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The Transformative Role of Art

If you stare at the data long enough, delve into the complexity far enough, or grapple with the massive scale deeply enough, you may conclude that we are in dire need of a global paradigm shift to address climate change. Yet research-as-usual and technical solutions have proven incapable of creating this global shift. Can art make a difference?

We are standing in a cabin nestled in the mountainous woods surrounding Oslo as Tone Kristin Bjordam details her childhood in vivid detail. Bjordam grew up on an isolated farm in the Norwegian countryside. Due to her family’s interest in geology, their home was a sort of “gem museum in the forest” and a meeting point for many geologically-interested people from near and far. From an early age, she developed a keen eye for finding treasures in the natural world.

She initially considered pursuing a career in science but was more interested in visual realms, particularly in the communication of complex science through visual arts. She went on to pursue numerous degrees in visual and fine arts and create art related to nature, perception, and ecology.

In order for a person to care about climate change, they must have a meaningful experience with nature. In our increasingly urbanized world, it’s often difficult for people to develop a relationship with nature or to see themselves as intrinsically woven within it.

Bjordam’s art–which takes the form of videos, animation films, nature photography, abstract paintings, intricate drawings, and geometric sculptures–goes where science alone cannot. Her art has the unique power to engage viewers empathically and aesthetically in a way that often simulates meaningful experiences with the natural world.


Paintings at group exhibition 350 Mysteries, Kragerø, 2016.


Flow, paint on acrylic sheet, Tone Bjordam, 2016.

Traditionally, artists have been employed by scientists to merely illustrate data, facts, and figures. Bjordam acts not as an illustrator but as a co-producer in conveying the complex science of climate change. An example is the multimedia video titled Critical Transitions, which emerged from a collaboration between Bjordam and scientist Marten Scheffer. The video engages viewers in the science of tipping points and processes of transformational change.


Photosynthesis, photography, Tone Bjordam, 2007.

This kind of collaborative art is also capable of inspiring creative thinking surrounding the solutions to climate change. Through her own growth as an artist, Bjordam came to understand art’s ability to articulate solutions through visualizing alternative societies, prompting interdisciplinary discussion, and engaging usually ignored audiences (like children). While creating art, artists themselves often undergo a process of reconceptualizing climate solutions and their own role in change.

Bjordam’s depiction of her process of creation for one of her latest works conveys this. While she was at a conference in Uruguay discussing the role of icons and symbols in our everyday conceptions of the world, Carl Folke from the Stockholm Resilience Centre mentioned a diagram he used to conceptualize social-ecological systems. He described the cake-like model and its three concentric layers: Economy, Society, and Nature.

Bjordam was moved to tears by this simple, universal way to explain such complex systems. Her emotional response compelled her to think deeply about how she could translate this model into a physical installation that viewers could experience. We saw a sneak peak of the model in the form of a sculpture installation, now hanging in a neighboring barn that serves as a lovely venue for workshops, meetings, and exhibitions. We were moved by how she depicted the layers, hanging with mutually dependent wire, each embedded with meaning and thoughtful symbolism. Watch a video of the sculpture below:


Nature/Society/Economy, sculpture installation, Tone Bjordam, 2016.

There is growing momentum surrounding creative, inventive approaches to addressing climate change. The recently-launched AdaptationCONNECTS Project at University of Oslo explores the relationship between art and science and seeks to elevate and amplify the powerful work being done by artists like Bjordam. One of the sub-projects, Art Connects, intends to explore how both artists and scientists are transformed through the process of sustainably-motivated creation.

View, read, and watch more about Tone Kristin Bjordam’s work here. Featured photo: Ridge, photomicrography of crystal formation, Tone Bjordam, 2016.

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