I was thinking about the Earth: Art in a Changing World exhibition at the Royal Academy that we went to last week. It threw up a lot of questions about how context changes the meaning and possibilities of an artwork. A lot of the pieces we saw were never made with an idea of climate change in mind (like Antony Gormley’s Field for the British Isles), but being framed by the exhibition itself throws a different light on the multiple meanings of the work. It made me think also about art spaces – there were very particular sorts of people in that exhibition, on the whole, who had to make a physical and financial commitment to be there. I’m thinking about other sorts of spaces and other sorts of audiences, public spaces, spaces that one stumbles across inadvertently in everyday life, spaces that don’t cost anything to visit or see. In a project which is about communicating climate change in some way, thinking about context and frames for showing seems inseparable, to me, from thinking about the work itself.And do you think that actually it might be the frame and the context and the texts and descriptions and the indications that “this pieces asks you to think about climate change” that hover around an artwork that actually make it possible for art to communicate an idea about climate change at all?I mean, I think what art does best is to arrest and move and fascinate and make strange and provoke thought and cause reactions physical and emotional and intellectual; art isn’t necessarily that good, always, at direct speech, or indeed at direct action…
I wholeheartedly agree with you here! For me, the exhibition was also about how the context frames and shapes the meanings of the artworks. You mention Anthony Gormley’s piece, which I first saw over 10 years ago in the Liverpool Tate. I remember looking into the room of small clay figures and being overwhelmed by a sense of humanity, vulnerability, intimacy and strength. What was striking to me about the Field was that it managed to convey a sense of individuality and collectiveness, because the individual figures were all differently shaped, but on a mass scale they represented humanity and interconnectedness. Yet, when I saw the work again, in the Earth exhibition, I responded to it very differently. I read it in the context of climate change, as a visible mass of displaced people - unidentified climate refugees with nowhere to go. This was reinforced by Mona Hatoum’s, Hot Spot (2006), which was placed near it. A wire globe with glowing neon tubes mapping the borders of continents, it seemed to say something about how both geographical and national borders will change and be redrawn as a result of the effects of climate change upon both people and place. I found this haunting.So yes, context is so important for reading artworks about climate change. They don’t have to be literal, or direct, in fact they are more powerful when they are not. But, I also think that it matters what the intention of the artist was, because not all of those artworks worked for me. While I really liked Tracey Emin’s, I Loved You Like the Sky (2009), which was commissioned for the exhibition, for me it didn’t communicate anything about climate change - emotionally, geographically, imaginatively or politically. Maybe this will change with time! So in answer to your question, I agree that art doesn’t, and maybe shouldn’t, be about directly communicating climate change – whatever that means – but that it can engage our emotions differently to make us think about the issues raised by climate change, like home, nation, belonging, displacement………..I also agree that the space in which we see artwork is also important, it is political. We both visited the exhibition, which took time, money and intent to get there. It is also a space that is invested with particular meanings about art and understanding, but it is immobile, the works are contained in the space. I like your idea about ‘spaces one stumbles across inadvertently in everyday life’ as a way of breaking down the spaces of a gallery, about bringing art into the everyday – which is one of the tasks for climate change communication and action. But what happens to the framing of the work then?…..how would people know it was about climate change?….would the work have to be more direct in this case?.......Did any of the works at the exhibition resonate with you as an artist thinking about climate change, or was it mainly the idea of context and space?
You said something about identifying "themes" or aspects of climate change, and thinking about how we might be able to communicate these things - things like home, displacement, belonging. This seems much clearer to me than thinking about how art (or indeed media) can communicate climate change itself. Surely now everyone knows about climate change, everyone knows that it is something that every citizen should be thinking about, and thinking about how to address on a personal as well as a national, political, global level...but we also know that people are not engaged in this thinking, that many people are not. So yes, the idea that we might want to focus in on specific things, tangible things, more focused things, things that are facts of climate change but which are not "climate change" I think this is a good place to start. Art is best when it's specific, when it's precise, when it's intended...I don't mean that art is best when it's meaning is clear - good art always has multiple meanings and is a complicated viewing experience (we saw that in the exhibition, as with the Gormley installation) - but I mean that art is at its best when there is a precise intention behind the work (the intention might be visual, intellectual, conceptual, political, spatial...or a combination of these, and other things). I'd like us to think more about these specific things within the broader picture of ";a changing climate". The things you've mentioned already (displacement, belonging, home) and other things. For me, this list would have to include weather, consumption, production, industry, landscape, nature, the sky, the sea. For my process of making work, having a cluster of ideas or images or "themes" like this is a much clearer place to depart from that a mission like "make something that more effectively communicates climate change"...
And we were talking about this idea of "communicating";, and about how context is so key in this. You asked how a project that is presented in a public, non-artspace context (I think there'd be something very charged about a piece appearing in a series of recession-closed, post-consumption high street shops) becomes legible to the passer by. I find this tricky. As a gallery goer, I hate those little explanations or interpretations you find next to work, largely because I find them reductive, too easily explanatory, and a distraction from one's encounter with the work. I know a gallery educator would defend them as being to do with access and widening participation. I fear that they diminish the experience of art. Is it enough then to simply say "here is something that asks you to think about climate change", and leave it as simple and open as that (that wasn't a suggestion for an actual phrasing, by the way)? This feels different from those equivalent interpretations that would say something like "this piece asks you to think about climate change in its depiction of displaced people, climate refugees, people whose land might have been lost due to rising sea levels";. But then maybe that level of directness is what is needed? But then what is the actual role of "art" and of the experience of art as different from an experience of media, which is a fair better mechanism for communication?
