Joanie Lemercier is a French visual artist and environmental activist whose work explores human perception through the manipulation of light in space. Lemercier’s artistic practice is inspired by nature and reflects on the representation of the natural world through mathematics, science, and technology. His creative projections on buildings and landmarks have helped to increase audience size and provide visual impact for important messages during climate change protests.
Thank you for joining us in this series of climate activist interviews. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure. My name is Joanie Lemercier. I’m 39 years old, and I’m a French visual artist, now based in Brussels. I was born and raised in Brittany, in the Northwest of France, and I started my career as a visual artist when I was about twenty. I moved to Bristol, in the U.K., and I started doing projections almost as an accident. I was asked to do some projections for a friend, for a club night event, and I started using projectors to make art, and I’ve never stopped.
My artwork, in general, has two aspects: one is focused on geometric patterns, it’s rooted in the Op Art movement that started in the seventies with Victor Vasarely, and the research about repetitive geometric patterns and their beauty; and the second part of my work is more about the landscape. So it’s about how I can use technology to represent nature. So I usually represent large, impressive landscapes, like volcanoes, big chains of mountains, and what’s referred to in art as ‘the sublime.’ And the sublime are those landscapes that are so huge and so immense that you can’t really grasp them. The sublime was explored in the eighteenth century by Romantic painters, such as Caspar David Friedrich. And now, I also try to explore the sublime, but through the lens of technology, computers, and algorithms.
And how did you become a climate activist?
I became a climate activist about three years ago, I think, when I first heard of the Hambach coal mine, which is a very big coal mine in Germany, just about two hours from Brussels. And what struck me the most, when I discovered this location, is that I’d never heard of it before. It’s one of the most polluting places in Europe. It’s the single largest source of CO2 emissions in Europe, and yet no one really knows about it. Neither about the pollution, the CO2 emissions, but also about the side-effects of the coal mine, like the destruction of the villages and the destruction of a very old forest that was there. So when I discovered this place, I learned about all this, and I was so shocked that it turned me into a climate activist overnight.
Your art, at least some of it, reminds me of Timothy Morton’s Theory of Hyperobjects. Are you familiar with that?
Absolutely, I’m not just aware, but I’m a great admirer of Timothy Morton and his different theories, and the way he sees the world. And of course the hyperobjects very much relate to…this big coal mine, I think, is in itself a hyperobject, something that goes beyond our control, as well. Its impact is so vast and so destructive that it’s become out of hand. Both, the politics can’t really control the mine, and the company itself doesn’t really know what to do with the coal mine, because there’s a lot of financial interest. So basically, this big location has become out of control, and even the destruction it causes is really hard to figure out. We can’t really understand how bad the situation is. It’s almost impossible to grasp. So yes, Timothy Morton is actually a great reference of mine, and I like how Timothy sometimes works with artists, and I’m a great admirer as well of Olafur Eliasson, with whom he collaborated a few times. So I believe artists also need writers, philosophers, and researchers, to be able to go beyond just the aesthetics, and to sort of find very, sort of grounded text and references, so our art can make more sense.
Your website explains that your art, “explores human perception through the manipulation of light and space.” Could you say a bit more about that?
It’s almost a sort of technical approach to what I do. So, when I do geometrical works, or works about landscape and nature, I use video projectors most of the time. So I use light, and I shape the light very, very precisely, so the lights take the shape of a drawing, or the light would cover perfectly a paper sculpture that I would create. And actually, with light, I can change how people see their surroundings. I can modify the colors of an object, I can change its texture, and in a way, I can somehow manipulate reality. Or, to be more precise, I can use light to modify the perception of the viewer. So in a way, there’s a sort of philosophical approach around this, that if, with technology and light, I can manipulate reality, what says that reality itself is not a construction? I don’t think it is, of course, but the idea that technology pushes us to the boundaries of perception, and that we can’t sometimes dissociate reality from a simulation or an illusion, is a topic that I find fascinating and scary at the same time.
I find your art to be really interesting. But also, I was surprised, in the moment I was first viewing it, by how emotional my reaction was. And to me, my sense of it was that my mind was connected to the deeper meaning before I was aware of that understanding. We briefly touched on this, but I feel strongly as well that all forms of art can represent protest against climate change, and it made me wonder whether your art is intentional protest, or an intentional statement about climate change, or whether I’m reading that into it.
In the past decade, I’ve explored a lot with the aesthetics and the beauty of patterns, like the Op Art movement that really influenced me. And then, I reached the limits of my exploration somehow, when I felt a little bit like I was living inside a computer. Because my daily life was basically going from one location to the next, setting up in dark environments and dark rooms, and just projecting some beautiful, shiny light, but it was more of an aesthetics research. Something was missing.
