Published 2021-08-26

This post is also available in Swedish

Turning the EU Emissions Trading System into art

The EU Emissions Trading system (EU ETS) is to become art, when the Symbiosis exhibition opens at Färgfabriken arts centre in Stockholm. Researcher Mattias Höjer and artist Jens Evaldsson have worked closely on this project, discovering that these regulations arouse strong feelings.

Mattias Höjer, Professor at KTH, began to take an interest in the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) a couple of years ago. He was sceptical about both its existence and its effects, but examined it closely and discovered that the system had been completely overhauled since its launch.

Mattias Höjer, Professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Photo: Adam af Ekenstam

“It is now entirely different and is a stronger instrument than it was when it was introduced. Some of the most important changes include faster annual reductions in the number of emission allowances, a cancellation policy that means a specific proportion of unused emission allowances can be cancelled and disappear, and limits on the free allocation of emission allowances,” he explains.

Höjer had already discussed a range of potential ideas with the curators at Färgfabriken – an arts centre that explores contemporary issues, climate and the environment. He supervises students studying sustainable development and sustainable innovation, and Färgfabriken had provided project proposals to these students, building up their contact. So, as Symbiosis began to take shape, Höjer’s knowledge and involvement with the EU ETS became part of the exhibition. Mistra is co-funding this project on the EU ETS.

Art from regulations

Symbiosis, which opens at Färgfabriken on 27 August, finds its inspiration in the encounters between research, art and architecture, meetings between people, society and how we live, or don’t live, in symbiosis with nature and the planet.

“We want to investigate global issues based on planetary limits and thus the need for a symbiotic approach,” says Daniel Urey, Process Leader and curator at Färgfabriken. “We have invited artists and researchers to participate and tackle these issues; issues relating to the climate emergency, carbon emissions, our energy landscape and regulations that are important for ordinary people to understand, but which are also extremely complicated and difficult to comprehend. Symbiosis is about visualising, communicating and provoking ideas and feelings about these issues. This is where the interface between the researcher and the artist becomes so interesting.”

Jens Evaldsson, artist. Photo: Moa Forstorp

Daniel Urey ­­brought Mattias Höjer and artist Jens Evaldsson together – the two went for a walk and discussed what they could achieve.

“This is the most enjoyable thing I’ve done, working with Jens is so much fun. He has given me a crash course in modern art, and we have interesting and entertaining discussions about the roles of science and art that have become the basis of our project. But my first question was – is it possible to make art out of a regulatory system?” says Höjer.

“Both of us are interested in the issue of creating art from regulations, and we’ve worked in close cooperation to produce a poetical-philosophical film in which I’ve created the visuals and Mattias the verbal expression. We quickly agreed that we would both be regarded as the artists in creating the film,” says Evaldsson.

The EU ETS arouses emotion

The EU ETS section of the exhibition has two parts. Jens Evaldsson and Mattias Höjer’s artwork, “Art of Rules”, is a 3D animated film, supplemented by illustrations of the EU ETS that have been developed in parallel with, and somewhat in interaction with, the artwork. The drawings are primarily by Ebba Landén Helmbold, but Mattias Höjer, Jens Evaldsson and Lina Josefina Lindqvist have also contributed.

During Evaldsson’s education at the Royal Institute of Art, and in his professional practice, he has used studio dialogues as a working method, something he and Höjer also did in this project. The method is used to obtain comments and opinions, broading the perspective of the work. They invited in an artist and four of Sweden’s leading experts on the EU ETS: former Minister for the Environment and Climate Isabella Lövin, Lars Zetterberg, Programme Director for Mistra Carbon Exit, Fredrik Hannerz, Director of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency’s unit for emissions trading, environmental consultant Magnus Nilsson and artist Rut-Karin Zettergren. Each dialogue opened with the question “What do you feel about the ETS?”.

Still from the film Art of Rules. Illustration: Jens Evaldsson

“Most people were surprised, but we wanted to create and release emotions about the regulations, and it turned out that they do arouse many different feelings. When I started to study the trading system I quickly realised that it is much stronger and more complex than I had thought. You would imagine that everyone who works with greenhouse gas emissions would understand the regulations and their correlation with national emissions targets and territorial emissions, but what I found was that this knowledge was lacking, even among my colleagues,” says Höjer.

“Often, experts in technical subjects are not expected to work with their emotions, their reasoning is more logic-based. But an expert’s feeling for their subject often comes from more advanced concepts and deeper understanding than those with less knowledge. How does emotion change with knowledge, I think that’s interesting,” says Evaldsson.

The purpose of the Symbiosis exhibition and project is thus to create greater interest, curiosity and involvement, as well as to encourage critical thinking about the system. During the summer, the European Commission presented legal documents, with the aim of adapting the legislation to increased climate ambitions, including changes to the EU ETS.

“These changes will be discussed intensely in the near future, so we believe our work has appeared at the right time. A lot will be written about the EU ETS soon, and our hope is that the artwork will raise interest in that process,” says Höjer.

As Jens Evaldsson sees it, one challenge in cooperating with researchers is that there is often an expectation that the artist will illustrate knowledge, make a work literary.

“If you write about the climate and illustrate it with a polar bear floating on a piece of ice, it can fall flat. Sometimes you can force audiences to see a particular thing, but here we are trying to avoid that, creating an artwork that lives with the audience instead, that has room for interpretation. A good way of doing this is to work using more questions than answers,” he says.