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Can art solve climate change?

To avert climate change, artist Dustin Yellin believes we each need to bring our talents to the table, whether they’re artistic, scientific, or entrepreneurial.

Can art solve climate change?
[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

If humanity is going to survive the climate apocalypse that scientists predict is imminent, we’ll need to band together and bring all of our skills to the table. Artist Dustin Yellin has been dreaming about what this kind of mass collaboration would look like for two decades now. As a teenager, he imagined coming to New York and building a space where artists, scientists, and businesspeople could come together to come up with big, world-changing ideas, then muster up the courage to turn them into reality. “Culture is the best glue that can bring us together and start conversations,” he says.

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Dustin Yellin [Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]
In 2012, at the age of 36, after making his fortune as an artist, he created exactly the kind of space he had in mind. He bought a 24,000-square-foot warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, for $3.7 million and converted it into a multiuse space that includes a virtual reality lab, a 3D printing facility, a recording studio, and a museum, as well as gardens that are open to the public. The facility was built in 1866 to house Pioneer Iron Works. Today, Yellin has rebranded the space simply as Pioneer Works, and just as the name implies, he’s charting new territory with it. “We’re right at the beginning of what we’re trying to do,” Yellin explained at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York this week. “We believe in open access and transdisciplinary practice.”

On an average day, physicists mill about with artists who are in residency there, and Brooklynites stop by for beer tastings, symposiums, and lectures. Children are welcome there and often play among the sculptures. Just this week, Gloria Steinem and Ronan Farrow had their book launches there, photographer Lucien Samaha curated an exhibit on the history of digital photography, and scientists debated whether there is enough evidence to validate the existence of other dimensions. In some ways, the center is comparable to a university or innovation center, except that those places often circumscribe the problems that need to be solved or who can be part of the discussion. But at Pioneer Works, Yellin thinks that it is worth inviting anyone who wants to participate to an open-ended conversation.

These days, conversations at Pioneer Works tend to come back to the issue of the environment. This is driven, in part, by Yellin himself who has been fixated on sustainability for a long time. Most recently, he has been working on art projects that will draw attention to the crisis of climate change. For instance, he has plans to create an exhibit that would involve tipping over a 1,000-foot-long oil tanker vertically into a harbor. Visitors would then pay to be able to go up and down the tanker on elevators, and then visit the observation deck. Yellin says all proceeds from the exhibition—which would total an estimated $50 million a year—would go toward funding conservation projects. It would be called The Bridge, to represent the bridge from the past and the future of how we use energy.

[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

But perhaps more importantly, the artwork would serve as an educational tool: it would allow people to enter a vehicle that was initially designed to drill for oil, and by extension, contribute to the global energy industry, which has accelerated human-made climate change. Tankers have also been responsible for massive oil spills. But Yellin plans to repurpose this instrument of pollution and transform it into an instrument of conservation. “The existential crises we’re dealing with as a species are bananas,” he says. “We haven’t even begun to see what will happen to us.”

In 2016, he completed another work of art that helps us make sense of how our earth is being destroyed. Called “10 Parts,” the installation features a surreal representation of our would, complete with people, animals, and landscapes, all of which appear to be washed off the face of the planet in a flood. It’s reminiscent of Dutch and Italian art from the 1600s that portrayed the earth’s destruction from the Great Flood described in the Bible.

Yellin believes that art is an important way to spur people to be passionate about saving our earth from destruction and to stay focused on environmental causes even when fatigue sets in. But art alone is far from enough. That’s where Pioneer Works comes in, bringing scientists and entrepreneurs together to solve problems. “I did not have expectations of this space, I had delusions of grandeur,” Yellin says. “If I could build a table, I would put all the scientists and artists on one side, and all the philanthropists on the other side could fund the art and science, and that’s how we could change the world.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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