Changing minds in the age of changing climate

Together We Start

Purin Phanichphant uses interactive art to personalize the issue of climate change for viewers and create a lasting impact in their lives. 

Related Topics:
Climate, Colleges & Education, Past Storyfest Entries, Sustainability

The young boy turned the crank as fast as he could, but he couldn’t lower the glowing red number on the screen that slowly increased before him, no matter how hard he tried. He desperately looked around the room and ran up to five adult strangers, tugging on shirtsleeves and tapping elbows, dragging them in front of the five empty cranks in front of the red numbers. He began turning the crank again and the grown-ups started turning too, the number lowering with the combined power of the six cranks. Purin Phanichphant, the artist who designed this interactive piece called Connect Our Efforts, wanted to illustrate that collaboration is key to combating climate change. He smiled when he recounted the story, telling me that he hoped to illicit this kind of response with his artwork.

Global temperature change
A team of exhibition visitors works together to lower the projected global temperature. This is the type of collaboration Phanichphant believes is necessary to combat the effects of climate change (Purin Phanichphant).

“The exhibits I remember most as a kid were at the Exploratorium,” he explained. “When I got to really interact with something, it stayed with me.” His goal is similar experiences- wonder and engagement- through installations that are “simple, playful, and interactive.”As an interactive artist, he wants to create exhibits with a universal appeal so that that everyone young, old, rich poor, can understand and interact with his work. Phanichphant views design as a tool to help people solve problems. With this outlook, he decided to apply his design thinking to his artistic endeavors and see what problems he could tackle.

One of the issues he felt was drastically under-covered in the 2016 presidential election was climate change. Armed with a robust education in both human-computer interaction and product design, as well as his “superpower” for making abstract things tangible, Phanichphant decided he was going to tackle the issue of climate change.

Stories are better than logic

That December, he had an exhibition in Matsudo, Japan called Too Slow to See. He realized that the best way to make your work accessible is to know your audience. Before he started thinking about what to build, he thought about the best way to get to know the audience he was trying to connect with. He began talking to as many people as possible to get an insight on the Matsudo culture, synthesizing that into information he could use for his projects.

He brainstormed with post-its plastered on the walls, connecting personal stories with larger ideas, dialogue with inspiration, thoughts and feelings with broader social patterns and norms. Phanichphant saw patterns between micro and macroscopic perspectives, gaining a deeper insight to what would really get through, not to just the citizens of Matsudo, but to people everywhere.

Too slow to see change
​The planning process for Too Slow to See involved an understanding of cultural attitudes and dynamics as well as problems on a global scale. Understanding how these variables interact is key to creating art that resonates with viewers and, on a broader scale, ensures that those who receive your message are receptive to it (Purin Phanichphant).

“The first idea I had was that stories and feelings have a greater impact than logic,” he explained, an idea that exemplifies not only this series of works on climate change but in his current approach to education as well. Phanichphant uses a “user-centric” approach when he teaches marketing at the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation at UC Berkeley. This perspective contrasts with the often-used product-centered approach, where students will often try to sell something by extolling its features and benefits. Phanichphant instead wants students to use a narrative approach to describe how the product can improve lives and and solve problems. He explained that storytelling was a crucial skill to have and it allows the artist to better connect with the people that view their work. People can read information in words and numbers, but stories are what stick with them. This insight was the foundation for the In Three Emojis exhibit, in which visitors shared thoughts on climate change with emojis rather than words, like in the example below. ​

With only three emojis to convey one’s attitude towards climate change, people were forced to distill their thoughts and succinctly explain it in three characters. This challenge guides participants to truly think about their relationship to the environment (Purin Phanichphant).

Local is better than global

“The second thing I realized was that local is more important than global,” meaning that what people see around them is what they will care about. It’s immediate. It’s present. It’s what affects our friends and our families. He needed to find a way to make climate change less of a “global” problem and more of an issue people felt connected to.

Thus, he designed Feel the Warming, an exhibit in which a museum-goer stuck his or her head in the middle of a model of Matsudo, and a heat lamp would stimulate the warming effects carbon emissions have on his or her hometown.

Feel the warming
A citizen of Matsudo spends time in a heated model of his town of residence, connecting the global phenomena of climate change to a place with which he has social, economic and cultural ties  ​(Purin Phanichphant). 

Action is better than talking

The third insight was that action was more effective than talking. He created Together We Start, or what he refers to as “a piece of art in exchange for a promise.” Each person who interacts with the piece takes a small cartoon drawn by the artist with a pledge on the back, to do something small like eat less meat or bring a reusable bag grocery shopping. Over time, as more and more people take the drawings off the wall, a message is revealed: Together We Start. Just talking about climate change won’t do much to lessen our impacts. Taking the first steps to reducing one’s carbon footprint while we see how we are a part of a larger effort to reduce our carbon footprint gives us some perspective on how our individual pledges combine to a greater promise to save the planet.

Together we start
Participants choose various pledges, inscribed with a small cartoon on the front, that are small steps for a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle (Purin Phanichphant).

Many is better than one

The final thing Phanichphant wanted to emphasize was that many was greater than one. This inspired his piece Connect Our Efforts, the piece that catalyzed the enthusiastic participation of the young boy in the gallery. This piece illustrates the hopelessness of tackling the challenge of climate change alone and the possibility of real impact when we work together.

The importance of collaboration is the thesis behind the next project he was a part of: Air Miners. While giving a presentation on his interactive exhibits in Matsudo, Phanichphant was approached to join the team as a designer. “Instead of thinking of carbon as a burden, Air Miners frames it as something we can mine, an opportunity,” he explained, comparing it to gold.

The website itself is an index of all the companies working to reduce carbon emissions, bringing people that care about the issue together. “It’s another way to make the abstract tangible. Before this website, a lot of these companies didn’t know anything about each other,” he said.

Even though this is a niche organization, he hopes this idea of bringing people together based on a demonstrated need and a desire to help the planet trickles down and creates jobs and awareness in other places.

The echo chamber

It may seem like Phanichphant has reached all his goals, but he has one big problem: he’s trapped in the echo chamber. “In the context of art and design and even academia… the majority is on the liberal side of things, and it made me think of how my art wasn’t really changing the minds of people who don’t care.”

Hence the echo chamber, where we bounce our ideas in a space of like-minded people while people who have other priorities, whether that’s people who are struggling to survive or people who prioritize getting rich over everything else, are outside our bubble. His next step is using a design process to answer his own question: “What’s the most effective way to change minds in the age of changing climate?”

Purin Phanichphant
​Purin Phanichphant is a San Francisco based artist and designer whose wide range of interactive exhibits include a series of pieces about climate change to artificial intelligence. He currently teaches at the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation at UC Berkeley (Purin Phanichphant).


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