Raising Awareness and Catalyzing Public Engagement

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Raising Awareness and Catalyzing Public Engagement

How can art inspire the public to take action on social injustices such as climate change? Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam at "Beyond Green"

Artists have a powerful role to play in raising awareness of social injustices. As the African saying goes: “Until the lion finds their storyteller, hunters will always be portrayed as the hero.”

As the Fellows of Beyond Green: The Arts as a Catalyst for Sustainability heard on the first night of the session, artists can help share the stories of areas afflicted by unsustainable development. Many communities have been and continue be displaced in the pursuit of “development,” such as a community in Cambodia whose ancestral lands will be devastated by the building of a hydroelectric dam. 

Provocatively, one Fellow remarked that we have all been displaced “because we have become disconnected from nature and the green spaces and the beauty of the world. We’re more connected to technology... than we are to the natural world... this has made us isolated.” Art can help us to reconnect with that beauty and, in turn, inspire us to protect it.

The following morning, discussions continued in a plenary session on the topic of “Raising Awareness and Catalyzing Public Engagement.”

Panelists started by looking at artistic exhibits and campaigns in Bangladesh and the struggles one Fellow faced in attempting to present socially impactful pieces of work and collections. Although now an independent country, and nominally a democracy, one Fellow pointed out that like many countries, a democratic society may not be as democratic as it appears: “Elections in themselves to do not mean a democratic process.” Art can give people a way to express themselves in undemocratic and oppressive situations. One project highlighted was Kalpana’s Warriors, which featured a combination of poetry, performance and laser burn art to promote knowledge and discussion about an indigenous woman of the Chittagong Hill Tracts who spoke out against military occupation and was abducted on June 12, 1996.  

It is not only in Cambodia and Bangladesh where art can play an important role in public engagement and democracy, with another Fellow sharing an example from the US. 

Beautiful Solutions, which stemmed from the book and documentary This Changes Everything, is a gallery, lab, web platform and book that “gathers the most promising and contagious strategies for building a more just, democratic and resilient world.” 

By engaging the public and collecting and sharing “real” stories, the project aims to change society from that in which someone has “power over” others, to instead a system of “shared power.”

Grassroots efforts and engagement are important, and such projects can promote change from outside of a structural system – but still have impact on the system. 

However one Fellow made a counter point that “we have to go inside the structures to change their behavior.”


The Salzburg Global session Beyond Green: The Arts as a Catalyst for Sustainability is part of Salzburg Global’s long-running Culture and the Arts series. The session is supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the Bush Foundation and Red Bull Amaphiko. More information on the session can be found here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/561. You can follow all the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SGSculture.