Is Art for the Climate?

In the age of information consumerism where even reading a relatively long Twitter thread is seen as an occupation, the art should be considered a top choice as a mean for communication in the fight against climate change. Emre Uzundağ writes on the relationship between art and climate change in the light of an exhibition he recently visited.

Text: Emre Uzundağ, [email protected]

The main point of all my articles is “What’s the relationship between individual responsibility and political consciousness in the fight against climate change? Can they coexist? Or is one more important than the other?” Back in December, I visited the exhibition “Counter-Landscapes: Performative Actions from the 1970s – Now” in Scottsdale, Arizona. Before my trip to the museum, I didn’t know that I could trace the tracks of these questions in a contemporary art museum that I could visit admission-free once in a month. (Let’s be honest that the name of the exhibition does not give you any clue!) The exhibition, as explained at SMoCA’s website, “presents a group of artists working in both natural and urban environments whose work exploits the power of place to address issues of social, environmental, and personal transformation”. This exhibition helped me question the role of the art in the fight against climate change. Should art represent an individual responsibility or political consciousness or in this specific case climate activism?

You can always see that the discussion of “what’s art?” as being framed around “Is art for pleasure or politics?” in the Turkish “national” education curriculum (This question has become an idiom over time in a system in which critical thinking is neither activated nor encouraged). This has been a hot discussion over the past year. In the age of accessibility, political activism which transcends age, education, identity and even class struggles is in rise. Forcing politicians to implement urgent climate policies is one of the main targets of this emerging political activism which some label as a trend. In this new environment, the role of the artist is being re-defined. Ozer Aydogan, a prominent Turkish cartoonist, captures the role of the artist the best. You may check out his works to see how the artist as an individual transformed in this new environment and trace the tension/overlap between the artist and the society.

Jennifer McCabe, the curator of “Counter-Landscapes: Performative Actions from the 1970s – Now” perfectly puts into perspective what I was trying to say in two paragraphs. “The power of art is that by captivating attention visually, artists can address issues that might otherwise be polarizing.” McCabe takes Sarah Cameron Sunde’s work which was inspired by the devastating Hurricane Sandy showing the vulnerability of seemingly an indestructible city as an example: “One example would be the work by Sarah Cameron Sunde in which she stands in tidal zones around the world — in cities that will be effected by rising tides — for durational performances. Over the course of 12 hours, the ocean rises to her neck and then recedes. As an artwork gets disseminated into the world that individual voice amplifies and can reach an enormous amount of people.” McCabe says the exhibition “demonstrates how artists have been concerned with the environment for over 50 years,” and adds that “some works are directly about climate activism and hopefully those encourage viewers to think more deeply about the realities of our planet.”

When you’re talking to a curator, it is almost inevitable that a certain name comes up to your mind: John Berger. In Ways of Seeing, Berger argues that mass production brought about reproduction which in turn led a switch on the perception of the reality. He continues and adds that now that a picture which is not exhibited in a certain place, have a transmittable meaning that is open to various interpretation. He says that this reproduction becomes a sort of news, information or a message. In this regard, McCabe believes that the museums must find a way to balance themselves in the age of the Instagrammable: “Artists are not afraid to ask the difficult questions or make work about current issues. Museums — especially like ours, a contemporary art museum — need to balance the more visually spectacular works with works that might put the idea before the artwork’s outcome.” Just when I was about to ask her to elaborate on this, she continued: “Agnes Denes whose work ‘Wheatfield’ included in this exhibition is an immigrant. Many artists in the U.S. are working now on issues around immigration. Especially the poor treatment of immigrants at the U.S./Mexico border, as well as the negative connotations that immigration provokes for some. The powerful imagery of artistic interventions made along the border have been disseminated far and wide and express views that contradict the politics. Artists tend to turn toward activism when our political systems betray us.” To Berger, when you buy a picture you also buy what it represents. McCabe explains this through Sunde’s work and climate change: “When we read about climate change it may concern us but we can easily keep going along our paths without doing anything different. When an artwork resonates with a viewer at a deeper level, when they feel as well as know about a subject, I think that information stays with them longer. Maybe that feeling will inspire action.”

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At the time we were having this discussion with Jennifer McCabe, bushfires in Australia was at its peak and almost no media outlet was covering the flood in Indonesia. The right-wing populist politicians were busy finding excuses or covering up the causes of these horrible disasters. While I was mentioning all this to McCabe, she interrupted me and said, “I believe artists can help raise awareness and galvanize support. Art can inspire and I think that is the powerful aspect when considered alongside climate change.”

In the age of information consumerism where even reading a relatively long Twitter thread is seen as an occupation, the art should be considered a top choice as a mean for communication in the fight against climate change. As Damla Ozluer wrote in her article, also published on Iklim Haber, “Communication don’t cure all diseases but it can change lots of things.” Art may help those who have personal responsibility acquire political consciousness. It may help those who have political consciousness organize. And more importantly, it may help us to attract the attention of those who are yet to acquire these habits.


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