Syracuse University Magazine


Glacial, Icecap and Permafrost Melting LIX: Lake Paron, Peru, 2008 Sayler/Morris for the Canary Project

Battling Climate Change with Art and Activism

In 2005 while living in Brooklyn, Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris read “The Climate of Man,” a series of articles on climate change by Elizabeth Kolbert that appeared in The New Yorker. Experienced collaborators in art, activism, and teaching, the married couple considered the series life-changing and were moved to action. “Those articles made us—and I don’t think this is too strong a term—morally outraged,” Morris says. “It became an imperative: We can’t just sit here!”

Sayler and Morris, now teaching in the Department of Transmedia in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, set out to do with photography what Kolbert had done with words: travel the globe and show the immediate realities of climate change. With advice from scientists and journalists, they targeted 16 sites on five continents with dramatically visible evidence of climate change. They took on extreme weather events first, photographing Hurricane Katrina’s devastation from a helicopter. They also documented rising seas and floods; droughts and forest fires; melting glaciers, ice caps, and permafrost. They found instances of human response, too: desert wind turbines near Palm Springs, California, and the intricate anti-flood network of the Netherlands. The resulting photographic series, A History of the Future, served as the foundation for their creation of the Canary Project, an ongoing, evolving multimedia research-based art initiative with the goal of deepening public understanding of climate change.

So named because they want art to act like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, warning about the dangers of what could happen with the environment, the project works in a variety of ways. In 2006, Sayler and Morris collaborated with graphic designer Dmitri Siegel for an exhibition hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver that featured Sayler’s photographs placed on city buses. “We wanted to position the photographs not just in a limited art-world context in galleries, where the main thrust of looking at them is appreciating the photographs,” Morris says. “We wanted it to be more than that.” 

They also worked with other activist-artists, such as Eve Mosher, whose project on rising seas the Canary Project helped produce. In High Water Line (2007), Mosher used a blue chalk line through some 70 miles of Brooklyn to mark the point 10 feet above sea level that some scientists project flood waters could reach there. Through its fiscal sponsor, Media Collective Inc., the Canary Project also awards direct grants annually to support relevant works. More than 30 artists, designers, writers, educators, and scientists have participated in the project, creating exhibitions, installations, educational workshops, and other initiatives. Most recently, the Nevada Museum of Art hosted an archival exhibition of project works from 2005-10.

According to Sayler and Morris, the Canary Project provides an opportunity for them to balance the “seeming impasse” between the impulses of art and activism. “We had this very activist project and we looked at the photographs and realized—they’re just not yelling, because that’s not the kind of photographs they are,” Sayler says. “So we do things like the Green Patriot Posters Project, where we can be straight-out activists.” Inspired by an exhibition of World War II-era posters that helped mobilize the public for the war effort, the Green Patriot initiative was launched in Cleveland with a series of bus ads focused on environmental sustainability, and expanded to include work drawn from a national contest. Green Patriot Posters (Metropolis Books, 2010) features 50 detachable posters and five succinct guest essays. The posters are also available online ( “It struck us that those posters do something that’s very needed now,” says Morris, an editor and contributor to the book. “They are able to valorize individual action in some kind of collective framework.”                         —Nancy Keefe Rhodes

Q & A on the Canary Project

Syracuse University Magazine contributing writer Nancy Keefe Rhodes ’73, G’89, G’06 sat down with artists Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris in their Syracuse home this past winter to discuss the Canary Project. Following is part of their conversation.

Nancy Keefe Rhodes (NKR): If you were to look back now at the Canary Project, which is five years old, going on six, what would you want to pick out that is significant?

Edward Morris (EM): My mind goes to certain turning points in the evolution of the project. So, the first moment is its genesis. That’s a very definite moment. You know, people often talk about these sort of life-changing events. We actually have a testimony to that effect. In our case, our life-changing event was reading a series of articles in The New Yorker by Betsy [Elizabeth] Kolbert about climate change called “The Climate of Man.”

Susannah Sayler (SS): They’re in a book now, called Field Notes from a Catastrophe.

