On October 2, a civic-minded performance group called Coltura is holding a funeral for gasoline. Actors outfitted in white leotards will play "gasoline ghosts," ethereal beings addicted to Texas tea. During performances, the ghosts haunt gas stations, waft smog into their nostrils, carry around gas nozzles with severed hoses, and otherwise clown around with carbon. They remind us that our love of oil lasts long after our own deaths. For the funeral, they'll carry a casket from the Space Needle all the way to downtown.
The troupe performed at the Seattle Design Festival earlier this month. They deployed a three-pronged art attack strategy (a performance, an art installation, and informational pamphlets) in an effort to convince people to trade in their gas-guzzlers for electric cars, which is their primary focus. Founder of the group and local lawyer, Matthew Metz, said the overall response was positive. "A lot of people said they were unable to give up their gas car, but a lot of people were sympathetic and they respected what we were trying to do," he said.
His wife, who is from Colombia, inspired the decision to use street performers when she told him about the success Antanas Mockus had as mayor of Bogotá. Mockus famously replaced traffic cops with 420 mimes that mocked drivers who disobeyed crosswalk rules, which contributed to the city's 50 percent reduction in traffic fatalities.
Metz started Coltura in 2014 after running into some success in his law practice. He'd just read Elizabeth Kolbert's book, The Sixth Extinction, and says he had been getting anxious about the world his daughter would inherit. He had recently bought an electric car and was wondering why his friends weren't following suit. "It's so easy to get off gasoline," he said. "Why not do something that reduces carbon by 50 percent?"
Metz emphasizes our complicity in the "matricide" of our planet, but he's quick to say we can prevent that murder. "It's on us," he says. "We can't wait for a technological miracle, but as consumers we can make a major change."
Though he supports the carbon tax on the November ballot, as well as other regulations on the oil industry, he says the oil companies have legislatures tied up. "They have a pretty good setup in the courts," he said. "Through conventional legal channels they're comfortable, and they don't see major changes coming."
That's where the art comes in. If the gas ghosts can win hearts, then Metz believes the oil companies will have a hard time winning them back. "We're basically trying to have people do things because it's part of who they are. That's something that art can do," he said.
"Advertising is based on that," he added. "If you start to invest in fuel as a story with narratives, you can start to change perceptions of value, which can have more [impact] on the consumer than raising the price of gas a nickel or a dime or a quarter."
Alison Ramer, Coltura's artistic director, also cited advertising as a useful way to effect social change, mentioning the success of the US government's campaign against cigarettes. "Some of the most talented artists are in advertising," she said.
Ramer says she's "obsessed" with "wicked problems," an academic term she defines as multigenerational issues that can't be solved with a single solution. Climate change is the "wicked problem" she's working on now with Coltura, but for eight years she worked on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
During our phone conversation, she had a little trouble coming up with an artwork that made her change behavior in her own life, but she mentioned the painter Nancy Wolf, Shirley Temple, and her family as personal inspirations.
Damian Mendez spent a year working with Metz 10 years ago. He's one of the friends who finds it difficult to make the switch from gas to electric.
"To me, it comes down to money," he says. "Until [buying an electric car] becomes more affordable, people aren't going to switch." Mendez says he often has to travel from Tacoma to Everett for work, and that this year there aren't affordable electric cars that can handle the mile range. "But Tesla is supposed to come out with a car next year that will have a 200-mile range that will drop in price to $35[K]," he says. "Maybe that will make the difference."
"[Metz] really is one of the people I know who really walks the walk," says Corrie Yackulic, a lawyer who has worked with Metz in the past. She spoke fondly of a coffee company he started called Jaguar Forest. Metz started up the shade-grown coffee company to help the farmers of Chiapas and Oaxaca, she says.
Yackulic doesn't have an electric car, but she feels as if she reduces her footprint in other ways. "My argument to Matthew is there is an environmental benefit to using your stuff without always getting a new thing," she says. "I look at how I vote. I educate my kids. I set an example." She later added, "And I'm not sure that shaming people at a gas station in Seattle is going to help."