Green light - An artistic workshop is an experiment that Olafur Eliasson and the TBA21 team have been developing for several years. The first Green light workshop, which began in Vienna in February 2016, started transforming lives upon inception, our lives and the way immigrants’ lives are perceived by the general public. Now, as it gains traction, it is becoming a true agent of change. Olafur and I are always asking ourselves what we can do to address the most challenging and urgent issues of our time and bring about social transformation. We are both dedicated to the environment, climate change, and the oceans, but somehow the refugee crisis is a human crisis that touches us deeply and at the same time touches on all of the above.
The refugee crisis came to Vienna in the summer of 2015 with countless people struggling through the long walk. Some arrived by train but most on foot. We rushed to the hubs, where we could distribute clothing and food, and NGOs were overwhelmed by the generosity of the Austrians. This tone held up for a long while. Austria has accepted many waves of refugees over the centuries. It is part of the country’s rich heritage. At TBA21 we held meetings where emotions ran high. We wanted to offer the exhibition space at Augarten as a refuge. That is when we first came across regulations that make everything incredibly complicated. It was inconceivable how difficult the government made it to offer basic shelter. And although we have a residency building, several kitchens, and bathrooms, you would be amazed to know that that simply was not good enough.
Working through these technicalities and all the legal aspects of this project as we moved forward was about 50 percent of the effort overall. While we were battling the impossible, Olafur had been working with TBA21 on a workshop idea. We had long wanted to create a participatory project, a production line of sorts. We sat down together to talk about ways to respond to the situation, and out of that conversation Green light evolved. Now, instead of simply housing the refugees, we would be able to perform a much more valuable function that would engage them, help them integrate, teach them European languages and about our culture, and do even more as the project evolved.
Green light offers practical and humanistic solutions to the refugee problem in an open and generous way. This makes change possible. It is not only we who have to change; it is the system we live in and by. It is simply no longer relevant. It was built over three generations of relative peace and prosperity for Europe, but now we are somehow not living in a time of peace and independence. And as we are already experiencing, walls are going up, and there has been a huge swing to the right. A populist backlash is on the rise, and we are even seeing nuclear tensions reminiscent of the 1980s. Depending on where you live, this can be outright terrifying, way more terrifying that the faces of the families trying to make their way to a better life.
As Al Gore has said, the will to act is a renewable resource. It is not an act of charity; it is participatory and mandatory in these times of conflict and fear. We need to let these projects grow and grow with them. We need to understand that art can be that transformational agent that binds us to a new world that is rooted in ethics. We have created a locus where politics are not left at the door but are invited in to be challenged by the creative energy of hope and transformation.
Olafur and I feel aligned in our desire not only to raise awareness but also to influence policy making on a larger scale. How do we work toward that goal and find the opportunities that help shift public opinion and develop a new language that describes action and shifts in political thinking? From my side, I have committed the work of TBA21 to the most pressing topics of today, not only in a descriptive fashion but also by applying the language of art to concrete actions and solution finding. It’s a turning point for the foundation as it increasingly looks at becoming an agent of change. I find that bringing ourselves to reevaluate just about everything regarding the way we engage in the world is a good and very necessary thing to do, as apathy begins to feel increasingly dangerous. Green light is part of this process, and so is everyone who participates in its workshop in any way. Green light is not to be gazed at; it is to engage with!
It is a wonder for me that it has been twelve years since Olafur Eliasson and TBA21, together with David Adjaye, inaugurated Your black horizon, a cross-disciplinary project between art, architecture, and landscape. I remember the beauty of the collaboration between these great giants of art and architecture, a pavilion aligned with the horizon line of the lagoon, brought forward to us by the infinite sound of the water slapping against the seawall of the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni. Here we wanted to bring the magic of the line of infinity into a defined space, and now we are turning the Exhibition Pavilion in Venice into a global space dedicated to peace and integration. As Timothy Morton says in his wonderfully crafted article that follows this meek attempt to contextualize this project: “I like Olafur Eliasson very much because he makes things in social space that allow us to feel all kinds of wiggle room. And he does it in a very non-conceptual way, which is to say, the things he makes are wholes that are less than their parts, because you can use them in all kinds of ways!” He has given me food for thought because I have always believed that the sum of the parts is bigger than the whole, but again, what makes that true? By reversing that age-old concept, we may begin to understand how making a difference is possible.