You asked if any of the work in the Earth exhibition had resonated with me as an artist thinking about climate change. Probably the piece that stood out more than any other was a video work made from a brilliantly edited series of clips from disaster movies (sorry, I forget the title and the artist). With a pumping soundtrack and all sorts of fast-cut images of tidal waves, collapsing civilisations, explosions, extreme weather events and so on, the work was not only visually, emotionally, viscerally and conceptually strong, it was also funny. It allowed me to draw an immediate pleasure at the very same time as being chilling and actually sort of frightening. Why did I find it frightening? I remember a lot of the disaster movies or "wild nature" movies that the clips were cut from - movies in which a tidal wave could be a metaphor for something like immigration, or the threat of a foreign politics. In the context of climate change, the clips stop being metaphor and start to approach the real: the metaphor and the reality start to align.That's something I'd like us to think more about: the role of metaphor, and specifically visual metaphor, in the context of climate change. Have you done any research around that?
Visual metaphors. Yes, a lot of my research on climate change communication has focused upon how visual metaphors have been used by environmental NGOs and the news media to represent, or stand in for, climate change – the polar bear, melted glaciers, flooded urban areas, Arctic/Antarctica ice, etc. What is significant about these photographic/film images of impacts is that they have been used as a way of depicting the ‘visible’ reality of climate change. As such, their meaning is dependent upon the notion of photographic truth. But, at the same time, they also function as visual metaphors for climate change. What is exciting about working with you, as an artist, is the possibility of finding a different visual language to engage with climate change. The supposed literalness of such photographic images is limited; they demonstrate what is, or has, happened. For me, they relegate climate change to the past, rather than in the here and now, and in the future. We, in the West, watch as the world changes, but we are removed because there is a limit to what photographic/film ‘evidence’ can do in terms of engaging the viewer to think, feel, imagine and act in the present. While such images may have contributed to a public/government acceptance of the reality of climate change (although in a recent poll in the UK, only 31% of the public believe that climate change is definitely a reality. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/feb/23/british-public-belief-climate-poll has now fallen), they haven’t contributed to people’s action on climate change, and have even lead to disengagement from the issue – they are disempowering.
I love your observation about the edited video sequence (Doomed, by Tracey Moffatt); that the images and metaphors used in the genre of disaster movies have now become a reality in the context of climate impacts – that was terrifying and powerful. But are metaphors useful to helping make climate change more meaningful? The visual metaphors of polar bears, melting ice and flooding don’t work in engaging people. The metaphors used in futuristic disaster movies don’t work either, given that the metaphors are now arguably becoming the reality. Can you rework existing metaphors? I think that the Cape Farewell project works on this premise; taking artists, writers, the media, educators and scientists to the Arctic to offer cultural responses to climate change. Yet, the Arctic is such a familiar image or icon in the visual lexicon of climate change, I find it difficult to see how such a focus helps us to change those images/associations, or generate a different set of engagements that enables climate change to be understood as a social reality within everyday life. Taking people to a remote place to be inspired, makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. Why do we need to go to remote places, already invested with a particular set of meanings, to try and make climate change meaningful? What about the local high street or urban settings? These places/spaces are more difficult to be inspired by but arguably are more important if we are thinking about engaging people in a meaningful way. I really like your idea of using derelict spaces such as recession closed shops to make an intervention. So, if we are to explore metaphor, then I would like it to not be simply visual metaphors, which are too saturated with existing meanings, but rather use non-visual metaphors like displacement and belonging, that may or may not be explored visually. This is more exciting and challenging.
Your question about whether the media offer a more direct form of communication is to some extent true. The media have more impact upon people because they are part of our everyday life, whereas art does not have the same presence or ubiquity. But even media communication is a form of construction and representation, where ideas, metaphors and social values/norms get reproduced and circulated. It is only in the last 5 years that climate change has been more consistently covered by the news media, even though scientific consensus on climate change has existing for many more years. Climate change was only considered newsworthy when its impacts could be seen (via photography and film). So media communication on climate change is equally open to question and interrogation, as is arts communication. But it’s important to think about how the characteristics of news media coverage (the focus upon the immediate and the visible) could be drawn upon and questioned through art. I would like the everydayness of the media to be translated into arts engagement, and the media’s focus upon the immediate visible, to be interrogated by the arts. This comes back to the question of context – where we view art, how it is framed as art.
I agree, I’d like us to explore the themes of belonging, displacement, home, consumption, weather, etc, as ways into thinking about climate change, and making it more meaningful, but not necessarily more visually literal (as is the case with photographic images of climate impacts). We haven’t talked about time yet, but it is something that I am very interested in exploring with you in relation to climate change. In the Earth Exhibition, we looked at some of the artworks differently than previous because the passage of time had made them meaningful in relation to climate change. The ‘Doomed’ video piece worked because it showed the passage of time, as future fears become present realities. Time, understood as clock time, is something that we feel we can hold on to, potentially reverse, it is perceived as moving in a linear fashion. This is why the future does not ever really feel present, because it is always imminent, then it quickly becomes the past. But what about the present? How do we make climate change a present reality without resorting to photographic images, which lock the present into the past, and leave little space for present/future possibilities?
Blimey, there's so much in here already. I feel like we're getting close the the kernel of a question, a starting point of sorts. I'm going to start some other blogs - themed blogs - so that we can look into some of the things we've begun to raise in more detail - and so that my head doesn't explode!