That’s when I started hiking a lot. Every travel opportunity, I would push to visit the country I was travelling to. So I would hike, for one day or several days, in national parks and outdoors, just to escape the city and the technology somehow. And that’s when I started representing nature. It was very much based on intuition, but now I can tell, I needed to escape the computer and reach nature somehow, and find an excuse to go deeper into nature, into deserts, into those sort of deserted landscapes. Looking back on it now, it relates to that wish of escaping technology. And now, I have a slightly different approach.
So I use projectors and lasers, and all those skills and equipment I have, to support activists. It involves taking a laser out, with power banks and solar panels, to protests. And at the right moment, I project a text or a slogan or the Extinction Rebellion logo, for example, onto a building, or onto a location, to amplify the activist’s voice and message. And this part of my practice, which was really just a protest—which was not connected to my work—now, it’s starting to be part of my work. So I have a solo show in Madrid at the moment, which has been running since February, and it’s been seen by, I think the numbers we had yesterday were like eighty-six thousand people had seen the show. And the show itself has half the beautiful patterns, the geometry and landscapes, and the second half is about the coal mine. So I’ve documented the mine with a drone, and I made a short film about the activism, as well, about the forest that is being destroyed, the Hambach forest.
So now, my work about landscapes—the landscape is now the coal mine, and I’m depicting the coal mine using technology. So it’s like the loop is closing, almost. So my fascination for the beautiful sublime has reached another level, with the technology called sublime. So basically, the coal mine is a hyperobject, like you said, and also, the technology called sublime is also the word that describes the continuity of the sublime movement, but with human-made locations and landscapes like the mine. So yeah, my work is always evolving I guess, and now I merge landscape, technology, and climate activism with my practice.
And now have Extinction Rebellion and others taken that idea of projecting words onto buildings and landmarks? Because I see that being done in a number of cities.
I’m not sure how it started, but the very good idea they had was to work with a graffiti artist to make the Extinction logo. The Extinction logo is very recognizable, and it represents a sphere that is the Earth, and an hourglass that represents us running out of time. And it’s so visual, and it’s so simple, so it’s the best possible image for a projectionist to use, because you can do a very bright and sharp projection. So the first example of a projection that I saw on Olafur Eliasson’s Instagram. It was a projection on the Tate Modern in London. I did some research, and actually, I found out the next day that this was made by my friend in Bristol, a very good friend of mine, who I started doing projections with in 2006. They were responsible for this, so I was very excited. I was just really impressed, and also, I was so happy that Eliasson shared this image. The following week, I took Eurostar with my equipment, and I went to London for the big protest, and I did a projection on Buckingham Palace, and I did another projection on the Parliament house, with those friends from Bristol.
And since then, we’ve been running workshops online to train other rebels to do the same. So we share links to equipment, and advice about finding the best spot to project from. So we’ve done a lot of training sessions for other people, and a lot of artists have been doing the same, around the same time. So we’re not [solely] responsible for the spread of this idea, but we were part of the early projections, [first] in 2019, I think. That was the first in London.
I remember those protests, and how effective they were. I don’t think people had seen that before, and it appears almost as if someone has defaced the building, and the people inside are being forced to face the truth. I believe they projected on the BP building in Waterloo, and I was so impressed by the enormous visual impact, which felt almost like graffiti on the building, but without damaging it. Which is great, given the drive to arrest protesters. How did you get involved with Extinction Rebellion? Was it your friends in Bristol?
It was, actually. So first, I think I heard of them through Olafur Eliasson, and then I was of course very excited, because anything that relates to climate activism, protest, and projection is something I’ve been looking for. Yeah, so first, it was in London, and then I joined Extinction Rebellion in Montreal, and also in Brussels, I did a couple of actions in Brussels. And I also helped other groups of activists, like Ende Gelaende in Germany, and also Fridays for Future in Germany and Belgium, so I really want to be working with several groups, not just one, but basically helping to amplify their messages, because I don’t think the issue is only about fossil fuels. When we look at the issues in this world, you realize there’s a lot of social injustice, racial injustice, and everything is connected. So I think I want to help more and more groups, and possibly do trainings with a lot more people. I’m also in touch with more regular GMOs, like Greenpeace, Client Earth, and 350 in the U.S., who have been running a lot of anti-coal campaigns. So it’s not only about Extinction Rebellion, but they were the ones who sort of triggered for me the idea of civil disobedience, this idea of maybe not asking for a permit to do a projection, but just turning up and using our skills and our equipment to something big. And the good thing about projection is that there’s not much risk, because the light itself doesn’t stay on the buildings. So it’s not defacing private property, it’s very temporary, and it’s very easy to do. You could be anywhere within like 500 meters distance from your façade, and then you just switch a button on and you can have a fifty-meter big projection. So I think we should definitely use those tools when they allow us to amplify a message so easily.
