It’s not uncommon for artists and their practice to enter the classroom. I have had the honor to do so on a couple of occasions. Back in 2007 when I was creating the original HighWaterLine project, I teamed up with Solar One‘s education department to take kids on a tour of their nearby HighWaterLine to see what would be affected and for them to draw their own version of the line (complete with sea life below the line). I also did the 2008 Insert____Here project with a group of 2nd graders in Brooklyn, and a friend of mine took it to Leiden, The Netherlands for students to work on.
An artistic practice has a lot of “teachable aspects” including math, ways of seeing, and visual/written/spoken language. For many kids it is a way of understanding a complex issue which may be inapproachable when presented through more traditional methods. I have seen evidence that art (and in particular non-traditional and public works) can spark curiosity, interest and passion. I see that public works can have great impact by given them a sense of purpose, ownership and responsibility in front of a group larger than their peer group within institutional walls. Give them the space for authorship also and the energy and commitment is exponential. (It also helps that sometimes those projects mean getting to do things in public that might otherwise be frowned upon.)
So why in particular the focus on the HighWaterLine project? This project had a deep and indelible impact on me, my work and my understanding of what it means to create work in the public. I developed an in depth understanding of the issues affecting my community in the face of climate change. It helped me boil down a complex issue into real, comprehendible local impacts that could be related to communities at large in a fairly simple and straight forward manner. It helped me understand the power of art in providing clarity, entrance to complicated issues and a moment of spectacle which can act as a catalyst for greater conversation and action. It really helped me understand the “power of one.” And it gave me an intimate view of my community, the community at risk and our own relationship with climate change. I don’t think I was fully aware of all of this going into the project.
And the amazing thing is, all of this can occur within the reenactments of the project in other communities around the world.
There are also a lot of concrete and measurable learning outcomes within the project: students learning about climate science and contemporary and local environmental issues. They learn about geography, topography and mapping. They learn technology. They learn public speaking skills and storytelling skills. There is the documentation that they do which hones their ability to record and relate the experience. And if partnered with an institution, the ability to share the experience through the documentation.
The other important aspect of developing this guide is providing access to this project to as wide an audience as possible. Sure, there’s something to be said for the artist (that’s me) being present to direct the program in different communities, but that’s never been the intention of this project’s iterations. Wherever it is conducted it should be conducted by members of that community. Though climate change is a global issue, it takes individuals acting together on local issues to have a reverberatory effect. It is also part of my artwork ethos to create projects and works that can be shared under the Creative Commons Share-Alike, Attribution, Non-Commercial license. It is also important for me not to add to my yearly carbon output by getting on an airplane and traveling to enact the project. Finally, as an artist, I am ready to move on to other projects and use my creative energies to creating new projects and not putting all my energy into supporting older ones.
I like the idea that each group can find a way to interpret or re-interpret the project as suits their own interests and their own communities. I hope that the project continues to grow and evolve and have a life of its own beyond my commitment.
A quote from the HighWaterLine blog:
If given a chance to get out and speak to people somewhat randomly on the street, I highly recommend it. I don’t mean going out and soliciting funds or votes or anything like that, but just having the conversation with people about something which you can share. It is highly unlikely that if it weren’t for this project, I would ever meet the people I have met. We might ride on the same train, or be in line somewhere, or shop at the same store, without ever talking – simply because we would have no reason to speak. By putting myself out in public and doing something which raises people’s curiosity, I have the chance to have conversations with people. Sometimes it is a passing curiosity that they have and the engagement is quite short, but more often than not I am able to have a relaxed and engaged conversation with people. I tell them what I am doing, they tell me about their own experiences – whether it is loosing flood insurance on their home, cleaning up bags and bags of plastic washed up on the shore, experiencing severe weather themselves or by way of family members. It is an entirely different experience from merely informing people about climate change. It is a chance to connect on a very personal level, and maybe (just maybe) have a greater impact because of that. I treasure every experience, and have been able to play the role of storyteller, passing on one story that I heard to another person with whom I speak, thereby sharing all of our experiences.