Yearly Archives: 2018

Born of a Singularity: Art and Our Position in the Ecosystem

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

If you look through critical writing about Siobhan McDonald’s artwork you would not be immediately aware that she is pre-eminently a painter. But it is with the sensibility of a painter that she views the issues of our time. On the day on which I first met her, at her studio in the Science Faculty at University College Dublin, it had just been announced that Cheddar Man, the oldest known human inhabitant of the British Isles and ancestor of the British (and Irish) people was not white, as previously thought, but black. New DNA evidence revealed that the ethnic purity of the white ‘master’ race was based on nothing more than a false, and generally, harmful assumption. Science has a way of reviewing even the most cherished beliefs, and confronting us with alternative hypotheses to what we think is the truth. As an artist, Siobhan McDonald has devoted herself to bringing visibility and sense to subtle, even invisible shifts in knowledge.

Siobhan McDonald – art pieces and source material

Like the great painters of the past, she is interested in the mystery of existence, “what is still unknown to science, exploring the origins of life and plants as a way to see clearly into the future.” Her field of vision is large. It extends across time and space in search of artistic vehicles that can carry the wonder, the mind-numbing terror of change over temporal and spatial spans that we cannot begin to imagine. She invites us to consider how past and future might come together, keeping a forensic as well as an aesthetic eye on the traces and residues of past activity and the scientific studies that suggest future direction, bringing her closer to an understanding of the phenomena that feed her art project. She moves between examination of the evidence of biological and historical activity hidden in the icy landscapes of the Arctic Circle, to volcanic activity in the same region, creating her own seismometer to record tectonic shifts in the earth’s substrata, making artwork to reflect the fossilization of an object as modern as an abandoned Dakota DC3 aircraft, bringing a painter’s eye to bear on the accretions painted by time on to its surface. This merely parallels her own painting process. “Paint congealed and reacting to time for me suggests possibilities… a form of alchemy that transforms our understanding”.

Her philosophical landscape is filled with evidence of the strength and continuity of natural forces. While there is something biblical about the power and might of geological change, McDonald is just as quick to spot and be moved by quieter, but no less inexorable temporal alteration. Thus, Silent Witnessing (2017), is simply composed of a sheet of paper, which once formed the backing to a collection of rare butterflies in UCD. The butterflies had long since turned to dust, and been swept away to prepare for other research species. Only McDonald was sensitive to the potent image left in their wake by dust and melanin, describing their patterned imprint as “a natural photogram.”

In pursuit of her goals she has embraced sculptural installation, photography, sound, video, found objects and chance occurrences, even materials so new, they are only being invented as she uses them. Her paintings, as the short documentary video Chrystalline: Disappearing Worlds reveals, are informed by all of them. What does it mean to take a pre-existing image, literally frozen in time as the plate glass photographs of failed, nineteenth century Arctic expeditions were, and to re-imagine them in paint? The act of painting becomes a means to feel your way into the experience of the original photographers, to consider what they saw, to add the dimension of present time and your own thoughts as you examine each mark, scratch and erasure in the original. The paintings are influenced by the ravages of a century of concealment in ice on those glass plates; their tracery becomes part of her painterly alphabet. The battered figures in paintings such as Unknown Landscape (2016), blurred and partly obliterated as if time and snow and desperation withholds them from our re-discovery, result in a real sense of encounter with the ill-fated expedition team. Their moment in time and the climatic conditions which paradoxically caused their deaths but preserved the evidence; simultaneously showing the “then” and the “now,” become the emotional stimulus for the contemporary painting. Importantly, the time-based painting process, itself, adds an emotional dimension to mere scientific “evidence” of time, cold and certain death. Inevitably the little expedition paintings evoke Caspar David Friedrich’s figures gazing over the cliffs at Rügen. But no matter how terrible Friedrich’s sublime is, his well-dressed protagonists retain a sense of agency over the landscape. It is clear from McDonald’s paintings that the blizzards of ice that already sweep her human inhabitants away from each other, deny such power. In this, McDonald’s paintings are closer to those of Turner, speaking of vulnerability, refusing the comfort of a church spire, however distant.

