Art for hope and green action
In her art project Luftballett (Airborne Ballet), textile artist Margrethe Kolstad Brekke collaborates with students, extreme sports enthusiasts, and an American poet, as she attempts to galvanize green transition.
By Merete Røsvik Granlund
Green transition is a blanket term used to describe a particularly pressing social endeavour: finding new, environment-friendly solutions and tackling problems that have arisen due to climate change. Textile artist Margrethe Kolstad Brekke has a strong desire to contribute to this work. Accordingly, as part of Public Art Norway’s Vågestykke project (vågestykke = “act of recklessness”/ “daredevil feat”), in 2016 Brekke initiated a cross-disciplinary art project with the aim of disseminating information about, and inspiring people to participate in, green transition.
Under the titles Airborne Ballet Future Form and Radio Airborne Ballet she produced and documented events that explored new ways of generating and using energy. Among other events, Brekke organized a hang-glider ballet and an initiative that used woolly Mangalica pigs to improve soil quality.
“Gradually the project evolved into a podcast concept,” explains Brekke. “It started when our hang-glider acrobat, Jon Gjerde, wanted to do a radio broadcast from his hang-glider! After that there was more radio, and we got funding to expand the project.”
“I want to find a more widely accessible way of talking about climate change and the measures needed to tackle it. It mustn’t lack bite! I want to talk to people who work physically everyday on how this transition will take place. Because a transition must take place, given the urgency of the situation.”
As a result, the textile artist has become a journalist. Her podcasts are almost radio documentaries in their mix of interviews, poems and soundscapes. Brekke, it turns out, is not a complete amateur when it comes to radio. Elin Már Øyen Vister, a former journalist with Norwegian radio station P3, showed Brekke how to use radio as a form of art: in the spring of 2014, the two collaborated on Radio Hopes and Dreams at Bergen Kunsthall, which was Brekke’s MFA project at the Bergen Academy of Art and Design (KHiB).
Research, business, and extreme sports
Phase two of Airborne Ballet is scheduled to continue until June 2018, and collaboration is a key part of the project.
“Airborne Ballet is developing at breakneck speed right now,” explains Brekke, “and I’ve been working to gain support for the project, and to develop its site-specific aspects, in collaboration with students at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences (HVL), Campus Sogndal. On the Climate Change Management masters programme, one of only eight such programmes worldwide, they work with hydrology and adapting infrastructure to climate change that is now taking place. They also aim to identify measures to minimize anthropogenic climate change.”
Why is English the working language for ‘Airborne Ballet’?
“It has to do with the fact that the students I’m collaborating with are English speakers. In fact, a couple of them are snowboarding stars! This is a milieu and a generation who understand communication more intuitively via social media. The snowboarders in Sogndal have a background working with a snowboarding magazine and they are going to help me create a new, clearer profiling strategy. I hope that this will lead to Airborne Ballet reaching people who aren’t usually members of the art public.”
The podcasts will have a broad range of content. For the first week, Brekke interviewed a well-known climate researcher, Kevin Anderson, about why in 2004 he stopped flying and has since had to travel to conferences by train. The poet Alicia Cohen from Portland in the United States will, under the title Reading Drawdown, write and record 100 poems based on suggested solutions to the problem of climate change. The suggestions were proposed by scientists from all over the world and are collected in the book Drawdown, which was published last year. But the most characteristic feature of the project is its collaboration with two particular groups: people involved in business innovation; and extreme sports enthusiasts. This feature is a result of how the project began.
The first iteration of Airborne Ballet, which took innovation and creativity as its themes, came about after Brekke participated at the Renewables Conference in Bergen, a large broadly based forum that also acted as a meeting place for people from KHiB, the University of Bergen and business.
“As a starting point, from the perspective of a left-wing liberal artist it seems a counterintuitive exercise to have a meeting between these different ‘tribes’,” explains Brekke. “But businesses in western Norway have been quicker than many others to find ways of tackling climate change because they have seen developments at close hand, for example through the oil industry.”
“This is where I met Jon (the hang-glider acrobat) and I found that it suited me to collaborate in a hang-gliding project. Since I’m a textile artist, I’ve worked with large pieces of textile in public spaces. And so when I applied for the textile arts programme at KHiB and was asked to reflect on what was my ideal, I took along pictures of kite surfers on the beach. In any event, because of my hang-gliding project I became part of a milieu where lots of people were active in extreme sports. I find it productive to collaborate with these types of people, because they are focused and highly goal-oriented. In extreme sports you have to move fast in the terrain and stay alert. They are a kind of modern-day noble savage – they understand the forces of nature. People who fly hang-gliders can feel air currents caused by a distant waterfall; people who ride snowboards have a sensitivity to snow that is lacking in the rest of us.”
Artistic research Brekke explains that winter sports enthusiasts have founded the organization Protect Our Winter, because they have noticed that there is less snow.
“This is a huge organization, and by collaborating with it I hope also to reach fans of these extreme sports stars. But the attitude of extreme sports enthusiasts differs from that of people in the traditional eco-movements. They have an inner connection with nature, but are comfortable in the modern world.”
This art project both researches a theme and aims to disseminate information. Is this climate activism?
“We have passed the time for activism. The huge problems that climate change represents have gone so far that it’s now time to talk more about generating willingness to tackle them, to put measures in place. This is important in encounters with the milieus where changes are being driven forward. If we look at the past, we can see that activists, for example protesters against hydropower construction, could alarm the local population into taking the developer’s side, by their style and use of language. It is my social responsibility as an artist to focus on what is everyone’s responsibility, and help people from different milieus to understand each other. Business people and people with right-wing views see the same problems and try to solve them in their own way. My project involves both documentation and attempting to contribute to the common cause.”
Where is the art in all this?
“This project is certainly slightly on the borderline. I am an artist, but climate change engages me as a private person and as a member of society. After the Copenhagen summit there was an apocalyptic atmosphere, people were at a loss. I felt the anxiety and also saw it in the art around me. Accordingly I’m searching for my own way to contribute without generating more uncertainty. I want to create hopes and dreams, but this is really closer to artistic research than art. All the same: this is a type of project that I don’t believe could have come about in any other context than art. And an art-derived logic characterizes the way the content is disseminated. The podcasts are made like art, or at least as radio documentaries with an artistic angle.”
Brekke sets great store by cross-disciplinary approaches, and has a challenge for Public Art Norway:
“Cross-disciplinary approaches are about thinking in new ways. I hope that Public Art Norway will take cross-disciplinary work seriously, because there is some resistance to it elsewhere in the art world. There are many people who know what the problem is with climate change, but who simply despair about it. In contrast, cross-disciplinary work is an effective, constructive exchange about what we must actually do about it.”