A Love Poem in the Time of Climate Change
Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru (Chamorro) from the Pacific Island of Guåhan and currently works at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa. He is a poet, scholar, reviewer, artist, environmentalist, and activist. For over a decade… “I have written about indigenous connections to nature, as well as environmental justice issues in the Pacific, and this has led me to writing more deeply about climate change.” “I am inspired by the ecologies of the Pacific islands, the resilience of Pacific Islanders, the wisdom of Pacific cultures, the brilliance of Pacific scholarship and the beauty of Pacific arts.” “My goal in my eco-poetry is to educate readers about environmental issues, inspire them to live more sustainably, and to empower them to act in the climate movement.”
Our world is facing great challenges, climate change being one of the most pressing of our time. The increased occurrence of extreme events such as droughts, floods and heat waves are already impacting on everyday life around the globe as well as harming fragile ecosystems (see various IPCC reports). As societies struggle to reign in emissions and develop adaptation strategies, a radical departure from traditional forms of discourse on the topic is becoming more apparent. However, the scale and long-term consequences of climate change can leave us feeling incapacitated, fearful and like a victim of change.
Proposed solutions to such challenges – including those linked to the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Climate Accord, the Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) and Disaster Risk Reduction (e.g the Sendai Framework) – often call for more science to improve our understanding and the technology to navigate such change. The problems of sustainability and climate change are thus often portrayed within notions of "boundaries", "guard rails" beyond which we cannot transgress and "limits" to growth and development. Institutions are spending a considerable amount of effort and time on contemplating how to best measure our progress using a range of indicators and measures. These efforts are useful but are they the only options we have?
Do we have to feel powerless in the face of such change? How can we harness our imaginations, powerful as they are, to contemplate positive actions that could help us navigate such a complex changing world?
One way in which we can all begin to think more creatively about these challenging contexts is through the arts. We might, through art, begin to think of creative futures and shared pathways towards a more just and "thrivable" future. By creating "safe spaces" that incite conversation, by drawing upon different visual and/or acoustic mediums and by contextualizing knowledge in evocative ways, we can explore the various pathways of change that can help us see and understand our own world views better, as well as those of others:
“…Sustainability can no longer rely exclusively on scientific knowledge production to determine the right path to a single sustainable future. Rather it relies on how well society explores, imaginatively inhabits, and evaluates multiple possible futures; on the kind of stories societies tell about who they are and what is important to them; and on the avenues for collective action that open up as consequence. This view also implies a significant, ontological shift: instead of a world made of objects whose reality can be established in absolute terms, we must contend with dynamic and contingent cultural forms that shape the ways such facts are constituted, expressed, and interpreted.”
The goal of this article is to stimulate thought on how the arts, in all their rich forms, can help nudge us toward thinking more holistically about climate change. We interviewed eight artists, at least one from each of the six WMO regions, who are working at the intersection of climate and arts. We draw on various artists’ impressions and art forms, including scenes from the 10 to 21 September 2018 Watershed event at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, organized in partnership with Professor Lenore Manderson, Earth, Itself, through the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES).
In this article, we are not limiting the role of art to that of a form of "media" that can assist in communicating science and the challenges of climate change, as useful as this may be. We offer an additional and more fundamental view. We share how some are exploring, together with artists and scientists, ways to better understand the world in which we live.
Each of the artists has a passion to re-imagine a world that is sustainable and loving. Science alone will not enable such a place. We can all help in shifting perceptions, most critically our own, and enabling actions for a sustainable planet and for personal and wider transformation:
“Our perceptions of who we are and what we are capable of need to be expanded, not contracted into demeaning or fanciful explanations. We need to know far more about our species and this Universe we inhabit. We cannot afford the luxury of arrogance that denies other ways of knowing.”
These themes could find interesting connecting points and synergies in the research and advocacy work undertaken by WMO through the WWRP (World Weather Research Programme) and WCRP (World Climate Research Programme) and its climate services efforts (GFCS), and many other initiatives. Awareness of the importance of global policy agendas (Sendai, Paris Agreement, GFCS, and SDGs) does not necessarily prompt individual or collective action, a range of partnerships is required to effectively advance progress. Engagement across cultural, value, and geo-political boundaries, amongst others, offers promise in this regard.
