At COP 27, an artist asks attendees to feel climate change — literally

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As world leaders debate climate change policies at COP27, the annual UN climate summit that runs until Friday in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Bahia Shehab wants to turn up the heat – literally. The Cairo artist made of the threat of a warming planet more visceral with an immersive “Heaven and Hell in the Anthropocene” installation, a reference to the current, human-centric geological era.

Set in an area known as the Green Zone during COP27, the artwork features two unlabeled rooms – described as “eternity scenarios” – which have temperatures, sights, sounds and different odors believed to represent two possible outcomes for humanity. Inspired by a 2011 study that suggests people living in a warm environment are more likely to say climate change is a problem, the article, produced in collaboration with arts and social justice organization Fine Acts, highlights the physical and personal stakes of a global problem that, to many, may seem abstract and unmanageable.

“We’re trying to tackle climate anxiety by gamifying and simplifying science, making it accessible to everyday people, and helping them feel like they have the power to make decisions,” Shehab said. 45, to the Washington Post in a telephone interview. “We just see floods and we see the news and we are scared. [The installation] is powerful because I can tell you something really complex in a very simple way.

COP27 comes at the end of a year that has seen catastrophic flooding in Pakistan, mudslides in South Africa, drought in China and heat waves in Europe and the United States. Through this sensory installation, Shehab hopes to give visitors a sense of agency and challenge those who say we can’t do anything. She wants the threat to be immediate and tangible, but not insurmountable.

“There is something instinctive. It has nothing to do with our brain. It has to do with our biology,” Shehab says of the psychology behind the artwork. The installation also taps into deep-rooted spiritual beliefs, she said. “The religious discourse that we have nurtured for millennia says that if you are evil, you will burn in hell. The heat is bad.

More and more activists are getting attached to art. Their tactics are not new.

Before entering the installation, the spectators answer a questionnaire: a question asks the participants if they would agree to limit the shower to four minutes, to wash only with a bar of soap and to reuse a towel of a day to save water and limit the use of plastic. At the end, participants receive a score, which sends them to a room.

Some will find themselves in a bright, domed interior set to a comfortable temperature in the low to mid-70s, surrounded by the sounds of nature and the smells of “fresh, orange blossoms,” Shehab said. . Others will find a dark, claustrophobic space about 95 degrees and reeking of rotting fruit and hospital rooms. So far, Shehab said he had sent 537 people to “hell” and 969 to “heaven” in what she calls a “very interesting social experiment.” Later, she encourages them to visit the other room.

The article is based on the concept of “visceral conformity”: the theory that “people will judge states of the world associated with their current visceral experiences as more likely”, according to researchers Jane Risen and Clayton Critcher. Thirst, for example, can increase expectations of drought and desertification. The heat can heighten concerns about global warming. We think with our body.

This is in direct conflict with how climate change has historically been discussed – with charts, numbers and jargon. Shehab wants to counter this.

“I wanted a concept that everyone could understand,” she said.I had workers on site, doctors, professors, activists and climate professionals and everyone came through, and they all got it.

While she acknowledges that issues of personal responsibility — whether you recycle, for example — are only a small piece of the puzzle, she doesn’t discount them. Her work targets places where conversations about climate change are more limited.

“Yes, we need to talk to the big polluters. We need to talk to those flying their private jets to COP,” she said. “But we also need to speak to developing countries with simpler discourses. And we really need education.

Ever since she was a child, Shehab has admired climate activists, and in 2020 she jumped into the fray herself, building a pyramid of trash. in Cairo which was nearly 20 feet tall. It was intended to contrast the majestic pyramids of Giza with our current “overproducing, overconsuming” existence, she wrote in an artist statement.

Shehab, who is also a street performer and an art and design professor at the American University in Cairo, has long used art as a political and educational tool. During the Arab Spring, she created calligraphy-inspired graffiti with messages such as “No to a new pharaoh” and “No to violence”, written around Cairo. And as Britain prepared to vote on Brexit, she wrote “No to Borders” and “No to Brexit” on the walls of London.

In “Heaven and Hell in the Anthropocene,” which will be reproducible, under an open license, after the COP closes, Shehab wants people to say yes: yes to wearing second-hand clothes; yes to water conservation; yes to anything they can do to curb climate change.

In both rooms of the installation, viewers will find mirrors, broken mirrors in hell and curved mirrors in heaven. The artist hopes they invite reflection: “For us to really face our future, we really have to look at ourselves.

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