Artist Stephane Cardon is using a large artwork to tell a simple message: Climate change is a pressing, unavoidable crisis that we must take fast action to remediate. Her 3,400-square-foot piece in the entryway of the Prudential Center uses vibrantly colored construction debris netting, a sustainable choice of material. Cardon is also a professor at MassArt, and she shared more about her exhibit with DigBoston.
What inspired you to create this piece?
UNLESS came about partly because of the space it is in, its uses and potential, and partly because of a growing sense of urgency to make a piece that would speak to the great crisis of our time: climate change. I was keen to create a work that would speak to the intersection of many different issues pertaining to climate: development and housing, labor and economic inequality, manufacturing and consumption, community organizing and spirituality. When Boston Properties and Now + There approached me and took me to the space in the Prudential Center, I was awed by the audience it would reach. Over 80,000 people enter the building through the doors at 800 Boylston St every day. It is a public space open 24 hours that provides access to a shopping center, offices, residences, as well as temporary shelter for many. Given the size of that audience and the passing crowds of Boylston Street, I felt the need to create a galvanizing and visual call to action.
How does the art explore climate change and sustainability? Why is this important?
Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body of scientists, published a report at the urging of many low-lying and developing nations that are already seeing the severe impact of climate change on their people, economies, and habitats. The report reveals a frightening fact: Our fossil fuel-dependent lifestyles are putting us in great, immediate peril. If we cannot halt our carbon emissions and end our dependence on fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, oil) within the next 12 years, the knock-on effect on the climate might be out of our hands to control.
There is nothing more important than this. Every socially unjust issue we are already witnessing is exacerbated by a changing climate. As I told my students on Halloween: “You know what’s really scary? Food shortages.”
Last winter, I was a part of a Climate Ready Boston cohort, organized by the city’s Greenovate program. In the training we were shown many maps, some of which were, frankly, conservative, which depicted the impact of a changing climate on Greater Boston by neighborhood. We can expect more and more hot days in the summer, a rapidly rising sea level, intensifying storms, and storm water flooding. (Link available at boston.gov.) Boston is ill-equipped to deal with this. Our infrastructure is old and easily overwhelmed. Most of the city, including the airport, is built on fill and very low-lying. Much of our public transportation and major roads are underground. Our downtown is densely developed and captures heat because of limited green space. The city is trying to address this in its future planning, but there is no amount of waterfront parks, seawalls, or raised infrastructure that can hold back the eight feet of sea level rise predicted in 80 years if we do not also cut our carbon use to almost nil and fast.
UNLESS is large to be unavoidable. It is made of mostly repurposed debris netting from construction sites around the city, which is undergoing a building boom. Construction is responsible for over 50 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. But the piece’s real focus is on climate justice and how the worsening impacts we face will affect the poorest and most vulnerable communities hardest. Because the materials for UNLESS were free or very affordable, I could use the project budget to pay a higher than average wage for labor—something unusual in the field of art and design in particular, but that more generally responds to the lack of liveable wages in the United States where 41 million people live in poverty (source: the Guardian and the UN). This relates to climate because the wealthiest few in the world have significantly heavier carbon footprints than most of us and are also in a better position to weather the storm, literally. The 30 people I worked with on the UNLESS all had an emotional stake in the project. I wanted the fabrication of the piece to pull together two Puerto Rican communities: students from San Juan who were studying at MassArt last winter following the hurricanes that closed their school, and the community at La Villa Victoria in the South End. La Villa Victoria is an historic example of how community can come together and organize for their own good and power. In 1968, they stopped some of the gentrification of the South End that threatened to displace them from their homes. In the process, they created a neighborhood with affordable housing, health services, a preschool, an arts center and hall.
Why did you decide on the use of such bright colors, materials, and large size?
Orange and blue are two colors one sees overwhelmingly in infrastructure and in construction. Safety orange is a neon color used for warning. It is highly visible. When combined with its complement, blue, you create a very energetic visual. But the blue also stands for “the Blue Marble,” our Earth, as it was affectionately nicknamed in 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17. This image of our common home is one of the most reproduced in human history and became a symbol for the environmental movement. In the Prudential Center, I made the blue circle repeat four times on the stairs. This is to represent our consumption as a nation: If the entire planet were to consume at US levels, we would need over four planets’ worth of resources. This again is a link to environmental justice: On the global scale, the North and nations like the US that industrialized earlier are largely responsible for the damage to our biosphere.
How do you hope people see the installation as they walk by? What message do you hope they take away from the art?
This is a traumatic subject. It has been shown that people shut down and dissociate from news about climate change, but also that overwhelmingly people are concerned. I wanted to create a work that would be healing as well as energizing. The piece can be seen in an instant, while walking by. Its scale and color provoke a feeling of awe. When I read Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, Laudato Si’: On Care of our Common Home, I felt hopeful that a faith leader was calling out to a global audience and asking us to consider our Westernized patterns of consumption, production, development. I chose phrases from the text to highlight through embroidery. This was the majority of the work we did as a team: repairing the fabric collected, sewing and embroidering.
I hope that people will sign up for the call to action in SMS form: Texting UNLESSBOS to 555888 will launch a text message feed that engages subscribers in climate justice content and actionable steps. There is no time for apathy, and making an artwork that would only illustrate the problem seemed insufficient.
Will you create more art that tackles climate change or similar issues in the future?
Without a doubt. There are many intricacies to explore in this topic that go beyond the bold, banner-drop gesture that UNLESS represents. What feels imperative to me at this point is that the projects I work on link up with other ongoing action around climate change, whether that be in the field of education, science or community organizing.
Join MA-National Museum of Women in the Arts for an artist talk with UNLESS artist Stephanie Cardon. Saturday, 11.10, 10:30-11:30PM, 800 Boylston St., Boston.