Highway sings flash messages about the planet's ecological crisis. Credit: Image courtesy the artist and Maruani Mercier Gallery; Brussels

Inevitable signs of climate change have appeared at Navy Pier. Literally.

Justin Brice Guariglia’s art installation We Are the Asteroid II, a collaboration with Expo Chicago and the Union of Concerned Scientists, uses a sandblasted solar-powered LED traffic message board to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis. Instead of traffic or construction warnings, the signs display aphorisms such as “WE ARE THE ASTEROID” and “GLOBAL WARMING AT WORK.”

The idea to put these messages on a highway message board came to the artist when he saw a highway sign flashing warnings to drivers. He asked the author and philosopher Timothy Morton to write a series of aphorisms about the planet’s ecological crisis. Just as those signs remind motorists to slow down and take caution, the aphorisms in We Are the Asteroid II are intended to make people think about climate change and what steps they can take to better the environment.

“All my work is about bridging the ontological gap between what we think is happening and what is actually happening,” Guariglia says. “If you’re not an ecologist or scientist, you’re not going to understand what’s really going on with the planet because we’re so disconnected from it.”

Five of the six messages serve as a way to connect people to the problems climate change has created without boring them with data. Using simple phrases, the installation communicates the facts, specifically what changes have occurred in the environment, such as higher carbon dioxide levels, the melting of the Arctic ice, and the drastic rise in temperature that mimics the dangerously hot and dry weather of the Triassic period, which ended with the mass extinction of half the species on Earth.

Guariglia hopes to generate discussion between different generations. He also hopes the public art piece will encourage more people to work toward a more sustainable environment. That’s why the final aphorism to flash is “DON’T ECO-SHOP, ECO-VOTE.” “We’re recycling and buying more organic items, but we haven’t accepted that we’re in an ecological crisis,” he says. “So my work is to get people to think more ecologically and, hopefully, get them to take action.”

With elections coming up, Guariglia wants the public to be more conscious of voting people into power who are thinking ecologically. When politicians deny the reality of climate change, he says, they set up bigger problems for the future of the planet.But the focus of the piece isn’t on the politicians, it’s on the public.

“The whole point of We Are the Asteroid II is that we are in the midst of a great mass extinction and we don’t realize that,” he says. “We’re going down a highway with all these warnings, heading into a tunnel and there is a light at the end for us, but big changes have to take place.”   v