December 5, 2012
By Xavier Cortada
At the end of the last millennium, when the internet was young, I installed two webcams in my studio and invited people watching me out in cyberspace to share their ideas in a chat room. I would incorporate their views into the murals I was creating in my “webstudio.”
Back then, I was painting collaborative message murals to address important social concerns in different locations around the world (AIDS in Africa, child welfare in Bolivia, peace in Northern Ireland gangs in Philadelphia).
The collaborative murals mattered because I wanted to amplify people’s voices, share their concerns. I wanted to expand the circle of participants beyond those I could reach in person. The webcams and the webstudio were my way of trying to expand beyond geographic boundaries. Back then, I think the farthest I got from my Miami studio was Atlanta.
Since then, technology has developed to a level where online and human interaction has revolutionized communication to an extent unimaginable when I first created that early project. Art making can have exclusively online manifestation, reaching millions in space and time. It is indisputable that one can also build a sense of community online—ask Facebook.
We have even created realms where we can have second lives fully inhabit a completely virtual reality. And that is good: I find participatory art projects that engage individuals locally across communities to be address global concerns very powerful.
However, in my art-making, I still prefer using the internet as a place to supplement not substitute the physical interaction. Although we were communicating with one another across the Internet, there is something special about having a physicality—to know that there is a physical place or activity that connects us all.
Native Flags is an urban reforestation eco-art project I launched at the North Pole in 2008 to address global climate change. Participants plant a green flag and native tree sapling in their front yards and proclaim: “I hereby reclaim this land for nature.”
They begin to return native habitats to urban areas through this performative work. Participants then post photos their “conquest” online. The flag serves as a marker to invite neighbors to talk about how they, too, can help support biodiversity and the environment.
For the past three years, every single public school in Miami-Dade County has participated in the project—planting a tree and flag in 336 schools and encouraging students to do the same at home. Green flags have been planted in Latvia, Finland, and Taiwan.
These activities—done in communion with others, near and far—are important in a society where individuals feel alienated and traditions evaporate and in a world where languages merge and borders become blurred.
In Endangered World, I invited participants to adopt one of 360 endangered animals struggling for survival—one animal in each our planet’s 360 degrees. By doing so, participants pledged to engage in an “eco-action” (e.g., lower their carbon footprint) to help protect their adopted animal and their habitat.
Participants painted their adopted animal’s longitude on a rock. A photo of the rock and the pledged eco-action. The rock was placed in a conspicuous place (e.g., desk, nightstand) to remind the participant of their pledge and its photo was uploaded on the project website for others to see.
In a parallel project, 360 volunteers each painted a flag depicting their adopted animal and its longitude for a mile-long installation that started at the entrance of Biscayne National Park in Homestead, FL and ended at the water’s edge on Biscayne Bay. Their ecoactions are posted online.
I use the internet to help scale up and support my participatory eco-art projects. It is an efficient way to inform individuals about how they can engage in the project locally and provide a platform for them to communicate what they’ve created and see what others have done elsewhere.
By having more people commit themselves to addressing the problem. It helps knowing that they are not going at it alone. It is inspiring to know that there are others out there just as passionate about solving a particular problem and just as active in solving it.
In a time when we can feel so disconnected, large-scale projects unify us in our resolve and allow us to engage in trans-community rituals that bring us together across all sorts of divides.
Locally, I have walked along Biscayne Bay working with volunteers in the Reclamation Project—a participatory eco-art project that helps reforest Florida’s coastal areas, thinking that having a mangrove seedling in their hands is more important than having one in the ground.
Said another way, I would rather 100 people each plant a seedling, than one individual plant 100 seedlings. Planting seedlings is the easy part. Ensuring that they grow into trees is a harder task. I am not trying to heal the land, I am trying to grow a force that will protect it from further damage. The more people I engage, the greater the impact. At its core, the environmental art is about transforming the individual.
Participants grow the seedlings in public installations (vertical gardens) they create in their schools and colleges in order to educate the broader community. Thousands of people see the art and are encouraged to think about (and perhaps act on) the importance of mangroves and coastal wetlands.
But it isn’t just about numbers and inspiration, its also about innovation: Having more people engaged in the art-making, means that they are thinking more creatively and, in them, that generates the more opportunities for innovation.
These projects, in essence, serve as an invitation for people to come, experience, and act. Through their participation they can provide valuable feedback on how to make the process and project better.
But the biggest contribution comes in that participants are asked to imagine, to see things differently, and help innovate new ways of thinking about things. Indeed, these projects serve as platforms for them to create new projects of their own.