What if the challenge of sustainability is not to prove the world more real but to prove it more imaginary? - Maggs and Robinson 2016; Bendor et al., 2017, 1
While only a few artists are profiled in this piece, we would like to recognize and thank all the artists that contribute to a higher understanding of the world in which we live and touch our very hearts – evoking discourse on the critical issues of our time, contemplation of our desired future conditions, and motivating action towards our collective goals. We would also like to thank the Member States and Territories, development partners, and entities like the European Commission that create opportunities for scientists and artists to collaborate.
As Above, So Below by Jasmine Targett
|As Above, So Below by Jasmine Targett, 2016, aluminum picture.|
For Jasmine Targett, art contributes to a conversation. Ever since learning about the ozone hole in the 6th grade, her art has focused on the “invisible aspects that impact our existence and unite us and the themes we struggle with in our humanity.” She aims to celebrate the things her local community is doing while engaging them on the broader, complex issues and wields her craft to empower. “If you scare someone you disempower them, we need to communicate information in a way that is practical and usable. When you experience something that is pleasurable you invite that back into the mind, whereas if you experience something that is terrifying, you push it away.”
In As Above, So Below, a Nacreous cloud formation, has been filtered through a prism lens. “I had been looking for different ways that the environment was speaking to us visually, of making it known that our presence was shifting its natural trajectory.” Her research brought her to the nacreous mother of pearl clouds, whose illusive, iridescent beauty belies the darker and more sinister reality of stratospheric ozone destruction. “Often we cannot physically see how the environment is changing around us because it is happening at a rate and in a realm that we cannot fully see or understand, but there in the sky is an early warning signal, and it 'nacreous cloud' is incredibly beautiful and evocative, but there is a slight unease when you look at it, I don’t know why you are in the atmosphere, you do not quite make sense, you reference something that I know and understand which are clouds, but on a primal level I have a slight feeling of trepidation”.
As Above, So Below invites discourse on how manmade and natural elements combine to create a new environment, one in which it is difficult to understand what the outcome will be. “There are so many factors, so many things combining in different ways that we would never have expected or predicted.”
Through her work Targett hopes to create more awareness on how we can work with nature and co-create as a species to reverse the negative aspects of things we have created and find positive, natural ways to work with our environment.
Ice Watch and Glacial Landscape no. 8 by Olafur Eliasson
Olafur Eliasson was born in Denmark to Icelandic parents and grew up exploring and drawing the raw beauty of the Icelandic landscape. Eliasson’s reflections on his awakening to the climate and art space strikes a common cord in artists and scientists alike:
“It was only around the time that I was working on The weather project, at the Tate Modern in 2003, that I really began thinking as an artist about our relationship to the climate… It occurred to me at the time that the weather – and, by extension, the climate – is always acting on us and affecting us and that this is also true of our experience of an artwork as well. You might say that the climate is an agent in the experience of art, and it became important to me to make this explicit.”
|Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson, 2014, 12 ice blocks, City Hall Square, Copenhagen. Photographer: Anders Suhe Berg|
|Glacial Landscape no. 8 by Olafur Eliasson, 2018, watercolour and pencil on paper, 151cm x 151cm x 8 cm. Photographer: Jens Ziehe|
Shared experiences are a crucial element of Eliasson’s art. In 2014, he transplanted 12 large blocks of Greenland’s ice sheet to a square in Copenhagen, coinciding with the UN IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change. At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference in Paris the following year he reprised the work, placing 12 blocks of ice in the Place du Panthéon. On both occasions citizens from all walks of life were able to see, touch, and embrace the glacial ice that is disappearing around the globe.
“I used to think of nature being larger than me, it seemed independent of me, but also caring. But today nature has become fragile. The glaciers that I knew as a child are disappearing. We are now living in the Anthropocene, a geological era characterized by the effects of human activity on earth.”
When asked about the goal he is striving to achieve: “I hope to bring art into as many contexts as possible, to reach as many audiences, as many fields, as many worlds, as possible. One of the great problems in society today is that we often feel numb, untouched by the problems of others. There is a crisis in empathy wherever you look. Art, I believe, is capable of working against this, since art is constantly involved in touching people, in moving them. We may disagree on many things, but we all know the feeling of being moved by a film, a melody, a good book. Art can provide us a meeting ground, where we can discuss, disagree, and negotiate our shared reality.”
