Representing the unrepresentable

The French sociologist Bruno Latour gave the keynote address at this month’s Tate Britain’s symposium Beyond the Academy: Research as Exhibition. His address considered the environmental crisis as a particular challenge which would require natural history, art museums and academia to join forces. The challenge, he said, was that “climate change is currently unrepresentable”.

In an effort to address this, Latour has embarked on a number of projects. One is the School of Political Arts at the Sciences Po in Paris. The school, which will be formally launched this year, will bring together young professionals in the social sciences and arts to attempt to represent the political problem of climate change. Latour says the school will “not join science, art and politics together, but rather disassemble them first and, unfamiliar and renewed, take them up again afterwards, but differently.”

Latour is also working on establishing a new type of Biennale in Venice, which will incorporate social scientists into artistic production. By bringing together social scientists and artists, Latour wants to address these issues in new ways. He expressed interest in Avatar, calling it the first ‘Gaia’ film, beginning this task of rethinking the ecological crisis and exploring ways of making it representable.

His engagement with climate change includes his participation in the Nordic Exhibition of the year Rethink: Contemporary Art and Climate Change which was staged in Copenhagen during COP15. He contributed to the Rethink exhibition catalogue with the essay “It’s Development, Stupid” Or: How To Modernize Modernization. It is a response to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Break Through – From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. In this essay, Latour argues that the separation of the subjective from the real into dichotomies such as ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ must end. In order to begin to tackle the challenges we are facing, we must acknowledge just how closely human and nature are entwined. He has given a lecture on ‘Politics and Nature’ at the Rethink The Implicit venue at the Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art.

Latour spent most of his Tate talk discussing two of his previous exhibition projects which combined the talents of artists and social scientists. Both exhibits were produced with Peter Weibel at ZKM Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. The first, Iconoclash (2002), which brought together a team of curators, including Hans Ulrich Obrist from the Serpentine Gallery, examined how iconoclasts are represented in art, religion and science. The second, Making Things Public, partnered artists with social scientists to create individual exhibits. The exhibition was centred on a number of themes: Assembling or Disassembling; Which Cosmos for which Cosmopolitics; The Problem of Composition; From Objects to Things; From Laboratory to Public Proofs; The Great Pan is Dead!; Reshuffling Religious Assemblies; The Parliaments of Nature. The exhibition sought to materialise the concept of a ‘Parliament of Things’.

Latour conceptualised his exhibitions as thought experiments, but found the exhibitions themselves to be failures, saying that most of the individual projects within the exhibition failed as works of art. The books that accompanied the exhibitions, in particular, Making Things Public, a large book created after the exhibition, were more successful.

This was one of the themes that emerged from the day at Tate: whether certain exhibitions work better as books. Latour said that working on exhibitions has been one of the most interesting parts of his academic life. Exhibitions, he said, have a different rhythm and intensity of work and creating the ‘thing in the space’ adds to intellectual life. But creating an exhibition must be different to writing. When exhibitions merely illustrate a point, no gain is made.

Latour’s interests have now moved towards ecology and the role of the arts in representing our environmental challenges and the need for artists and social scientists to collaborate on these issues. He said he himself is writing a play on climate change.

This piece was previously published as a guest blog post on Ashdenizen (http://ashdenizen.blogspot.com/2010/05/representing-unrepresentable.html).

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Filed under Bruno Latour, Climate Change, Exhibitions, RETHINK, Tate

Is climate change a zombie concept?

Kellie Payne reports on the Tipping Point event, held in April, where Mike Hulme suggested climate change was a zombie concept: as a metaphor it has done its work. As a concept, it connects a large swathe of issues combined through the scientific narrative and perhaps there are other ways to make progress.

Much less the as-billed scientific update, the Tipping Point event held on Wednesday 13th April at Kings College, London was a philosophical exploration of the status of our current conceptualisation of climate change.

Hosted by Tipping Point, the arts organisation that seeks to build bridges between artists and climate scientists, the afternoon featured Mike Hulme, UEA climate scientist and author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change, climate change adaptation specialist Emma Tompkins and Greenpeace’s Senior Climate Advisor Charlie Kronick . In attendance were past Tipping Point conference attendees, a mix of artists, academics and a few scientists.

Hulme is a veteran climate scientist whose career has included serving as the founder-director of the Tyndall centre and contributing scientist to UK climate change scenarios and reports for the IPCC. However, writing his recent book led Hulme to take a more philosophical perspective: his interest being more in the positioning of our larger conceptualisations of climate change and interrogating different epistemological constructions of climate change. Moving beyond the merely scientific understanding of climate change, he investigates how climate change is understood in disciplines varying from economics, ethics, politics and humanities. In particular, he argues that climate change is a value laden concept that reflects our views of the world, nature, the economy and ethical frameworks.

