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03 May 2007
Arts in (Climate) Crisis
By Joni Taylor
Part 1

Apocalypse may be the new black, but the Plague, the Cold War and the Millennium Bug combined did not add up to the deserved attention that the dangers of Global Warming are receiving.
The scientific evidence, detailed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) drove the message home to (most) politicians that the planet is in dire straits, and their responsibilities lie further off than just the next election. On a local level, reports of North Alaskan fishermen hearing the sound of thunder for the first time in history and Media images of hurricanes, tsunamis and shattering icebergs did their bit to freak out the couch potato public. But still not everyone cares enough to be convinced. Potentially thousands of viewers were misinformed by the recent ‘documentary’ The Great Global Warming Swindle, when the already questionable talking heads claimed that overzealous Neo-Marxists and boosted Government funding were to blame for the ‘myth’ of man made global warming. It smacked of conspiracy theory, but compared to the depressing prophecies of Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ one almost wished the ‘Swindle’ was true.

Artists have often aligned themselves with activist causes, and have helped to move radical social change. Anti-establishment or outspoken views have never been at odds with the creatively minded. And Nature itself has long been an inspiration. At the turn of last Century, the romantic landscape paintings of Caspar David Friedrich depicted the fears of the oncoming era of mechanical industrialisation. Land Artists emerged alongside the noisy environmental movements of the Sixties, pointing out Starship Earth’s fragile beauty by making temporary and ephemeral pieces. Green party candidate Joseph Beuys regenerated the city of Kassel by planting his 7000 oaks in 1984.

This Century there has been a hip move towards green design and sustainable architecture. The slickness of sites like Treehugger and Worldchanging can't be denied. There have also been a number of exhibitions lately focusing on ecological systems, such as ‘Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art’ at Chicago's Smart Museum; The Sharjah Biennial, 'Art, Ecology and the Politics Of Change' and the recent focus of the RCA (and accompanying book - LandArt: A Cultural Ecology handbook).

But climate change or global warming as a specific cause is a relatively new one for artists. As subject matter, the enemy here is invisible - but its affects are not.
More artists are collaborating with scientists in a bid to inform their work on a technical level. But while the scientists role is a didactic and theory based practise, the artist deals with the nuances and the abstract. Art asks to be interpreted by the viewer, and its appreciation is often personal. Art speaks another kind of language - one of emotion - and this is why it may be better understood by the public, amidst the Babel of scientific jargon.

There are 3 artistic strains in dealing with climate change.

One is reducing the co2 emissions produced by artists themselves - not flying to that next art fair or finding alternatives to energy sucking Plasma screens. Just like a UN delegate, an artist is accountable for his /her carbon footprint. Using recycled and green products is another indication of ‘Slow Art’.(The next art movement perhaps?) London’s seven meter tall WEEE man, made of the industrial detritus used in a typical lifetime, was a successful shock factor device standing on the River Thames.

Another method is making art that depicts the effects of warming and pollution. The most memorable tools in Gore's film were the postcards of glaciers in the Twenties, compared with the dried up and sandy images of today. Photographers relish travelling to exotic places to bear witness to both environmental damage and utopian beauty, and bring back images to share with a city bound audience.

The last, most innovative area is the collision of art and science to create visualising tools, or to quote worldchanging ‘making the invisible, visible’. By transforming data and graphs to a visual language, artists can demonstrate the bare facts with humour and delight. Some even use ecological systems in their work, mimicking nature.

As you will see in part 2, there is a range of new arts initiatives aimed specifically at publicising climate change, with sponsors in tow. Will the public be driven to action by seeing an image on the side of a bus, or a public commission through their car window?
Let's hope that narrowing all the attention to climate change will not take away the real issue, which is the impact humans are having on the environment.
The new ecosystem here is one of dangerous networks - political situations, technological development, corporate responsibility and greed are all connnected to this alienation from the planet earth.
And let's hope that a walk in the country or a breathtaking sunset can also still do the trick when it comes to remembering what is at stake.

Commissioned by DAMn Magazine

Images courtesy of The Canaray Project

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