Review: 1.5 Degrees, by Sweat the Small Stuff

‘Public service announcement’ might not feel like the most ambitious end product of a major commission, but 1.5 Degrees by Sweat the Small Stuff hits the right notes and shows gentle public engagements at its best.

The project, commissioned and supported by Metal at Edge Hill Station, is perhaps the clearest manifestation of climate anxiety there’s been. Yet, for most viewers, it will read as a public warning and educate without request.

I’d seen the commission details in advance of visiting Huyton, Roby, and Edge Hill stations last week. And, while I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting, the understated vinyls pasted to platform shelters along the northern line definitely weren’t it. They were, however, clearly informative, and the frustrated platform full of passengers waiting on delayed trains were, for want of anything to pass the time, engaged in conversation about climate around me.

Of all the public installations I’ve come across, where the need for human intervention is the desired result, this is the one that had exactly the effect it was aiming for.

I’ve lived in Huyton for nearly eight years now, and in that time, I’ve had conversations with neighbours about climate. Those conversations tend to be offputtingly disappointing. So the stark warnings of unavoidable climate predictions, sharing how Roby will look in twenty two years’ time, have opened up new avenues for those conversations.

Passing by, you could easily miss them, and many will. But, the power of station platforms (especially on the troubled northern line) is that about 50% of passengers are rarely passing quickly. They are held in those shelters, looking out onto the tracks of largely diesel-powered trains, with little else to do but wonder at the differences from March 2023 to March 2050, and how that will affect their lives.

For me, the knowledge that I could probably be harvesting tomatoes in early spring has its positives, but quite how I’ll water them without reliable rainfall is worrying. I’m also aware that I, my neighbours, and the wider community are already struggling with old homes which are either frozen in winter, or baked through summer. Without direct action on global heating, global warming, climate change , whatever you want to call it, the relative comfort of mild British seasons, is something we won’t be able to take for granted in a few years’ time.

More severely, the way we farm will change. The crops we grow will be radically different, and the way we insulate our homes both against heat and cold will cost us.

There are personal, as well as global impacts of climate shift, and by stating that simply on a very local level, Sweat the Small Stuff have done something that many of us have tried and failed to for a long, long time. They’ve actually got local people to stop and think about what climate action should mean to them and their neighbours.

It’s also worth noting that Metal, the commissioning organisation are the leaders of the Shift Network; a growing group of cultural organisations around Merseyside who have committed to either carbon zero or net zero goals. For public facing art spaces, that’s a very difficult task, but it is possible. For Art in Liverpool, that will mean eventually phasing out these newspapers for mobile apps or a more versatile website. For spaces like Metal, it’s easier than spaces like Bluecoat, but it is possible for all of us.

For the passengers heading into Lime Street last week, their main worry was cost. They (mostly) recycled, some to a greater extent, and many were already incorporating water storage, and some had even installed solar and ground source heating. For others, those measures weren’t possible. In small flats near the station there simply isn’t space for more than one type of recycling bin. In the bigger houses, installing solar is great on paper, but without grants or subsidies, it’s not something they can afford.

If those climate anxieties had been there already, it was nice to be waiting on a platform with a community of people I’d not actually spoken to before (despite knowing most of their faces from regular commutes), and understanding that we shared similar worries. So I thoroughly thank you, Sweat the Small Stuff, for letting me have a conversation, and for letting me, and a handful of train passengers, worry together.

And all it took was some vinyl and a long forecast.

1.5 Degrees is an installation at train stations between Liverpool and Manchester along the Northern Line

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith