e-flux Conversations has been closed to new contributions and will remain online as an archive. Check out our new platform for short-form writing, e-flux Notes.

e-flux conversations

Why climate action needs the arts


The Guardian has written an editorial blog post about climate action and the arts. The article brings up a few good points, but it seems outdated to reference Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy. What other contemporary artists reference nature and climate change? There’s Bruno Latour’s SPEAP, of course, or the 2013 exhibition Expo 1: Dark Optimism at MoMA PS1.

An excerpt of the Guardian post below.

18 months and counting
“Art is not a mirror to reflect reality,” wrote Bertolt Brecht, ”but a hammer with which to shape it.” His view was clearly shared by the judges of Anglia Ruskin University’s recent sustainable art prize. The winning piece was a large tombstone themed on climate change, blackened by oil and carrying the words “Lest we forget those who denied.”

The fact that there were also the names of six prominent climate sceptics on the tombstone led the Telegraph newspaper to denounce it as “tasteless” and “obnoxious”, and for one of those named, Christopher Monckton, to claim the artwork constituted a death threat.

From Goya, who darkly interpreted the horrors of Europe at war, to the romantics who conjured the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution, art has always explored and assimilated the experience of upheaval. More than that, from Milton’s pamphleteering, to the British artists and writers who fought in the Spanish civil war against Franco’s fascism, art has put itself at the service of explicitly political campaigns throughout history.

It is only odd, perhaps, that it has taken climate change so long to become a significant and controversial theme for the arts. The relative absence from daily political and cultural life of something as fundamental as a threat to a climate stable for humanity, has been weird. There will always be those who argue that didactic art is bad art. But equally, art that doesn’t notice, or remains unaffected by, epochal shifts in the world it inhabits, is variously asleep, suffocatingly self-absorbed or simply not looking.

If anything, the willingness to accept high-profile sponsorship from fossil fuel companies suggests that the art establishment has been worse than indifferent, and actively obstructive to the challenge of tackling climate upheaval. The social licence to operate, and normalisation that such cultural relationships gift to oil companies, can dissipate the urgency for action and sponsorship can seek to directly influence the climate debate.

That is all now changing. Uncomfortable light is being shone on sponsorship deals by campaigns like Liberate Tate, more artists are engaging with the issue, and the Guardian, for example, chose to couple its Keep it in the Ground campaign on fossil fuels with poems curated by Carol Ann Duffy. But the question will remain and grow about whether art is there to help us see something, engage with it or change it. Should, and can, art be part of a campaigning agenda to change opinion and behaviour?

There is a long tradition of so-called environmental art that explores an intimate relationship with the landscape. Artists like Andy Goldsworthy do so by subtly rearranging small elements, making patterns and new forms from leaves, rocks and snow, as if in testimony to a longed-for benign and beautiful symbiotic cultural relationship between nature and human society. Others, like Richard Long, do so simply by walking through the landscape and being and observing, encouraging us all to see better and be more fully present in the world.

Bolder has been the pioneering Cape Farewell project that takes writers, actors, artists and musicians to witness first-hand the impact of global warming in the Arctic circle. The hoped for outcome is for the experience to be reflected in the subsequent work such that it has a cultural ripple and awareness raising effect. Ian McEwan, for example, wrote a novel, Solar, with a climate theme and several visual artists have produced pieces seemingly spellbound by the encounter with an alien world of ice under threat.

How effective this approach is we’re unlikely to know until decades from now we find ourselves either in a world of uncontrolled warming, or not. The leading comedian Marcus Brigstocke travelled twice with Cape Farewell to see the melting ice. That in itself was an achievement as he feared for his life on the first trip and swore never to go again. But the prospect of a bigger ship going closer to shore and with more time on land meeting affected Inuit communities persuaded him. It left a huge impression on him, and he performed a whole routine on the theme at last week’s Hay Festival, but still carries some reservations.

“I concluded that the artistic community is not well placed to deal with the urgency suggested by the scientific case,” argues Brigstocke, who warned about the danger of being seduced by the subject matter. We should, he said, “be careful about being in love with the tragedy of melting ice (because) it needs to translate into something that makes sense of it.”

While warning that comedy can’t be expected to change things directly, he does (as you’d hope and expect) wave the flag for it. It can, he says, “attach something bleak to something warm and fluffy.”