EM: Elizabeth Kolbert’s articles were completely transforming for us in the following way: that climate change was one of those issues that percolate up in the press every now and again and then get pushed back in your mind to somewhere. Those articles made us—I think it’s not too strong to say—morally outraged about the discrepancy between political and public will and scientific understanding on the issue. They were very, very good at articulating that gap. The way that she went about articulating that gap was in going to these different places in the world and showing how climate change is happening now and talking to people on the front lines of understanding what its implications are. Our thought was—it became a sort of imperative—we can’t just sit there. We felt that what we could contribute in the beginning was to organize the photography project—to do with photography what Betsy was doing with journalism, which was going places around the world and showing the immediacy, the presence, the reality of climate change. And that’s how the project started.

SS: In the end we photographed about 12 locations. For very practical reasons, we did the most complicated ones toward the end, when we were fund raising more successfully and had developed contacts who could help us with these things. This image [on their dining room wall] is from a three-week shoot in the Andes looking at the disappearance of glaciers and the impact that has on the desert coast of Peru, where most of the population lives and depends on glacial runoff for drinking water, farming, hydroelectric power. It was quite a complete story. As we began exhibiting this work, I think something that’s really key to this and other projects is that we didn’t want to limit the kinds of venues where people would normally find this work.

EM: That’s kind of the second transformative moment—realizing that we wanted to position the photographs not just in a sort of limited art-world context, where they’re in galleries and really the main thrust of the activity of looking at them is appreciating the photographs. We wanted it to be more than that—we wanted to have diverse contexts for diverse demographics.

SS: The first exhibition of the images was on the sides of buses in Denver, through a program at the Denver contemporary art museum called “Creative Acts That Matter.” They worked with us to do a series of billboards, and we collaborated with a very talented graphic designer named Dmitri Siegel to design the ads. That was very early on. We had maybe shot four locations at that point.

EM: That makes way for the third transformative moment—understanding that we wanted to collaborate with other people and foster other projects that were really rooted in these collaborations. The initial collaboration was in these bus ads where we worked with a graphic designer. And then, branching out from there, all of a sudden we were sponsoring other projects.

NKR: So you actually provide funding for some people?

SS: We do now. In the past, we provided funding in a limited way for a long time, and provided services much more in helping artists to promote and shape projects. Then we established a grant program that was more formal. To begin with, there were some funds, but it was a lot more services, and conversations.

EM: I think one thing that allowed this project to evolve in this way was that the ends continue to be more important to us than the means. So that kept us open to opportunities to try to figure out what the best means were to achieve our ends. And the ends are, you know, deepening public understanding of climate change.

SS: It occasionally made us start going down roads that we realized, at some point, were probably not for us. For a short time there was interest in making a television program about the project. In the end it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like us—the kind of commercialization we would really have to do, the spin we would have to put on it, to exist in that world. And about that time, in 2008, we had a big thing happen: We were nominated and then given a fellowship at the Loeb [at Harvard Graduate School of Design]. That took us out of our lives as they were going to go along in New York City and put us into this academic institution and gave us time to do a lot of work and research. We’re now much more focused on research-based artwork and very often when we do a new project it has some kind of educational-pedagogical element. We taught a workshop at Parsons [School of Design] last fall that resulted in an exhibition of work we made ourselves and with a group of students from going to the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. And it felt like kind of the whole package to me. It was a workshop; there was an exhibition, work was made, and there was a lot of conversation with the community and experts around the Gowanus Canal.

NKR: Can you say more about the Gowanus Canal?

SS: It’s a very, very polluted body of water, a Superfund site now, and we were looking at it in connection to an exhibition. We took an expedition on the canal with the students. We were responding to an exhibition of works on climate change that came out of an expedition to the Arctic by some really famous, well-known artists. So we were doing our own expedition on a body of water that is, in fact, vulnerable to climate change too, because it’s very low-lying and often floods and it’s so polluted that it’s very problematic for the neighborhood.