Writing about McDonald’s work in 2012, Tim Robinson noted, “Since the Cosmos and all that’s in it were born of a singularity, all things are related”. If the narratives of the cosmos from the Jurassic periods to the Anthropocene yield the subject matter for McDonald’s work, time, matter and space are also implicated as co-workers in it and it is her role as a painter to make that visible. The charred animal bone, the chambers of air, preserved since the Triassic period and toxic to humankind today, the 190-year-old seeds, preserved in ice since the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, the crystalline deposits grown and metamorphosed by atmospheric action in an old drawer; the seismic drawings on charcoal-dusted paper made by imperceptible movements of the earth all perform themselves. They are like other kinds of paint, growing, layering, removing, creating meaningful surfaces. McDonald recognizes that and frames them on the walls.

Where Leonardo da Vinci, observed, sketched and pondered the movements of water and wind, land-locked fish fossils, the flight of birds, McDonald, the UN Climate Action Program’s first artist of the week, (2017), took her thoughts out of the sketchbook and into the public domain. Leonardo had time on his side. But there is a sense of urgency now, as man’s actions on a global and industrial scale change the nature of the universe, and appear to be hurtling us to an unpreventable catastrophe. McDonald has to work across a wide range of data, using every tool in her scientific and artistic repertory to inform and persuade us that the pace of deep time and geological change may still have lessons for us. Leonardo and his contemporaries believed in the harmony of the spheres, where every organ contributed to the balance and order of the universe. McDonald asks us, instead, to look at the effects of imbalance, to listen to the drips of the dying glaciers, to witness the impacts of global warming in Crystalline, where large panels of sponge, coated in Solar White – a mix of carbon and bone (about to be used on the European Space Agency’s 2018, Solar Orbiter) –recall frozen wastelands and dried out riverbeds. Leonardo constantly reminded those around him of the inter-dependence of science and art. Nowhere is this more evident than in McDonald’s Solar Skin which combines seismographic drawings on smoked paper, basalt and stretched calfskin. Science may have dictated the seismographic technologies and even the use of basalt, but the calfskin is a direct link to the Book of Kells and a reminder of McDonald’s artistic heritage.

For the first time in history man is responsible for climate change. Somewhere along the vast spread of time that McDonald’s work examines, it would appear as if mankind forgot that it, too, is part of the natural world. Leonardo’s blunt language about human biology, “the tree of the heart has its roots in the dung of the liver,” brings us right back to our roots, to the dust and bacteria that reach far beyond Darwinian and Freudian analysis. The vulnerability so evident in the Arctic expedition paintings, or the narratives of cosmic activity in paintings such as her Peter Doig-like Meteorite hits Savissivik 2017 insist on the centrality of change, implied in every living thing. Two-thousand years ago, Ovid, brooding over the way rocks, animals, people and plants developed in Metamorphoses, concluded:

Thus are their figures never at a stand
But chang’d by Nature’s innovating hand:
All things are alter’d, nothing is destroy’d,
The shifted scene for some new show employ’d.
Then to be born, is to begin to be
Some other thing we were not formerly:
And what we call to die is not t’appear
Or be the thing that formerly we were.

Although mindful of the damage man’s actions have caused to age-old habitats and processes, Siobhan McDonald’s work, like Ovid’s words, remind us that the seeds of a different future, not necessarily the end of life, are contained in the scientific evidence. It is the emotional energy transmitted through the artworks that will decide how the wider community, beyond the laboratory, engages with that knowledge.

(Chrystalline: Disappearing Worlds is available for purchase as a full-color book designed by Oonagh Young with texts by Helen Carey and Catherine Marshall.)


Catherine Marshall, is a curator, art historian and writer. She taught history of art at Trinity College, Dublin and the National College of Art, before becoming the founding Head of Collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. She is Co-Editor of the Art and Architecture of Ireland, Volume V, Twentieth Century, Yale University Press and Royal Irish Academy, 2014. She has curated exhibitions of Irish Art all over Ireland and as far afield as China, the United States of America and Canada.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

An Interview With Writer Krista Foss

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

I am pleased to share this interview with Krista Foss, an Ontario-based writer of novels, essays, short stories and journalism. Her first novel Smoke River was published by McClelland & Stewart (2014). Krista recently published a short story in Granta called “Cloud Seeding” about a futuristic company that learns to control the weather through technology and human activity. We spoke about why the story resonates in the Anthropocene era, how climate change is intertwined with capitalism, and why storytelling is key to getting the public to take climate change more seriously. I hope you enjoy it!

