Creating Technology for Social Change

Olafur Eliasson and the Little Sun Project | The Civic Art Initiative

Olafur Eliasson is a Danish-Icelandic artist who is receiving the MIT McDermott Award in the Arts for 2014. He recently spoke at the Center for Civic Media as part of the Civic Art Initiative.

Olafur details how his art practice has always been intimately intertwined with art in public space. He wants to consider how to think about a work of art vs acting out a work of art. It is always about performativity. it is about a way to touch the world. It’s not an object but a contrast with your perception of reality. A successful work of art for him can be the work’s ability to express some feeling that you already have but you hadn’t found a way to express it. There is good art that talks about itself. There is great art that talks about the stuff that is around it. The artistic action, the situation, the felt-feeling is not to be seen in the artwork but it is something that is co-produced with the work of art. You activate it and become the artist/co-author. The artist becomes the architect. Without the audience then the artist is helpless and hopeless.

He talks about being depressed in art school with post-modern theory. But then interested in how that helps us conceive of the co-constructed reality.

Olafur Eliasson, The very large ice floor, 1998 from Studio Olafur Eliasson on Vimeo.

He turns to his presentation and shows a video of a work that consists of a slippery surface in the gallery space. It is not anything new, he says. It’s just a piece of ice with refrigeration underneath. The ice was inside the gallery and also outside the gallery in public space. The piece was for the Sao Paulo Biennale. Quickly people started running, jumping and screaming which is very different than how people behave in a gallery or museum space. After the piece opened they put a piece of tape around it and said “No, you have to look from a distance.” In Sao Paulo there is not a lot of ice. Ice is something everyone knows in theory. Sometimes people just sat near it and wanted to be near the cool air. Moving and Being and Knowing is almost always connected. The physical knowledge and the knowledge where we act out is important. This discrepancy between theory and doing is very interesting.

His students come to him with lots of ideas. Olafur says “No this is not a great work yet” because they haven’t yet done it. It is purely theoretical until you do it. The idea doesn’t have to be a verbalized idea. Already the language is shaping the idea. Do you want to put all these words on something that might take a different direction? Exercise the confidence that something lives within you as a state of intuition. Nothing mystical about this. More like a state of direction that you translate into doing. Here I’m trying to address the potential of bringing people to step where they can take action. Applying form to content. For him, being creative has to first has a sense of content but it does not need to be verbalized. Content could be a sense of responsibility. And then apply language to it. It could be a dialogue or a dance. This translating thinking into doing is the heart of creativity. How is the choice inspired by the world? What are the consequences of these choices? It’s not about the painting but it’s about the painting being a reality machine.

He speaks about Green River which was a project that used non-toxic UV-responsive dye on a river in Sweden. What is exciting about this project — Urban planning — etc – Urban planners want to not impose too many changes on a city that is trying to preserve its brand and its historicity and bring in tourists. He wanted to introduce more dimensionality and depth to create more space for people. It’s not just activism in terms of altering an image. It’s altering space. The newspaper the next day talked about how people were calling in and asking why there was some chemical spill in the river. He has done this several times. Once in LA River which is a completely different context. Nothing happened in LA. Nobody saw it. Nobody paid attention.

He shows some smaller interventions in public space like putting logs on city street corners. They drift onto the shores of Iceland but they are alien forms. He picks them up and shipped them to Berlin and distributed them throughout the city. Another project in Johannesburg he just took a public reservoir and emptied it to wash it through the city. It created a temporary river. It is like a sculptural poem floating its way down the river. The time was a complexity of a biennial post-apartheid.

Another project he buys old bikes and puts mirrored wheels on them and puts them back into public space. They become beautiful small interventions in the landscape of the city.

These projects are around the periphery of his practice but now he will show us one that is more typical of his practice.

Catherine asks if he continues to do small interventions like this. Olafur says yes. he feels that it is very important for art to connect the worlds inside and outside the museum. To help museums not become antiquated, xenophobic.

He turns to show “The Weather Project” in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. The space is 30 meters high. With a mirror you can see 60 meters. The next question is “Where am I?” Then people see themselves in the mirror. They see themselves in the context of the space. You can see yourself and the context at the same time.

