25 January 2017

EXIT Installation Turns Climate Change Data Into Art

Standing in the middle of a dark circular room, I'm watching blue pixels swamp the coastlines of the Earth's continents. The sound of splashing water fills the room. This is flood devastation.


Moments earlier, thousands of green dots had whirled across Africa. These were people escaping famine, drought and civil war. In the Middle East, red dots pile on top of each other. These represent internally displaced people.


This is Exit, a major art installation that feels like the 360-degree dashboard of a space ship that is constantly updated on the troubled state of the planet.


It looks like science fiction. But this is not fiction.


"Some of the problems facing our world are so big they are hard to take in," says Felicity Fenner, director of UNSW Galleries. "We feel helpless and disengage when we just read the facts. Exit makes the data visual in an elegant way. It's immersive and almost overwhelming. It feels like you are at the centre of the Earth."


Commissioned by the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, Exit is based on the ideas of the philosopher and urbanist Paul Virilio and realised by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a New York-based studio of artists and architects.


The viewer is surrounded by a panoramic video projection of six animated maps. A spinning globe appears to "print" maps of the world, current statistics and trajectories based on geo-coded data harvested from more than 100 sources including UNESCO and the World Bank.


"We want people to move from one story to the next and to easily understand this important data," says Thomas Delamarre, curator at Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art. "It is not just pure documentation. It is visual art."


Created in 2008, the data in Exit was updated in October 2015 for the Paris-based United Nations Climate Change Conference. The fresh information shocked many delegates.


When Exit was built in 2008, it was estimated that 8000 asylum seekers had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in the 10 years prior. In the seven years since, that figure is now estimated at 30,000 people.


There are currently 20 million refugees and 38 million internally displaced people – the highest number of people on the move since the end of World War II, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).


Fenner believes art has a big part to play in raising issues of global importance. "People don't remember what they hear, but they do remember what they see," she says. "We live in such a volatile, politically-charged era in terms of migration and climate change and people who don't believe the science. I think art has a really important role. It's not about taking a position. Exit does not take a position at all. It's just presenting the facts and you make up your own mind. That's what art can do."


Exit is at UNSW Galleries, Paddington, in association with Sydney Festival from January 7 – March 25. Entry is free.