Guy Abrahams: Art in a Time of Twin Crises
The climate emergency and COVID-19 pandemic both pose existential threats to our way of life. What ethical responsibility do the arts have to engage with the challenging issues of our times?
Thanks for tuning into my talk – “Art in a time of twin crises: climate change and COVID-19”.
The climate emergency and COVID-19 pandemic both pose existential threats to our way of life. What ethical responsibility do the arts have to engage with the challenging issues of our time? What, can, or should we do as artists, academics, audiences and institutions?
I’d firstly like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the unceded lands on which we are gathered to this virtual meeting and I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and future. I acknowledge that they have lived on, and taken care of this land for tens of thousands of years with culture, custom and knowledge inextricably bound together.
My name is Guy Abrahams. I'm the co-founder of CLIMARTE: Arts For a Safe Climate. I'm an art consultant and art valuer but mostly I'm a climate change activist. I've been a lawyer, run a commercial art gallery and sat on various arts and environmental boards. I don't consider myself to be an expert on anything, but the things I'll talk about today have been occupying my mind for well over 40 years. These thoughts are based on study, readings and discussions I've had with real experts in all sorts of fields. If this was an academic paper, there'd be a hell of a lot of footnotes. Because there won't be a time for Q&A, I'd be very happy to receive any questions, requests for references or information, or even just if you want to have a chat about things via email. One other preliminary comment however is that although I refer mainly to art and artists, galleries and museums, I'm actually referring to the whole range of creative practitioners and all the institutions that support, promote and present their creative works.
Excuse my French but WTF is happening? They say we live in interesting times. What an understatement! In the last 90 days, our world has been turned upside down. In Australia we have seen unprecedented heat waves and bush fires with millions of people affected and billions of animals incinerated, followed by an unprecedented pandemic resulting in unprecedented health impacts and unprecedented government institute interventions with unprecedented economic consequences. And then this week, another unprecedented major bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. Interesting times indeed.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one very important lesson, it's that on a global scale we're all intimately connected – humans, all other species and the biosphere which we inhabit. It's no longer enough to “think global and act local” because global is local. That is something scientists and environmentalists have been trying to explain for decades and yet the more humans have measured their progress by the amount we produce and consume, the less we've been willing to acknowledge our dependence on the natural systems that govern life on this planet. We've been even less willing to accept that our sheer numbers, when coupled with our technology and behaviour, are actually changing those very systems. We've become a geological force. This era is called the Anthropocene.
The source of the COVID-19 pandemic has not been confirmed but many scientists believe that it originated in bats transferred to anteater-like animals called pangolins and was then transmitted to humans. Part of the reason that this may have occurred is the trade in wild animals and their slaughter in so-called wet markets, where they’re sold for food and other purposes. Thus, human activities have played a key part in allowing the virus’ transmission to human populations.
Human activity is also the major factor in the other existential crisis we continue to face – what some now call the “climate emergency”. For the past 200 or so years industrialised humankind has poured out ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases trapping more and more heat in the atmosphere in the oceans and causing global temperatures to rapidly increase with multiple flow-on effects. This process is now happening faster and with more severe impacts than even the most pessimistic scientists predicted even a decade ago. So the need to act now is incredibly urgent. It is an emergency because our actions over the next few years will have consequences that flow on for tens, hundreds, even thousands of years.
While the pandemic’s health and economic impacts will continue to exact a horrible and tragic toll on millions of people around the world, it will come to an end. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote around a week ago, “There is one huge difference between the coronavirus and climate change: climate change doesn't peak.” The pandemic and climate change are playing out on two different timescales. The pandemic changes our world daily. The effective actions we take to suppress its spread can be measured in a few days or weeks. It's likely a resolution will take months or maybe one or two years. It's a time scale we mightn’t like, but it is one that we can grasp. Although climate change is emerged far more slowly on our human time scale, its speed in geological terms has been – you guessed it – unprecedented. We’re now experiencing impacts of a changing climate that has its origins in carbon pollution that began accumulating many decades ago.
So, the effective actions we take today will only become apparent in coming decades and centuries. We need to flatten the curve of emissions and bring them down to Net Zero well before 2050 and then somehow soak up the excess greenhouse gases. Otherwise we'll be heading through a world that has such a fever, no amount of climate ventilators or other solutions will be able to save our civilization from catastrophe and probable collapse. On the way to that unhappy day, we will increasingly experience environmental, economic and health impacts far more serious than those we are experiencing now.
