Collaborative campus art installation connects social justice, environmental issues
Broken doors bearing artwork of local and worldwide environmental issues were erected on the Women’s Building lawn Sunday in a collaboration student project intended to illustrate how climate issues relate to social justice.
The 13-panel display that will be up through reading week and into finals week was the culmination of a few months of effort by members of Material Monster, a student group that focuses on creating spaces with reusable materials, and Green Action.
Students hope that the visually striking display will help progress the ongoing “Fossil Free WashU” campaign, which looks to make Washington University sever its ties to the coal industry.
“Every single one of these panels tells a different story of a different area all around the world,” junior Rachel Goldstein, president of Green Action, said. “I think it just has a much better emotional connection with people than just reading something. And also it’s nice to have things outside in the middle of campus where people are going to see [them].”
The inspiration for the event came from a survey that organizers of the “Fossil Free WashU” campaign sent out to more than a thousand students, which showed that students felt social justice issues were the most important ones to consider. It also showed that many students did not see social justice issues relating to those surrounding climate change.
“There’s a very deep disconnect between environmental issues and people issues as if they aren’t intertwined and interconnected, when it’s really you can’t have one without the other,” Green Action member and senior Sophi Veltrop said. “If you don’t have rights for the environment, people are going to suffer, and if you don’t have rights for people, the environment won’t be taken care of well.”
Each panel in the display features a work of art designed by either one or two artists, next to a description of the particular environmental issue written by a Green Action member. Using wheat paste to protect the words from the rain, the descriptions were mounted onto mirrors that organizers said were to make the display more personal.
“The mirrors are there to implicate the viewer as a part of this global phenomenon and to remind them that they have a role, even though these communities are really distant from us,” Veltrop said.
The broken doors used for the panels were donated from Refab, a company that rents out materials from demolished buildings, and they were held in place using leftover wood from ThurtenE carnival.
The only panel drawn and written by the same person was one done by environmental studies and printmaking major Kelsey Brod, a senior. Brod’s work featured the township Imizamo Yethu in Cape Town, Africa, where she studied abroad.
In 1953, the apartheid-era government passed an act that deemed Cape Town white-only. All colored people were forced to relocate to an area between two mountains, known as Table Mountain National Park, which is an extremely uninhabitable ecosystem.
“There shouldn’t be any housing there because it’s an ecosystem where there’s intense fire, rain and sun, so the people who live there basically get the crap kicked out of them,” Brod said. “During the winter, extreme rain comes and erodes all of the housing…summer is known for extreme hot and lots of fires because the non-native trees brought by the colonists aren’t right for the area.”
Brod feels that the horrible living situation that the people of Imizamo Yethu deal with is a direct representation of the culmination of environmental and social justice issues.
“I think it’s blatant discrimination, keeping people out, but also because they’re living in this extreme environment, the effects of climate change are so much [harder] on them,” she said.
“[My work] is similar to all of these cases because it shows you an extremely disadvantaged community affected by climate change,” Brod added. “It’s important to know because what [causes] climate change are these really developed countries. Americans use 25 percent of all global energy, and St. Louis significantly feeds into that, so it’s important for students to be aware of these things.”
Senior Katie Olson worked with senior Matt Callahan to depict the violence of tar sands extraction in Canada. Their piece, part digital and part pen-and-ink drawing, showed a giant machine tearing down a forest as a figure watched from a distance.
“Their forest is being destroyed. Same with the caribou, and the caribou in Canada are the thing that tells if the forest is healthy or not. And they’re dying out,” Olson said.
“If you look up images about the process that they use to transport this bitumen-heavy oil and make it—it’s these gigantic machines; they’re as tall as buildings and super-monstrous,” Olson added. “We made this huge machine—it’s kind of whimsical because they’re made up of all the different parts of all the different machines…If you were actually there, it would just dwarf you in its monstrosity. But you never see them.”
The installation of the outdoor exhibit was also being worked on by members of Trading Post, which works to promote reuse of goods.
“I know quite a few of the artists, and it’s really neat to see their art displayed in such a way,” junior Zach Hernandez, co-founder of Trading Post, said. “Hopefully it’s visible to a lot of people.”
While many of the panels depict environmental issues internationally, organizers were particularly invested in a two-panel-wide display of the coal ash landfills Ameren—the University’s energy provider—has been trying to build in Labadie, Mo., a flood plain fewer than 50 miles west of the Danforth Campus. Locals of the small Missouri town have been protesting the landfills for years, and they have been a rallying cry for a large number of environmental activists.
“We just really wanted to bring it home a little bit and be like—look, this is happening in St. Louis,” Goldstein said. “We need to act on a local level but look at these things happening on a national level, too.”