Peter Kalmus, with whom I’m sure you’re familiar—he’s the NASA climate scientist with a very large following on Twitter, because he posts a lot about climate change—he posted recently that everyone should be a climate activist. And then just yesterday, he posted, “Be a fighter, not a doomer,” and then went on to clarify that, “a realist is someone who knows we’re in big trouble, a doomer is someone who thinks we should just give up, and a fighter is someone who fights, no matter how bad it gets. It’s bad but there’s still a lot to save.” Do you agree that everyone should be a climate activist?
Absolutely. It’s funny that you should say that, because I actually retweeted that message when he said that everyone should be a climate activist. And also, I saw the doomer/fighter conversation, and yeah, I very much agree. It’s sometimes difficult to see the scientific community sort of arguing about how terrible the damage is, but we know, it’s terrible. The scale of it is hard to define, and it’s hard to tell how many years…you know, the big question is how many years do we have until it’s too late? And it’s probably too late, but that doesn’t mean much. There’s still, like he says, there’s still so much to be done. We don’t have an alternative world that we could use if this one is too polluted. So yeah, for me, there’s no question. We should do whatever we can. And it’s great to work with activists like Ende Gelaende and Extinction Rebellion, because when you are doing a protest, you have people cooking, and most of the time, that’s their actual daily job. And they join the actions in the kitchen.
So you can see, the activists, they are people building camps and tents, and doing the logistics. They are people organizing and planning the strategies of the direct actions, scouting the locations, finding routes, trying to understand where are the safe spaces for activists to stand or to block. And we need everyone’s skills, but really everyone. From graphic designers, to musicians, to journalists and writers, and philosophers. So whatever your skill is, whatever you do in life—even if you are a banker, you can actually, within your institution, plant seeds to change people’s minds to change the life they’ve led about profit and choose one more about justice. So I believe, yeah, everybody can do something, at every level. We need lawyers, as well. We need everyone. There’s no point giving up. We have to protect the world for us, and for the coming generations. Giving up wouldn’t make sense. It’s a common feeling, when you realize the scale of the destruction, and the work that has to be done Is so immense, that it’s tempting to keep flying on cheap holidays and not to care, but once you pass that grief, and once you pass that realization, it’s actually very exciting to get to work, to get to meet people who want to help, and sort of build communities around a more positive future.
So everyone should be an activist, but the population of activists is still not very big. What do you think it is that makes an activist? Do you think activists are just highly empathic people?
It’s really hard to say. I’m not an expert. Personally, for me, it was just understanding the scale of the issue when I saw this coal mine. Before, I knew about environmental issues, but I wasn’t doing anything. It’s only when I saw the size of this coal mine—it’s basically eight kilometers by five kilometers, it’s razed and destroyed about forty villages, people are being deported to other villages. The one moment that sort of turned me into a radical activist, I guess, was when I attended the last mass of a small church in West Germany. The church was built in 1893, I think, so it’s over one hundred years old, and it was going to be demolished to extend the mine. So when I saw the older generation, the old people, crying, because this is the church where they got married, where their children had their baptisms. And they were crying because their heritage was being erased, and they were being taken away. And their houses are being taken by RWE, the coal company. And when I saw this injustice, I felt so bad, and this really sort of wrecked my heart so profoundly that I knew I had to do something.
So it wasn’t just about the CO2 and climate change, but it was about the ongoing injustice. I just realized. So there was nothing new here, it’s been happening since the seventies, and it’s happening all around the world, a lot of vulnerable people, poorer people and indigenous people, and all these sort of small, fragile communities are being hurt and destroyed. And it was just seeing it with my own eyes that really switched something inside me, and now I want to try to do something. So first, I think it’s about understanding the scale of the injustice, and also seeing a lot of young people being beaten by the police. I could never forget a young lady—I think she was eighteen years old—at a protest in Germany. So basically, she was protesting for the coal mine to stop expanding, so she could stay in her village, and maybe she could have a better future if less CO2 was emitted. And I saw a policeman taking a metal beam and [striking] her face, because he was told to. And this also really broke my heart so profoundly that I sort of lost the idea that I had that we have democratic countries with a strong sense of justice.