It is sobering to note that the prestigious international medical journal The Lancet has called climate change “The biggest global health threat of the 21st century”. “But enough already,” I hear you say. “What's this got to do with art? What's it got to do with us artists, architects, designers, academics, audiences and arts institutions?” From my perspective the answer is pretty clear: climate change, like the pandemic, is right now affecting each one of you – your family and friends, your work colleagues, your community, every community, every human. But climate change, unlike the pandemic, is affecting every living thing on this planet. So we must all be engaged and active, and the arts community doesn't have some special exemption. On the contrary, I think it should be extra concerned and extra responsive.
Fifteen years ago, author and climate change activists Bill McKibben wrote, “Climate change hasn't registered in our gut. It isn't part of our culture. Where are the books,” he asked, “the poems, the plays, the god damn operas?”
For decades, climate experts around the world, oceanographers, physicists, biologists, atmospheric scientists, among others, have warned us of the dangers we face by ignoring the laws of chemistry and physics. Their research has meant that climate change is an overwhelmingly accepted realm of scientific knowledge. Together with these scientists, economists, engineers, policy experts, and social researchers have already provided us with many of the strategies and technologies we need to solve the climate problem. But climate change was never only a technical problem. It is a social and cultural problem.
David Buckland, artist and coach and founder of the UK organisation Cape Farewell, says “climate is culture” – pointing out that our understanding of, and response to, the climate crisis is reflected, shaped and focused by multiple cultural lenses. Dense scientific arguments and the complex facts and figures, as you saw in the previous slide, often failed to move most people to concern or action, despite storms, droughts and fires.
At present, we are still sleepwalking through this climate emergency.
Art on the other hand, can not only show, but it can make us feel the very problems that we are facing. It can reflect on, and interpret our predicament. It can enable us to imagine possible responses and possible futures. Put simply, artworks have the capacity to wake us up. They can confront us with astonishing and occasionally uncomfortable possibilities. The arts allow us to recognise our situation, to experience it viscerally, to grieve, to hope, and to encourage, to find support and to find meaning. They provide important means by which we can begin to absorb, process, and integrate the meanings of climate change into our lives. They can motivate us to act with purpose to create better outcomes. They can inspire us to acknowledge that we are part of nature and not separate from it. Creative thinking and expression help us communicate and understand the rich relationships which exists between all things. So these relationships are what make our world the dynamic, intriguing, challenging, and wondrous experience that it is. More than any other time in history, the arts now need to consciously engage with communities worldwide in a global effort to create the cultural transformation that we need to motivate action on climate change and other pressing environmental and social issues.
Artists, art critics, and art theorists are increasingly being drawn to environmental art, environmental aesthetics, and eco-criticism. This shift in artistic concern is now becoming visible – including in Australia – and for the past 10 years it's been fostered and promoted by our own organisation, CLIMARTE. CLIMARTE’s work is founded on the understanding that public action on climate change depends on visceral emotional engagement. It seeks to amplify and mobilise public responses to climate change in ways that are underpinned by the facts of climate science, but it seeks to extend beyond the language of science, recognising that climate facts are sometimes not easily interpreted or understood and that facts alone don't necessarily move people to action. Climate has brought together a broad alliance of arts organisations, practitioners, administrators, audiences, and academics from across the spectrum of the arts. They are committed to advocating, through the arts, for immediate effective and creative action to be taken to restore a safe climate, capable of supporting a healthy and sustainable environment.
With the appointment in 2013 of Bronwyn Johnson as our executive director, CLIMARTE began to develop an ambitious program of projects and events. In 2014 CLIMARTE and RMIT University sponsored the public forum “Art Climate Ethics – what role for the arts?” Held at Melbourne's Federation Square, it was attended by over 500 people and was part of the Sustainable Living Festival. In 2015 CLIMARTE presented work by Australian artist Debbie Simons as part of ArtCOP21. This was the cultural response to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Negotiations in Paris, which produced the so-called Paris Agreement. Paris at that time was crowded with climate themed artworks, from its metros to its major plazas.
In 2015, 2017, and 2019, CLIMARTE produced the “art+climate=change” festivals. Intended to harness the creative power of the arts to inform, engage, and inspire action on climate change, at its core, these festivals posed an important question: “How do we unleash the power and reach of the arts to engage people in this most important conversation in human history?” “art+climate=change” was described by the Huffington Post as one of “the world's top 10 climate events for 2015” and CLIMARTE was also awarded the prestigious City of Melbourne Prize for Contribution to Environmental Sustainability by a Community Organisation. Over the course of these festivals, some 40 museums, galleries, and other institutions in Melbourne and regional Victoria produced specially curated exhibitions on themes around climate change and a myriad of related issues. The festivals included numerous public activities and programs, commissioning of key resources to support the school curriculum, and keynote addresses by highly regarded international speakers. Together, the three festivals had a visitor attendance of more than half a million people.
