Using the power of art and science to fight climate change


Ben Whitehouse, artist and founder of SkyDay talks of his global mission and citizen art work, launched on 21 September 2017 and installed on the International Space Station in 2018, to tackle climate change.

ideaXme asks why and how he’s using the power of art and science to fight climate change. What gives him hope that this initiative will change people’s behaviour? How did he become so brave?

Audio interview with Ben Whitehouse. Scroll down for video and text version.

Ben Whitehouse, founder SkyDay

Why fight climate change?

Just some of the scientific evidence for climate change.

Scale and speed is important to fight climate change

“The question is not if the world is moving to address climate change and also realise the Sustainable Development Goals. The question is now scale and also speed if we are to avoid potentially catastrophic climate impacts, hand on a healthy planet to the next generation and seize the opportunities of a different kind of development path.” Spokesperson of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Nick Nuttall.

Is mankind progressing in its fight against climate change?

The Paris Agreement entered into force on the 4 November 2016.

The Paris Agreement is an important step. It is the first time all nations are invited to come together into a common cause to combat climate change. The main objective is to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Moreover, to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius by strengthening the global response, to increase action to combat the threat of climate change.

But a number of nations, including the USA have opted out of the Paris Agreement and those who have opted in and expressed concern for climate change need to “do more than care, they need to act”.

Interview with Ben Whitehouse, ideaXme’s YouTube Channel

The ideaXme interview

Ben Whitehouse, founder of SkyDay invites us to take responsibility and act on climate change.

We explore relationships in Ben’s professional and personal life and the circumstances that have helped drive him forward to start a worldwide movement to encourage everyone to look up at the sky. He invites us all to experience the awe of nature, to acknowledge the forces that keep us alive, to empathise and most importantly to take responsibility.

In moving himself forward to explore new avenues, he moves us all forward.

Andrea Macdonald: [00:00:00] It’s lovely to meet you. Who are you?

Using the power of art and science to work together on climate

Ben Whitehouse: [00:00:10] Every morning I wake up and I look outside the window and notice what the sky is doing, notice how the trees are moving how the seasons are evolving and I’m reminded just how remarkably unlikely it is that are all here from almost every point of view and that we get a chance to share this journey together and try to understand what it means to be a conscious being. So, I take that kind of thinking to my art studio where I am a painter and a video artist and director of SkyDay which is an educational platform and a not for profit. And we have the mission of engaging the next generation globally in an inspiring conversation about our sky and how it functions and importantly what its vulnerabilities are and promote the idea that it’s extremely important that the next generation come together as one global family living and breathing under one shared sky to work together on climate.

Inspiration from Yo-Yo Ma and The Choice

Andrea Macdonald: [00:01:23] Your main inspirations for your project are Yo- Yo Maand very early on your father and his documentary The Choice. Could you talk to us about that?

Ben Whitehouse: [00:01:39] Yes, so back in the 70s when I was very young my dad made a film, a documentary called The Choice. It was about pollution of air and water. And I remember when he came home having interviewed experts and listened to what they were telling him about the implications of our practices that he was dismayed at what he’d learned and talking about our environment thinking about our impact on ever since then has become something of a family conversation, always was.

Aspen Ideas Festival and the call to action by to Yo-Yo Ma

In 2013 when I attended Aspen Ideas Festival and heard many great conversations from some extraordinary people Yo-Yo Ma was there and he was speaking about his ideas of moving curriculum from STEM to STEAM but also what struck me greatly was his ideas about the role of the citizen artist. How can we those of us in the arts use whatever talents we’ve got to serve the next generation by engaging them and inspiring them on something that matters a great deal to us.

Ben Whitehouse: [00:03:03] I was really inspired by him. He’s an extraordinary human being of course. Serious people are thinking of him as perhaps being the greatest artist of our time like Leonardo da Vinci great because he has such breadth of talents both in his arts as a cellist of course and as a composer. I believe he composes as well but also as a humanitarian and all the extraordinary work he’s doing to help young people. He certainly has my vote.

Inviting people from all over the world to look at the sky

Ben Whitehouse: [00:03:44] There in Yo-Yo Ma’s company I had something of an idea, a vision for how I might help. I had the idea that we would invite people all over the world, especially young people, to take a few minutes to look at the sky. Think about how beautiful it is, beautiful not just to look at how dynamic it is how it connects us all by wrapping completely around the Planet as one global family living and breathing under one shared sky.

