By Spencer Silva
On Friday night at the David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley, Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris were awarded the center’s eighth annual Art/Act Award for their environmental activist work known as The Canary Project.
At the Q&A that capped the evening, the Brooklyn-based husband and wife team sat in directors’ chairs and fielded questions from a dispersed crowd of about 40.
“I don’t think any of us really believe in climate change,” Morris declared to the audience.
The well-dressed Berkeley crowd sat silently in a room made with bamboo-paneled walls and 100% non-toxic recycled post-consumer red carpet. No audible gasps surfaced.
Seeing is believing, Morris explained, and the trouble with climate change is: we can’t see it. We can only observe its wreckage — charcoal forests, melted glaciers and flooded towns. The Canary Project’s aim is to traumatize its audience into a visceral belief in the reality of that change, to bridge the gap between knowing and feeling.
“With art you can make those piercings,” Morris said. “Art has this capacity to make space for belief and belief can make a space for change.”
This is the premise upon which the work is built: where science ends, art begins.
For over a decade, making these “piercings” in public consciousness has included everything from cheeky performance-art installations where participants shroud themselves in white to redirect the suns’ rays, to shocking bus ads carrying statements like, ‘This bus is an assault vehicle in the fight against global warming.’
As part of the award, The Brower Center is honoring the project’s marriage of art and activism in a show running until Feb. 9. It explores the pair’s earlier work as well as the more recent photo, video and sculptural project, “Water Gold Soil: American River.” Admission is free.
At the presentation that followed the exhibit’s debut Friday, the two explained how, in 2006, they first became interested in fusing art with activism after reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s articles in The New Yorker on climate change.
“We weren’t terribly politically active,” Morris said. “It’s not an exaggeration to say these articles cultivated in us a kind of feeling of outrage, or an urgency about the discrepancy between scientific understanding of the issue and the public understanding of political will.”
The couple’s latest project, “Water Gold Soil” is a carefully crafted multi-disciplinary exploration of the American River, and by extension, California’s relationship to water dating back to the Gold Rush.
The exhibit features large, dramatic portraits of a reservoir, industrial irrigation, and a bridge. In one piece, a woman ominously warns listeners over a video collage: “They used the water to get the gold, like they did later with the oil.”
“No one medium is a silver bullet, each medium has its own strengths,” Morris said, commenting on the task of disrupting the audience.
The project’s namesake, the figurative canary in the coal mine, is a fitting nod to the struggle of creating trauma through art. The project’s work spells Doom with a capital d, but it’s also undeniably beautiful. In fact, too beautiful at times.
“Initially, it created some alarm, the quietness of the images. We were worried that they weren’t speaking loudly enough,” Sayler said after the talk.
The exhibit’s vast portraits, which adorn the gallery’s giant concrete walls, feature vague, esoteric footnotes meant to disorient the viewer from the portraits’ physical beauty. “The bridge made the water become a bridge. But the water never made the bridge become water,” reads the portrait of a bridge over placid water.
Another component of the pair’s work has been community outreach. In 2008, the pair launched their so-called “Be a Patriot” campaign. In the years since, they have collaborated with designers from all over to create WWII call-to-duty posters with catchy slogans like “turn the tide on fossil fuels.”
Over the coming months, The Brower Center will host a series of events in conjunction with the exhibit, including a “Vote Our Planet Youth Poster Workshop” on Oct. 9, led by Oakland artist Kristi Holohan. Check out the David Brower Center’s website for details.
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