Few would have guessed the impact of that one spontaneous decision. The artist John Quigley had been working with Greenpeace and TckTckTck in the final days of the U.N. climate summit to choreograph an action that they hoped would send a message to world leaders and the public about the vital importance of the decisions being made in Cancun.

The action proposed by Tck and Greenpeace involved the world’s largest inflatable life preserver (15 meters across to be precise) with dozens of formally attired people dressed as U.N. negotiators drowning at sea. Members of the YOUNGO’s (youth NGO delegates) reached out helping hands to rescue the flailing negotiators and bring them safely to shore. You can watch it here:

It was a great idea but not necessarily something that would read from the 10th floor balcony overlooking the staged rescue. So Quigley, who is famous for his oeuvre of human aerial art (in which people are arranged to create super-scale text), suggested spelling the word HOPE with a ‘?’ using the hundred or so participants to simply yet effectively remind us of the Obama promise to deliver us out of a decade-long U.N. climate stalemate.

It was not an obvious choice. At the time fate really did hang in the balance, and there was very little to be hopeful about. The one area where progress was anticipated — the establishment of a fund for climate adaptation for the most vulnerable countries — had been stymied by the U.S. delegation and some insiders were saying the entire U.N. process was in jeopardy of collapse.

But part of Quigley’s haiku approach to these aerial works of art accounts for multiple readings of the text. If the talks had completely failed, the text could be read as an in-your-face criticism of Obama administration rhetoric (as in … THIS is the hope you promised?) Or if the talks were successful it could push the agenda forward by suggesting that we not get carried away with any false sense of hope moving forward.

As it turned out, the choice of text could not have been more perfect. At 6 p.m., only a few hours after the mass action on the beach, a dramatic turnaround occurred inside the U.N. assembly hall — a new text was put forth that significantly moved the climate talks forward and would that night be nearly unanimously adopted by 190 countries, one of the largest multilateral decisions in history. Suddenly Quigley’s image of “HOPE?” became the perfect visual representation of the moment.

By 6:30 p.m., the image was at the top of both the BBC website and the Globe & Mail. Within a few more hours, it was on nearly every other major online news site, even FOX. Here’s a slideshow of the day’s headlines:

Since the first ad hoc image created in 1993, Quigley has done more than 150 such images in dozens of languages and in every continent — from the Amazon jungle to the polar ice cap, from Easter Island to Antarctica and everywhere in between. He has also trained teams for organizations like 350.org, giving them an organizing tool which leverages a moment in time to engage activists, working locally to send messages that read globally. The oeuvre has grown enough to deserve its own book, which Quigley is expecting to publish in 2011.

For NGOs that are always struggling to get their message heard by broader audiences, John Quigley has pioneered an artistic medium that manages to lift itself above the white noise of online activism — delineating messages that are, quite literally, larger than life.

The power of an image: The story behind 'HOPE?'
At the Cancun climate talks, one art installation dominated the headlines at a turning point in history.