A brighter, more sustainable, more equitable future depends first on our ability to imagine it.
From a giant sculpture on an uninhabited island, to an installation that inflates only when people hold hands to complete an electric current, to stats that illuminate human rights, Alicia Eggert’s artworks flash, move, change, deteriorate. And in some cases, even die.
With their neon words, the American artist’s work might seem simple at first. But plain facts can illuminate existential phenomena. Eggert is focused on giving material forms to language and time; those powerful but invisible forces that shape our perception of reality. This artist is on an existential pursuit to understand the linear and finite nature of human life within a seemingly infinite universe. (Aren’t we all?)
Drawing inspiration from astrophysics, existential philosophy, semiotics and commercial signs, her signs create a questioning of one’s experience of reality.
Messages on flashing neon billboards shapeshift in front of your eyes. ‘FOREVER’ appears and disappears in the fog. ‘THIS PRESENT MOMENT USED TO BE THE UNIMAGINABLE FUTURE’ transforms into ‘THIS MOMENT USED TO TO BE THE FUTURE’ and ‘ALL THE LIGHT YOU SEE IS FROM THE PAST’ becomes ‘ALL YOU SEE IS PAST.
Cosmic signs seem to reveal the relationship between reality and possibility as installations beckon people to reflect, to ponder their place in the world and the role they play in it. AHA!
Eggert’s installations have been exhibited everywhere from the CAFA Art Museum in Beijing to the Triennale Design Museum in Milan and her sculptures have appeared on rooftops in Russia, on bridges in Amsterdam, and on uninhabited islands in Maine. In 2022, she collaborated with Planned Parenthood to create OURS, a pink neon sign installed in front of the Supreme Court of the United States on 22 January 2022, the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade ruling.
So it’s about time we heard from the award-winning artist.
Q&A: Alicia Eggert
Why art? Why do you do what you do?
If time is a construct, my goal is to figure out exactly how it’s constructed, and how our perception of time is shaped by personal, cultural and geographical factors. I derive my inspiration from reading about time as it’s defined by physics and philosophy, but I focus on the words and phrases we use in our everyday language – words like ‘now’ and ‘then’ – as my points of entry into more complex ideas. I give those words physical, material forms, because I believe we might be able to understand something more fully if we can experience it physically.
What is it that you love about signs?
My artwork often co-opts the methods and materials associated with commercial signage, such as flashing neon, to convey messages that inspire a sense of reflection and wonder. I love how signs are designed to simply and effectively grab our attention and communicate information. Signs often point out things we would otherwise overlook, and they also have the ability to signify the existence of things we can’t physically see at all, like the distance to our destination. Signs help to orient us in space and time, by encouraging us to identify where we are in the world, notice what’s happening in the present moment, determine where we want to be in the future, and figure out what we need to do to get there.
What’s the story behind The Future?
The Future was made in collaboration with Safwat Saleem, a graphic designer and artist [best known for making politically-charged satirical art] who took my initial idea of illuminating the state of peace around the world and brought it to life with a brilliant design. The sculpture is composed of 206 light bulbs that collectively spell out the word ‘FUTURE’ – with each light bulb representing one of the 206 sovereign states around the world. The original idea was simple: a country’s light bulb would be turned on if that country is ‘at peace’ and turned off if they are ‘in conflict’. But it turned out that the idea of peace is not that simple. It’s an extremely complex issue, with many contributing factors.
Where did you get the data?
Fine Acts became an important collaborator because they were able to do the research and cull data from various sources to make those peace/conflict determinations. Countries with their light bulbs turned ON are those who have a Very High or High level of peace (source: Global Peace Index), are Free (source: Freedom House), are a Full Democracy (source: Economist Intelligence Unit), have no active military operations/have a very small peacekeeping presence abroad, and have no major human rights concerns. But ultimately, peace/conflict is not a black and white issue. By intentionally simplifying complex matters and representing them as binary on/off states, The Future is designed to instigate conversations and create awareness about issues across the globe that affect billions of people.
How did the IT IS TIMEcollaboration with David Moinina Sengeh(the Minister of Education and Chief Innovation Officerin Sierra Leone) come about?
David approached me with the initial idea when we met at TED Summit in Edinburgh in 2019. He imagined a sign that would become a symbol of empowerment for the people in his home country of Sierra Leone, saying ‘IT IS TIME’ with the words ‘MY’, ‘YOUR’ and ‘OUR’ flashing on and off in front, allowing the message to alternate between an individual and a collective statement.
What about the word… ‘ABOUT’?!
While we were in the process of brainstorming places to put the sign in the capital city of Freetown, the opportunity arose to submit projects to Fine Acts for TED Countdown in 2020, and I realised that the statement ‘IT IS TIME’ also applied to the issue of climate change. So David and I submitted the idea, and I made the addition of the word ‘ABOUT’, because it lends a sense of urgency to the issue. Fine Acts awarded us a grant and I fabricated a temporary version of the sign at my studio in Texas for a TED Countdown global activation on 10.10.2020. The sign was displayed on a trailer and driven around Dallas, Texas, and it was parked in front of the Dallas Museum of Art and at other public sites around the city. But David and are still working towards creating a permanent installation of the sign that can be mounted on top of a building in Freetown.
Do you have any rituals that get your creativity flowing?
I try to set time aside time every morning to read a few pages from a book about Time from the perspective of physics or philosophy. I recently finished the book, Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World by Marcia Bjornerud, which was immensely inspiring.
What role do you feel art and the artist still have in today’s society?
It’s my goal to make art that inspires a sense of wonder and encourages people to imagine other possible realities. I believe that if we can imagine a better world we are one step closer to making it real.
If we can imagine a better world we are one step closer to making it real.
Tell us about one joyous, mind-blowing or totally unexpected outcome in your own journey last year.
The 50th anniversary exhibition at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, titled ‘This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World’, included my neon sign sculpture, This Present Moment (2019- 21), which was acquired by the museum for this show.
What’s next? Share your plans for the coming year – what would be your dream ‘utopia’ scenario for 2023?
I recently completed a project that involved climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with a neon sign. The climb was led by Satyabrata Dam (another TED Fellow – I will be forever grateful to TED for connecting me with such a brilliant and inspiring community). He is a professional mountain climber and climbing guide who has summited more than 350 mountains worldwide. The neon sign we took up Kilimanjaro says ‘You are on a mountain’, but its message is animated by the word ‘on’ flashing on and off at regular intervals, so it also says: ‘You are a mountain’.
I designed the eight-foot tall, eight-foot wide sign so that it could be broken down into small components and carried up the mountain in duffel bags, and erected at each camp along the way to the summit. It was an incredible journey. Now, Satya and I are planning on bringing the artwork to other mountains around the world. The goal of the project is to prompt people to question the perceived boundaries between ourselves and the environments we exist within, and to promote new understandings of environmental personhood. We are considering climbing Mt. Taranaki in 2023, which is a mountain that was granted legal personhood by the country of New Zealand in 2017.
Lastly, we are creating a playlist for TOPIA. What is the last song you’d want to hear during your time here on Earth?
My favourite song of all time: ‘Golden Hours’ by Brian Eno.
Artopia is an ongoing TOPIA series exploring the power of art when it comes to positive social impact. This interview is part of a TOPIA series in partnership with Fine Acts, a global creative studio for social impact. Read all the artist interviews.
Lisa Goldapple is the brain behind the world of TOPIA, and might not behave as good as gold, but thinks good is golden. The Barcelona-based founder, creative director and editor-in-chief of TOPIA has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice,TVNZ,National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. To understand how TOPIA really came about, read Mind Blown, because: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”
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