Artist, designer, academic and activist Professor Helen Storey has created a fashion installation designed to send a powerful message about environmental change and the plight of refugees to delegates passing through the Eurostar terminal on their way to COP21, the Paris Climate Conference starting today.
Called Dress For Our Time, the installation is constituted of three elements: humanity, represented by a UNHCR tent returned from a refugee camp in Jordan; technology, using data to create a visualisation of future environmental change in collaboration with Holition; and nature, symbolised by the branches of a tree.
i-D caught up with fashion activist Helen Storey to find out more about COP21, the story of her powerful installation and the future of our planet.
What is the COP21 climate change conference, and what does it hope to achieve?
It's called COP21 because it's the 21st attempt to try and do something meaningful around climate change. It's quite interesting when I hear young people talking about it; one said to me, "The world has been trying to get this right for as long as I have been alive". What each country is going to offer, in terms of how it's going to limit its CO2 emissions, has already been decided, so this is the event where that becomes public.
Tell us more about the refugee tent used in the installation?
When I was looking around for the material, what struck me was that every time I looked at the news, all I could see were UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] tents everywhere, and I realised that what I was looking for was a fabric of humanity, a fabric that had been affected by human life. UNHCR UK said, this is going to be really difficult, there is no precedent for tents ever coming back, they only ever go, they don't come back and they're never not used, so actually the search for the tent and where it's come from and who's lived in it has become part of the story.
It comes from a camp in Jordan, a 66,000 tented city, one of the biggest cities now in Jordan is a UNHCR tented city and it belonged to a family of six who had walked from Syria to Jordan and the bottom part of the tent had fallen into disrepair, so in effect it was a roof with nothing under it, it was deemed beyond use, and that's the one they shipped back to me.
How can fashion change the way we think about climate change?
What I've realised in this project is that [using fashion] has allowed us to gain trust from people that don't normally talk to each other, organisations that don't normally talk to each other. I go in and say, "Can I make a frock out of this please?" and actually they are so disarmed by the fact that I'm coming to talk about fashion and clothing, but because I'll ask questions, because I'm interested in more than just fashion, in what it can do, not what it tells us to buy, we then have conversations that wouldn't have happened in any other circumstances.
The project is about 70 human beings who have stood up as individuals, irrespective of who they're employed by and what they are and are not allowed to say, because they also recognise that change is needed. What I am learning is that human beings know how to make these changes but big institutions don't. So I need to keep working in ways that keep those human beings connected, open and enthusiastic about trying different ways to get things working in unexpected ways, and that's where that fashion element could change conversations that, on the face of it, are so much more serious than it.
What does the data visualisation part show?
The first phase is 'Our planet now,' what you'd recognise as the planet in any geography class, then it fades out to nothing -- which correlates to 'If we don't do enough' -- because it's not the case that we're going to do nothing, we are going to do something, it's just whether collectively it will be enough; and then what comes up in red lights are places unaffected by climate change, but basically the point is that it's almost unrecognisable as a world.
The data comes from the Met office, they selected it for us. It's based on a global scientific study, the contributions of scientists from all over the world, and it's looking at the major shifts in ecosystems on our planet. The result of that [environmental change] is that there will come a time when people can no longer live in those places, which leads to migration and brings those two issues together.
What are the effects on the areas that will face environmental change?
They're multiple. So it will depend on whether they're coastlines or inland. From coastal erosion and sea rise, inland it could be water shortages, it could be migration or extinction of species, it could be things that stop food growing, so you get food security issues.
How have people reacted to the installation?
I had a comment this morning, someone said, "Fucking hell, that's our obituary!" and another very sweet couple said, "We're from Cyprus, where's Cyprus?" -- and of course, Cyprus isn't really there in the final visualisation.
Is there hope that the planet can be saved?
Yes! Absolutely. I've realised that, whenever I see something that I couldn't previously have imagined, I experience it as hope, so I'm then reminded that actually we are a uniquely ingenious species, but I think we've been distracted by all sorts of other things. We are more than capable of getting ourselves out of this. We probably need more women in the mix, we probably need less attraction to power and all the things that we've become addicted to; but we are absolutely capable of it.