It was about five years ago that Brett Volker and Steve Milton decided to reinvent the audiovisual events playbook.
Art, music and technology had long been at the heart of their work; Volker and Milton had spent a good part of the last decade growing their sonic branding agency, Listen, and experience innovation and design agency, Ada, both of which they co founded in the early 2010s. But this next venture was to be different. The plan was to not only entertain audiences but to educate and inform music- and art-lovers about the climate crisis through culture—to “challenge inaction through inspiration” in the words of Volker.
“With something as big as the climate crisis there are always going to be contradictions in [how we respond to it],” said Volker. “The question on our minds was: how can we lean into that tension and create art that helps people realize that everyone is in the same boat? How can we get them inspired to act?”
And so Volker—alongside his business partner Milton—got to work on Undercurrent, a part-digital part-real life interactive event featuring over 40 musicians, artists, creatives, and nonprofits from across the world. Each participant has been asked to form a creative response to the climate crisis and will be presenting their respective audiovisual installations as part of Undercurrent’s debut in Brooklyn today, September 9. The lineup includes big-name entertainers such as Jorja Smith, Bon Iver, and Grimes as well as nonprofits like Ocean Conservancy, Global Forest Generation, and Kiss The Ground that address the urgent issues of ocean conservation, forest restoration, and regenerative agriculture.
“It is really important that [Undercurrent is] a call to action,” said Volker, adding that resources and suggestions from the nonprofits on ways to get involved to better protect our global ecosystem are available throughout the event. “That it offers something tangible that people can go to and act upon straight away, as well as feeling really inspired and prompting conversations.”
Take Jorja Smith’s installation, for example, which draws inspiration from her Jamaican heritage. “When our grandparents were children growing up in the Caribbean, the seas and beaches were pristine,” she said in a statement. “Today, hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic have accumulated on these islands and even more waste washes up on their shores.” For Undercurrent, Smith partnered with Ocean Conservancy to create an installation made out of woven hatch, a craft typical of the Caribbean. All around the installation are binoculars that show serene ocean views. But once inside, viewers walk through a range of interiors made from trash and under low-hanging heat lamps. Smith has also composed a soundscape that draws inspiration from and reflects on the rising temperatures of the region. As the viewer walks through the installation, the audio intensifies as the heat lamps increase in temperature.
Grimes has taken a different approach. Titled AI Meditations led by WarNymph, the musician has curated an audiovisual series using a generative program that has been fed texts from meditation literature, video game scripts, and social media accounts. “If we don’t protect the environment, the future of consciousness will be artificial, not biological,” said Grimes, whose installation is guided by a deep fake of her own voice. “Would mental health and wellness even be relevant in a world where emotions aren’t an evolutionary advantage?” The work, which will be presented on large-scale screens, reflects on what wellness might look like in an artificial world long after humanity’s extinction.
“[Undercurrent has] given us a lot of freedom…They have a platform, but [are nonetheless allowing the] artists to be the artists and do as much or as little as they want,” said music producer and environmental toxicologist Jayda G, whose 90s-inspired video game installation was created in collaboration with nonprofit Kiss The Ground.
Jayda G’s game educates players on the importance of regenerative agricultural practices. The purpose of the game is to reach the top of a mountain, but along the way players must make crucial decisions on the ways in which they harvest the surrounding land. One path shows what happens when humans mistreat and exploit nature for their personal gains, while the other signals ecological health and prosperity after a widespread uptake in regenerative practices. The latter also informs players of indigenous agricultural techniques, like burning down segments of forest in order to rebuild stronger trees over 25-year cycles. The video game is accompanied by a track by Jayda G, titled “All I Need,” which explores the ways in which our past mistakes continue to inform the way we live now.
“[The installation] was inspired by something that has personally impacted me from when I was a kid,” said Jayda G, who grew up in The British Columbia Interior in Canada. “You would get maybe a forest fire once every couple of years, but now—my mom still lives where I grew up and it’s just a ring of fire. I brought this up to Undercurrent and it started this whole conversation about sustainable practices and shifting what is considered the norm of how we do things on an industry level.”
The concept was also informed by her expertise in the topic of ecological conservation after spending the last decade working in ecology and biology. In fact, Jayda G’s previous tracks have included orca sounds and were named after chapters from her Master’s thesis on natural resource and environmental management. “The installation for Undercurrent worked really well, particularly as we partnered with Kiss the Ground, which promotes regenerative agricultural practices,” she said. “So, everything is tied into this cute video game that talks about how to basically work with the land in a more sustainable way.”
Undercurrent has formed partnerships with three nonprofits that tackle urgent issues facing different aspects of our global ecosystem in order to inform visitors on the ways they can contribute to change. First is Ocean Conservancy, which will encourage visitors to take action at the event through their International Coastal Cleanup Project among a series of ocean restoration programmes. Second is Global Forest Generation, which partners with local leaders and communities to conserve essential forest ecosystems. And finally, Kiss The Ground focuses on the possibilities of regeneration through a series of educational programmes, workshops, courses, and advocacy. All three have collaborated with artists to offer educational resources for their installations.
“The idea that Undercurrent could be [an] awakening moment for, not one or two, but many other people is profound,” said Ryland Engelhart, founder of Kiss The Ground, which will be exhibiting a respective installation focused on the role soil plays in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and which will encourage people to participate in a program designed by the nonprofit called the Soil Advocacy Training. “We will also have visual illustrations [that show] how carbon sequestration works through plants on screens that are [located] in front of that soil installation.”
But stats alone aren’t enough to foster widespread change. The way information is communicated is crucial to the impact it will have, which is why Undercurrent hopes to continue facilitating collaborations across the arts, science and nonprofit sectors well beyond the Brooklyn event.
“We know that art, media and storytelling are the most effective ways for us to create change,” Engelhart said. “Through music we can [inspire] people to feel that there are new possibilities [on the horizon]; for people to awaken to this feeling of hope and this feeling of yes, we can do this.”