Climate Change Art is a Trap: interview with Justin Brice Guariglia

[Inertia: [ɪˈnəːʃə] a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged when no forces act upon them.] Global warming will continue increasing unless we respond to it collectively. Marie De Saedeleer speaks to artist Justin Brice Guariglia about extinction, works that trigger a collective response and the seductive powers of art.


Things are busy for the artist Justin Brice. He is currently working on several ambitious projects focused on the oceans which he hopes to debut at COP26, the 26th edition of the United Nations’ climate change 'Conference of Parties' scheduled to take place in Glasgow this November. COP26 is an interesting prospect for Brice, as it allows him to directly reach diplomats and governmental authorities. 'Recycling, cutting out meat and flying less are always individual decisions taken with the best of intentions, yet it’s the future-shapers we need to reach if we really want to change something.' However, every individual that he reaches in the meantime is worthwhile, so he still has the time to squeeze in a conversation with me.


Brice didn’t do any environmental studies. But the two years he spent abroad whilst studying Liberal Arts at Wake Forest University in North Carolina were enough to spark an interest in the way in which our planet is evolving. That’s not too surprising considering he studied in Venice and Beijing - two places that are confronted with climate change every day. Venice, for example, suffers from regular floods. Beijing’s air, on the other hand, is so polluted that everyone somehow got used to the fact that when you blow your nose, dust comes out. So over the years, climate change has grown under and also - literally - onto Justin’s skin. He has two lines tattooed on both of his arms, one wavy line representing the graph of the average temperature of the earth’s surface over the last 136 years, the other one presenting 400,000 years of carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere - both shooting up towards the end. 'An everyday reminder as well as an argument I can always bring up in discussions with people who call global warming nothing more than "the cycle of nature".'


He has two lines tattooed on both of his arms, one wavy line representing the graph of the average temperature of the earth’s surface over the last 136 years, the other one presenting 400,000 years of carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere – both shooting up towards the end

In the first part of his career, Brice worked as a documentary photographer for organisations such as The New York Times and National Geographic. Later on, he took the intuitive decision to extend his work to include multiple media, feeling that he could no longer express his message with just a photograph. He also wanted to deepen that message by learning from environmental scientists and philosophers. 'The reason I’m so passionate about science and philosophy is that they have the ability to help us better see and understand what’s happening around us. I find it hard to produce work with an effective impact if I don’t fully understand the issues. The science around climate change and the ecological crisis is very complex and deeply fascinating, but alone it has no agency, it’s just a bunch of numbers which are unable to touch us. So while I’m a research based artist, I’m not interested in visualizing this data as much as I am interested in re-imagining it in a way that we can collectively feel, and emotionally respond to it.'


I find it hard to produce work with an effective impact if I don’t fully understand the issues

From 2015-2016, Brice flew a series of seven earth-science missions with NASA scientists to document Greenland’s melting ice sheets from above and collect raw material for his artwork. The largest work from the series is approximately 4 by 5 meters and looks like a big chunk of white mass. The structure of the mass is mysterious, it could be either snow, paint or styrofoam. The sense of ignorance combined with the large size is overwhelming. Brice wishes for the work to create the feeling of '...confusion, awe, fear, and most importantly a heightened sense of reverence for the natural world...' Entitled Jakobshavn I, the work portrays the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland. 'With 38 billion tons of ice that’s dumped into the ocean every year, Jakobshavn is one of the fastest melting glaciers in the world,' says Brice. 'The sad irony of the work is that it’s composed of acrylic ink, printed onto polystyrene, which lasts for an eternity, while the 110,000-year-old ice in the image melted a few weeks after I took the photo.'


However, some other work of Brice leaves no room for subjective interpretation. EXXTINCTION, 2019, a neon work exhibited as part of the 58th Venice Biennale of Art, is a subtle adaptation of the logo of Exxon, an American multinational oil and gas corporation. 'We urgently need massive systemic change -- the science shows us that a fossil fuel burning culture is a culture of unintended consequences and collateral damages - namely an existential mass extinction event. We’re actively and unintentionally wiping out the natural ecosystems that WE depend upon for our very own earthly survival. That’s why I feel artists working on the subject of climate change cannot afford to be ambiguous. This is the time to be blunt. I know few other ways of communicating the urgency of this crisis to the public.'


That’s why I feel artists working on the subject of climate change cannot afford to be ambiguous. This is the time to be blunt

In his book The Medium is the Message, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan describes art as a ‘distant early warning system’. According to Brice, art is supposed to be 'from the future... on the cutting edge of thought.'


'Art has the capacity to examine and question what’s happening all around us. I share my studio in Brooklyn with the African-American artist Hank Willis Thomas, whose art practice is focused on addressing social justice. What he does is tremendously important. We have so many problems in the world that need to urgently be addressed: institutionalised racism, police violence, gender inequality, poverty. But based on the speed we’re growing as a civilization, and the rate at which we’re consuming stuff, and most importantly fossil fuels, we simply won’t have a habitable planet in 30 to 50 years from now to enjoy the equalities we’re fighting for. That to me is a tragic irony.'


'In addressing climate change, I’ve seen a number of artists gravitate toward dystopian themes, but I am not so interested in this way of looking at the world. I’d rather reimagine the future with some humor, irony or startling insight. Ultimately we need to raise greater awareness and conversation around the issues with the hopes of driving social and political change. This is also a subject matter that’s clearly not uplifting, so aesthetics fulfil an important role. We need climate related art to be a beacon that draws in the public. I like to think of my artwork a little like a carnivorous plant which seduces you with its beauty, and once you’re in, you realize it was a trap. You cannot unsee the underlying message, and you cannot turn back.'