With pixels and stagecraft, ‘Arctic Experience’ aims to inspire the next generation to fight Big Oil

The Arctic Experience is designed to inspire the next generation to continue the environmentalist fight to block oil development in the Arctic Refuge. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

A multimedia exhibit about the Arctic popped up in a trendy warehouse district of Washington, D.C. recently. It aims to wow, not just with beautiful video, but also scented fog and ethereal music. It’s designed to compel young people to care about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Outside a former meat market, next to a fashionable restaurant, hundreds line up to get in to the sold-out “The Arctic Refuge Experience.”

Visitors are warned that the show employs technology to play on their senses.

“This is a really serene, a peaceful, really lovely experience,” says an usher, whose job is to create suspense and set the mood. “We’d love to keep that vibe going, so please silence your phone.”

This is a new kind of outreach campaign by The Wilderness Society. For decades, national environmental groups made the fight to prevent oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge a top conservation issue for a wide swath of America. Now, with the government preparing for the first oil lease auction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), The Wilderness Society is trying to activate a new generation to keep up the fight.

And a younger cohort requires a different kind of engagement.

Visitors were encouraged to take photos and post them on social media, to build opposition to Arctic drilling. (Photo by Liz Ruskin / Alaska Public Media)

“You’re going to want to take photos. You’re going to want to take video,” one guide says. “We’d love it, and if you share it on social, which we hope you do, please hashtag it #ProtectTheArctic because that’s what this is all about.”

An introductory video features stylized caribou that glow like constellations.

“Beyond the Arctic Circle, there’s a thriving land,” says the narrator, Gwich’in Steering Committee leader Bernadette Demientieff of Fort Yukon. “It’s teeming with life, and one of the planet’s most majestic treasures. It has existed unspoiled and undeveloped for thousands of years. Can you picture of place like that?”

A larger room has half a dozen giant video screens and equally large mirrors. The floor is spongy. There’s moss underfoot. The room smells faintly of Labrador tea, and white clouds billow in from an unseen fog machine. Gorgeous images fill the dark room: ice, a melting river, dramatic mountain peaks, lichen, snow falling in massive flakes, a field of tundra cotton, caribou.

Suddenly our Arctic experience takes a dark turn: All screens show a curtain of thick black oil descending.

When the lights come on, visitors are led to the action room.

“All throughout this entire room, you will find a series of lots of different actions you can take right now, to stand with the Gwich’in and take a stand against Big Oil,” the guide says.

Visitors can can sign a manifesto. They can pose at a photo booth with a snowflake backdrop. Or they can pick from a bank of five phones and leave a message for an oil executive or the Interior secretary.

A bank of phones invited visitors to share their thoughts with oil executives and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

“You’ve reached the voicemail of: Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil,” you’ll hear if you try the first phone on the left. “Please leave your message after the beep.”

These phones have been a crowd favorite, says Irene Pedruelo, director of research at Do Something Strategic, the firm that put the show together. It’s surprising, she says, because conventional wisdom has it that people don’t make voice calls any more.

“They really are feeling that phones have some kind of retro, nostalgic element and they are really gravitating towards that,” she said.

Those phones aren’t actually connecting to oil company offices, though. Pedruelo said her team tried to get the direct phone lines of the executives and couldn’t get past their gatekeepers. But they wanted to evoke the feeling of reaching out and making a call, so the messages are being recorded and will be delivered later. This is activism married with stagecraft. Pedruelo said the whole concept was a challenge.

“The intention really was to try to capture a really, really vast natural space that we know is uncapturable,” she said

Alaska Oil and Gas Association President Kara Moriarty hasn’t seen the show, but she doubts it explains that development would be confined to a small portion of a refuge that’s the size of South Carolina.

“I would be curious to know if the exhibit highlighted the fact that over 92% of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is permanently protected,” Moriarty said. “My guess is that it did not.”

She guesses correctly, but the environmentalists say drilling would threaten the heart of the refuge.

Some 4,000 people saw the show over four days in D.C. It was about the same in Brooklyn last month. The last stop for the Arctic Refuge Experience is San Francisco.

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