Hulme’s presentation was largely an explanation of the four myths he explores in his book: lamenting Eden which draws on a sense of nostalgia, presaging apocalypse based on a sense of fear, constructing Babel (hubris) and celebrating jubilee which builds upon our sense of justice. In essence, what Hulme argues is that every individual brings their own agenda, applying the challenge of climate change to their own problems, that is, climate change is the raw material that is used to work on our individual projects. Hulme suggested we ask ourselves whether stabilising the climate was indeed our ultimate goal or whether stabilising climate was instead a means to an end, and we were using climate change to achieve our other goals.

Emma Tomkins on the other hand bases her work on a belief that climate change is happening and asserts that the government is leading the way on adaptation. Based at Leeds and the Government’s Department for International Development, Tomkins outlined types of adaptation currently being implemented including risk management policies and attempts to build resilience. When Tomkins asked the audience how many were currently taking adaptive measures, it became clear that the line between what constitutes mitigation activities and adaption is often blurred in the minds of many. The government makes a clear distinction between mitigation measures (limiting ones emissions) and adaption (preparing for the impacts of climate change). For instance when asked about what types of adaptation individuals were taking, some audience members mentioned the work of the Transition Town movements, but from the government perspective Transition Town activities would constitute mitigation measures as their main focus is reducing emissions.

Tomkins conducted an exercise to see how we as an audience would allocate adaptation funds, whether we would base our decisions on: equitable distribution of resources, reward mitigators, help those facing the most exposure, help the most vulnerable, or offer developmental assistance. At the moment, current government policy (Adaptation Policy Framework) is based on risk mapping and awareness and therefore has its focus on those who face the most exposure to risk. Tomkins stressed the need to be aware that in any adaptation policy there are a number of decisions to be made about the type of losses we are willing to take and warned that there is a potential to make serious mistakes unless we seriously consider the issues.

Charlie Kronick weighed in with the activist viewpoint, reminding the audience that in the past adaptation wasn’t even considered because to do so would be to accept defeat. Further, he didn’t see the need to separate out adaptation and mitigation as he sees them as one and the same. For Charlie, climate change isn’t about science, or art, but about power politics, ‘the deal makers and takers’ and inequality is a major driver.

Hulme agreed that it’s about politics and our ambitions about what type of society we want to inherit. Hulme suggested that perhaps climate change was indeed a zombie concept, and as a metaphor it has done its work. As a concept, it connects a large swathe of issues combined through the scientific narrative and perhaps there are other ways to make progress.

This piece was previously published as a guest blog post on Ashdenizen (http://ashdenizen.blogspot.com/2010/04/is-climate-change-zombie-concept.html?showComment=1272626495068).

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Filed under Climate Change, Mike Hulme, Science, Tipping Point, Transition Towns

When art meets science… successfully

I have attended numerous ‘art and science’ events, the day-long symposium Rising To The Climate Challenge: Artists and Scientists Imagine Tomorrow’s World held in March was particularly successful.

The Tate had paired with the Royal Society to present an impressive line-up of speakers, including artists Lucy Orta, Tomás Saraceno and the eminent land artist Agnes Denes. But its success could be attributed to another reason.


Rather than framing the question as: ‘how can artists help scientists communicate climate change?’, last Saturday’s symposium Rising To The Climate Challenge took the view that art and science had two very different perspectives to offer and much could come from their collaborations. Art’s role isn’t simply to reformulate and appealingly package the scientific messages; instead it has a more fundamental exploratory and imaginative role.

The climate science programme largely reflected the Royal Society’s priorities and included, along with the expected division of adaptation and mitigation a third one, geo-engineering. However, oceanographer and earth scientist Corinne Le Quéré , who introduced the topic, revealed that she was stuck with presenting it because none of the other speakers wanted it. Professor Le Quéré gave a well-balanced presentation comparing the various options’ effectiveness (predicted ˚C temperature change) versus the level of risk.

With more controversial options such as the frightening volcanic method, where artificial volcanoes are created in the atmosphere to reflect and reduce solar radiation, she demonstrated that even this was only a temporary fix. The volcanoes would need to continually be created because as soon as they ceased, CO2 levels in the atmosphere would rapidly return to pre-volcanic levels. A less risky option, managing earth radiation through afforestation was shown to be less effective, with a possible decrease in warming projected at only 1˚C.

Agnes Denes’ land art was incorporated into the topic of geo-engineering because her large-scale works often drastically alter the landscape. In Finland she created Tree Mountain- A Living Time Capsule, building a conical mountain and planting it with 11,000 trees, and planting and harvesting a wheat field in central Manhattan (Wheatfield: A Confrontation). During her slide show, Denes explained that she likes to investigate the paradoxes of human existence: logic, evolution, time, sound, etc. and believes that by shaping and structuring the future we can control our own evolution.

