Public art with a goal: Spur climate conversations

Public art with a goal: Spur climate conversations

Devi Lockwood for Yale Climate Connections - 4 October 2018

Highway signs are ubiquitous, announcing delays or construction––words of caution and guidance. “Reduce speed” warns us to lift our foot off the gas pedal. “Road closed ahead” indicates the need for a detour. These signs, glowing orange, are public statements of caution and guidance. But what happens when a highway sign says: “Climate change at work” or “50,000,000 climate refugees”?

Climate Signals, a new exhibition by The Climate Museum in New York City, reinterprets traffic signals as starting points for conversations on climate change. Climate Signals presents unusual messages in unusual places: Rather than along a roadside, these signs are visible in pedestrian-accessible public spaces across the city’s five boroughs. Visitors now through November 6 will see flashing text on one of 10 11′ x 7′ message boards, the work of artist Justin Brice Guariglia.

A format that ‘triggers a heightened sense of alert’

The exhibit, inspired by Jenny Holzer’s Truisms (1984), builds on Guariglia’s Indicators at Storm King and We are the Asteroid II at Navy Pier.

“When you see a traffic sign, your pulse quickens a little and you know you have to be on the alert for a changing condition that could affect your safety,” said Miranda Massie, founder and director of the Climate Museum. “I think that that connection is a brilliant one to make: putting words about climate into a format that automatically triggers a heightened sense of alert and a need, urgently, to pay attention.”

Each sign is displayed in multiple languages to reflect the diversity of the particular neighborhood. Among the warnings that cycle across the screens: “La negación climática mata”; “No icebergs ahead”; and “End climate injustice”.

“A lot of past climate communication has relied really heavily on pushing data,” said Claudia Villar, the museum’s research & communications coordinator. “Research shows that hasn’t been the most successful way to talk about the climate problem.”

On topics as distant, global, and challenging as climate change, the human brain responds better to experience than to analysis. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,”  has shown how our brains rely on two processing systems: fast thinking that’s intuitive, experiential, and automatic, and slow thinking that’s deliberate, analytical, and rational. Projects that appeal to both analytical and experiential processing systems are more likely to stick.

“Information about climate change risks needs to be translated into relatable and concrete personal experiences,” wrote researchers from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, publisher of this site, in a 2015 article in Perspectives on Psychological Science:

Following that approach, the Climate Museum aims to humanize and personalize climate change — in Villar’s words, to “show people why climate change matters to them.”

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Photo credit: Lisa Goulet