And in 2016, Melbourne University Press published the 160 page book “art+climate=change” containing essays by Kelly Gellatly, director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne, and John Wiseman Deputy Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute. Unfortunately, the hard copy is sold out – or fortunately for us – but it is held in many library collections and the eBook version is still available from Melbourne University Press.
The 2015 festival included The Maldives Exodus Caravan show by Søren Dahlgaard. Installed in Federation Square, this somewhat playful reference to the island nation that is at the forefront of sea-level rise caused by climate change, depicted refugees from the Maldives as they would need to move into caravans in other parts of the world, taking with them only a symbol of their island paradise, the inflatable palm trees which you can see on the roof. Inside the caravan, videos were played showing the very problems facing the Maldives both ecological and political. The second festival was held in 2017. Its centrepiece was the massive video installation “Exit” which CLIMARTE and the Ian Potter Museum brought to Australia from France. “Exit”, which is an immersive 360 degree projection of animated maps covering a range of climate related scenes, had previously been shown to acclaim in Paris at the Palais de Tokyo during the Paris climate negotiations.
In the lead up to a 2019 festival, CLIMARTE met with local community groups and key actors in the Latrobe valley to discuss the impacts of the closure of Hazelwood power station, the mine fires, the community experiences in understanding the transition to potentially a new sustainable future for the valley. From these meetings, CLIMARTE, together with Latrobe Regional Gallery, commissioned artist Mandy Martin, Alexander Boynes and Tristen Parr to create the installation “Rewriting the Score” which was comprised of a 12 metre painting, a digital video projection and a soundtrack. It portrayed the transition of the valley’s natural and industrial environment, transporting the viewer from mountain ash forests into the Latrobe Valley today. The transformative power of socially engaged art works cannot be underestimated. Rewriting the Score was a critical and popular success within the Latrobe Valley community.
CLIMARTE has also initiated the CLIMARTE Poster Project, commissioning artists to produce war posters on the theme of climate change. These thoughtful and sometimes provocative images from a range of artists were pasted on walls in and around the City of Melbourne. The resulting images were vivid and powerful. They range from the sublime and subtle such as John Campbell's fading Great Barrier Reef to Siri Hayes' “Southern Skies all a Swirl” which show a wind farm and the map of the skies from that van Gogh-ian style that is the map of the wind around southern Australia. And then, of course, to the caustically funny “Hazelshould” by Gabrielle de Vietri and Will Foster. “Hazelshould” became the subject of media attack for its topic and for the public sponsorship that made it possible. The debate over its comments about the ancient Hazelwood power station – then the most polluting source of energy in Australia – provided additional discussion about the need to close this plant which then occurred a year later.
There has been a worldwide burgeoning of climate change arts events and organisations as well as a growing body of literature. Organisations such as CLIMARTE and also the Climate Museum in New York, the Center for Art and Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, and the previously mentioned Cape Farewell UK have all been at the forefront of global efforts to accelerate action on climate change. All these organisations bring people from diverse backgrounds together and give audiences the opportunity to consider the issues from their own perspective in their own time and by experiencing the creative explorations and collaborations of artists, curators, scientists and policy experts. As social issue, climate change still divides opinion in communities yet the arts seem to be able to circumvent some of these barriers and start productive discussions, where other approaches fail. They therefore have a vital role to play in helping us grapple with, interpret, and respond to climate change. This is the sort of work that CLIMARTE has sought to do over the past decade.
Of course there are galleries and museums who haven't been part of CLIMARTE’s festivals, but have nevertheless produced exhibitions including works that explore climate change and its challenges. At MUMA for example last, year's intriguing exhibition “Shapes of Knowledge” included a work commissioned from artist Gabrielle de Vietri and Will Foster titled “Maps of Gratitude, Cones of Silence, and Lumps of Coal”. Configured as an interactive online diagram, the work maps the connections between the fossil fuels industry, and the arts in Australia. Coal, oil, and gas are the greatest contributor to carbon pollution both in Australia and globally. It's clear that these business-arts relationships run deep within the Australian art sector. They use these relationships to greenwash or art wash – that is to cleanse their business of its ethically problematic activities by becoming involved in pro-social enterprises like art museums, theatre companies, and the like. It's something the tobacco industry was very good at back in the old days. Gabrielle de Vietri explains how these links work in a powerful video that should be compulsory viewing for everyone involved in the arts. Some individuals connected with these businesses and various art bodies believe that climate change is not happening, or if it is happening, it is not caused by humans, or as not as bad as scientists say. Some individuals hold significant positions of power in industry and media and as influences of government, and some are also active opponents of efforts to reduce emissions.