People walk into the museum, lay down, sunbathe. They do things, like the ice piece, that they wouldn’t otherwise do in that space. In the upstairs, in the Donald Judd exhibition people started transgressing as well. The basic principle that interests him is that people are sharing the experience. It didn’t become a movement. There was a high degree of difference in the experience. This is where institutions are interesting. You can be together and disagree. Not agreeing need not bring us to exclusion. The museums and art institutions can be highly inclusive laboratories and instigators of this kind of “togetherness in difference”. The city also – we can disagree but still be friends.

He shows a couple other quick images. Waterfall under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.

Audience: Movement in the Sao Paulo piece. I’ve seen videos of interesting graceful movements in your studio. Could you speak to gesture as para linguistic?

Olafur: I don’t have a robust scientific acumen. He has worked with child psychology and trauma syndromes. The idea is that the trauma sets a print in you. Movement – a car accident – it is somehow physically part of you. Therapy – and maybe art – is you can walk back into that moment where the trauma was frozen and start to release the trauma. This is a degree of re-traumatization. This opens a lot of contemplative systems like yoga. The body as an experiential account of how we take in and give out reality. Thinking is in our head and doing is in our body. When we talk about feelings – we should talk about where the feeling is located. Buddhists can locate their feelings in the body. The body is a rendering of reality. You can, with your body, shape the world.

Art and creativity, because it is not made on the expanse of that. It is made to amplify that. Market economy is traumatizing in that way. I’m not against market economy. But where are the space which we can de-traumatize besides going to the shrink all the time? The Wellness Economy is the most alienating of all – generalizing our systems, counterintuitive. There is wellness in the anti-wellness movement. It’s just that it’s become the new dogma.

The Buddhists that I know are very critical of the Wellness Industry.

Olafur brings the the for the project This is a piece of white paper on a sphere. You are welcome to go in and make your mark. You make a drawing with your mouse on the moon. He shows a recent drawing. The moon is accessible for everybody. It is about a planet with no borders – freedom of speech project. It is online where sharing your drawing is your main purpose. Making a wish. Writing a poem.

That might not be the most important part. What he likes is that you are drawing with your hand. It is about movement. It’s a little like the beginning of the Internet where you were bringing analog concepts to the computer. It’s a highly personalized, analog mark. Here is a space where hand drawing is a gesture – effort, gesture, analog space. It is important with sharing. Physicality on the Internet becomes so abstract. Causality depends on our acknowledgement of present. They are now at 60,000 marks. Olafur has a mark which is a drawing of Iceland titled “The Melting Moon.”

Olafur moves to talking about the Little Sun project. This project has been going for two years. It’s a solar panel, relatively high quality, and an LED. Three rechargable batteries. They wanted to compete with alternative like kerosene and oil-based electricity. The shape and design of it was driven by wanting it to be cheaper than light delivered by oil industry. Suggesting a micro-economic system as well. Has to do with creativity and the question – How do we share what thing does have consequences? We are also doing awareness building, policy-making. What does it mean to not have access to energy? It is centralized and politicized. If you could change it to be decentralized – how could that change? Mobility – you carry your energy with you. What would that be like?

Five hours of sunlight gives you light for the night. Could gathering power make you feel “powerful”?

The main customer is probably less than 15-16 years old. The person most likely to purchase is the mother. They are addressing a group of people who handles the household money. The use is mostly by the child.

They started 2 years ago. 1.5 billion people don’t have access to light. The success lies in the scalability. The idea of talking about the climate. But other important issues are health hazards of kerosene lamps which the World Health Organization has identified as a major issue.

He shows the website for Little Sun. They try to show different ethnic groups as users and avoid language of “developed” vs. “less developed”. They are hoping to develop the civic aspect of it. There are a handful of other projects around this. Some of them are juts about solving a problem. Little Sun is trying to work more on the emotional aspects as well. They think that if you can’t identify with the object then it is unlikely to succeed on the last mile. They designed the object through user studies. They decided to design something that they themselves liked. It was very important that the emotional stuff was driving the design decisions. People still need to desire it. Some of these were influenced by working in the rural areas.

Questions from Audience:

Ethan: We started talking earlier about this project. Why is it important that this is an art project? If someone else were doing this, we would read this as a conventional NGO, social venture. And if it were we would evaluate it on certain criteria. Like, this is more attractive, this is less flexible than other things. Do you think about this as art? Or is that a false distinction?