When you see people being beaten by the authorities, this is so heartbreaking. Who would beat a child in the face with a metal beam? So this was also a turning point for me. Understanding and seeing is very shocking, and triggers action. And another thing we should say as well is that not everyone is in a position to dedicate time and resources to activism. So I believe the more privileged people, people like myself—I work as an artist, and I have some free time, because the studio has been quite successful—I think it’s probably our duty as more privileged people that have a bit of savings and a bit of time, to start taking actions. Because not everyone has the resources to do so. So the least we can do as privileged people is to use that privilege and begin taking action, protesting from that privileged position. Because there’ s not much risk for us, compared to the people who are actually being evicted from their houses.
You know, there are a lot of groups these days on Facebook and elsewhere, and different artistic communities like The Dark Mountain Project, where people go to commiserate in the knowledge and acceptance that there isn’t much hope that we’ll avoid a very bad future. And stories like the one you just told about the girl in Germany add to that foreboding. So there’s a tension, for those who understand, between trying to maintain hope for the future, while faced with an ever-present sense of pessimism about where we’re headed. Do you experience that tension?
I think I had a very limited vision in the past. My belief was that I was living in a very great country, in France, where justice is something at the core of society, and where if there were any sense of injustice, the state or authorities would do something to bring justice back. To have some sense of equity and reason, etcetera. And I believed that sort of false sense, that strange perspective on the world was probably informed a lot by the bubble of technology I loved in. Because, you know, this world of consumerism sort of puts you in a little bubble where your primary goals are to consume, and to have a nice TV, have a nice computer or projector, some equipment, etcetera. That’s sort of the dream or goal that we have in a capitalist society. To consume and to have a nice home, a car, and travel.
So I was in that bubble, and I was really happy, because I could actually tick all those boxes, and I wasn’t really concerned about the state of society and about injustices in the world. I wasn’t aware, I believe, about how catastrophic the situation is when it comes to justice. So yeah, I slowly realized that there are some issues in society, and they are very big issues, like how capitalism, and profit, sometimes has more power than justice. When you see how the big oil companies and the big lobbies have so much power, and they can actually influence the political discourse—now I’m based in Belgium, in Brussels, and I can see also how a lot of laws, and a lot of decisions are being taken by authorities who are informed by paid lobbies and working groups, And as soon as you start realizing this, and start doing some research, you realize it’s really terrible. You know, the New York Times—which is a newspaper I really like and I really follow—to this day, are still producing advertising for Shell, and Chevron, and Exxon. They have what’s called the “Two Brand Studio,” it’s internal to the New York Times company, and they are making advertising and paid posts for fossil fuels. So this somehow influences political discourse and the perspective people have on fossil fuels, etcetera, and as soon as you start looking at the old XXX, that really shouldn’t happen, we shouldn’t have the most polluting companies in the world putting paid posts inside of journalist content. So as soon as you start realizing these things, you start to realize the amount of work that has to be done, if we want a fairer world with better information and journalism, and for the society to also understand all these issues. The amount of work that has to be done is so immense, which is why I believe we should get to work. As privileged people, to start doing activism. Hopefully, in the near future at least, newspapers will stop pushing big oil propaganda. The Guardian, in the U.K., actually announced two years ago that they would no longer take fossil fuel companies’ money. For me, that’s a big achievement. I’m hoping that in the coming years, the New York Times—as an example, but it’s very symbolic—will stop taking big oil’s money to pay their climate journalists.
Maybe they can find other ways.
So you still have hope?
Absolutely, yes. Continuing with the New York Times, their entire team has done tremendous work, amazing coverage, they had the front page of the New York Times covering climate-related events. So only a few journalists, a few individuals managed to bring that problem to the front page. So that brings me a lot of hope. And I can see the same thing also in banks. I see a lot of employees becoming activists, and leaking documents and asking their CEOs and management to change their behavior. So of course I see a lot of hope. All the conversations I have on the topic, every week, they fill me with new ideas and new strategies and hope. And seeing the growth of the Fridays for Future movement, led by Greta Thunberg, and the growth of Extinction Rebellion and other groups, that also fills me with hope. Seeing young people taking actions has sort of shaken me, because I realize that I didn’t for the past thirty-nine years, I haven’t done much. And seeing the young people doing it is sort of waking me up and now I feel like I have to support them and go beyond that, to push and to bring change.
To discover more from Joanie Lemercier visit, https://joanielemercier.com/climate-action/