Interview / 05 Feb, 2019
Elyx: Sketching for Sustainable Development and Climate Action

Elyx is an illustrated character, created by the French digital artist YAK, Yacine Ait Kaci, in 2011. Meanwhile a fully-fledged virtual personality on social networks, Elyx became the first digital ambassador of the United Nations in 2015 and of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Delicately designed, and with a broad smile on his face, the universal and virtual messenger of the ideals of the United Nations questions, moves and never accuses anyone. Elyx is also a well known virtual UN ambassador for sustainable development and climate action. With nearly 111,000 fans on Instagram, 48,000 followers on Facebook, the craze for this little character full of poetry continues to grow. The editor of the French version of the UN Climate Change Newsroom, Elise d'Epenoux, spoke with Elyx's "father" and creator Yacine Ait Kaci in Paris. Here the full interview:

Who is Elyx?

Elyx was born in 2011, the result of multiple factors that aligned at the right time, linked to my previous project, the digital creation with my label Electronic Shadows. I wanted to work on a character that is completely universal and that everyone can understand. That it is both very graphic and has my own fingerprint: with the fewest possible features to have a maximum possibility of expression and actions, of movements and that it is very, very flexible; that this is neither a man, nor a woman, nor a Frenchman, nor a Chinese, nor an old man, nor big nor small etc. Whether it’s a spirit - its core essence is to be a drawing. Elyx is not a illustrated representation of a human being as comics can be.

Why a drawing? Because it is one of the three common points that anyone on the planet shares. I have identified three of them: illustrations is the first because everyone drew as a child, and drawing one of the first forms of language, so we are very responsive to it: when we see a drawing it is like a work by Madeleine de Proust: it takes us back to our own illustrations, there is a direct connection that is created.

The second thing is childhood: we have all been children and we all have a magic button somewhere: when you press that button you have the same amazed look as when you were 5 years old.

The third common point - and indeed its main characteristic - is the smile. The smile is also a form of language that carries within it another form of language. When you don't see Elyx smiling, it's due to some negative subject that is being dealt with in the illustration. Otherwise he's always smiling. And he still has this posture: his hands are wide open, the opposite of closed fists. But he can also have his hands closed or frozen in movement for example.

With this posture and his wide smile he invites us to be with him. Everyone feels welcome. He can't be scary. That is what I want to achieve.

How can a simple drawing by Elyx speak to the world and what does its name mean?

The first thing that was obvious was that I had to combine his graphics with the complexity of the world. So it meant that I took his picture, drew him, but put him into a realistic frame, and interacted with him in a realistic setting. This was a trick that didn't exist at the time!

One day, I was walking in an ornithological park in Indonesia. I was drawing a picture of Elyx, and a bird started pecking the drawing. I heard laughter behind me. It was an Indonesian family. A universe separated us, but they were all laughing. They took the notebook from my hands, took pictures with Elyx, laughed together, gave me the notebook back and left. There I had just shared a moment of pure benevolence, totally free. I thought to myself: we just made a connection.

Then by creating a specific account for Elyx, on Twitter in this case, he became a virtual personality. It was established in the same way as anyone who creates an Instagram or Facebook account. And people would talk to me about the figure of Elyx as if he or she really existed.

As for its name: it is the convergence of many things. The sound “Elyx” means "helix" in English, but it is also the helix of DNA. And the YX are the XY chromosomes. So the idea was to say: Elyx is what's inside each of us.

Graphically, Elyx's smile is on a line that is at the extreme opposite of tears. It is a non-verbal language that represents hope. It is always a balance with him: to be very fragile, light, but very powerful at the same time, and potentially very strong in what he will be able to tell us. It is a permanent balancing act: to do something with few apparent means but to have, potentially, global reach.

Elyx and Yak

Why did you create the Elyx Foundation?

I created the Elyx Foundation in 2018. It was necessary to create a vehicel capable of responding to the requests I received but also to be a force to put forward ideas and an institution in itself. The objective of the foundation is to promote the United Nations instruments and values to organizations and the general public, but also to be place for culture at the centre of the common good.