Tomás Saraceno presented with an infectious energy, bursting with novel, if impractical ideas that included his floating ecosystems.  Saraceno makes bold and imaginative attempts to stretch the boundaries of our conceptions of space and gravity with his experimental floating pods. His presentation was paired nicely with Oxford social scientist Steve Rayner’s on adaptation. He focused on cities of the future and the importance of instituting greater flexibility within existing infrastructures in order to cope with future climate events such as extreme flooding. He admires Saraceno’s work, in particular his innovation with new materials, shapes, and possibilities of new patterns of organisation.

Rayner highlighted three typical art/science interactions. The first was demonstrated by a photograph of a diseased liver cell and represented the mode of seeing beauty in the scientific. The second was art’s influence on science (mainly through science fiction such as HG Wells and Jules Verne), the model of artists stimulating scientists with their work leading to new ideas and discourses. The third – which Rayner thought the most compelling – were the interactions between scientists and artists that occur when artists ‘do science through art’. Essentially, where the borders between the two are eliminated and artists employ scientific methodology in their creations, as demonstrated in Saraceno’s work.

The collaboration between scientific institutions and artists was illustrated in a discussion between the Natural History Museum’s Robert Bloomfield and artist Lucy Orta , whose upcoming exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery Perpetual Amazonia is extensively researched using the NHM’s entomology, botany and palaeontology collections. The exhibition will also be informed by Lucy and her partner Jorge’s expedition to the Peru with Cape Farewell in 2009.  Bloomfield specialises in biodiversity and stressed the importance of the interrelations between climate change and biodiversity loss and ecosystem services.

The event was recorded. Podcasts will be available soon on the Tate website.

This piece was previously published as a guest blog post on Ashdenizen (http://ashdenizen.blogspot.com/2010/03/when-science-meets-art.html).

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Filed under Climate Change, Contemporary Art, Royal Society, Science, Tate

Climate change art at Frieze

Frieze

On Thursday 6 October, I visited the first day of the London Art Fair, FRIEZE, held annually in Regents Park.  Walking in to the large collection of tents is an overwhelming experience.  Filled with art students, well heeled art collectors, gallery staff, and interested members of the public it is a vast but cramped space buzzing with activity.  There are three aisles that run the length of the tents divided into stands where galleries rent space for their displays.  Walking the length of one aisle could take up to an hour with dazzling displays on either side.  The aim of each gallery is to display works, which are for sale, which best represent the artists they represent.  It is essentially that, a trade fair.

Frieze

Frieze Art Fair, London-October 2009

While at Frieze I was searching in particular for ‘works on climate change’ and found only one that explicitly addressed climate change.  How can I say it addressed climate change?  Because it contained text within the work that explicitly said ‘climate change.’  It was by the Danish activist-artists Superflex. They were ‘selling’ tickets to experience the hypnosis of different animals to see how they will experience climate change.  Many of the dates in the future were linked to key target dates in climate negotiations (2012, 2020, 2030, and 2050).  The lack of work at the fair got me thinking about the art world’s capability to deal with climate change.

Superflex

Superflex at Vermelho Gallery from Sao Paulo

The art fair is mainly a commercial space- where galleries have limited space to display their best artists, and to act as a representation of the gallery.  Most of the works on display are for sale or serve as attractions to the commercial nature of the galleries. Scott Wright in the chapter on ‘The Fair’ in Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World views the stands at a similar art fair, Basel, as an “interactive advertisement” for the galleries.  Thornton observed that a good stand should “represent and attitude or taste in art; it should declare the gallery brand.”  The artist John Baldessari said “At fairs, gallerists are reduced to merchants”  and Thornton observes that many artists view fairs “with a mixture of horror, alienation and amusement… they wince at the sight of so much art accompanied by so little substantive context.” In this context, there is not much place for work on climate change.  How many collectors would be keen to own a work on climate change- perhaps the rare collector who is also concerned about climate change?  But climate change is not exactly a ‘commercially acceptable’ topic.

The work that was on view was mainly textual- one knew it was about climate change because it mentioned climate change.  Part of the meaning around the works of art comes from the interpretation- so perhaps there were other works there that could be interpreted to be about climate change, perhaps Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry, which is about consumer culture and brands, but not explicitly- so a work becomes about climate change once someone interprets it to be about climate change.

So this has already raised two possible difficulties around art: the art market and the financial side of art and interpretation.

Guarantee

So rather than gallery booths at a large commercial art fair, I might be more likely to find something at a curated museum or gallery show.  In these instances, the curator injects meaning by selecting work around a theme or a body of artist’s work.  As British Artist Jeremy Deller summarised after his visit to Art Basel, “After a mind-numbing day at an art fair, many art aficionados crave nothing more than a well-thought out museum show.”

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Filed under Climate Change, Contemporary Art, Frieze Art Fair, Sarah Thornton, Superflex