Earth Speakr lets children speak

Foreign Minister Maas commissioned Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson with the production of a work for the German EU Council Presidency

Olafur Elliasson
Olafur Elliasson picture alliance/KEYSTONE

Olafur Eliasson is an artist who always also speaks with the voice of the inner child. He has installed an enormous waterfall under Brooklyn Bridge in New York and used light refractions to inspire people to make their colourful shadows dance on a wall. He has made the droplets of a spraying water hose solidify into luminous sculptures using strobe light. In 2003 he transformed the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London into a never-ending sunset with an enormous solar disc. In fact, all the projects that the Berlin-based Danish-Icelandic artist has realised in the last 25 years reveal a childlike delight in play and wonder, in fun and fantasy that transcends the confines of the rational.

Symbiotic Seeing in Zürich
Symbiotic Seeing in Zürich picture alliance/KEYSTONE

And that is why it was only logical for Eliasson to create a platform for children and young people when he was invited by the Federal Foreign Office to develop an art project for the German EU Council Presidency. “For some years I’ve been interested in who the people are that are not listened to. And they include children, for example,” says Eliasson about his “decentralised work of art” with the title Earth Speakr. That is why Eliasson has developed an app that gives young people a media voice – by lending their voice to someone else.

As was the case with the best of his earlier works, the principle behind Earth Speakr is very simple, but the effect astonishing. Children and young people between 7 and 17 years of age can record a message on their smartphones using the app and it is transformed into a graphical facial expression on the display. The recorded statement can then be transferred to an object from their immediate surroundings. In the process the digital face merges with the background and allows the object to speak the recorded words. Thus, for example, a tree can complain about air pollution, a meat chop in the frying pan cry out or a car shout. Equally a dog can recite a love poem, a strawberry burp or a football rail against Bayern Munich.

The theme of Earth Speakr is the great environmental questions

Olafur Eliasson, artist

“The theme of Earth Speakr is the great environmental questions,” says Eliasson about the fundamental aim of the project. “But by no means do we want to prescribe what they have to say.” That is why the framework for the content of this augmented reality app is only sketched out in general terms and the freedom offered infinite. Eliasson trusted the young users to understand the purpose of the project and not turn Earth Speakr into an Internet device for presenting jokes or makeup hints. “Children and young people know very well what’s wrong with the world.”

Following an eight-month test phase in many European countries, which Eliasson’s team carried out with experts in child psychology and other fields, the artist is now certain that the short films collected on the platform can send an impressive message to the “decision-making elites on climate questions”. “Because the app’s results are often so eccentric and surreal you can spend much longer engaging with them than if they involved simple political slogans.” And because the app is available in 25 languages, it will eventually become a truly European choir of speaking objects that has been allowed to express its views about the urgent need for action on major political decisions.

“It would be enormously significant if decision-makers followed the children’s advice,” says Eliasson – not least because children are “experts on hope”. That is also why the artist does not expect Earth Speakr to become a “platform of fear”. Although the threats to the children’s future, which are the result of adults’ belief in eternal economic growth, are increasing day-by-day, Eliasson anticipates a productive impetus from the girls and boys. “I am creating a platform for their enormous imagination and their playfulness, a platform on which they can express their concerns and ideas.”

Your Spiral View in London
Your Spiral View in London picture alliance / Photoshot

As a result, Eliasson regards his contribution to the project for the EU Council Presidency to be that of only “half an artist”. The children and young people are creating the other half of the work of art. After all, in the end the content will not be owned solely by the app’s inventor. “The content created by the children still belongs to the children,” says Eliasson. He also points out that the strictest data protection rules apply to Earth Speakr, which was produced in cooperation with the Federal Foreign Office and the Goethe-Institut.

“We need a general movement that ensures the children are heard – not only in politics, but by all decision-makers in society and the economy,” says Eliasson. Nevertheless, he does not want to make any predictions about what his young users will actually create with the app. “There’s a high degree of unpredictability. But that’s just typical of art.” Like a child he is excitedly looking forward to the result.

Staircase in Munich
Staircase in Munich picture alliance / Martha Feustel

Who is Olafur Eliasson?

Olafur Eliasson was born in 1967 in Denmark and grew up in Iceland. He first came into contact with representatives of the German art scene while studying art in Copenhagen. In 1995 he moved to Berlin, where he founded Studio Olafur Eliasson. A team of experts from architecture, crafts and the digital world support him in realising his projects. As a professor at Berlin University of the Arts (UdK) Eliasson was head of the Institute for Spatial Experiments from 2009 to 2014. He is also founder of the Little Sun social enterprise, which manufactures solar-powered lamps for people living in regions with no electricity supply.

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