EM: That evolution Susannah’s describing rounds out the transformative moments. That’s the last one that I can kind of identify where we looked back on the projects that we’ve been doing to reflect and realize that certain avenues were not as productive for us, or were kind of off-brand, I guess, in a way? We did the Gowanus Canal project and realized that what we’re interested in is a core of research-based projects that have to do with the collection and distribution of knowledge. That serves our mission of deepening public understanding of climate change. And I think those words—“deepening public understanding of climate change” —are an accurate description of what we think we can actually do. Other missions have really outlandish claims about what they think they can do. We don’t claim to be single-handedly transforming society. What we’re doing is contributing to deepening knowledge, I think. I think that’s a good role for the arts in this kind of discourse. And that holds true for the project that we’ve given a grant to this year by Christina Seely—the Markers of Time project, which is a photography and video project that looks at the impact of climate change in more extreme latitudes —the Arctic and tropical latitudes—and explores ways to visualize how that’s ultimately going to creep into the middle latitudes where most of the world’s nations live. That’s really the ultimate challenge, because people think of climate change as this far-off thing. It’s always the Arctic, it’s always polar bears, it’s always melting ice—not about societies and civilizations. And that’s really the core of the issue.

NKR: You know, many people here in Central New York weren’t worried for many years about the kind of winter we’re having. Instead, people like not having such cold and snowy winters and sometimes they would say, “If this is global warming, that’s OK with me!” I think it didn’t begin to shift for many people until we began to have those horrible freak storms in the summer.

SS: We’ve heard about some of those.

NKR: You’ve probably heard about the 1998 Labor Day storm here. It blew the roofs off some pretty good-sized buildings. I had been in Rhode Island over Labor Day and was driving home on the Thruway and about 50 miles east of here, began to see twisted trees and debris on the road. I thought, “My God, what happened?” Taking away our bad winters didn’t seem to bother people. But this freakish, extreme storm was a turning point.

SS: As academics, we think about ideas of “the sublime” a lot. It’s when the real force of nature can be felt that all of a sudden people perk up. It’s not just something nice, like a national park that people can enjoy. One of the things nature can do is give a sense of awe or power. And in some cases, the beauty too, layered on top of those things.

EM: I think the fear component is interesting. It’s become a kind of commonplace notion that fear in the environmental discussion is something we should avoid. And I think that’s completely inaccurate. I don’t know where that came from—some sort of marketing sensibility? Some kind of polling data that was translated into this truism? What’s not good is if fear stays as fear. What you want to do is translate fear into some sense of urgency, or even anger. That’s how a movement takes root. But without the fear, there’s usually no motivating force. We had an astonishing moment in the Netherlands a couple summers ago, where we went to investigate this notion that the Netherlands is the paradigm of climate change planning—which they’re often held up to be and often are. In the Netherlands, they plan like a thousand years in advance for some things. It’s really different from us. So we did a presentation on our project there and the room was filled with dignitaries, academics, heads of departments. There was just sort of silence and then finally someone raised his hand and said, “Why do you insist on talking about fear? In the Netherlands we have no fear.” And I said, “What are you talking about, you have no fear? Of course you have fear. Why do you build these huge dikes if you have no fear? What is that generated from?” They insisted there was no anxiety or fear in the country. And it was patently false to me. I think fear is a very important first, or prime, emotion that needs translation. Again, that’s another place in the conversation where art has a service to perform in somehow translating that fear, so that it’s not unadulterated, paralyzing fear, but a kind of fear that connects to urgency and anger.

NKR: While you were Loeb Fellows at Harvard, you wrote about your work, “We have long been troubled by the seeming impasse between the impulses of art and the impulses of activism.” It seems to me this work would not have the strength it does if it weren’t coming from artists. There is this sense of the sublime you’ve just talked about that you don’t get, say, in most conventional, straightforward, informational documentary filmmaking, for example.

SS: They have to be “unbiased,” yeah.

EM: It doesn’t mean there isn’t the capacity. The documentary as a medium can articulate the sublime, but that is the core of our work. That is the core in terms of finding a way with the project in its evolution, and it dictated a lot about finding a way to balance these two pressures—activism and artistic impulses—that feel like they’re tearing us apart, actually.

SS: There’s a point at which we both felt, I think, we had this very activist project and we looked at the photographs and we were like, they’re just not yelling. We need to yell! That’s not the kind of photographs they are. Actually, I think, they work in a different way, which is not to denigrate them. We gave up on asking them to yell. We’re satisfied with the kind of work they do. I think they work in a more contemplative way and also work very well with other kinds of research material. That’s part of the reason we want to do things like the Green Patriot Posters Project, too, where we can just be straight-out activists. 