Eliasson’s work has been exhibited globally in institutions such as the MoMA, the Tate Modern, and the Venice Biennale. In recent works, he has melted shards of glacial ice on top of paper and added ink to create a series of abstract watercolours (see Glacial Landscape no. 8).
On Earth as it is in Heaven by Michelle Rogers
Michelle Rogers has worked in the climate, art and the environment space for the past decade. "Artists are trained to observe, I started to notice changes in the climate in every city that I knew well. I made my first environmental painting “On Earth as it is in Heaven” based on a 2008 photograph of a flooded city in China."
|On Earth as it is in Heaven by Michelle Rogers, 2008, oil on canvas, 2300 x 300 cm.|
Rogers attributes Hurricane Sandy in New York (2012) as having a profound role in her career trajectory “A photographer friend shared his images of Manhattan in complete darkness after the storm and that really haunted me, the fragility of our civilization. Up to that point, I was very much on a regular career path, but I thought what’s the point of having a great art career in an art bubble if the planet and everything I love is under threat.”
In 2017, Rogers partnered with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University to re-envision Boticelli’s Birth of Venus (www.sciartmagazine.com/residency-lamont-doherty-earth-observatory.html). She set-up a makeshift art studio where she engaged with scientists to inspire her environmentally focused update of the Renaissance classic and in turn inspire those scientists around her to form alliances with those outside their traditional communities to incite cultural change. “The reality of what is happening on the planet and where culture is focused is jarring. I see that we live in The Entertainment era and people’s attention is very much in the world of Internet entertainment, music, fashion and culture and so far that space is bereft of climate references and that is a real problem. There is power in culture … it is the bloodstream of every civilization and we need its attention on our survival.”
One Home: An Environmental Symphony by Charlie Mauleverer
|Photograph from South Czech Philharmonic performance|
In 2015, Charlie Mauleverer, composer and environmental activist, set out to write a symphony that would serve as a call to action on climate change. Mauleverer’s goal was to craft a piece that was as approachable as possible, offering compelling melodies of hope and optimism. He launched a social outreach campaign requesting people from around the world to write down, in their own language, something that they care for deeply that would be totally lost or compromised by climate change. He asked that this sentiment of love be tagged in a photograph and sent to him via email.
And so started the arrival of image after image in his inbox “Munakunanchys Raykum Kausayninchis” = “for the love of our way of life”, from the ECOAN project in Peru; “ = for the love of the River Nile” from Fathel in Sudan.
Mauleverer received an image and message from every country in the world and then set about interweaving these messages into the choral composition that would accompanying the symphony. The piece itself is structured in seven movements, one for each continent, with instruments characteristic to the continent profiled, all leading to a final global movement which brings them all together. They culminate in a full symphonic orchestra accompanied by a choir, offering a voice to every single country in the world, with the corresponding photos from those countries serving as roving cultural backdrop. The Symphony premièred in Switzerland and was also played by the South Czech Philharmonic. Mauleverer is currently fundraising for a studio recording of the "One Home: An Environmental Symphony" while working on his first commissioned piece.
Summit by Teresa Borasino
|Summit by Teresa Borasino, 2014. Photograph exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Lima.|
Every year, HAWAPI, a small registered cultural Association in Peru, gathers a group of artists to explore a social or environmental challenge with each artist expressing their response through works of art. In 2014, HAWAPI took place at the foot of Pariacaca – a large tropical glacier located in Peru’s central Andes. The city of Lima – which now has a population of over 10 million – relies entirely on glacial run off from the Pariacaca mountain range for its fresh water needs. Tropical glaciers show rapid response to changing climate patterns and so are severely threatened by the current rise in global temperatures.
Teresa Borasino, a visual artist native to Lima, took part in the 2014 expedition. The group of artists trekked to the remote Pariacaca glacier mountain range to contemplate the climate change crisis in the lead up to the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP 20). It was here, at the foot of Pariacaca glacier, that Borasino convened “Summit,” in which the vacant red plastic chairs stand in stark contrast to the retreating glacier, representing the absence of policymakers in the areas most affected by climate change.
Today, Borasino lives and works in Amsterdam. She remains true to activism through art. In a recent interview she noted “I am deeply motivated by the beauty and wonders in the world, I am motivated by the possibility to restoring the ecological world and implementing systemic alternatives that will replace the current capitalist growth at all cost system.” She leads the Fossil Free Culture Netherlands project, which successfully protested Shell as a partner to the Van Gogh Museum.