The one natural resource that we all truly experience and share

Ben Whitehouse: [00:04:14] How it isn’t something higher up there away from us. But it’s all around us it’s in your home. It’s in my art studios. It is in our schools. It’s the air we breathe, the water we drink and how as a natural resource we live in such great proximity to it. The sky, our atmosphere is the one natural resource that we all truly experience and share. You can’t really say that about rainforest experience or ocean experience or desert experience, but we can absolutely all say it about sky experience. All we have to do is look up and breathe in.

Lets go to work to take care of this great resource

Ben Whitehouse: [00:04:55] That’s how close we live in proximity to it. And that also teaches us that we all have a responsibility to it because we all impact it. Every one of us is in the room of people who must go to work to take care of this great resource for everyone’s benefit. And I’ve thought about inviting everyone to photograph the sky while they think about those things and then help create a global citizen artwork, a global mosaic of our sky that would show what the sky looks like all over the world and could conceivably become a library of sky photos that could form the basis of an interactive educational platform. That was my original idea.

Persuade people to change their behaviour and take action on climate change

Andrea Macdonald: [00:06:09] So you are creating awe and encouraging children and by association adults to wonder at the world, to wonder at the sky in ways that they have not done until now.

[00:06:29] What action would you like to happen as a result of this? Yes, as an artist it is very valuable to encourage people to stop in their tracks to look up, to appreciate the sky but what are you going to do about making people behave differently, our society change our ways. I mean Donald Trump has exited out of the Paris Agreement, the climate change agreement. That’s not good for the whole movement.

[00:07:18] What sort of action do you think needs to happen and what part would you like to play in that?

You can’t paint away the carbon and a poem can’t wish away the damage

Ben Whitehouse: [00:07:27] As an artist, Yo-Yo Ma speaks to this. Is it sensible for people like me to just stand on the sidelines and not try to help, or do we have a responsibility to try to help? So, the first step was accepting responsibility that if there was a way that art and science combined could be purposeful and could help create substantial change, I want to give it my best. Acknowledging of course, that you can’t paint away the carbon in the atmosphere and a poem can’t wish away all the damage.

SkyDay is a non-political organisation

[00:08:07] We are non-political as an organisation. Why? Because we want to invite everybody to connect to our sky and to think about these things and as soon as one becomes political one becomes divisive. We’re not affiliated with any political group, certainly not any American political group.

What impact does your vote have on climate change?

[00:08:27] We are a global organization that tries to talk about this without getting into politics. So, the question is what do we want to achieve in terms of outcomes? Well, while we are not aligned with any political group we think it’s very important that when people become adults and think about how they’re going to conduct themselves as parts of the community for those who live in countries that can vote we want to urge them to have the education that they need in order to be open and understand the implications of what their vote means regarding climate change and to vote for leaders who are offering substantial ideas about what they intend to do to help us transition from unsustainable economies and businesses to sustainable ones.

Opportunities for leadership, innovation and business

[00:09:20] So, voting intelligently with real information for those who can vote is a significant goal of ours. And thinking about how one can work oneself towards a sustainable future how can our young people become leaders in a sustainable revolution? Because one of the things we are arguing strongly because it’s absolutely true is that the inevitable transition from unsustainable economies to sustainable ones is the absolutely the greatest opportunity of their lives because everybody is going to need. It is opportunities for new leadership, for innovation, for new businesses and ultimately for a new definition of citizen. What it means to be a global ecological citizen.

Life in the Sky

Andrea Macdonald: [00:10:23] Prior to interviewing you I reacquainted myself with the Sustainable Development Goals and it was quite interesting because your focus at the moment is the sky and two of the Sustainable Development Goalsone is Life Under the Water. Another one is Life on Earth. And the third one out of the 17 is climate change. And I just saw a very interesting thing would be to use this initiative maybe inappropriate to say this now to lobby for Life in the Sky.

Ben Whitehouse:[00:11:11] Wow what an interesting idea.

Andrea Macdonald:[00:11:13] To add in the 18th to sustainable development initiative but that this just in passing and possibly would bring the whole thing into the political arena but many different nations are involved at the United Nations.

The place where the clouds hang out and the birds fly through

Ben Whitehouse: [00:11:34] By sky of course we’re talking of climate. Our sky is beautiful and of course it is an ancient word comes from the old Norwegian word from Old Norse, meaning the place where clouds hang out and birds fly through, atmosphere really. And to me the atmosphere is everything because all that we are doing goes into the atmosphere. And from that relationship of atmosphere to the Planet things result. But I take your point. Good point.