EM: But in every project, we’re combating this prejudice that feels ancient, but is actually a relatively recent historical development—where art is regarded as being autonomous, where art is in its own sphere: “Art for art’s sake.” If it’s thought to have any kind of rhetorical purpose, then it can’t possibly be expansive in the way that art is supposed to be. I think these notions are, frankly, they’re…

SS: Bourgeois.

EM: They’re bourgeois! They’re bourgeois in an historical sense. But there is a reasonable ground of critique for art projects, I think, where, to be in the realm of art, we don’t want art to be reductive. The problem with a lot of activism is that it’s necessarily reductive. It’s about consolidation of power. It’s about reducing the message so that many people can get behind it, and there’s a certain level of untruth in that reduction. And with art you want to respect complexity, you want to be truthful, and art has to keep what I call “ricochet effect.” It has to keep bouncing around in your head. It has to not close off. So I think it’s a reasonable critique to look at an art project and say it doesn’t succeed in doing that. And how you keep that ricochet going while still being productive in the discourse—that’s the thing we’ve been trying to figure out. And I think we’re still figuring it out.

NKR: Well, tell me about the Green Patriot Posters Project.

EM: It’s a many-faceted project, like the Canary Project itself. It has a book. By itself, it’s grown sort of organically. It had a very clear original impetus. We had an exhibition of the photographs at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and just down the hall there was an exhibition of World War II posters. It struck us that the World War II posters did something that’s very needed now. That is, they were able to valorize individual action in some kind of collective framework. It made people feel they were a part of something and that’s something photographs can’t do. So we thought it would be a real relief to have this kind of outlet, where we could speak directly in this poster-manifesto-propaganda language. That was the motivation to kind of recreate some of that World War II spirit today. So we’ve launched the project, initially as a series of bus ads. We got this great, well-known designer named Michael Bierut to design the logo for the project.

SS: And then we had a grant to do bus ads in Cleveland [on 60 buses]. Doing research in Cleveland, we found out that green jobs are a big deal in Ohio because of the loss of manufacturing jobs. So it was focused on that.

EM: So again, all we knew was that we wanted to solicit designs from designers to do this work and the first opportunity was these bus ads. We wanted to use the bus ads to create a dialogue. We had volunteers and we rode the buses and talked to people about what these posters meant. Ultimately, the success of a project like this is getting media attention as much as it is impacting the people directly. We used that media attention to get additional funding to create a web site []. We started doing posters, we started doing workshops, and we did this book.

SS: And the project started getting accolades in the design community.

EM: But this is not the point, to me. Well, in some ways, it’s the point, because it inserts this message into this context, so that people who are going to this show remember this is important. But to me this is not as important as translating this kind of authority that we get from being in these major shows into funding that gives us more direct access to people. In some ways workshops feel like the most important thing we do—where with kids, we teach them about sustainability and they design posters, like we’ve been doing in New York City.

SS: These are things that a lot of people can identify with. You know, the food and the transportation, so it’s very accessible.

EM: We got this question a lot in the beginning, “Why are you working with posters? Posters don’t mean anything anymore.” But they totally do! In the Green Patriot Posters Project book, that’s in the chapter called “The Persistence of Posters.”

NKR: People love posters.

EM: Exactly. Whether you print them out—and some people do print them out still, but even if you don’t, they have a much wider distribution virtually. The challenge in designing these images is the same as designing images in the 1940s. That is, you have to make it so it’s immediately readable, and it’s readable at a thumbnail size. When you look at these images, almost all of them are readable at a thumbnail size, that’s the size they get distributed on the web, as opposed to trying to see it from across the street, which was the challenge in the ’40s.

NKR: So, tell me a little bit about yourselves. You’ve been teaching here a couple years?

SS: This is the second year. We came here in 2010.

NKR: After Harvard?

SS: No, there was a year in between—we were visiting artists in Indiana, at the University of Georgia. We had a year on the road after that, when we were at some different academic institutions and then came here. I teach in the Department of Transmedia, in VPA [the College of Visual and Performing Arts]. I really like my position because I share it between the photography area and transmedia. I teach photography classes, but also the studio courses that are focused on interdisciplinary work. This gets students to work across disciplines and think outside the silo of their chosen media. And for spring semester, I was able to propose and teach a class called Field Studies, where we look at place and try to get students to think about the place beyond the surface, which isn’t something that young artists often do. They take a picture of it, but they don’t really dig in deeper, so I’m really looking forward to that. Before that, we lived in New York for many years. And we met in undergrad so we’ve been collaborators for a very long time.

