A rendering by Joseph Michael of his Voices For The Future project
A rendering by Joseph Michael of his Voices For The Future project

ArtSeptember 22, 2019

NZ artist Joseph Michael on turning New York’s UN buildings into icebergs

A rendering by Joseph Michael of his Voices For The Future project
A rendering by Joseph Michael of his Voices For The Future project

Covering Climate Action: Ahead of the UN’s Climate Action Summit, artist Joseph Michael and composer Rhian Sheehan teamed up to create Voices For The Future, a 30-minute installation projected onto the UN buildings.

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Joseph Michael is walking along Wakefield Street in Auckland Central with his newborn son in the crook of one arm and a six-pack of beers in the other. It’s a balmy March evening and we’ve just been introduced because Michael, who is the artist in residence at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), would like to make a book of his Antarctica: While you were sleeping project, which has already been turned into an award-winning podcast – Voice of the Iceberg – on RNZ

But Michael isn’t after book sales. He’s a man on a mission – a mission to find a way to turn Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial into a colossal 4-D collapsing iceberg, just like he did to Auckland’s historic War Memorial Museum in 2017 when a life-size iceberg was projected onto the entire exterior of the Museum (an 8,800 m2 surface area) for four spectacular nights. 

Antarctica: While you were sleeping by Joseph Michael, at Auckland Museum (Photo: Helen Klisser During)

It’s proximity to the White House (and to President Trump) is what makes Lincoln Memorial attractive to Michael, and he’s already been working on making it happen for the better part of a year. “Everyone knows the signs [of climate change] are there. Even in Trump’s administration, they know they have to do something. What’s stopping them is money,” says Michael.

A month later, Michael would be presented with a different opportunity to make a statement in the United States – the opportunity to turn the United Nations General Assembly and Secretariat buildings into melting iceberg’s, ahead of the UN’s Climate Action Summit on September 23. 

Michael and Wellington composer Rhian Sheehan have collaborated with Project Pressure to create a 30-minute installation projected onto the UN buildings. Titled Voices For The Future, it featured a condensed version of his work Antarctica: While you were sleeping, as well as the voices of youth advocates speaking the six UN languages. It was the UN’s idea to include the six advocates, including Greta Thurnberg and Auckland University student and environmental activist Jason Guan, but the ask didn’t phase Michael.

“The UN has moved into an activist stage in terms of language. By using the youth they can say a lot more, they can push the envelope and the envelope needs to be pushed,” he says. “I was willing to collaborate because I believe in the urgency of this message.”

Against the backdrop of climate change denial in the United States, Michael admits there’s a subtext to every choice that’s been made.

“It’s really interesting that they chose an Arab speaking female to represent the US,” he says, citing one example. “It’s pointing out that the US is not made up of white men. It’s a multicultural society.” 

Even with creative allowances – Michael’s projections are usually 360 degrees, whereas this one projected onto the vertical and horizontal faces of two separate buildings – this is a massively significant achievement for a New Zealand artist on the world stage.

“My time in Antarctica had a profound effect on me as an artist,” says Michael. “It was my first time in a place where humans were not the dominant species. It was quite a surreal thing to experience and this work is a way of sharing that.”

The other thing that was surprising for him was the sound element of each individual iceberg. The projection on the 40-story UN building could be seen from many vantage points in Manhattan. But the audience close by experienced not only the humbling and rarely seen beauty and size of an iceberg calving, but its unique sound alongside music produced by Sheehan.

“The Antarctic visuals help to create a conversation, not a confrontation, but at the same time challenges our human-centred worldview and brings into stark focus the consequences of our treatment of the planet,” says Michael, who is expecting the video of the work to go viral. 

With climate change being called the crisis of our time, Michael’s beautiful, powerful installation seems like such a well-suited and obvious project for the UN and New Zealand to back. Yet, for some reason, it’s been a Herculean effort for Michael to make this happen, and on more than one occasion, he almost had to admit defeat. In order for the UN to extend the invitation, Michael had to get himself endorsed by the New Zealand government. With that not-uncomplicated box ticked, he was free to consider his next three challenges: he had just one month to fund the project (he needed around $500,000), develop it creatively using the footage from his 2015 trip to Antarctica, and make it a reality logistically. 

Artist Joseph Michael and composer Rhian Sheehan (Photo: Helen Klisser During)

After being turned down for funding by a handful of New Zealand philanthropists, arts organizations, and corporates, Michael was introduced to Robert Lerner. Lerner, the nephew of the late Sir Woolf Fisher, is a trustee of the Joyce Fisher Trust.

“The Trust wouldn’t ordinarily fund projects like this, but this one just seemed right,” says Lerner. He spoke to fellow Trustee Chris Paykel and Corporate Trustee Guardian Trust and both agreed with him, quickly signing off on a donation of $50,000 from the Trust itself, $30,000 from Perpetual Guardian, $10,000 from Lerner in his personal capacity, and underwriting the project for $100 000. Lerner then reached out to friends and other compassionate charities and managed to convince another individual – who’d prefer to remain anonymous – to add an extra $50,000.

“This was very unique in that we decided in about three minutes. Most charities can’t work that fast,” says Lerner. “But we saw this as a real opportunity for New Zealand to show an innovative technology applied to an important issue and carrying with it an important message. There are icebergs melting in the middle of the streets! Wake up and smell the roses. We just thought it was wrong for it not to happen.”

Voices For The Future by Joseph Michael (Photo: Helen Klisser During)

Other supporters include AUT, the Oceans Foundation, New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Weta Workshop, Koha Trust, Air New Zealand, The Wallace Foundation and Chapman Tripp. 

The logistics presented their own unique challenges for Michael. “Because of all the security around that the UN General Assembly, we had to project from twice as far away, almost 300 metres away. It was right on the limits of what’s possible,” says Michael, who also made sure the entire project had a carbon offset. 

To accelerate actions to implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, UN Secretary-General António Guterres will be asking leaders from government, business and civil society to attend the 2019 Climate Action Summit. Michael compares the countries who’ve yet to implement the Paris Agreement to penguins sitting on the edge of the ice shelf. “They’re scared to go into the water because of the unknown. They think there could be seals and there’s a real chance that there may be,” he says. “So what happens is that only once the first few go, the rest follow. Right now we’re celebrating those first few, but we want to put pressure on the rest to follow.”

“I want to put pressure on Jacinda Ardern too. And I know this will put me [on the wrong side] with the dairy industry and others in New Zealand, but I want to ask her, What are you doing? What is our government doing? We’re doing ok, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

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