Carbon emissions, fossil fuels, that 2°C threshold we’re not supposed to cross—science is good at getting the facts straight about climate change, but less effective in communicating how it affects us. This is where art may come in.
In imagining art about changing climate, one might think of paintings of melting icecaps and expansive deserts, but there is a surprisingly diverse range of approaches artists use to talk about the phenomenon. “I believe that just looking at paintings in a gallery about the North Pole, for instance, don’t really do anything for consciousness of climate change, or awareness”, says Regina Cornwell, organizer and curator of inClimate, which comprises several artistic projects in New York about climate change, all under the umbrella of Franklin Furnace Archive Inc., an arts organization based in Brooklyn.
Cornwell started inClimate in the hope of addressing a gap in public awareness about climate change. “It’s hard to see when you walk around the streets of New York that there’s a kind of awareness about this,” she says. The main idea is that artists work together with specialists—scientists, engineers, ecologists—to explore new ways of getting people to think about the issues around climate change. And the work appears to be having an impact. The number of grants awarded by the National Endowments for the Arts to artistic projects like inClimate has increased significantly in recent years.
The projects that have come out of the program are extremely diverse. Lynn Cazabon is one of the artists of inClimate. Her project, entitled Uncultivated, is based at Hunts Point in the Bronx. Working together with a botanist, she held a number of workshops to introduce both young and old to the wild plants of their neighborhood, and plant new ones. A few months later she partnered with naturalist “Wildman” Steve Brill to harvest the plants and cook them into a meal. Cazabon’s main goal is to get people to recognize the nature around them, and how climate change is affecting it: “We think of nature a something that is far away, outside the city. But we’re completely submerged in it, although we don’t think about it that way. I’m trying to change that kind of thinking.”
Part of Uncultivated – which has been done in other cities in the U.S. – also involves taking photographs of what are typically considered “weeds” in urban areas, enlarging these to billboard size and installing these around cities. By doing so, Cazabon hopes to reach a broader audience: “People who don’t go to art galleries are then exposed to something provocative – it’s a gesture of bringing attention to it”.
This kind of project may be on the fringe of what most people consider “art”, but Cazabon disagrees: “The whole thing is art”, she says: “The photographs, the community – I consider that all art.” When trying to get people to think differently about something, she says it’s important to explore new forms of artistic media. Chantal Bilodeau, a playwright known for creating The Arctic Cycle, a series of plays about climate change, agrees: “It’s important to get out of traditional venues.”
Though her work is conceptually quite different from Cazabon’s, both artists share the same sentiment in wanting to bring the topic of climate change closer to home. Bilodeau’s first play featured a variety of actors, each playing a different role of someone affected by warming in the Arctic, for instance a climate activist, a lobbyist advocating the drilling of a deep-sea oil rig, an Inuit and a polar bear. This approach made it possible to explain where different people are coming from, and that the picture is a lot more complicated than at first glance.
The main aim of these projects is not to explain about climate science per se, but to foster a sense of general awareness and in doing so addressing a certain apathy towards these issues in society. “A lot of my projects have to do with changing a paradigm”, says Cazabon: “Any kind of behavioral change can’t happen until a conceptual change in society.”
However, such projects remain a small niche in the art world – maybe because it’s not quite science, and not quite art in the traditional sense in the word. “There has been very little interest in producing this kind of work”, says Bilodeau: “The theaters haven’t caught up yet.”