In Conversation: GCC talks to Tino Sehgal and Louise Hojer

GCC spoke with artist Tino Sehgal and his production manager, Louise Hojer about their experiences of low-carbon land travel, changing habits and making the most of travel time. To learn more about minimising the carbon impact of travelling, read GCCs latest advice on the Travel resource page.



How did you become aware of and interested in the climate crisis? 

TS: The reason why we are currently in a climate crisis is that almost every action we do emits carbon dioxide. That's why it's such a challenging but fascinating problem. 

 

When I grew up in the 80s, the climate crisis was called the greenhouse effect and it was always spoken alongside the thinning of the ozone layer. What’s interesting about this, is that if I were to ask my children, they probably wouldn't have heard of the ozone layer.

 

And that’s a case in point. The thinning of the ozone layer was caused by one or two substances, and these substances were in fridges and sprays. They were substituted and then the ozone layer started thickening again. We don't talk about the ozone any more. 

 

The problem with the climate issue is that it happens in all our actions. It doesn't matter how we label them, or what we declare our political position on this matter to be. All that is completely irrelevant.



What brought the carbon impact of air travel to your attention? 

TS: One epiphany for me was a study in Germany about voters for the Green Party. The result of the study was that, mostly, those voters have a higher carbon footprint than voters for - let's say, the Conservative Party - because they are people who like to travel, are educated, etc.

 

Just traveling by plane on a normal flight which crosses an ocean will push your carbon footprint across the level of what your yearly budget should be. Travelling by air is the most carbon consuming thing you can do as an individual. 

 

What role do you believe the art-world can play in mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis?

TS: What does the art world do? It does signs and models. Everything that we do as artists is on a model-like scale: we're proposing things and we share ideas, values, aesthetic sensibilities, and we do that through relatively small propositions which can fit into a room. Mostly, it happens via some semiotic channel. 

 

Then we have the sustainability problem - the climate crisis - that doesn't care at all about models and cares even less about science. It's all about action. 

 

Once you change a habit, maybe for sustainability reasons, then new doors open up. 

 

I think that the Gallery Climate Coalition is very important, because it's an art world initiative, but it's not using art-world means. That is not to say that art-world means are not important, but they are very much in danger of doing one thing and saying another thing.

 

The art world dealing with semiotics is an important function of our society because it's one of the places where liberal democratic society tries to understand what its values are and which direction it wants to go.

 

 

What is the most difficult challenge we face in shifting the ways in which we operate as a global industry?

TS: I think changing our habits is one of the most difficult things to do because habits are neuronal pathways that we're used to following along, and we have to train them in different ways. That’s difficult, which is another reason why what the GCC is doing is important  - because it is about shifting the modality.

 

Habits can also be inefficient. When you're in Europe, it's so closely knit with high speed trains. You can travel through it, as one big city, in a way.  Of course, it’s not just a one hour journey on the metro. You are on the Metro for 4, 5, 6, 7, hours - but you can use that day efficiently. 

 

For galleries, the way business is structured, you could visit your artists in different places, or see shows. Say if you're going to Basel from London, it's easy to go to Paris and then from Paris you take a train to Basel. You could go to a show in Paris on the way and have some meetings there. Whereas if you just fly to Basel, you miss out on all this.

 

Once you change a habit, maybe for sustainability reasons, then new doors open up. From a work efficiency perspective, you realise this is actually better. The idea of traveling by train has an image of being less efficient, but now, with laptops and the internet you can turn the train into your office. It doesn't feel as easy to work on a plane. 



You both have a wealth of experience travelling over-land for the past 20 years, both personally and professionally, could you tell us about some of those experiences?

 

LH: We've traveled many times using the Trans Siberian Express/ Train to show work in China and Japan. Practically how has that worked? We both live in Berlin, so we take a 24 hour train ride from Berlin to Moscow, and then we take the Trans Siberian for six days to Beijing. The last time I went, I travelled alone , which was actually very peaceful and meditative, as well as productive in terms of work and reading time. 

 

Tino and I have a long history of working on trains. Tino travelled from Berlin to Japan with a group of dancers, and they rehearsed on the train! So much is possible, depending on the nature of your work.

 

For a few years now the night trains within Europe have disappeared, but as far as I understand, they're making a comeback. At a certain point I really had the sweet spot where I would work all day in Berlin, then I would do yoga and have a shower, put on comfortable clothes, and then catch a night train. I'd wake up the next day totally refreshed and could start meetings in a new city. The travel never actually interfered with my day.

