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Performing 'Ice Watch'

Last December, the team at Studio Olafur Eliasson brought nearly 90 U.S. tons’ worth of glacial ice from coastal Greenland to Paris. While politicians, bureaucrats, civil society representatives, and more debated global responses to climate change at COP21, the U.N.’s annual climate change conference, the 12 blocks of ice, arranged in a clock formation, melted in Place du Panthéon.

Nearly a year later, the agreement reached at the Paris summit has at last come into force and policymakers and activists alike are reconvening in Marrakech, Morocco for COP22, the 2016 conference. To celebrate the enacting of the Paris agreement, an important step in the global effort to confront the devastating effects of climate change, Studio Olafur Eliasson released new films shot during the Ice Watch installation. The video below, “Encounters with Ice Watch,” features dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet and Wayne McGregors Company interacting with the artwork.

Encounters with Ice Watch, Place du Panthéon, Paris, 2015

World Policy Journal spoke with Anna Engberg-Pedersen, head of research and communications at Studio Olafur Eliasson and an integral part of bringing the Ice Watch project to fruition, to discuss the role of art in addressing the complexities of global warming and its environmental and economic challenges.

World Policy Journal: What has the response to Ice Watch been since the installation in Paris last year? 

Anna Engberg-Pedersen: Overwhelming, actually. We were very touched by people’s response to the project and by the broad reach it is having. To take art into the street is nothing new, but there are good reasons to continue doing so. A public square offers a unique, shared space where politicians, city planners, art lovers, tourists, students, and local residents can meet and interact in an unscripted situation. And Ice Watch continues to resonate in public awareness, as we find in our conversations with policy makers and climate activists, with cultural workers and researchers.

WPJ: In our conversation last year with Minik Thorleif Rosing, he brought up the ability of art to evoke emotion that pure science cannot. What types of emotional responses did Ice Watch prompt regarding the effects of climate change?

AEP: There was surprise: What? Ice blocks here, at the heart of Paris? Wonder: How is this possible? What lies behind this? Who did this? Why? The feeling of urgency: Wow, it’s meltingfast! And the knowledge of being touched on a physical level: This is real. I can feel it. It’s about me, too. People's abstract knowledge about climate change became a felt experience. 

WPJ: What is the intended message, or messages, of the dance accompanying Ice Watch? Was this performance always part of the initial conception of the project?

AEP: The dance event was quite spontaneous. Shortly before the inauguration of Ice Watch, we learned that Wayne McGregor—a good friend of Olafur’s with whom he did the Tree of Codes contemporary ballet—was in town with some of his key dancers, including, among others, Marie-Agnès Gillot and Jérémie Bélingard, étoiles at the Paris Opera Ballet. An encounter between the ice and the dancers seemed like the thing to pull together. The dancers turned up just before midnight, after the premiere of their ballet at the Garnier Opera, on the very day that we launched the project on site. 

The dance became a dialogue between nature and human beings. The dancers have fantastic skill in going beyond their own individual bodies, moving in and out of patterns, dialoguing both with each other and with the ice in a non-hierarchical, non-polarized way. It was very inspiring to watch. Their way of moving took the presence of the ice seriously, acknowledged it, and accepted it. These movements in turn inspired the choreographic decisions Olafur made on the spot while our studio team was filming.  

WPJ: The entire project was performative, from the act of gathering glacial ice to the interactions of people who came across it. How does the aspect of performance tie into the activism it is both a part of and intended to inspire?

AEP: To move ice blocks is a big endeavour, but then, we’re used to trying to—quoting Olafur—“make the impossible possible” at the studio. We need to inspire people to see that a balanced climate is still within reach if we act—and act together—now. Creativity and activism combined can go a long way. Art is a powerful language, at once both soft and fierce, with which to address the global issues of today.

WPJ: Greenland—where the ice was harvested—is now promoting development of its oil, gas, and mineral resources, a move that will benefit its economy and facilitate autonomy from Denmark but will also contribute to the climate change that Ice Watch is meant to address. Is there a role for artwork like that which Studio Olafur Eliasson produces to address the complexities of competing imperatives like economic need and environmental concerns?

AEP: Complexity is being challenged these days. As we’ve experienced rather acutely recently, facts are losing status. Everything has to be simple, digestible. Emotions rule. At Olafur’s studio, we have worked with emotions for a long time. Never in a populist kind of way, obviously, but rather by working with our awareness of ourselves, of our perceptual apparatus, of our modes of orientation, of how social interaction shapes the spaces we inhabit. Working with compassion, while recognizing and appreciating our differences as well as the values and aspects of the human condition that we all share. 

Olafur often responds to this or that question or challenge by saying: “Well, I think it’s a little more complex than that.” We’re not trying to offer simple messages packaged for swift and easy consumption. We want to bring the complexity of the world, of human life, to people. Rather than dissect the entanglement of economic planning and environmental care, we try to address that complexity in a quite subtle manner. Art and dance can open us to registers of sensing and thinking about the world that are often eclipsed in everyday life. We have to be able to access these spaces deep within ourselves in order to reflect and navigate the highly complex world of today.

*****

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Click for more videos from Studio Olafur Eliasson.

[Photo courtesy of Studio Olafur Eliasson]

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