Mr. Eliasson, you were asked to develop an artwork for the German EU Council Presidency. As you developed that idea, what were the most important considerations?
Olafur Eliasson: For me, starting Earth Speakr was an opportunity to bring together ideas I have been exploring for many years. Many of my works deal with experiencing the ephemeral nature of perception. I am interested in “nature”, but also in the psychology that colours perception. I’ve become more involved with asking, “Well, how actually is nature doing?” Seeing the path humans have taken, we now know those we share the planet with also need rights.
Who owns the future? Is it the politicians today? Or is it the children who will be politicians thirty years from now? How can we get these different perceptions to meet up?
When I was invited to make this artwork for the German Presidency, I thought of it as an opportunity for a shared experience across borders, and as a moment for facing some of the most important issues of our time. The movements led by young people speaking up for the climate have made it clear that kids want to see and feel active responses to protect the future, their futures. I was also inspired by the general feeling of missed urgency, that global leaders are not doing enough for the climate. Who owns the future? Is it the politicians today? Or is it the children who will be politicians thirty years from now? How can we get these different perceptions to meet up?
Children play a central role within this artwork: Why focus on them?
As grown-ups, we are often caught up in challenges of carrying out change. We detect the difficulties ahead, the compromises that we may have to accept. It becomes a filter through which we tend to view the world. Kids and young people have a different perspective altogether. The climate crisis will affect us all, and kids know this. I’m not saying that one perspective is right and the other flawed, but I am highlighting that the way kids see the world is unique and valuable. We can learn so much when we open up to listen.
With Earth Speakr, it was essential to me to do something with kids, not for kids. The whole development of the project has been with the aim to meet kids where they’re at and let them speak on their own level, freely and creatively, without making them translate their ideas into adult-speak.
I am highlighting that the way kids see the world is unique and valuable. We can learn so much when we open up to listen.
With Earth Speakr, you wanted the project to have an impact on society. This seems to be in line with other artworks you created. On your website, you state that you strive to make the concerns of art relevant to society at large. What does art in public spaces contribute?
The idea of decentralising Earth Speakr has to do with understanding the true value of people engaging in art. I believe in art and public space as a co-produced experience. Earth Speakr might be considered public space, a negotiation of ideas and experiences coming together in a shared environment. What is public space? Who defines it?
These questions are very present in Europe these days. They are linked to migration and to the polarising tendencies in our societies. Culture and art can address our need for a shared experience. They offer models for engagement and communication that may help to inspire us. A space is only truly public with trust in civic activity. Do we feel our own actions can co-produce the social systems we are a part of? Does public space reflect me? We adults often feel disconnected to the problems of others and global issues. Art can make a difference by making the world felt. And this feeling may spur thinking, engagement, and even action. If there was a mission for art in public space - and I’m generalising a little bit by saying this - it would be to contribute to and nurture atmosphere. Atmosphere amounts to a sense of hospitality, how invited you feel in a space.
What specifically do you want to achieve with the Earth Speakr project?
To shift perspectives. Kids download and use the Earth Speakr app to record their ideas and concerns about the planet. They literally see their own reflections mirrored in their environments as the app animates objects with their facial expressions. Thinking turns into doing. At www.earthspeakr.art, adults can also switch from passive to active: everyone can listen to what kids are saying all over Europe, across the world, and share these messages, give them added momentum.
How can you bring kids’ insights to the table?
On the Earth Speakr website, you can demonstrate that messages are being heard by creating “Loud Speakrs”. These are collections of kids’ messages that you can place anywhere on a virtual map – in public squares, parks, above political buildings – to encourage others to listen, too, in real life via augmented reality. I’m encouraging those who work in politics to get involved by listening to what future constituents have to say and considering how to best respond to their topics.
There are of course different answers to the question of what Earth Speakr as an artwork might achieve. How will myriad perspectives from various parts of Europe and beyond coexist? The coexistence of these can be a success. Or the action taken by decision-makers on behalf of the climate that is inspired by the ideas that kids offer. Maybe the artwork will make a difference to how kids and adults interact and open up alternative dialogues within families, across generations.
I would like to see the public sphere in Europe reimagined as one that is also openly co-produced like Earth Speakr. A space where trust, where the values that we live by, are turned into action.
How can art contribute to creating a lively public and social sphere in Europe? What would it look like?
What makes art and culture so relevant is that they work for their audiences, not at their expense. I see people who visit cultural institutions, for instance, as producers, not as consumers. I would like to see the public sphere in Europe reimagined as one that is also openly co-produced like Earth Speakr. A space where trust, where the values that we live by, are turned into action. Where there is strong cohesion between what we believe in and what we do.
You can find more information on the cultural programme of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union here, or in the following film.