Synanthrope Series II by Hannelie Coetzee
|Hyenas from the Synanthrope Series II by Hannelie Coetzee, 2018, found wood, 900mm high x 1600mm long x 300mm wide. Exhibited at the Origins Museum, Johannesburg.|
Hannelie Coetzee combines her love of African life with her art. Her work is designed to facilitate conversations and build partnerships across creative arts practice and theory, the humanities, and the social, natural and physical sciences. Coetzee’s work also tries to connect people to the original ecologies underneath cities. She comments that by using artists only to “illustrate” and “communicate” science, the full potential of artists and the role of art in helping us solve complex wicked challenges is not considered. Artists contribute to addressing societal ills. She stresses the role of partnership and co-design, “If you get them in early, it does not only stay theoretical. It can actually help the world. It is peoples’ relations with each other, to address problems, that will improve how we live in this world. Let the ego go. We can’t solve the issues we caused in our own silos anymore”.
Coetzee displayed Synanthrope Series II at the September 2018 University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa Watershed event. A synanthrope refers to an animal or plant that lives near and benefits from an association with humans and the artificial habitats that humans create around them – like an urban environment. In this piece she explores the fragile relationship between humans and nature as her Hyena sculptures are taken on a stop frame animation walk through the University of the Witwatersrand Campus. As part of the piece, she conducts immersive walkabouts on the mapped intercontinental watershed where participants learn which droplets flow into the Atlantic and which flow into the Indian oceans. The work serves as a reminder that Hyenas frequent the green corridors in urban sprawl areas – highlighting the interconnections between various parts of the complex world and system we are trying to understand.
Coetzee urges viewers and readers to consider their own impact on nature and to rethink how mankind will live with limited natural resources in the future. Made from reclaimed materials, her artworks become a vehicle inside and outside the exhibition space to expand this conversation about what is beneath the urban landscape and the incorporation of integrity back into natural resources, highlighting the ever-present link between humans, nature and land.
Wind, Water by Palani Mohan
|Wind, Water by Palani Mohan, 2017, Kehrer Verlag.|
Indian born, Australian raised, Palani Mohan now lives and works in Hong Kong. When asked about how he became active in the climate and art space, “I never thought about going out to photograph climate change it just sort of happened. It is all around us. It came after me rather than me going after it.”
His latest project Wind, Water captures the sheer energy and power of storm events around Hong Kong.
How to get involved
All artists interviewed advocated for more collaboration between artists and scientists. Below is a non-exhaustive list of institutions and initiatives working in this area.
The Artic Cycle: a group of artists committed to using their talents and skills to imagine a just and sustainable future for all. They believe creativity and collaboration are essential elements in the creation of a better world. Artists and Climate Change is an initiative of the Artic Cycle and contains a list of global partners operating in this creative space.
CLIMARTE is an Australian-based independent not-for-profit organisation that harnesses the creative power of the arts to inform, engage and inspire action on climate change.
Earth, Itself: Art/Science Collaborations. The Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES) is concerned centrally with the challenges facing us in ensuring sustainable life. Earth, Itself is an integrative programme of the humanities, natural and social sciences, and creative arts, designed to further conversation about the environment in innovative, engaging, and inclusive ways.
HAWAPI, a small cultural Association in Peru that each year brings together a group of artists, academics and socially engaged individuals from a diverse range of practices to create public interventions in locations affected by specific social, political or environmental issues.
SOE.TV: Studio Olafur Eliasson, launched on 14 September 2018. The platform includes six channels, one is connected to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that Eliasson is working to help achieve: climate action (SDG13) and affordable and clean energy (SDG7).
Weather, art, and music: A Special Interest Group (SIG) of the Royal Meteorological Society since 2012. The Royal Meteorological Society is the Learned and Professional Society for weather and climate, and is based in Reading, United Kingdom. It seeks to develop innovative events that bring weather and climate scientists together with artists of all stripes in front of an enthusiastic audience, in an endeavour to find new and inspiring ways of talking about our weather and climate change.
Erica Allis, Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) Office, WMO
Coleen Vogel, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
Hannelie Coetzee, Independent artist
Michelle Rogers, Artist and co-founder of Arts for Environment