When she’s not speaking at Nobel Prize summits or pioneering sustainable vinyl technologies with Brian Eno, Beatie Wolfe creates provoking, environmentally conscious art and music. Dubbed by WIRED as one of the “22 people changing the world”, she’ll soon be speaking at Berlin Science Week – virtually, to avoid the transatlantic flight.
Her recent project From Green to Red was beamed onto Glasgow’s Armadillo building at the 2021 UN Climate Conference, COP26. We sit down with her to talk art, activism and tomato soup.
What’s your connection to Berlin Science Week?
I love Germany, particularly Berlin – anything I can do there is always a pleasure. My involvement in Science Week came about because I’d been nominated for the Falling Walls prize, a Berlin-based award for scientific breakthroughs. Following that was a conversation about what activism we could bring to the city. At one point we floated the idea of projecting From Green to Red, my environmental protest piece, onto the Brandenburg Gate. But that’s not happening anymore. Amazingly it was even harder than COP26, in terms of the permits we would’ve needed from the authorities – that’s German bureaucracy for you!
On that note, can you tell us a bit more about From Green to Red?
The intention behind it was to take 800,000 years of atmospheric CO2 data and translate it into an interactive woven timeline. It shows clearly, physically, the impact we’ve had on our planet. People can move their hands over the fabric as it’s being woven in front of them and actually pull out individual carbon PPM and planetary timeline dates. It’s also set to a song I wrote as a teenager, ‘From Green to Red’, after watching the documentary An Inconvenient Truth in the cinema and being shaken by it.
I felt that if there was a way of taking this cold, intangible data and presenting it in a fashion that everyone could absorb, it would be really beneficial.
So yes, that was the project. I felt that if there was a way of taking this cold, intangible data and presenting it in a fashion that everyone could see, could absorb, it would be really beneficial. The uptake was amazing; we got to present it in different ways at different venues: at the London Design Biennale, at the Nobel Prize Summit (where I spoke after David Attenborough and Al Gore), and finally at COP26.
That’s a great example of how art and activism can converge. What’s your opinion on vandalising art in the name of the environment – the Just Stop Oil activists who threw tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, for example?
I shouldn’t admit to this, but it’s the truth: I tend to avoid news and social media. So I hadn’t actually heard about that! But I always come back to something time and time again, an observation made by neurologist Oliver Sacks, who’s been a big influenced on my work. The essence of what he argues is that there are two things we need as human beings: art and nature. Art and nature keep us vital. They keep us alive inside; they allow us to be sentient beings on this planet. I want to remind people of that. And Van Gogh is art, so by that logic, I would have left that one probably alone!
Art and nature keep us vital. They keep us alive inside; they allow us to be sentient beings on this planet.
You’re described frequently online as a “music weirdo and visionary”, and here you are at Science Week. Would consider yourself a musician, a scientist, an activist, an artist…?
I find labels a bit frustrating… I guess I would define myself by whatever other people think of my work. I prefer not to categorise myself, as wanky as that can sound. Across disciplines, though, there are consistencies in what I do: one of them is storytelling. I start with creativity and imagination in all forms and let that take me wherever.
I never really understood why you would try so hard to keep disciplines apart from one another. I was equally as interested in the natural world, ecology, fossil hunting and philosophy as I was in music, song writing and storytelling. I just always kept the doors open to whatever inspired me, whatever I was curious about. I get as much pleasure and joy from working with scientists as I do from collaborating with more traditionally musical, artistic types of people.
And finally, on that phrase, “musical weirdo and visionary” – I didn’t say it about myself! Someone else said it, but I liked it. It points to something, conjures something, but doesn’t necessarily define it.
Catch Beatie Wolfe at Berlin Science Week on Saturday, November 5.