By Freya Thomas, Second Year English Literature.
The past year has seen environmental concerns rise to the top of news feeds and social media with force. David Attenborough’s TV programme “Climate Change – The Facts” in April was heralded by the Guardian as a ‘rousing call to arms’: an appeal for immediate action before the damage becomes any more severe than it already is. Teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and listed among TIME’s 100 most influential people of 2019. Greta joined Extinction Rebellion protestors as they took to the streets of London demanding environmental change on a national, government-led level: petitioning for the government to ‘Tell the Truth’ in declaring an ecological emergency, to ‘Act Now’ by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and to look ‘Beyond Politics’ in being led by a citizen’s assembly.
It is clear that ecological concerns are increasing nationally, with many looking for how they can play their part.
Within this lies the question of the role of art in inciting, demanding, and enacting environmental action. Can art have the power to make a real difference, the power to take a stand alongside the many voices crying out for change? Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, two British artists who have collaborated together since 1990, do just this.
Internationally acclaimed for their ‘multi-disciplinary works that intersect art, activism, [and] ecology’, Ackroyd and Harvey’s work is an astonishing example of the voice that art can have for nature. The pair first worked together in 1990 on ‘L’Altro Lato’ (The Other Side), which grew seedling grass up the walls of a room in Italy as a performative art piece, and they have continued working together since.
As part of the Extinction Rebellion rallies, several demonstrators called attention to the ecologically damaging and materially wasteful impacts of the fashion industry by staging protests at the end of the 2019 London Fashion show. One aspect of this protest in particular saw art and activism joining together on the frontline. Several protestors wore coats created entirely from fresh grass, in a cut and style blatantly mimetic of fur. These coats were crafted by Ackroyd and Harvey. The coats were originally created as an anti-fur statement decades before, but were used in the 2019 Extinction Rebellion protests ‘to raise awareness around the larger issue of protecting our planet and being smart about the clothes we put on our backs each day’. Harvey said of the pieces: “this is the first time we’ve shown the coats in London for nearly 30 years. Now with the advent of social media, which wasn’t available to us back in 1990, the platform of outreach is global.”  This pairing of art with social media – a powerful visual voice spread through a medium capable of reaching millions – could make art particularly vital in the movement toward ecological action.
Ackroyd and Harvey’s work has taken on a variety of different forms and mediums, often working with natural materials such as grass, sand, and animal skeletons in unique and cutting-edge ways. A recent exhibition at the University of Cambridge saw much of Ackroyd and Harvey’s work displayed at the David Attenborough Building, including ‘Seeing Red… Overdrawn’,a vast canvas listing the 4,734 species recorded on IUCN’s Red List as being critically endangered. The writing on the wall is printed very faintly: visiting members of the public and Cambridge Conservation Initiative staff are invited to individually over-write one of the species’ names, ‘drawing attention to it, and bringing it to visibility’.
Perhaps it could be argued that art is too subtle a voice for advocating environmental change. That while it can draw attention to the cause, it cannot make any real difference. But the reality is that attention is exactly what this cause needs. The more people who understand the immediate action needed to combat climate change and the ecological damage done to our planet, and the more that this is brought before our government, the more likely it is that a large-scale difference will be made. Art – which itself draws so much inspiration from nature – should undoubtedly play a part in this.