In this Foundation we continue to develop this work, grow and share the universal values and goals of the United Nations relating to the Declaration of Human Rights, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and all the related causes, with a very important focus on SDGs 13, 14 and 15 - the "climate trio" - 13: Climate action, 14: Life below water, 15: Life on land- with which I am very involved.

The purpose of the Foundation is also to communicate that culture, beyond its pedagogical or entertaining dimension, is a way of linking things, which makes it possible to work on what we have in common. Elyx is a cultural tool that nowadays is used for diplomacy. But we don't necessarily see one in connection with the other. That's why Elyx can go through walls that are difficult to go through, that's why we manage to embellish certain messages and make them more attractive. Elyx is all about bringing cultures together: world cultures but also cultural forms - cinema, theatre, fashion...

What is the latest news from Elyx in 2019?

We heard António Guterres' call last year that we have two years left to act. So we hear the clock ticking dramatically! All the news we have on the climate front is increasingly catastrophic: the disappearance of the ice pack, the melting of the permafrost, the latest IPCC report on 1.5 °C... it is an absolute emergency. Since we have been ringing the alarm bell for 10-15 years, the problem is that even when there is a super alarm bell, we hardly hear it anymore.

The UN climate summit in September 2019 will once again sound the alarm and try to force states to position themselves and provide a valid response. The theme of the year "A race to win" is a mission (perforce !) for Elyx ! So this race that we can win, we will fill it with life with the Elyx Climate Race. The idea is to get back around the world (as in 2015), to include citizens and to have a double approach: first of all to symbolize this race with a kit that allows everyone to take a picture of themself with eight illustrations of Elyx running. The eight steps of the Elyx running animation combine to produce an Elyx effect that is running like a cartoon or flip-book, with the person holding the drawings in the background, and who can also move. Elyx will be caught running around the world so the scenery will change every time. For example, he could start his race in Bonn in front of the UNFCCC headquarters! Then go to Ghana etc. And it will be a world tour with the smallest possible ecological footprint!

We will start this race on April 22nd, on Earth Day, and arrive in New York on September 22nd, by the back door, because the dream, the ultimate objective, would be to send Elyx to the International Space Station, to even leave Baikonur by rocket and to see the animation of Elyx's eight drawings on an astronaut tablet in the ISS. The idea is to see the Earth from space. The Earth, our great spaceship on which we are all making this great journey together in the universe… but we don't realize that we are all hammering into the hull and the water is flowing into it ! The ideal would, therefore, be to end this world tour up there, by sending this message to New York for 23 September, at the opening of the UN Climate Summit.

That's what Elyx is for: to make it understandable. That anyone can appropriate it and that this way we have this goodwill, this solidarity, this sharing of something that we will need to repair the leaks of our ship and to organize ourselves in our new world that will emerge from this transition, some aspects of which will be catastrophic and others based solely on humanity and the way it will manage to organize itself.

How can Elyx contribute to the Paris Agreement?

I was at Le Bourget during the UN Climate Change Conference COP21 in 2015, for this historic moment! Elyx is really soft advocacy, it's soft power, a soft positive pressure that's not in a direct confrontation.

There are no other solutions than to modify our production and food systems... because if the other outcome is catastrophic, this one is not necessarily painful. You have to tell the story, accompany it and Elyx can contribute to that.

It is above all a cultural battle, which means that we must change in a very short time the behaviors of a lifetime, the cultural behaviors that sometimes take generations to change. Switching from one mode of consumption to another, from one mode of transport to another, is not something that happens overnight. We must put in place new economic levers that will put more emphasis on intangible aspects, the work of the land will make us produce differently... there are thousands of things to invent.

We are lucky to belong to this generation that I call "Regeneration Generation", a generation that will both regenerate its environment and work on renewed human relations based on other values. This means that Elyx and also many other political, cultural, scientific and philosophical actors have the mission to contribute to drawing, writing this new world and helping to make this transition as soft as possible.