The Story of the APE Whales      

by Kenny Young

Artists Project Earth has been one of the leading independent funders of climate change projects in the UK and the world over the past 10 years. After a decade of grant distribution and supporting over 360 climate change related projects around the globe, we decided to do something a little different in 2015: to create our own major awareness-raising art project – after all, we are Artists Project Earth.

We wanted to create our own art installation – after all, we are Artists Project Earth

As a central crucial topic, we wanted to show how climate change affects the planet’s oceans. But in creating such a project our own brief was to do it in the most aesthetic, sustainable and artistic way we could. We chose as our model, the largest animal that has ever existed on the planet – and one that, despite humankind’s desecration of the natural world, is fortunately still with us – The Blue Whale. We wanted to create a life-size whale so that visitors could climb into the internal body of the giant eco-friendly cetacean and be greeted by displays depicting the beauty of the oceans (on an array of video screens) whilst also communicating the tremendous threats to marine life. It was to be a ‘swim’ through the world of the oceans encapsulated within a whale; visitors would see the wonders of marine life, while also becoming acutely aware of the ugliness and devastation of oil spills, coral reef destruction, plastics pollution, acidification, etc. We envisioned through our artistic presentation, a full-on interactive participation, especially for the younger audiences.

It was to be a ‘swim’ through the world of the oceans

In anticipation of this project and as groundwork, in August 2013 APE joined 70,000 people from around the world in Black Rock City, Nevada to celebrate and inspire the Burning Man principles of radical inclusivity and creativity through art installations and self-expression. Our video captures some of this excitement! Our desire was to evoke awareness and discussions about climate change, particularly on issues directly related to the destruction of our oceans and marine environments by inviting participants to make creative visual statements about the perils our oceans face using environmentally friendly graffiti (krink) drip markers. We thought this would be an appropriate medium given how younger generations, since ancient Greek and Roman times, have expressed social and political messages through their own artistically styled graffiti. Like the movement of water in our oceans, these drawings were meant to flow from the Burning Man desert and resurface inside the body of The Blue Whales art installation, with the eventual aim of it ‘swimming’ around the world to various conferences and events to provide a platform for people of all ages to interactively engage with issues surrounding climate change, thus making a bellowing call for awareness of climate issues. Forefront in our minds, was to have The Blue Whale serve as a ‘mobile’ art at the most important climate change conference ever to be held: The COP21 UN Conference in Paris 2015 and further down the line, to travel the world, educating and entertaining through the multi-faceted-media art piece it was aimed to be.

We decided to make a bellowing call for awareness of climate issues

We started pitching the idea to Tate Modern, as we felt the Turbine Hall would be the best showcase imaginable. This, as it turned out, was a waste of time – the Turbine Hall was sponsored by a major multi-national: Hyundai, and together with BPs sponsorship of the Tate, we felt these corporate credentials were not conducive to the radical message we wanted to raise. But before too long we discovered that the Green Capital of Europe for 2015 would be the city of Bristol, and with our close links to Bristol both in terms of our the proximity of APE’s HQ and our Trustee, Herbie Girardet’s association with the mayor, George Ferguson, together with our connection with the esteemed ecologically-oriented Schumacher Lectures, we felt intuitively that Bristol was the place to be. This presented us with the most cohesive and practical opportunity for our first APE art exhibit, The Blue Whale, realised and displayed in the Green Capital of Europe, 2015. We very soon had a thumbs-up on the project from the top brass at Bristol 2015. Well, that was the first reaction. However, after many meetings in Bristol we saw a metamorphosis taking over from our initial inception of the art project to the very final results.

As the project began to take new shape, many of those involved in the initial stages lost their positions, including the first CEO of Bristol 2015. It seemed like a big shake-up had occurred, as people were mysteriously ‘let go’. Even to this day we don’t know all of the details. This all happened after the arts projects were presented to the Bristol 2015 team, with APE having received a very sizeable grant from the Arts Council England (ACE) alongside 5 other projects. It’s no secret – shit happens when there’s a lot of money involved. However, Herbie and I, representing APE on this art initiative, became curators of the Whale Project and Bristol 2015 became the project co-ordinators for all of the art presentations.

Shit happens when there’s a lot of money involved

We met with a few potential art designers and exhibitors with the agreement that we would have the final say on the logistics. At some point the design team of Cod Steaks was chosen – not by us, but by Bristol 2015. Although this was a very good choice in many respects, unfortunately, APE did not have the level of participation that was initially agreed, and due to budgetary constraints and health and safety issues, a walk-in whale became a no-go proposition.

Lo and behold, The Blue Whale suddenly became The Bristol Whales! But true to our vision they would be displayed in all their glory in Millennium Square at Harbourside, the Trafalgar Square of Bristol! However skewed from our original plans the project had become, we were still managed to fulfil our vision: to bring The Blue Whale, as an educationally communicative work of art, to the general public. We had indeed envisioned and initiated the project and we were delighted that the creative team at Cod Steaks did a wonderful job in designing and bringing the ‘wicker’ whales to life. Instead of having the internal educational material about the oceans, APE was able to put on four self-sponsored lectures in the debut of our first ever APE TALKS, which included a film night and an impressive list of expert speakers at Bordeaux Quay and @Bristol. We also hosted a plenary dinner event with select speakers, films and musical entertainment. So all in all, despite the barriers we faced along the way, with one or two difficult individuals, we still managed to get great engagement with The Bristol Whales.

Our one regret is that the global impact that was originally envisaged, was not to be. We were not permitted to take the whale(s) to Paris, Brazil, and the rest of the world as we had hoped. Alas, aiming high can mean that ideas are not always achievable … yet it is still important strive for one’s vision even if occasionally it falls short. In our case we experienced challenging human obstructions that for some obscure reason, seemed bent on obliterating our high aspirations with the aim of knocking us down. Limited budgets and resources and such excuses usually win the day in such power shifts.

Yet the good news is that where there’s a will, there’s a way! We were not to be deterred and we pushed on with our vision. From the first launch on 17th July 2015 to the most recent positioning of The Bristol Whales in their new ‘permanent’ home at Bennett’s Patch, Bristol on 11th Feb 2016, we are proud to say Artists Project Earth had a tremendous year presenting our first APE initiated oceans/climate change awareness-raising project, The Bristol Whales.

May we forever hear and protect the call of The Blue Whales on land and sea!



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