Andrea Macdonald: [00:12:23] And there are microorganisms that live in the sky. There really is life in the sky. They don’t go through and then land down on Earth again indeed.

Passion for light

Andrea Macdonald:[00:12:36] So, tell us a little more about your passion for light.

Ben Whitehouse: [00:12:45] Light to me is everything.

[00:12:50] Brian Coxthe great physicist has made a series of videos of late. And I’ll be paraphrasing him here. If you imagine about evolution and how we came to be what we are light is a key to all of it.

The evolution of the eye

[00:13:10] And those early grub’s that crawl around our planet that didn’t have photosensitive cells would have had no idea when something was coming to eat it and would not have understood why it’s warm during the day and cold at night. But with those first photoreceptive cells came a chance to avoid being eaten, perhaps find better food. As he describes, it led to an evolutionary arms race centered on the eye, bigger eyes, eyes all over the body, extraordinary evolution of the eye and today because we have eyes and can see light, we can see each other and come to know one another.

[00:13:56] We can see why the day is warmer because we can see the sun and at night we know where it’s cooler. At night we can see the stars and see how vast everything is. And today we can even measure the age of the light and understand how old everything is which gives us a whole other perspective on who we are in relation to everything else. It’s because of the light that we’re able to articulate our way in life with each other in community and on this Planet. And I find light not only beautiful but terrific in the way it reveals.

Passion for light explored in painting and video art

Andrea Macdonald: [00:14:38] You don’t just bring this alive in your painting. You have recently brought this alive in your video work, Revolutionsis an example. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Ben Whitehouse: [00:14:51] Revolutions were something of a first. I created it in 2006 24 hours long high definition digital videos all sixty-eight thousand four hundred consecutive seconds that comprise a day night cycle. I did so because as I was standing on a lake preparing for a solo show at the Grand Rapids Museum of Paintings and was dealing with the thing that all of us who paint out of doors deal with, which is the frustrating speed with which lighting changes.

Conveying the experience that I was seeing

I wondered if there was another way to convey the experience that I was seeing, all those moment to moment causal relationships that result in the way things are experienced. And it occurred to me standing on the banks of this river that it would be great if I could create a video of this. Unlike time lapsed start which takes frames in a certain period of time and then plays it back more quickly giving the appearance of time passing more quickly; I could create a sort of projection that would be like a living window or a living canvas in which everything evolved and moved in real time.

[00:16:06] In 2003 when I began to think about this, there didn’t seem to be a way to pull it off. But after a few years of experimentation in 2006 I was able to create the first one and then made a few more including one at Central Park of light changing there.

A powerful experience around the solstice

Andrea Macdonald: [00:16:21] And Stonehenge.

Ben Whitehouse: [00:16:21] Yes, that was terrific to spend four days and nights with the stones. A powerful experience and it was around solstice. So, at four thirty in the morning I was surprised, as were the druids who arrived surprised when two hundred of them led by their grand master arrived wondering what on earth I was doing and me just found they were there, but they were absolutely amazing. It was beautiful to be able to be witness to this event and there was a beautiful experience.

Rare sighting of people in Ben’s work

Andrea Macdonald:[00:16:57] When I watched that particular video it occurred to me, apart from the summer season video of your video series to accompany Vivaldi’s Four Seasons where one sees a man or woman coming into view and swimming with a seal behind them: It occurred to me that neither people, nor buildings appear in your paintings or videos. People are rare sightings in your work. Can you explain?

Seeing how the environment moves and flows as if you were the first person to see it

Ben Whitehouse: [00:17:36] In my art in general, I want to focus on the other. There’s a great deal of brilliant work being created about us, the body, our relationship to each other and about the human experience. I wanted to turn my attention elsewhere and to examine the way our environment moves and flows as if you were the first person to see it and you were alone seeing it and really meditating on it.

Influences of Maya Angelou and Vera Klement

Andrea Macdonald: [00:18:38] Can you talk about your further influences for example Maya Angelouand Vera Klementand how they have affected your life and how you paint, your approach to art?

Ben Whitehouse: [00:18:56] I was fortunate as a student at Wake Forest University, a terrific school in North Carolina to be taught by Dr. Maya Angelou. What an extraordinary and lucky opportunity for me. I took a class with her and was astounded at what an amazing human being she was. What a powerful, thoughtful, wise, creative force and a generous person. Long after the class was over, I was allowed to visit her and ask her advice about things. She mentored me.