EM: I do a combination of teaching and going to school. I’m getting a degree in video. So I teach some and learn some. Next fall, I’m teaching a class in the sublime, actually, in transmedia, as a special topic course. But my background is a bit strange, I guess. For a number of years prior to starting the Canary Project, I was a partner in a firm that did investigation—I was a private investigator. We did investigations for financial institutions and governments and law firms. Prior to that, I was a Ph.D. candidate in translating Japanese poetry.

NKR: So, you’ve really crossed silos.

EM: I guess the same way the project has grown organically, my life has. I’ve always just done what’s interesting and compelling. Definitely the way the Canary Project developed was shaped by my experience investigating. For the first few years of the project, I was still a partner in this firm and I never intended for this to become my life’s work. It was something we did because we were compelled to do it. Really it was a photography project, and Susannah was a photographer, and I was kind of helping organize it. But that meant getting together a team, because if you’re conducting an investigation you’ve got to get together a team. If you need experts, you talk to experts and get the facts straight and investigate. Then part of my job as an investigator was distributing information and determining what channels this information should go to.

NKR: Well, you really were doing fieldwork in knowledge.

EM: Right! It’s knowledge gathering. It’s fact-based knowledge gathering. It’s the same thing. The nature of a fact is a bit more complex here, but it’s the same idea. Inevitably, you’re going to reach the audience. Ninety-nine percent of the audience will be people who are already interested in this topic. You get that 1 percent, that’s great. But I do think there’s an issue in galvanizing people. That’s why we use the word “deepening”—deepening in commitment is an issue. But that 50 percent of the population that doesn’t believe climate change is caused by humans? Somehow laying out a PowerPoint and they’ll become convinced—that’s not possible.

SS: Another thing about this problem is the assumption that their products do all the work. You know, whatever it is they put out in the world. I am interested in a more aware artist in the process of creating the work, so that what they do while they make their work also becomes productive—working in the community, or doing research—and the relationships that are made during that.

EM: It’s changing culture. You’re shoving, pushing culture in the right direction. And that changes what’s normal. That’s how you capture some of that 50 percent who don’t believe climate change is caused by humans.

SS:  We teach a class in transmedia that’s called Non-Traditional Modes, which is all about convincing students to go out and do works that don’t involve just making a product and maybe putting it on a wall. Getting them, for example, to maybe do a residency somewhere and really their experience in that place is the work. They make something at the end probably, or maybe they don’t. Maybe their work is actually being out in the world doing some project, making public art, where they’re not sequestered away, where their process is really as important as anything. There’s this feeling that the artwork has to be able to go everywhere and speak to everyone. Like, there it is, it can go to the MoMA, it can go to the Hammer Museum in L.A., and it serves the same purposes in all those places. But what if the work is really much more modest and it’s about the 20 people you work with while you’re making it? Just thinking about that as a possibility or a mindset is a shift I’m interested in introducing to my students. It actually takes some pressure off them, where they’re not, like, “If I don’t have my piece in the MoMA, I’m nothing!” Actually, there’s a lot of other work to be done as an artist that doesn’t have going to MoMA as the end goal.

NKR: What did I not ask you that you’d like me to ask you?

SS: Well, we’re really excited about the [Canary Project] archive. The Nevada Museum of Art has something called the Center for Art + Environment and it’s just great that this exists. They’re collecting archives of the work of individuals working on art and the environment. The Canary Project archive is there now and growing. When someone takes your archive, it kind of implies you’re done, though ours is actually growing there. But what we’ve done to date is gone and we have an exhibit from the archive that’s opening there in January. We’re excited about that.


Lake Paron (above) represents one of the first water storage projects in central Peru. Rainwater is collected in the lake during the rainy season and siphoned off during the dry season. Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris (left) in the Netherlands, 2010.


In 2010, the Canary Project teamed up with faculty and students in COLAB, the University's collaborative design laboratory, for a sustainability awareness project. Teams of students put their design and communication skills to work to raise student awareness and inspire involvement in the University’s sustainability goals.