Climate control

Gareth Harris looks at how artists are working with environmentalists to respond to the human impact on our planet, and asks if this is leading to real change
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Gareth Harris
As the issue of climate breakdown moves up the agenda, artists are finding new and radical ways to respond to the strain that humanity is putting on the planet. But is any of this leading to actual change and is anyone addressing the environmental impact of the art world itself?

Mass tourism, global warming and the deterioration of the Great Barrier Reef are all explored in Sun & Sea (Marina), an opera-performance held in the Lithuanian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale (until 24 November). The critically acclaimed piece – co-created by Lina Lapelyté, Vaiva Grainyté and Rugilé Barzd iukaité – is set on a beach filled with holidaymakers poring over their iPhones, books and magazines.
Audience members, looking down on the dreamy scene from a mezzanine, may think the work is a gentle evocation of a day at the seaside. But when the vacationers start to sing, the chilling lyrics of the libretto point to the end of the world.

“A strong emotional experience seemed to emerge for so many [spectators],” says the pavilion curator, Lucia Pietroiusti, who organises the general ecology programme at the Serpentine Galleries in London.

“The climate crisis is an unfathomable, in many ways beyond repair, issue,” she says. “It is greater than our individual responsibility, and greater than even our capacity to conceive of it. This is what Sun & Sea (Marina) concerns itself with: that uneasy relationship between the everyday and the inconceivable.”

The Lithuanian installation shows how performance art can be used to make issues around the climate emergency more immediate and digestible. Indeed, many artists are forming partnerships with environmental activists, bringing their creative and communicative skills to the table, while environmental campaign groups have become much more adept at staging immersive actions in public spaces such as museums and galleries.

Liam Geary Baulch, who studied fine art at Goldsmiths College, University of London, has been involved in “creative campaigning” linked to health and housing but switched his focus to ecological issues after the Paris UN Climate Change Conference in 2015.

Baulch subsequently worked with Rising Up!, the founding group behind the activist movement Extinction Rebellion, which brought London to a standstill in April with a series of events and demonstrations.

Environmental activism

A mass “die-in” at the Natural History Museum in London underneath the blue whale skeleton underscored the truth of the world’s plight and the imminent end of the Earth as we know it. “We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction”, said one protestor, adding that “biodiversity is being annihilated around the world”.

Baulch is the creative actions coordinator at Extinction Rebellion, a title that denotes the degree of innovation and artistry in Extinction Rebellion’s coordinated campaigns. In a recent interview on The Hive podcast, he makes a comparison to the suffragette movement for women’s right to vote.

“A similarity to the suffragettes might be the fact that art and creativity have been so central to our actions,” Baulch says. “We’ve really thought about the words we use on our placards to make sure that this is beyond politics.”

The major environmental groups have kept this issue in the centre, he says, but this doesn’t always allow a wider range of people to feel involved. Since it was founded in 1971, Greenpeace has advocated non-violent direct action: physically acting to stop what it deems to be an “immediate environmental wrong”. But the most visible environmental organisation in the world is increasingly turning to artists to make an impact.

“We look to performance art, immersive theatre, visual art, sound art, graphic design, curators and makers of all kinds to explore and develop our ideas,” says Hannah Davey, who works in art and actions for Greenpeace. “Sometimes we work directly with artists, sometimes we take inspiration from work to develop our own concepts.”

In May 2018, Greenpeace presented an intervention at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum during the press preview of the exhibition The Future Starts Here, which the car manufacturer Volkswagen was supporting.
Entitled The Future Doesn’t Start Here, the piece featured four people dismantling a Volkswagen Golf car as part of Greenpeace’s Ditch Diesel campaign. By doing this, the environmental organisation targeted the German car manufacturer’s continued production of diesel cars, drawing attention to their negative impact on the air quality on UK streets.

“That piece was absolutely informed by performance art, specifically the [Croatian] artist Dina Roncevic,” Davey adds. “The piece was choreographed deliberately to be respectful to the museum, site-specific, and yet still firmly interfere with the target company, Volkswagen’s PR operation. That’s why we targeted the press launch and not the public launch of the show.”

