Artist and environmental activist Justin Brice Guariglia was driving down a highway last year when he saw a large LED sign on the side of the road flashing traffic-related alerts for motorists. Inspiration struck.
“I thought, this is the perfect metaphor for organized human life,” he says. “We’re collectively flying down this highway called civilization at 100-plus miles per hour, and we could really use some warnings of the perils ahead. I thought it could be a great way to get people to slow down and think more about the unprecedented changes taking place in the natural world around us. I believe we’re at a critical ecological juncture where we really need to put thinking ahead of doing.”
Guariglia then called Rice University professor and author Timothy Morton, a noted philosopher and eco-critic, and asked if he would be willing to write some pithy, aphoristic text to communicate the ecological crisis we face today. Morton agreed, and Guariglia bought a jumbo, used, solar-powered LED highway message board, stripped the paint off it, rusted the surface, and programmed it with Morton’s text.
The message board will flash five looping aphorisms:
“WARNING: HIGH CO2”
“TRIASSIC WEATHER AHEAD”
“GLOBAL WARMING AT WORK”
“GOODBYE ARCTIC ICE”
“DON'T ECO SHOP ECO VOTE.”
We Are the Asteroid II—part of a nationwide set of art installations funded by Science Rising and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)—will be on view at one of most trafficked attractions in the Midwest, Chicago’s Navy Pier, from September 17 through November 30.
“My hope is that this public art installation can reach people from all walks of life, not just the art community. And that it can get people to start thinking more ecologically,” he said. “Climate change is the most important issue in human history, and we cannot delay thinking about it, or addressing it, any longer.”
UCS has awarded six grants of $10,000 each in 2018 to individuals and artist collectives in six American cities, as part of its pilot Art for Science Rising initiative. Art for Science Rising funds public-facing art that highlights the important role science plays in protecting our health and safety; each event associated with these installations is staged as part of Science Rising, a national movement to ensure science is front and center in decision-making processes that affect everyone in the US.
Guariglia feels his art is a good match for Science Rising, as it reflects his fascination with how humans have changed our planet, born from his decades photographing rapid economic growth and its environmental consequences around the world. His art inspired by climate change, he says, is a byproduct of this interest, helped along by his grounding in science.
“I think a lot of my ideas come from trying to figure out how to access reality. To get there, we need science and scientists. Science is a great inspiration for my art,” he says. He also sees art and science as complementary truth-tellers.
“Good art can help people reimagine the future, and better understand the world we live in,” he says. “To paraphrase J.G. Ballard, in the past artists produced fictions. Now that we’re surrounded by fictions, the artist needs to produce the reality.”
Nine million tourists visit Navy Pier each year; Guariglia is excited about the possibility of We Are the Asteroid II, 2018 reaching audiences beyond those he may ordinarily communicate with.
The next Art for Science Rising installations are scheduled for unveiling later in September.
Artist’s statement for We Are the Asteroid II:
This new public art project by the artist and environmental activist Justin Brice Guariglia uses aphorisms to focus our minds on ecological thought. Using a solar-powered LED message board used on roadways, Guariglia shares surprising poetry, metaphor, and humor to draw in diverse audiences, breaking down barriers to enable important conversations about our current ecological crisis.
As Guariglia notes: “The ecological crisis we face today, is the moral imperative of our time. At this critical juncture, art can function as a positive force for social and political change, and to help open our minds to new possibilities.”
By utilizing a solar-powered LED message board Guariglia seeks to contrast the audiences expectations of the medium. Highway signs evoke a feeling of tension and change, typically used at construction sites to caution passers-by, and through recontextualization it draws attention to our complicit use of unsustainable systems of creation and consumption.
Text for We Are the Asteroid II comes from philosopher Timothy Morton, Professor and Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University. Morton, considered one of the most important ecological voices in writing today, is the author of HYPEROBJECTS: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minnesota, 2013) among numerous other publications. His work explores the intersection of object-oriented thought and ecological studies.
This work was made possible by a grant from the Union of Concerned Scientists and Science Rising, a national movement to highlight the critical role that science plays in our democracy.