In a dark, cavernous space at Sydney's UNSW Galleries, thousands of tiny green and red dots cascade across a map of the earth, surging from continent to continent like an overpopulated, malfunctioning game of lemmings. Fresh off the plane from Paris, Cartier Foundation curator Thomas Delamarre explains that the green pixels represent refugees fleeing their country due to famine, drought and civil war, while the red pixels represent internally displaced people.
As my eyes adjust, the Skyhooks hit 'horror movie right there on my TV' starts circling around my consciousness. This is not a video game or a SCI-FI movie, this is our reality. Watching EXIT is like peering into a hi-tech, subterranean interface, revealing an eco-system which is deteriorating at a ferocious speed. The scale of devastation is so enormous, it almost belies comprehension.
Commissioned in 2008 by the Cartier Foundation and reprised at the Palais de Tokyo in 2015 to coincide with the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21), EXIT aggregates scientific data from over one-hundred sources including UNESCO and the World Bank. The result is an unprecedented visual representation of the alarming effects of climate change, including human migration, natural disasters, rising seasand the loss of Indigenous culture and language. Each chapter presents startling facts which are, for the most part, omitted from mainstream news reporting or only shown in isolation.
Architect Liz Diller, who created EXIT together with architect-artist Laura Kurgan and statistician-artist Mark Hansen, explained, "For most of us, mobility is a metaphor for freedom, but for many of the world's populations it is a tragic necessity. It's important to acknowledge the threats faced by people who are otherwise attached to their land but forced to move, or the perils faced by those who want to move and find their paths largely predetermined or simply blocked."
This notion of 'mobility' and its diverse implications for the world's population was, in fact, what motivated EXIT. The exhibition was inspired by French philosopher and urbanist Paul Virilio. In an introductory video to the exhibition he comments, "I am nostalgic for the world's magnitude, of its immensity (...) The nature of being sedentary and nomadic has changed. Sedentary people are at home wherever they go. With their cell phones or laptops, [they are] as comfortable in an elevator or on a plane as in a high-speed train. This is the sedentary person. The nomad, on the other hand, is someone who is never at home, anywhere."
There are a great number of artists whose work responds to the Anthropocene epoch. Among the heavy hitters are Tomas Saraceno, Liam Gillick and Olafur Eliasson, all of whom exhibited their works at COP21. Working across sculpture and installation, these artists largely rely on some form of abstract visual metaphor or poetic irony, such as Eliasson's Ice Watch, an installation of melting ice caps outside the Place du Panthéon.
Conversely, EXIT doesn't use any of these tactics. For an artwork which is essentially data translated into animation, it elicits a sharp sense of urgency and trauma that speaks to the interconnectedness of the human race.
"One of the experiments was to make palpable the effect and drama of uprooting people from their homes - without using conventional narrative media that elicit empathy such as photography or video (...) Sound effects were an important part of the equation," Liz Diller said.
One of the most powerful tactics employed was the careful selection of key facts which punctured each chapter. "If the sea rises by 1mm, one million people will be displaced. The countries which contribute least to greenhouse gas emissions are affected by climate change the most. One in four Indigenous languages are threatened with extinction due to the destruction of our environment.'' These strings of inconvenient truths lingered on the screen, searing the human impact of climate change into your memory.
Liz assured me that the work was well received by many international policy makers at COP21, with many commenting that 'it exposed new information and broader ecologies'. With 37% of the countries who signed the Paris agreement yet to ratify, you start to wonder, if arguably the most comprehensive, compelling representation of climate change data doesn't provoke action, what will?
Leaving UNSW Galleries feeling heavy with the magnitude of the tragedy, one can only hope that EXIT, a work of such vast imagination and inventiveness, can infiltrate the minds of those not already sympathetic to climate concerns. The installation brings into sharp focus the interconnectedness of the world, making it clear that its impossible to talk about climatic disruption without talking about economic development and movements of people.
Exhibited as part of Sydney Festival
January 7 - March 25, 2017
Ian Potter Museum of Art,
Exhibited as part of the Art+Climate=Change Festival
April 19 - July 16, 2017