A Conversation with the Interdisciplinary Artist and Activist Beatie Wolfe

Beatie Wolfe was immersed in the creative spheres from a young age. With a rare bookseller for a father, and a therapist and writer for a mother, Wolfe has been exposed to the arts for as long as she can remember, to which her impressive list of accolades are a true testament. Originally born in the UK, Wolfe currently resides in LA, and still fondly reflects on fossil hunting as a child and bringing snails in her pockets to school. This appreciation for the natural world continues to greatly influence her work as a singer, writer, speaker, artist and environmental activist (the list goes on). aware_ sat down with the internationally-renowned artist to explore where it all began, what drives her curiosity and the responsibility art has in addressing environmental subject matter.

aware_: Where did it all begin?

Beatie WolfeI’ve been unpicking this recently. I started writing songs as a six year old, I started very young. I remember coming across my parents’ record collection and seeing them as musical books, ready to be explored. The tangible listening experience that we grew up with became a fundamental element in my desire to tell stories through music. From the beginning I was imagining what my music would look like, what it would feel like. But it wasn’t just music, it was writing stories, plays, poems, drawing, putting on radio shows, performances – every aspect of creativity. As I mentioned, my parents were both so immersed in the arts, that there was so much stimuli which inspired me to create. And my career as an artist began when I released my first record, 8ight, as a 3D theatre for the palm of your hand (and this new way of listening to music), which was a reaction to the standard iTunes format at the time. It turned your phone into what looked like an 80s viewfinder and the response was amazing. It felt like people were really ready to explore a different way of listening to music. 

aware_: When did the environmental awareness enter your creative process?

Beatie WolfeI remember going to watch ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ at the cinema when I was a teenager. I came out of the cinema in a state of complete shock and anger; I couldn’t believe we were living in a society where there was no bigger dialogue about what I’d seen. I went home and I wrote this song “From Green to Red”, which was in reaction to the film and I remember thinking that I wouldn’t need to record the song because the subject matter would be irrelevant in ten years time as we would all be so aligned on these issues. It turned out that wasn’t the case and then four years ago I was giving a talk at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory about my work and at the end of the talk one of the chief engineers showed me these atmospheric CO2 graphs dating back 800,000 years. It jolted me like seeing ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ had, but now we were 15 years on and I remember thinking “how are we here?”. So I took the 800,000 years of CO2 data and transformed it into a woven, dynamic timeline of the planet, which was then set to the track that I’d written as a teenager. The piece is about making this dense subject matter and cold data accessible to everyone to show where we are on the planet at this point in time.

Beatie Wolfe

aware_: Can you tell me about your involvement with the UN?

Beatie WolfeI was asked to be one of nine global Innovators for the UN’s Impossible to Ignore campaign which launched on International Women’s Day 2019. The campaign was about spotlighting women who were pushing things forward in various fields, who they considered to be “impossible to ignore.” Our faces were all over Times Square, across New York in general, London and other cities, so it was very high vis! And then in 2021, I was a part of the UN’s COP26 across a few different areas including projecting my environmental project ‘From Green to Red’ 550ft large onto the Armadillo Building (where the conference was being held) as the largest visual art statement of the conference. I also performed at the UN’s Official deforestation panel amongst world leaders and spoke and performed for the opening ceremony of The New York Times’ climate hub. And there’s more work with The New York Times coming up. 

aware_: As a musician, things like touring are bad for the planet, how do you ensure to live and work as responsibly as possible?

Beatie WolfeIt’s always been something I’m super conscious about. I never built my career around touring. Last year I had two exhibitions running, ‘From Green to Red’ at the London Design Biennale in Somerset House and ‘Postcards for Democracy’ at the Rauschenberg gallery in Florida but I didn’t get to see either because of covid, but they still happened and lots of people got to enjoy the work so I believe we can travel a lot less than we think. I have said no to a lot of projects because of the travel aspect. That said, for SXSW I was invited to do a talk with Brian Eno and I did travel for that because Brian doesn’t fly either, so I took the bullet for that. Before lockdown I think a lot of us were travelling unconsciously, on autopilot, and now I think that’s changing, hopefully. If I go over to Europe then I try to combine my meetings, events etc so I think strategies like that are helpful.

With regards to this bigger conversation around touring, it’s really the mega bands and artists that make up a tiny percent of the industry who are having the biggest on the planet. The Rolling Stone level tours is where the problem lies.

Beatie Wolfe

aware_: What is the role of an artist today?

Beatie Wolfe: The role of art today is to say something that cannot be said in other fields. It’s to activate awareness. For example with ‘From Green to Red’, art can make you feel the data rather than think about it. I feel that’s the role of artists nowadays, to really say something and activate the greatest awareness for bigger issues that we all face and to inspire revolution where needed. And when it comes to the climate emergency, we’ve really done nothing yet, so there’s hope in the sense of the potential scope we have when acting together.

Next to launching an anti-technology, solar-powered and wind-powered art piece later this year, Wolfe is working on eco-documentaries. The subject matter showcases how musical instruments can become a vehicle for telling important environmental stories. Wolfe’s next record installation will be at the London Design Biennale 2023. The work is a portrait of the artist’s brain, using frequency hopping code pioneered by Hedy Lamarr during World War Two. Follow this link to find out more.

– by Kim N. Fischer

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