This week, the 2 Degrees Festival runs with a focus on art, activism and the environment. One of the pieces by artist Steve Lambert is a bright neon-lit hoarding, something in the style of a 1950s American Diner, which asks ‘Capitalism works for me: True? False?’ It will be positioned on streets around London inviting passers-by to engage in conversation and then vote. That may sound ridiculously simple. But the preferences of financial markets and the privilege of capital, not the common good or the survival of our species, is still the ultimate reference point in our political process.

and there is
Isaac Cordal

Carbon Song Cycle by Pamela Z and Christina McPhee 2013

Carbon Song Cycle is a work for chamber ensemble and expanded cinema by composer/performer Pamela Z and media artist Christina McPhee. The work is inspired by ongoing changes and upheavals in the earth’s ecosystem, and by the carbon cycle—the process through which carbon is exchanged between all terrestrial life forms and domains. It is scored for a chamber ensemble of voice & electronics, viola, cello, bassoon, and percussion and immersive, multi-screen video projections.

To compose the music, Pamela knitted together melodic motifs inspired by scientific data around the carbon cycle and texts referencing environmental balance and imbalance–playing on the idea of the natural exchange of elements by passing sonic material between the players, and exploring audio elements related to the imagery in Christina’s video material. The video is built from footage that Christina shot at petroleum fields, natural gas locations, and geothermal sites around back-country California along with carbon-inspired drawings and images of processes involving intense heat and chemical transformations.

We cast scientific data-scapes into performance-drawing sequences, which precipitate recognition, at personal scales, to the geologic and biological densities at play in anthropogenic change on Earth. Strategic linking of live and performed drawing with documentary video affords new spaces to explore vital futures in landscapes of terrestrial crisis.

see also: http://www.pamelaz.com/carbonsongcycle.html

In his work from 2011/2012 german artist and photographer Axel Braun comments on the relation of technology, energy, corporational power and sustainability. The work was developed during an artist in residence program of a big german energy company - critically engaging with its history and investigating the corporation’s position within this field. Braun uses photography as well as found imagery, text and documents from the company’s archive. On the level of production I think it is a brilliant exmaple of what Brecht judged as an essential asset of creative work - namely the cunning to use available ways of the media apparatus for its dissemination. In this case using the corporation’s funding, its visibility in public and the forum constituted through the residency’s program to shed a critical view on its practices and spark a discussion outside of the artworld. A very interesting text to read is an open letter of a group of engineers (unfortunately not yet translated to english), whose reaction is to a wide extent defiance. It highlights how different parts of society have different access to and a different view on a topic that is crucial for all members of society.

Here’s a list of links (english):

Artist statement - “Technology must be cruel in order to assert itself”
Work Overview
Selected images on the company’s website

1 Like

My only doubt with this work is that it is overarchingly didactic and representational. Furthermore, I don’t think it is a question of a compendium of these forms rather, how can the arts seize the moment and use it meaningfully? How can the arts politically mobilize people without it resting on scientific/current trends in discourse only (vis-à-vis these direct forms of communication)? Perhaps what is working here is how the media springboards from these forms to gain political traction in what is needed. I often ask myself what can be a meaningful political discourse involving climate change and art that has structural impact (without it falling on easy representational forms) and thus more resonance.


I agree to your view of art being representational and thus having little real impact. I think about this quite a lot and curiously read Baudrillards “Simulacra and Simulation” and now read “Society of the Spectacle” by Debord. What I understand is that they saw a gap between representation and actual social or political action as a fundamental aspect of media. This is something which gives me a very hard time, especially 'cause in our hyper-mediated age, Debord’s assertion, that everything former lived has moved into forms of representation, has drastically worsened since the 60’s. In Baudrillard’s words:

“[…] we are victims of a derealization of the world, from which it will be impossible to return to any kind of sensual reality” or to “progress to activeness and collective will” [my translation]

For my own situation I came to the “realization” that - from a sort of existential view - I can only work with what is in my reach or what I can come up with in my mind. And that this means I have to consequently use these ideas or options. I guess this to an extent mitigates the complexity of choosing what I can possibly do.

I think direct forms of communication are one element that have withered away a lot in the last decades. Debord speaks of “lonely crowds”, stating that the media (also commodities) create isolation. Another thought is that everyone I know is highly unpolitical. It’s not a lack of concern that I witness, at least when a dialogue develops, but the lack of knowing what to do or to draw an actual conclusion. (On the other hand a lot of people are obviously not concerned.)

Somehow I think of something Jean Ziegler said (out of context here), that (paraphrasing) there’s also a democracy without powerlessness (orig.: “Ohnmacht”), pointing out that we must make use of the democratic tools that are granted to us by our democracy’s constitutions. I’m not knowledgable enough to really judge, but I assume he’s right that the bulk of us, including me, don’t even do that.

Maybe I have a number of further thoughts on that, but so much for now. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. I’m not theoretically schooled and I’m happy for any input.

Just thought of this work of Olafur Eliasson which I quite like:


It’s not directly referencing climate change, but nevertheless I thought it’s worth mentioning.

Again this work doesn’t explicitly deal with climate change, but - in a subversive way - with an environmental catastrophe and the role of mass media. I’d be curious how people think about it. There’s videos, a manifesto and jpg’s: