that contain toxic dangers: The resulting stripe traversed neighborhoods that include decommissioned industrial plants and Superfund sites. The work is one of a series in which Mosher maps areas vulnerable to rising water levels.

The Schuylkill was the focus for River Print: Delaware River, Tacony Channel Superfund 7/21/2014, in which Kaitlin Pomerantz and John Heron dipped bands of handmade recycled paper into the river. The canvases emerged marbled with brown oil, gray scum, and patches of an unnatural blue. “Our river prints got me thinking about the value in making people actually see pollution,” Pomerantz says in the gallery notes, “as a way to spur more conversations about new ideas in remediation.”

Insects in the loop

Lorrie Fredette and Jim Frazier’s works explore the impact of a changing climate on insects. Fredette’s sculpture Proper Limits: Philadelphia (2016) models the spread of bacteria associated with Lyme disease, while Frazier’s deceptively beautiful digital prints trace the tracks of destructive bark beetles.

Translating climate statistics into visceral, often striking, art is critical to underpin public understanding and galvanize civic commitment. Interestingly, artistic fiction may be science’s best weapon in communicating climatic fact.

Going Up: Climate Change + Philadelphia is on display through mid-December at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, 8480 Hagy’s Mill Road, in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia. For more information, call 215-482-7300 or visit www.schuylkillcenter.org.

At right: Jill Pelto’s Landscape of Change. (Image courtesy of the Schuylkill Center)