The cultural sector is a hugely trusted source of information, learning, and engagement for people of all ages. It is funded in large measure by the public. A 2008 study found that 77% of museum visitors rated them equal or higher in trustworthiness than all other sources of information. The cultural sector is, in a very real sense, the custodian of the most precious beautiful and inspiring creations of our civilisations past and present and yet culture sometimes court's the very barbarians whose actions threatened to destroy the foundations of those civilizations, that is, a safe climate. When it comes to the fossil fuel industry, I think it's time that the arts began to practice some very severe social distancing. It's clear then, that we have most of the technical and policy solution to arrest climate change. The roadblocks to action and implementation are political, social, and cultural.
So, what can we do?
Here are some ideas. They’re personal, communal, and institutional, and many of them are as applicable to this time of pandemic as they are to our era of climate change.
Firstly, all of us can look at our day-to-day practices and work out ways to use energy, lighting, exhibition design materials, travel, and other products and processes more efficiently and with less impact on our world. All of us need to consider in plan for climate impacts on ourselves, our arts practice, our artworks, and our audiences. Already this year we were dealing with bushfires either directly or indirectly – for example the National Gallery of Australia was closed due to smoke and its adverse effects on staff, public, and their artworks. Some institutions, like the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre were acting as places of refuge for people impacted by the fires. And places such as the Bundanon Homestead were scrambling to protect their artworks and relocate them to safe places. Having a plan for these sorts of eventualities is important for ourselves, but it also sends a clear message by setting an example to our peers and the broader community. Institutional governance is important both for the institutions themselves and again as a public declaration, an example sending to their audiences, their institutional peers, and the broader community. Good governance should include adopting policies on climate change, sustainability, funding and sponsorship, investments and board and trustee memberships. Institutions should produce substantial, detailed, and publicly available climate action plans and report outcomes in their annual reports. It's important to create connections across and within communities, bringing their “us”s and “them”s together through the arts, can help break down divisions and entrenched positions and beliefs. We can do this individually and also through any organisations we're connected with.
As we have already seen, artists can create and institutions can curate works that explore climate change and its impacts. Artists can join a climate action organisation – there are many to choose from. Institutions can also join or otherwise support some of these organisations. Both artists and institutions can lend their talents, resources, and voices to those organisations. Artists and institutions can, on their own accord, advocate both privately and publicly the policies and practices that will accelerate climate action, both within the arts sector and more broadly. We should all be kind to ourselves, and to others. Recognise and encourage the therapeutic benefits of creative practice both amongst professional creatives but also amongst the great mass of the creatively stifled public.
Creative activities can relieve stress, encourage mindfulness, and give purpose, so why not share your talents with friends and family or even amongst the other communities that you mix with? In times of global stress, we need to acknowledge the value of experiencing culture both as practitioners and as audiences, thus creating emotional resilience to sadness, frustration, and despair that we all sometimes feel. After all, these are hard times. Artists can bear witness to what is happening. You can help us get through these times. Reflect on what we are all experiencing, and try to make sense of both our feelings and the many changes to our environment and society. You and your work can inspire our capacity to transition to better ways of being. You can provide us with the imaginaries, the visions, of what a new way of living would look like.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can create hope – a completely renewable resource. But we need a certain type of hope. It's not the hope of “she'll be right mate”. It's not the hope of “I wish things were different”. It's not the hope of magical thinking or leaving it to someone else or the belief that one day someone will invent the perfect solution. That's not hope – that's abandonment. The hope I speak of is active, creative, and wise. It's hope born of courage and action. With courage and action, humans have overcome daunting obstacles and achieved remarkable reforms: the abolition of slavery, the recognition of civil rights and then human rights, the end of apartheid, the acceptance of same-sex relationships and then marriage, the defeat of fascism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and now, even in this incredible unprecedented global response, to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We must always remember that the future is not predetermined. It's ours to create, so whether we're talking about the COVID-19 crisis or the climate emergency, the question’s the same: To create or not to create? I think you know the answer.
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