 

TS:I think in terms of changing habits, when Louise talks about practical details they may sound banal, but the details are the point: making the practicalities work is crucial. There's often this hurdle of ‘Oh, I can't do this, I don't know anybody else who does this, it's abstract’. I think it's actually very important to get an image of what making these changes is like in practical terms and then realising that making changes is actually an easy thing to do.

 

In terms of night trains, what's interesting are the ideological assumptions. The ideological assumption behind travelling by plane that is also behind the attraction of high speed trains, that is, that faster equals better - more is more. Whereas in terms of efficiency, the night train might be slow, but it's very efficient. I remember times in the middle of the 2000s, where I was working a lot in London and I would take the night train at 21:30 from Berlin, and I would arrive in London before 8am the next morning, so I could have a first meeting at eight. That's efficient, even though the net travel time was longer.

 

 

What is your experience like of overseas travel?

The truth is that there's no good way to cross an ocean. When I first started thinking about low-carbon travel, around 2005, we took cargo ships and cruise ships. Before I travelled that way, I wanted to be sure I was doing the right thing, so I spoke to the federal environmental agencies and two other environmental institutes. They hadn’t had this question put to them before, so the three institutes got together and made a calculation and the result was the estimated carbon impact of the motor of the cruise ship. They said a cruise ship probably emits two thirds of the amount of carbon of a plane. 

 

A cargo ship's carbon footprint is much lower, however, because you have to take whatever your weight is and calculate that against the hundreds of thousands of tons which are on the ship - so there's no real carbon footprint for the individual. They do however burn a lot of low quality oil, so that's an issue. 

 

We stopped doing both cargo ships and cruise ships for different reasons, although cargo ships can be fun and actually in a weird way luxurious, because you're like one of six passengers along with  the crew and they have karaoke evenings. But it’s not really a viable alternative as they only take a handful of passengers. You can do it as an experience - I really recommend it, but it doesn’t work in terms of our normal operations.

 

Moreover, around 2013 an NGO in Germany called atmosfair, which normally calculates the carbon emissions of flights, calculated those emitted by cruise ships. And they pointed out a mistake we made in 2006 when we were making our calculations. Their numbers showed that cruise ships use as much carbon as planes. The reason for the disparity is that we didn’t  account for climate control, which uses up an enormous amount of energy.



Given that it’s neither realistic nor possible for everyone in the industry to stop flying, what advice do you have for taking essential, overseas trips?

I’ve kept in contact with the people from atmosfair, and they explained that a flight from London to New York which is usually around 2000 kilograms of carbon dioxide can also be done for as little as 600 K/C. But you have to book carefully. There are three reasons for the lower carbon emissions: You have to fly on a newer plane, which is more fuel efficient.The flight must be full, and it must  take a lot of cargo. These three factors together make it much more efficient than most flights. So, after 20 years without flying, I kind of threw my dogmatism out the window and went on board, so to say. 

 

I think the most important thing is to be conscious.

 

The way we travel now from Europe to America, is to take a train to London, then hop over the ocean on  one of these more efficient flights and then we continue by land. I feel  good about travelling this way  because it's achievable - it’s something which everybody can do in my opinion to save carbon.

 

As you know, going by land is the best way of doing things. Not traveling and doing a zoom call instead of traveling is also a good alternative.



Many flight companies offer the option to ‘offset’ the carbon impact of the flight. What are your thoughts on this?

I'm not a big believer in offsetting. My problem is, first: the damage is done. The metaphor is, you hit somebody and then give them a band aid. Part of the reason why plane travel is really bad is because the damage is happening at a place where it hurts most - in the atmosphere.

 

The other problem which has been pointed out is, if, for example, you pay for planting trees -  what happens in 20 years if this is burned down and  all your carbon comes back into the air? There's more secure ways of ‘offsetting,’ but a lot of them are attached to risk. 

 

 

Do you think that ground travel could deepen the divide between central and peripheral art markets? How can we support the periphery?

I don't think that starting tomorrow people are only going to travel by ground - it's not going to happen.

 

I think the most important thing is to be conscious. There's so much you can do without the spectacular act of taking the Trans Siberian. Traveling consciously is a really simple thing. It's just organising your year and saying, ‘okay, I'm going to fly to LA, but I'm going to do all my West Coast stuff on that one trip rather than going back and forth’ - it's not spectacular, but actually it’s really helpful — just doing just one flight instead of five. 

 

We have a relationship with this planet, with Gaia. If you're in a relationship, it doesn’t mean that you take take take, but it’s also not just give, give, give. You take and give. So it's more about a consciousness that says - I am taking something right now. I don't want to take too much and I'm also going to give. 

 

Just to repeat: I'm not saying you shouldn't fly. I think it's about being conscious of what flying costs and realising there are a lot of ways of traveling, some of which are better than others.

 

September 8, 2021