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Artist Olafur Eliasson's Latest Work Will Bring Better Communication to the Developing World

VICE talked to the artist about why we need to "feel" energy to understand it, and why he thinks no one cares about global warming.

Photo by Tomas Gislason. Courtesy of Little Sun

Olafur Eliasson makes art designed to be felt. In recent years, his most notable works have included the installation of a faux sun in London's Tate Modern, its orange light transporting museum-goers to the beach they'd been waiting for all their lives; creating waterfalls in the East River, mist splashing the faces of tourists when the wind picked up; transporting mini icebergs from Greenland to a Copenhagen square; and dying rivers in Tokyo, Norway, LA, and Berlin a sickly green, without warning local authorities.

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The Danish-Icelandic artist creates these large-scale sculptures and installations using natural materials such as ice, water, air, light, and dirt to bring attention to our fraught relationship with the natural world and the increasingly negative impact humans are having on the planet.

But in the last few years, Eliasson's gotten fed up with the exclusivity of the art world and has wanted to do something that would reach a massive, global audience. His goal was to move from just provoking a conversation about the climate, to actually producing positive action. He did this by building a simple solar lantern called Little Sun to bring clean, reliable, affordable light to the 1.1 billion people in the world who lack direct access to electricity. The lantern launched three years ago at the Tate Modern museum, and is now distributed in over ten African countries as well as Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, and the US.

Read on VICE News: Coal and Solar Energy Are Neck-and-Neck in the Developing World

But today, Eliasson is taking his mission one step further and launching a Kickstarter campaign to start the rollout of a solar-powered charger that can fully juice a phone using only five hours of sunlight, hopefully resulting in increased communication and opportunity in the developing world.

We sat down with the artist to talk about his decision to move from the art world to product design, why he thinks no one cares about global warming, and how the only way to solve the climate challenge is to replace all the representatives of the United Nations with artists.

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VICE: It seems like you've sort of been enamored with the sun and its power for a long time. Obviously you had your installation at Tate Modern a few years ago, you launched a solar lantern and now a solar charger. What is it about the sun and its power that you find so interesting?
Olafur Elliason: The sun is something that we talk about without having to agree. You think it's too hot, and I think it could be a bit hotter, but that doesn't mean that I don't like you. So for me, the sun is something that we share without having to be the same.

In our society today, you have to be bloody normal to fit in. So I've used the sun as a metaphor for space, where we can actually share something without having to be the same. This, I think, started when I did the "Weather Project" at the Tate Modern, because I think that was one of the good examples where people were having all kinds of reactions, and it just became clear to me that sometimes culture, or creativity, or art, can actually host a space or environment where we can be together without having to agree. There is something inclusive about the sun, there is something that I think is really touching. It's something we all own, or that nobody owns, and nobody has bought it… yet.

The Weather Project at the Tate Modern in London. Photo courtesy of Studio Olafur Eliasson

If you think about where we are as a political society today, as soon as people don't agree, it immediately results in some kind of exclusion. If you're not like me, you're not really welcome. I think it's very important to look for places where, if you don't fit into the very narrow definition of normality, you're still welcome. The sun is one of these, sort of, inclusive environments, metaphorically speaking.

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This is kind of how it started, and then of course it turns out, when one starts to think about it, everything derives from the sun. A diamond is, in fact, compressed carbon, which would not be there without the sun. A head of salad that you're going to have for dinner is essentially just a battery that has been charged by the sun. Now I eat it, and I take the energy from the salad and I release it in my body, and I become a solar machine.

Is that the thinking that led you to take this next step in your career and embark upon the Little Sun project? Your art has kind of a participatory element, as you were saying—was this an extension of that?
Yeah, but also I was feeling a little bit locked up in the art world. I felt that with creativity, you can do more than just be in museums and put on art shows. As an artist, I think you need to take on the world. I think you need to participate in society—taking on these questions that we all have in common.

I don't think I'm any better at taking these questions on than anybody else, but I do think that coming from the angle of creativity or art gives me some other tools, that are very important to throw into society. So when I started Little Sun, it was kind of an attempt to see, "Well, if I take my resources and my language and my means—the talent that I occasionally can canoodle together—if I take that and I toss them into a challenging area, such as energy access, where does that leave me?"

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And it was very satisfying for me to be suddenly outside of the normal art world, on the street, in Sub-Saharan Africa, but also in New York and England, testing out whether the language that I use in the bubble called the "art world" would actually have traction in the real world.

The Little Sun solar lantern being sold in Africa. Photo by Michael Tsegaye, courtesy of Little Sun

Right, and what was it specifically about the art world that you were finding limiting?
The truth is, I'm a very big supporter of the cultural segment of our society. I think our society would have very little satisfaction if it was not for culture. And I'm so honored and excited about being a culturally engaged person. I'm quite excited about being an artist. But you also have to see that museums are becoming—sometimes—very exclusive.

There's no doubt that the New York art scene—where I show at an amazing gallery in Chelsea—as much as I like it, it is also, frankly speaking, a pretty predictable group of people that come there. It's a closed circuit. And this might not be fully fair to the art world, because I do think there's a lot of political traction there—but let's just face it, the art world has also become a part of a cultural elite, and I need to break out of that as well as being a part of it.

What I was hoping to do is to take the network that I have built up over 20 years working as an artist—such as reaching out to political leaders, financial leaders, activists, NGOs—and ask them whether they would embark on a creative path to address energy access.