Olafur: The way that I look at art is that it’s a language among others in the world. The language doesn’t really matter. The challenge is what do I say. I have confidence that art as language that other languages don’t. I think it’s more flexible and less elitist, though that might not always be true. I was talking to a very old woman in Ethiopia and I told her that it was a work of art. She asked if it was a work like the ones in the church. And he said, yes. And then she really liked it.

I think that art succeeds because it might counteract the traditional arrogance of marketing. Clearly we have not suggested that art is non-marketing because we have marketing. Besides being about addressing access to energy it is also about spirituality. But not being afraid of using the cultural sector as a world machine.

Ethan: Is there a downside to being a work of art? One downside that I see – one of the things I admire of technology in sub-saharan Africa is people’s tendency to hack. For me, it changes my willingness to take it apart if it’s your work of art.

Olafur: But that is because your idea of art is locked down into solid. But you are right – there’s a degree of suggesting that it’s an object would be locking it down. We are trying to make something super simple right now. The need is huge for energy. We are hoping to do a Little Sun tablet in the future, but this is like a foot in the door.

I go to places like World Economic Forum in Davos which is weird for an artist. But if I say I’m in the Energy Sector then it holds more power there.

Jim: If it’s a work of art then it must move beyond various cultural borders without a problem. What is it’s role in European economies and what are your expectations?

Olafur: Currently we live off selling it in Europe – design stores and museum stores. The MOMA store in NYC is going to launch it and its on the cover of their magazine. In Europe, there is this idea of the conscious consumer. We are hoping to be in that field without losing criticality. It’s 22 Euros online so you can buy it online. In Nigeria, they are $15. In Zimbabwe there are prices from $8 – $17.

Catherine: Could you talk about the challenges you’ve faced and also how you have leveraged your artistic reputation to enter a new space?

Olafur: It’s true. I represent cultural space that has been marginalized a lot. I speak on behalf of the younger artists that come after me. I’m addressing the need for civil society and culture. How to use Europe. It’s generally about trust. People do not trust Europe. In America, when people talk about trust it’s about Captain America. But in Europe it’s like Kafka. With regards to freedom of speech, human rights, and women’s rights, they are leaders. But generally speaking we should not underestimate the efforst of Europe’s humanistic effort. I take for granted the idea I can say whatever I want.

When Ai Weiwei and I were working on the moon project, he talked about the conditions of making and I talked about the conditions of experiencing art. He talks about what happens when you make art. They realized they were not talking about the same thing. Olafur realized he was so European that he just took many things for granted. He thinks that one could talk further with European Commission and push them.

Olafur had an exhibition in a privately funded institution and they had 95% first time visitors and there was a line around the building for two months. Wasn’t just for him. There is just not a lot of contemporary art in Kiev.

Ian Condry: You started talking about it a little bit – question is about how does social change happen? This project focuses on children, you talked about scalability. If this idea takes on, how do we hack society? If this works, how does it show us the ways that society can change? How does this project fit into a theory of change?

Olafur: I would like to be a discussant to answering that question. I come out of confidence in bottom-up approach being a main way to instigate change. But this idea of top and bottom is not necessarily the most productive. It introduces a very conventional notion of power structures. One idea for an alternative model is to introduce cultural sector – the cultural sector in Europe enjoys incredible trust. I’m very interested in created cultural systems – to reconsider power.

There is a real lack of trust top-down. Europe doesn’t ask civic society because thye don’t trust them. How do we re-establish trust? If one could just create alternative system.

Erhardt: I love that at the center fo the work is the idea that experiencing art changes our world. And that good art should make us think differently. Who is your target audience in Little Sun? Is it the people on the ground with the lights? Or is it a western world looking at them having the lights? How well do you succeed in reaching both of those audiences? I’m not sure it’s helping in the same way that you think it’s helping.

Olafur: We are trying to reach both. But the main point is to reach people who are off the power grid for sure. There is a strong history of Western world to develop language of polarization. It’s a complex challenge and we are stepping right into that. We are having small vendors in Africa selling this and then museum shops. Equalizing people through selling in same shops. Asafor, a vendor, perceived himself to be the same as the people in Milan. But the people in Milan perceived Asafor as being on a different planet.

We have been struggling to tell the story of the object. We are almost at the point of stopping to talk about the on-grid/off-grid. But then does that do a disservice to the project? It is and it is not two different groups.