Carbon Art’s Jodi Newcombe.

30 May 2013 — Founder and director of Carbon Arts Jodi Newcombe is on a mission to make sustainability cool.

Having worked for the past 15 years as an environmental economist advising government and industry on natural resource management issues, she’s well aware that sustainability can be, well, a little dry. But Carbon Arts, a creative organisation that works with government and industry to put art and design at the centre of sustainability challenges, is helping to change the ways in which we engage with the topic.

“I’ve always been a creative person,” Newcombe says, “and I’ve always been engaged with the arts through my social circles and practice.”

In particular, she has been actively involved in how sustainability is communicated.

“Before I started Carbon Arts, I was working for an organisation called the Climate Group, which is a not-for-profit international organisation working with business and government leaders on climate change, and a lot of the work I did there really clarified the importance of design, in terms of designing materials, events and programs that make people feel good about being sustainable leaders.”

And making people feel good about sustainability, and creating an image of sustainability as something desirable, is crucial if it’s to be embedded in everyday practice because, as we all know, being “green” is something that is sometimes seen as naff or daggy.

“Having been in the profession for a long time as an environmentalist and someone trying to make a difference in my own life, that’s exactly what you come across,” she says. “Conversations that you have and impressions that people have of what it means to have a sustainable lifestyle are that it’s backwards, that it’s not cool, that it’s hippie or crunchy granola – whatever you want to call it.

“And so I’m very conscious of that and very careful not to engage with that in what Carbon Arts does, because it’s very important to be seen as something mainstream, as well as something really, ultimately, super cool.

“When you look at the urban design solutions of the future, they’re pretty amazing. And we’re not talking about the kinds of lifestyles that are going to make you cringe or think you’re back in the Middle Ages, but the kinds of lifestyles that are cleaner, greener, cooler, more interesting, more technologically savvy.”

It was while working for the Climate Group that the idea for Carbon Arts really formed.

“I was inspired by an experience I had at the Venice Biennale,” says Newcombe. “In 2007 there was a climate pavilion, and it was the Climate Group’s initiative. They did a book called North South East West and it was commissioning ten Magnum photographers to travel the world and document instances of climate change adaptation and mitigation actions.

“I thought, ‘Wow. Venice Biennale: amazing art. Climate change pavilion photography: not that exciting.’ So I researched it and found there’s actually some great artists doing really exciting work responding to climate change and that really snowballed it for me, and over the next few years I developed up Carbon Arts.”

Carbon Arts has been working with industry, governments and artists to communicate sustainability in innovative and compelling ways, and in providing tangible, interactive means in which people can engage in the sustainability narrative.

One area that excites Newcombe is precinct art, something she worked on with the Climate Group as part of the Climate Smart Precincts program.

“We looked specifically at low carbon and climate resilient urban design, and how to work with government and businesses – like IBM, Cisco, Lend Lease, Arup, GE and the like – to provide the conditions necessary for real innovation and moving forward on making those sorts of precincts affordable and compelling.

“As part of that I got really interested in the place-making aspect of that – making these precincts educational and also making them really cool places to live.”

Artist Natalie Jeremijenko’s Melbourne Mussel Choir

One project going ahead in Melbourne’s Docklands is the Melbourne Mussel Choir by artist Natalie Jeremijenko, which was the winner of a national competition for the Echology: Making Sense of Data initiative, a collaboration between Carbon Arts, the Australian Network of Art and Technology, and Lend Lease.

Carbon Arts describes the work as using “the behaviour of the organisms themselves as a biologically meaningful measure of pollutant exposure in order to produce a public spectacle”.

Mussels are connected to sensors and the opening and closing of the mussels’ shells will give the organisms “a voice” as this data is translated into sound. The effects of water quality, weather, season and other conditions will effect the sound that is created, and the artwork will “map parameters such as water depth to sound pitch, presence of pollutants to sound timbre, and the rate of the opening and closing of mussel shells to sound tempo”.

Novel ways of communicating environmental information is paramount to addressing the sustainability issue, says Newcombe. Traditionally we hear sustainability communicated through a scientific lens. Science communication, though, she says, is something that often doesn’t cut through.

“A lot of scientists are given the job of communicating their work, and they don’t have the design skills, they’re not trained in communication, and they’re not really incentivised to communicate either.

“The incentives scientists have are around publishing articles, and all the KPIs that a university or academic institution provide are never aligned to public outcomes. So that’s a real challenge that climate change is facing: we don’t have the collaboration or interdisciplinary expertise within this body of knowledge to communicate that properly.

Above this, Newcombe says, is a bigger crisis in science: no one wants to do it.

“Students coming out of high school don’t want to study science. They’re not interested in engineering or any of those disciplines anymore.

“That whole crisis is something the arts can help to address because there are many, many ways of experiencing science, and art itself has a curiosity and search for truth that’s very similar to science. When you look at art–science collaborations, they’re often really interesting and mutually beneficial relations.”

Newcombe will soon be speaking at a science communication conference about the work Carbon Arts is doing, and how it can be used as a model for collaborations with artists and scientists around sustainability that engages people in unique ways.

So what’s the big picture for Carbon Arts? What does it want to achieve?

“I’m actually doing my PhD on this very question,” says Newcombe. “I’m looking at the practice of Carbon Arts and really evaluating what it is we do and what works, and why.

“The name of my PhD is The art of the eco-city, so it’s really about bringing art into our visions and goals for eco-cities, whether they be existing, like the City of Melbourne, or new developments like Lend Lease’s development in the Docklands – they’ll be going for a Green Star Communities rating, and our work down there with the Mussel Choir might help them get some of their stars around education, place-making and liveability.

“And it’s about the design of brand new cities as well. What do artists and designers bring to that? And, in particular, how do organisations like Carbon Arts play a role in bringing everybody together.

“Fundamentally, underneath that, is trying to redress the culture that underlies our current, unsustainable lifestyle.

“That’s the big challenge we want to be part of addressing, and we think that it needs a very transformational, creative reimagining – and that is the realm of creativity. And it’s not necessarily just artists who do that: it’s everybody. So with the work we do, it’s participatory, it’s engaging and it entices people to think creatively.”

Jodi Newcombe is speaking at Vivid Ideas’ “Ten Commandments: Make Data Beautiful” in Sydney on June 4.

  • Lead image courtesy of Vivid Ideas