Upcycling UNLESS: seeking more sustainable art & consumerism

This post was written and contributed by Kyle Browne

Climate change is real. Consequences of our actions are and will be present in our lifetimes and we are all going to be affected. It’s also a reality that people of color and people living in poverty will be affected sooner, and more deeply than their white and more affluent peers. Stephanie Cardon brings together community, experts and artists to provide a platform for exchange around this important issue, with UNLESS, the public art installation on view at the Prudential Center until December 28. UNLESS disrupts this mainly consumer-oriented space with bright orange fabric, symbolic blue circles and hand-sewn statements from Pope Francis’ Encyclical On Care for Our Common Home. These statements, sewn by the artist and people who have been disproportionately affected by climate change, reflect on an inclusive dialogue about how we are shaping the earth’s future.

What makes this installation especially powerful is the location. The Prudential Center, an iconic building, houses over seventy-five shops and restaurants. It represents the highest institution of American consumerism and waste - the shopping mall. UNLESS stands at one of its main entry points, reaching almost three levels in height and covering an entire staircase. It can be seen from far down Boylston Street in both directions. And at first glance it could seem almost like a massive marketing display, but upon a closer look, it reveals its true identity as a large-scale art installation promoting climate justice and sustainability. In stark juxtaposition to its highly commercial environment.

In support of this act of resistance I was inspired to develop a community outreach component for UNLESS to highlight the impact each of us can individually have on affecting climate change. Although there is controversy over the impact any one person can have, companies and corporations would not produce such an extreme amount of carbon without consumer demand. Playing on the idea of over saturated and materially driven holiday shopping, a reusable tote bag compliments the message of sustainability and awareness that UNLESS helps us face. Making a reusable tote bag will not ‘solve’ the problem, but each time we choose to reuse an item over using a new single-use plastic one, we reduce energy and waste. This simple, yet powerful act reminds us that there is no ‘away’ and we have a voice with what we buy and consume. By asking shoppers to take action by fabricating their own tote bag from the same bright orange material they see at the entrance to the mall, they broadcast this statement and invite others to join the conversation.

Sample tote bag made of surplus debris netting from  UNLESS.  Make one of your own at one of our events December 17 - 19.

Sample tote bag made of surplus debris netting from UNLESS. Make one of your own at one of our events December 17 - 19.

As a practicing artist drawn to doing place-based work at the intersection of nature and culture, the environment has been one of my biggest influences and teachers. At any opportunity I try to be a part of exhibits and art experiences that are beyond the limiting walls of artistic institutions. In 2008, I was an-artist-in residence in a remote town in New Zealand and it caused a major shift in my perspective and practice as an artist. Art supplies could not easily be purchased and I quickly realized that working within the limitations of what I had was the only way to successfully create. This shift meant looking at alternative materials to generate artwork, collaborating and trading with neighbors, hand-making paper and creating ephemeral environmental sculptures documented through photographs. It was the beginning of a self-awareness of the excess amount of material we use, waste and produce in making visual art - and a meaningful lesson in detachment and minimalism.

Sustainability in contemporary art is often noted by the use of natural materials, regeneration of habitats and collective movements to affect communities through ‘ecoventions’. If we look beyond this to the artists choice of technique or material, there is a conflict between the high-end art market, seeking archival, flashy work, expected to survive through multiple generations and those who are choosing to make their own pigments, re-purposing objects instead of casting new ones and building socially aware collectives rather than private collections.

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Stephanie Cardon is an artist who considers the intersection of intentional material use, production, industry and sustainability. UNLESS is created with re-purposed construction netting debris, patching and sewing through collaborative action. We are taking this action one step further by inviting the general public to continue to re-purpose the material into tote bags, creating functional artwork and an individual response to a larger installation.

Public art reflects the value of equity in a town or city for all its members to be able to access contemporary art. I believe most artists, by nature, are cultural producers, hoping to share ideas, perspectives and curiosity. Interacting with art is an important social and personal experience and when shared publicly, has limitless impact. Now + There is a change agent, giving artists in Boston this public voice. It has also given me an opportunity to cultivate what I truly believe art is meant to do, communicate, build community and inspire.

Kyle Browne is an artist and educator based in the lovely green-space filled town of Jamaica Plain. She is active in the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math) education community, teaches at the Museum of Fine Arts and holds an MFA from the School of Visual Arts. She loves riding her bike everywhere, floating in the ocean and seeking out unique spaces and places… especially if art is present. See her artwork at http://kylebrowne.com