The Madison-based artist explains his plans for the local edition of the worldwide protest event on September 20.
Artist Victor Castro’s focus on environmental issues has often played out in ambitious, community-powered sculpture projects that use often-discarded materials, including bike-tire tubes and aluminum cans. His fixation on climate change in particular has only intensified over the years, and so has his frustration about art’s ability to make a difference, as leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere drag their feet hard enough to go backwards. Castro’s 2016 installation at the massive Municipal art show paired maniacally angry music with haunting sculptures meant to represent corporate executives who fund climate denial while blasting hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.
It became so urgent to Castro, who grew up in Mexico and initially trained as a painter, that he’s turning away from sculpture and picking up a brush again. For the Madison chapter of the Global Climate Strike on September 20, Castro is painting 120 bedsheets to create a piece that is meant to become one with the protest. Each sheet will bear two pieces of information: Some date in the recent past, and the parts per million of carbon dioxide measured in Earth’s atmosphere on that date. He’s downloaded the data from actual climate researchers, and frequently refers to a spreadsheet on a tablet mounted to a workbench in the Dane Arts Mural Arts workshop on the east side, his studio for now. The plan is for teams of four people to carry each sheet-sign into the streets of downtown Madison during the Climate Strike.
“A small group of people—480—can occupy the space of thousands,” Castro says. The big block letters on the sheets, first outlined from stencils and then tediously filled in with black paint, draw inspiration from conceptual artist On Kawara’s Today series. (When I visited Castro and Dane Arts Mural Arts apprentice Lucy White, a junior at Shabazz City High School, this Monday, they were just four signs in, filling in the black letters with surprisingly delicate strokes.) There isn’t a lot of context on a big sheet that just says “405.59 SEP 18,” but put together, they’re meant to get people to reflect on the fact that we’ve done so little about climate change, even though the signs have been clear for decades.
“A lot of people from environmental groups told me, ‘Hey, nobody’s going to understand what those numbers are, you need to say CO2, there,'” Castro says. “And I said, ‘No, we don’t need that, we can explain that part.'”
The letters are large enough that they’ll also make a clear statement to legislators in the Capitol, and staff in Madison Gas and Electric’s downtown office, even in the very likely event that all those people stay inside. He points out that Governor Tony Evers’ plan to wean Wisconsin off of fossil fuels by 2050 is too incremental, and that so is MG&E’s stated commitment to generate 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
“People are not going to come down to read our messages. We want to show them just to the windows, the data,” Castro says. “They know what those numbers mean. They’re just ignoring them.”
Castro is mostly looking to recruit volunteers to carry the sheets on the day of the March—those interested can reach him through Facebook or Instagram. He’s also in need of more sheets, queen- or king-sized, preferably solid colors.
There’s an obvious “wake up!” message implied in using bedsheets, but Castro thinks the sheets can also reflect a commitment to the future and remind people of all the privileges they’ve enjoyed that the next generation might not. “What we do in bed, we sleep, we dream, we rest, we make more people,” he says. Castro has a three-year-old child now, and being a parent has only made him more zealous about tackling the climate emergency.
When discussing the in-the-works piece, Castro uses the word “grumpy” over and over again. As dire as the situation is, he does not want his response to it to come off as grumpy. “If I ask you to come to a protest, and then you just see me with a grumpy sign that says ‘act for climate change’…a lot of people don’t feel comfortable with that,” he says. “What I’m asking for is more of a dance piece, a performance piece. It’s like, bring our sheets outside, let’s talk about our sheets.”
And: “What we are trying to do is something nice, not grumpy, funny, bold, attractive.”
And: “Just be conscious of what you’re doing and do it with love, don’t do it because some grumpy migrant artist told you. Do it for your kids.”
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