I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me

[00:19:42] She was an amazing person who taught me many things. At the heart of her teaching was this idea that we all share a core humanity, such an important idea. She would often quote the great playwright and Terence, who in one of his plays a slave says: “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me” and in that one sentence which she would laugh at and say she wished she had written it as he saw the simplest description of what our core humanity is all about.

We each of us as human beings cannot possibly not understand another human being’s experience. That had a huge impact on me as an idea and she was a tremendous artist. Then there is Vera Klement who is here in Chicago. She is an extraordinary painter, perhaps our greatest. I have had some tremendously powerful women who have been influential in my development. It was extraordinary to be her student. Nobody has an eye quite like Vera Klement. An eye in general and an intellect and a wisdom, just extraordinary and she pushed me very hard to hone my skills and most of all think about the relationship of skills and of painting to meaning and to relevance.

The incredible people of team SkyDayProject

Andrea Macdonald: [00:21:21] The SkyDayProject is a major project for you as we said earlier, and you have some incredible people involved from Daniel Horton right the way through to Nicole Stott, an amazing woman who was until recently a NASA astronaut and is now a space artist “The Artistic Astronaut”. So, you have some amazing support.

Barriers to achieving the goals of SkyDay

[00:22:02] But what are the barriers to achieving what you would like to achieve next?

Ben Whitehouse: [00:22:10] Wow! What Are the barriers? The barriers are the human being and the time we live in. We are all incredibly busy and inundated with input. So, engagement of any kind no matter how important the subject. And let’s face it there are few things in fact that are more important than the impact we’re having on climate. If we don’t come together truly as one global family and help each other with empathy and with thought and with effort and with wisdom and creativity and with innovation. If we don’t come together in those ways to create substantial change. We’re not going to like it. Our children aren’t going to like it. Our grandchildren are going to be miserable because they will be dealing with a laundry list of outcomes.

How to engage people to create change

[00:23:12] The question is: “How do we engage people on that in a way that creates substantial change. The first obstacle is cutting through all the noise and some of the deceptions and getting people’s attention. The problem is that casual engagement is very hard in and of itself. And I think if you were to ask most people who are educated and understand what science really is who understand the same science that works your toaster and makes your car work and keeps airplanes in the air is screaming at us that climate change is happening and that the evidence is overwhelming and that the implications are astounding.

Creating substantial change to protect our climate

[00:24:04] But if you’d asked most people who have been educated, they will tell you they care about climate change. If you ask them if they care about their parents, they’ll probably say yeah of course they do and then you ask them how often they see them.

[00:24:19] But caring and acting creating substantial change is another whole level of obstacle.

The challenges of creating engagement with a depressing subject

[00:24:36] So I would say that education is a major obstacle but getting attention in the right way is a major obstacle. I just told you. As you all know as I’m sure everyone listening or watching knows the climate change laundry list is long. I didn’t mention polar bears or melting ice caps, but we could go on for hours and it’s just depressing, and it makes people feel helpless because we know we all have to do this together.

[00:25:07] It’s not great dinner conversation. Who wants to have that kind of a conversation with your kids? It’s not considered great parenting to give your children a bucket load of anxiety with no hope and solutions for the future. So, it’s an easy conversation to avoid. Engagement of any kind, even casual engagement is difficult. Engagement that leads to substantial change is difficult.

SkyDay is a day of contemplation and engagement to address climate change

[00:25:45] So we created SkyDay. It’s also a date on the calendar, the 21 September and this is a day of contemplation and engagement in our sky a day of reflection on what it is. What the science is of what’s going on up there why you should, what the implications are, what we need to do about it. So, we’re beginning this process.

SkyDay’s team of artists, scientists and engineers to fight climate change

And you’re right I have an amazing team that includes Daniel Hortonwho leads the research group at Northwestern University, the Climate Research Group. You mentioned Nicole Stott, an extraordinary human being, who’s experienced our Planet from the depths of the oceans because he is also a NASA aquanaut as if all the other things, she does aren’t enough. She’s experienced our Planet from the depths of the oceans to the heights of outer space and talks beautifully about the implications of those kinds of experiences to her and it creates a great love of the planet and our people.

SkyDay’s leading atmospheric scientist to fight climate change

Don Wuebbles, a leading atmospheric scientist is also on our team. He is a lead author for the IPCC. There’s nobody who knows more about climate atmosphere than Don. He and his panel, the IPCC was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in 2007. He is an extraordinary person to have on our team.