The grassroots climate justice group BP or not BP? describes itself as an “activist theatre group”, using art and performance as a core element of its activism. In February, its members took over the Great Court of the British Museum to demonstrate against BP’s sponsorship of the exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria.
The event fused performance art and politics, combining speeches by Iraqi speakers with bursts of singing. More than 350 protestors also encircled the court with a 200-metre work linking climate change with the issue of colonialism and the 2003 Iraqi War.

“BP is using art and culture to push its agenda in the midst of a climate crisis,” says Danny Chivers, a member of BP or not BP? “We’re subverting what visitors expect to see at a museum, making a connection with audiences and sending a signal about how BP is using the British Museum.”

The “green hush” of the art world

Museums may be in the eye of the storm but the impact that the art world itself has on the environment remains a taboo topic. The question of the art world’s carbon footprint “brings up questions of our very existence as an industry,” says the writer Kate Brown on the website Artnet. Thousands of items are transported to art fairs around the world, which generate huge amounts of waste and air miles.

“Professionals of all stripes travel around the world multiple times per year for trips lasting under a week, and the whole supply-and-demand chain, as it currently stands, calls for art to be regularly shipped from A to B, usually as quickly as possible,” Brown says.

The organisers of Art Basel, held every summer in the eponymous Swiss town, say they are trying to reuse materials, including stand walls and signage. An official panel discussion (Art Basel Conversations) held at the 50th edition of the fair in June, entitled the Carbon Footprint of Contemporary Art, included speakers such as Pietroiusti and Andrew Stramentov, the director of RokBox, a new London-based company developing reusable shipping crates for art.

For an eco-friendly twist on art fair ephemera, the US collective Ghost of a Dream has created a cottage-like installation made from crates, carpets and packing foam used at fairs, including Frieze New York and Art Basel Miami Beach, entitled The Fair Housing Project (2016).

“It is currently in our backyard and used as a guest house as well as a drawing room,” say Ghost of a Dream artists Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom.
Making a difference?

Clearly, practitioners across the world are responding to the climate emergency in a variety of ways, but are any producing work that could lead to real change?
In Florida, a state at the frontline of global warming, the artist Xavier Cortada launched the Underwater Homeowners Association public art project, mounting signs in the Greater Miami suburb of Pinecrest that show how many feet above sea level each property is.

“Block by block, house by house, neighbour by neighbour, I want to make the future impact of sea level rise something that’s impossible to ignore,” says Cortada.

Australian artist Janet Laurence has been concerned with the degradation of the natural environment for the past 40 years. One of her most potent works, Deep Breathing: Resuscitation of the Reef (2015), explores the effects of climate breakdown on the Great Barrier Reef. The piece comprises wet specimens, sea sponges and corals collected from Lizard Island, a research station off the coast of Cairns.

Laurence’s work prompts a key question says the academic Manuela Lopez Mañan in an article written for Sydney University: “Why are the waters of the reef becoming slowly more acidic so that new-born corals become brittle and deformed?”

Other artists making waves in the sustainability agenda include Berlin-based Trevor Paglen, who focuses on the planet’s fragile state in a more oblique way through works such as Orbital Reflector. This project, a joint venture between Paglen and the Nevada Museum of Art, launched a non-functional art satellite into low-Earth orbit from the Vandenberg Air Force Base aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 3 December 2018. Still visible as it orbits the Earth, the diamond-shaped Orbital Reflector invites us to reconsider what we thought we knew about space and continue the conversation about our collective future.

A more hands-on approach has been taken by the Scottish artist Katie Paterson. Her project, First There is a Mountain, started in March and takes place in 25 coastal UK locations until 27 October. The piece involves members of the public using pails in the shape of mountains from across the world to create miniature mountains of sand on beaches across the UK. The moulded pails, made from biodegradable corn starch, are scale models of five mountains, including Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and Mount Shasta in California.

