Drawing the Line
On the day of the national Step It Up events, we walked into downtown Seattle from Capitol Hill to check out the demonstration. As we headed along 1st Avenue, we noticed a line of birdseed running down the sidewalk ahead of us. It continued for blocks. A number of shop owners and restaurant workers were outside their storefronts sweeping the seed into the gutter. When asked what this was all about, one flustered employee replied, “Some group of protesters,” and indicated down the street.
We kept walking and eventually came upon the head of the lengthening line — a group of people with fanny packs filled with birdseed, dispensing it as they moved slowly forward. We asked them what they were doing, and they explained they were marking the point to which sea levels would rise in the next few decades of we don’t address climate change (rather like the Future Sea Level project, but on a much larger scale). We asked if they were representing a particular group or organization, but they seemed to be a hodgepodge of concerned citizens, identifying only as involved participants of Step It Up.
We headed on our way and eventually the intervention faded into the general memory of the day. But then on Saturday, the New York Times published an article about a similar project in Brooklyn. This one covered a project called High Water Line by artist Eve S. Mosher, who’s been methodically making her way around Brooklyn on foot pushing a rolling chalk dispenser that leaves a blue trail in her wake. She, too, is marking the line — 10 feet above sea level — that various official sources name as the future water’s edge in Brooklyn if global warming continues (and/or delivers a major storm).
In a worst-case scenario, according to the research, the line could mark the zone for flooding that would occur every eight years, on average, by the year 2050, meaning that dozens of neighborhoods would soon come to resemble Venice, or maybe ancient Alexandria.
As she goes, Mosher talks to curious community members (and perturbed ones, too) about the causes and effects of climate change. Her project is being documented and publicized by The Canary Project, a group we’ve talked about before, whose mission is to encourage action against climate change through the visual arts, and has clearly gleaned a generous amount of press attention.
Having just published a new feature asking how activism can play an effective and graceful role within traditional art frameworks, this project makes me ask the converse question: how do we best use art as a vehicle for effective activism? I’m beginning to think I have a conditional and inconsistent opinion on the issue, as the scattering of birdseed and the painting of chalk lines seems to me to be less powerful than many of the tools and channels available to artists who want to incite widespread change.
What do you think? [Excusing the pun] Where do we draw the line? When does art function effectively as a change agent and when does the intended activism of the artist become obscured by the creative expression?