We also have Dan Simpson and Sam Illingworthon our team. Both are based in England. They are poet, scientists who care a great deal about these issues. Our goal is to talk to not just each other. We’d like to speak with any scientist, educator or artist who has an idea about how we can engage the next generation in projects that will be both inspiring and informative and help create substantive change.

I wish that I could paint away the Carbon in the atmosphere

I wish I had a silver bullet for it, could paint away the carbon in the atmosphere. We’d like to encourage people to vote with education, to seize the opportunities that a sustainable economy presents. It would be terrific if we can be helpful with persuading people to do that.

The importance of empathy

Andrea Macdonald: [00:28:04] So you are reaching out across the world with this idea. Empathy is important for you and particularly empathy for our Planet and its systems. You are supporting and bringing alive a very big and important idea. I’m interested in along your human journey who empathised with you, who supported you at the important times the important times to propel you forward?

The first person to propel me forward into the arts

Ben Whitehouse: [00:28:39] What a great question. Well we mentioned Maya Angelo and Vera Klement both of whom absolutely did that. The first person to do so was an art teacher in London at Pimlico School where we had a school teacher called Helena Waskowitz who had escaped from Auschwitz and was an extraordinary passionate woman who insisted on propelling me forward into the arts.

Importance of my wife’s support to move forward

Out of everyone, I would have to say that my wife, who is an extraordinarily supportive intelligent thoughtful person who challenges me to think about how I can be as purposeful and helpful as I can with this work. She’s on our board and really is the person who gave me the courage to try and to be useful for a moment and to pass on something she’s taught me to our audience. She points out regularly to me when I am struck by the fact that I don’t really know how to do what it is I’m trying to do that I am searching for answers and searching for ideas.

Pictured below left, Ben Whitehouse with his wife Judy Grimmer and right, Nicole Stott and her husband Chris Stott.

Learning a little more with each step and being brave

That’s just the way it is in life when you’re trying to do something difficult that maybe hasn’t been done before. And as she says you learn a little and you take a step. You learn a little more and then you take another step. There is no other way to move forward. So, frankly without her encouragement and her wisdom and her intelligence to speak to and to trust I would not have had the courage to do this.

Whom would Ben Whitehouse like to meet?

Andrea Macdonald: [00:30:43] You are surrounded, both in your personal and professional life, by amazing people. Out of everybody that you could meet in the world, haven’t met so far. Whom would you like to meet and what question would you like to ask that person?

Invitation to collaborate with SkyDay and fight climate change

Ben Whitehouse: [00:31:04] What a fabulous question. Thinking about the living for a moment and thinking about who I would most would like to meet and ask. It would be any artist, scientist or educator who has an idea for how we can serve the next generation globally through some kind of art science initiative. I would love to speak to you and perhaps collaborate with you to fight climate change. We would love that as the organisation SkyDay. That would be terrific.

I’d love to meet John Lennon and George Harrison

Ben Whitehouse, founder SkyDay

[00:31:42] And then thinking about people who aren’t around anymore and assuming that they would like to talk to me. (Laughs!) I would love to, I would loved to have had a chance to speak to George Harrison and John Lennon. Both were huge influences on me as young person. They had an impact on me through their music of course but also through their conversations which of course I have only experienced through television and videos. I am incredibly impressed with their talent and with their ability to tap into truth and meaning and love through their art.

[00:32:31] Wow! If they were interested in talking to me, I’d love to talk to them.

Andrea Macdonald: [00:32:37] What would you ask them? Is there a particular question?

How did you become so brave?

Ben Whitehouse: [00:32:42] Yeah, I’d like to ask them how they became so brave and how they stuck with it and how they conceived of things how they worked through ideas how they recognized good ones and discarded the not so good. Yeah, would love to talk to them about that.

Andrea Macdonald: [00:33:08] Ben Whitehouse, artist and founder of SkyDayProject, thank you very much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Ben Whitehouse: [00:33:15] You’re so kind, my pleasure absolutely. Thank you.

The Fourth National Climate Change Assessment

One week after publishing this interview The Fourth National Climate Assessment was made public. President Trump downplayed the findings.

SkyDay was first installed on the International Space Station in 2018.

Upload your photograph of the sky here: SkyDayProject

Credits: Interview by Andrea Macdonald founder ideaXme Ltd. photographed below. Video editing by Ben Whitehouse, founder SkyDay.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme

Edited by ideaXme Ltd.

The transcription of this interview has been edited to improve fluency.

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