“The work is hands-on and invites the public to slow down, to consider the interconnectedness of the world, its immensity conveyed in miniature,” Paterson says. The project brings into focus eroding coastlines, highlighting how flooding and high sea levels result in loss of land, geology and wildlife. Paterson also planted 1,000 trees in the Nordmarka forest outside Oslo to supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in 100 years’ time.

“I’m not claiming to save the planet,” she says of the project, entitled Future Library. “If I can focus on the environment in a quiet way, I hope to make a whisper of an impact.”

Gareth Harris is a freelance journalist. The theme of this year’s Museums Association Conference & Exhibition, which is in Brighton on 3-5 October, is Sustainable and Ethical Museums in a Globalised World

Hot topic

The Tees Valley in north-east England is an area of massive industrial production in which regional emissions per person are almost three times the UK average. Among the most active fields are chemicals, logistics, digital, advanced manufacturing and engineering. There is also growing expertise
in renewable energy in the region.

The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima) has commissioned a number of projects to engage with the context of the Tees Valley as part of a wider summer programme to address the climate crisis. The exhibition Fragile Earth: Seeds, Weeds, Plastic Crust, which runs until 26 September, involves communities, artists and specialists exploring the region.

The show includes works from the 1970s to today by 19 artists from across the globe, with video, installation, drawing and sculpture. As part of the programme, Mima hosted the annual Tees Valley Nature Partnership Conference at the end of June.

The exhibition and public programme is designed to show how artists help the public to visualise, feel and understand the scale of the climate crisis and the need for change.

Fragile Earth explores intertwined issues of human extraction of materials and exploitation of resources, global networks of trade, and production of waste. It also tackles important questions of responsibility for the future of our planet.

A new commission by Faiza Ahmad Khan and Hanna Rullmann charts the changing life of the site in Calais, France, formerly known as “The Jungle”, which is now a designated nature reserve.

The video uncovers the decision to protect a rare orchid over displaced humans as a way of questioning current political priorities. London-based duo Cooking Sections continue their study of the impact of the much-maligned knotweed, highlighting people’s relationships with species that are thought of as alien or invasive.

A five-channel video work by Zina Saro-Wiwa shows the complex cultural, political, industrial and agricultural landscape of the Niger Delta region, which has been profoundly impacted by the oil industry.

Uriel Orlow’s installation Soil Affinities looks at the colonial relations that can be uncovered in tracing ownership of seeds and management of agriculture across continents.

Hartlepool-based artist Diane Watson has designed new wallpaper for the exhibition with a pattern made from the plastic objects most frequently found on her beach trawls of the Tees Valley coast. Mima has commissioned her to work with families to develop a spotters’ sheet for the most common discarded plastic items in Middlesbrough.

“Climate crisis is the topic that children and young people want to discuss,” says Elinor Morgan, the senior curator at Mima. “As a leading cultural and academic institution, we need to make space for debate and action. This is a generative exhibition; we are using it as the start of ongoing conversations, partnerships and commissions that are embedded in the region and connected to global conversations.”

Simon Stephens

Counting the cost

The Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is known for his environment-conscious innovations and installations, a number of which are now on show in a survey of his work at Tate Modern in In Real Life, which runs until 5 January 2020.

Projects such as Eliasson’s Little Sun, an initiative providing solar-powered lamps to communities without access to electricity, are in the show, along with Ice Watch, an installation featuring blocks of glacial ice from Greenland that were placed outside Tate Modern last December.

The London-based charity Julie’s Bicycle, with co-operation from the artist’s studio, has calculated the Ice Watch’s carbon footprint, breaking the project down into the following statistics.

  • One boat was used for 82 hours to collect 122.75 tonnes of ice from the sea
  • 54 nights spent overnight in hotels by the Ice Watch team 
  • 21 short- and long-haul flights taken by the Ice Watch team
  • Three truck journeys to transport the ice to London
  • Two cranes and one cherry-picker were used to move the ice into position
  • Total CO2 emission = 55 tonnes

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