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The Little Sun solar charger. Image courtesy of Little Sun

So what do you think is the role of art in these kind of future-shaping technologies—whether it's for the developed or the developing world?
Well as I started working with this, I came to realize a few things. One was that to be an artist, to make art, is really to learn how to use a language. What defines a good art work is not necessarily the extent to which you can master this language, but literally what you say with it. Essentially, it is not about how one does things, but it's about why. And I think it was very rewarding for me to learn that if I want to be successful I need to figure out why, and then the how will sort itself out.

It's a mistake to think that creativity is only in the art world. Creativity is everywhere. There are creative people everywhere. It's a sort of snobbish thing for an artist to say that creativity is only in the art world. My excitement is really just to connect the dots to see if I can address how we can use energy to empower ourselves. It was then that I started to get confident about how to talk about the climate problem, because it's not really about the climate, it's about how we feel about it.

Let's talk more about that, because I do think there's a barrier, certainly in the developed world where we're not fully experiencing the effects of climate change yet, and people have difficulty connecting with those issues. What do you think is the best way to get around that?
I totally agree. The thing is, we have now learned what we need to know about what is going on with the environment and the climate. We've kind of got the story. But it is in our heads. It is not yet something we have embodied. And that's why you're right when you say we haven't fully experienced climate change, we haven't felt the impact on our own bodies. I'm trying to bring over some inland ice from Greenland for the UN Summit in Paris in December, so people can actually touch the ice. Instead of thinking about it, they can touch it. There's a significant difference between thinking and touching. You can also say that about thinking and doing. So now the question is, how do we turn people from knowers and thinkers into doers?

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That's why the Little Sun took on the quest to ask people: "How does it actually feel to hold five hours of solar power in your hand? How does it feel to hold hands with the sun?" And especially for children who are not so narrow-minded in how they understand the world. Kids just say, "Wow, I am powerful." Whereas we grownups, we are idiots because we say, "I own energy," as if it's some kind of commodity. And so with Little Sun, we're interested in turning something we know into something we feel, something that is tangible.

The Little Sun charger can power up an iPhone using only five hours of sunlight. Image courtesy of Little Sun

And what do you think the role of design, aesthetics, and packaging plays in that? Obviously, your solar lantern and charger look very different from most of the other ones on the market. Why is that?
Well, because I think a great design can amplify the non-quantifiable success criteria. Clearly the functional side of it has to be in order. With the charger we are about to release, we are going to have the strongest solar panel on a small, handheld device on the market. So the quality has to be competitive on the one hand, but then on the other, the design, the shape, the communication, the language, is like an amplifier—because we are on a mission to campaign for the planet. We are out there to actually talk about things for which we are seeking solutions ourselves. So this means that the design in itself is creating a new message on how to turn thinking into doing.

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From our conversation so far, it seems like you have a relatively optimistic view of the future—but do you ever feel sort of cynical about what we're going to be able to achieve, or worried about how to best keep pushing the next generation to care?
Well, I choose to be optimistic. I'm just so tired of the doom and gloom, and the kind of apocalyptic language of some media, of some politicians and some scientists. So I think we have to look at what originally created the climate challenge. It was innovative people. It was the people who actually made electricity, who turned fossil fuel into energy, these are the innovators who created modern society. We need the same type of innovators today to renew and replace our sources of energy. And that's why optimism is always much better to follow than criticizing the heroes of the past. So I do think that being optimistic is just more productive.

Photo by Inka Recke, image courtesy of Little Sun

Is this what led to the decision to take your project to the next phase and create a solar charger to continue innovating?
Well, it was two things. One was, as we traveled around Sub-Saharan Africa with the Little Sun lantern, everybody said, "This is great, we love it. Next time you come, can you bring a mobile phone charger?" At an unbelievable speed, in rural areas where the economy is very scarce, people were getting mobile phones. So I was immediately convinced, my god—the biggest challenge is the fact that there is no access to energy and phone batteries keep dying. But obviously that is not just a problem in rural Africa. It's really something that I need in my life, too.

And that sort of creating awareness and getting people involved is obviously important. Did that contribute to your decision to do this as a crowd funding campaign?
Yeah, I mean, we're using quite high quality materials, so only through quantity can we push the price down. We funded the development of it for two years—but to actually get the first batch through the production machine, we need to make thousands. And that's why we have to reach out to people and sell it up front—just to get the machinery rolling. Once they're rolling, we want to be able to make this into a socially conscious business. But we literally need a "kickstarter" to get going.

In terms of looking to the future, what do you think we need to be doing better as a society?
I think we should ask artists to run the UN. I think we should get rid of all the heads of state in the UN and put artists in the General Assembly. Besides that, I think that we should get rid of the politicians in the EU, and put artists in the European Parliament as well.

I think we should make an artists revolution around the world, and ask the creative people, the emotional people of our society to take on a much more sustainable and inclusive approach to how we actually change the future into something better. The truth is, I'm actually not joking. I think it would be great. And while doing so, I think we should take all these heads of state and put them in art school. It would be a good education both for the artists to actually get some dirt on their hands, and for the heads of state to actually get creative. And then after one year, or maybe six months, we should switch it all back and then see if the world gets better.

For more information about the Little Sun charger, or to fund the campaign, visit their Kickstarter page.

Follow Dory Carr-Harris on Twitter.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.