Amy: Your recent story in Granta is about a “cloud seeding” company that uses technology and child labor to generate and move storms. What inspired this idea?

Krista: The technology of cloud seeding has been around for at least 80 years, deployed most commonly for farms and ski hills. But a decade ago, Moscow’s mayor used it to prevent rain on parade days (he wanted to reduce his snow clearing budget with it too.) Beijing has its own weather modification office; it was used to hustle stormy skies away from important events at the 2008 summer Olympics, for instance.

This was all news to me: I stumbled upon it while researching something else and of course got hooked.

In Canada, weather is religion. The idea that it could be so easily manipulated (although weather modifying technology is expensive and not always reliable) was intriguing and disillusioning.

So this hubris, this god-like posturing, became the story’s starting point. I speculated about a world where weather mod was a more effective and competitive remedy for climate change and asked myself, what happens when we’re no longer in awe of the weather?

Amy: Do you think about extreme weather patterns, environmental issues, and/or climate change beyond what you write about in your fiction?

Krista: I live in a mid-sized southwestern Ontario city that’s physically scarred by its industrial past and in the midst of reinvention. It’s surrounded by a unique escarpment and swaths of Carolinian forest. This ecology is vulnerable to every variety of human encroachment. Climate change is a biggie.

As I write this, it’s 40 C. (with the humidex). Grass is brown and crispy and it’s only mid-June. New species and diseases have migrated here – possums (adorable), Lyme-disease infected ticks (less adorable). Emerald ash-borers and gypsy moths regularly attack the tree canopy. Our storms are wild – they’d be thrilling if they weren’t so damaging.

But compared to the whole country, my corner of Ontario is not getting the worst of it. The severity of forest fires, flooding and infestation is on the rise in other provinces. For our First Nations communities, climate change converges with all the other injuries inflicted by colonialization.

It’s impossible not to think about it; it’s right there, just outside my front door.

Krista Foss on her bike. Photo by John Martin.

Amy: Your story speaks to so many real-life issues, including the capitalistic mindset that drives climate change. In “Cloud Seeding” the capitalist critique manifests as the company’s willingness to let children die to increase their profit margins. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the intersection of capitalism and climate.

Krista: Where to begin? By using the technology to write these answers, I participate in capitalism and will contribute to climate change by pressing the send button. My choices are made at that intersection. So how do I square my individualism with the collective needs of the planet, and those displaced by climate change?  One way that’s fresh for me is how I vote.

We just had an election in Ontario that brought in an inexperienced politician who leaned on the Trump playbook: He leveraged public outrage over high electricity costs to win votes. One of his first promises is to end our cap-and-trade system that makes companies pay for greenhouse gas emissions in his quest to create a more business-friendly environment (code for trashing environmental regulation among other things.) Two-thirds of voters did not choose him. (So now we have an issue of electoral reform converging with climate change.) But his appeal to the “big-government-stealing-from-your-wallets” mindset highlights an essential tension. What are we individually willing to give up for a greater good?  Or, alternatively, why are we so okay with climate–the natural world – acting as a subsidy for big business and the artificially low costs we pay here for food, fuel and stuff?

Our political economy, our corporate oversight, reflects our shared values. On a fundamental level our values got us here. Every kid who walks outdoors and looks at bugs or salamanders or wants to identify a bird, gives me hope. Because they’re engaged: They’ve got a personal stake in something bigger than themselves. And those kids grow up to be activists and leaders and voters.

Amy: The ending of your story cuts through the heart by suggesting that the people in charge of the company have grown emotionally numb to loss, to death. Again, I can’t help but think of this story in terms of our larger cultural moment, of how there still seems to be such a psychological barrier to climate change. There’s lots of discussion about how best to break through. Some say that stories of hope are the answer. Others argue that fear is a more useful tool. What do you think?

Krista: A story breaks through when it leaves readers thinking with more complexity about the world or themselves. We have to earn that: we have to enchant readers with that complexity. It can be ugly or it can be beautiful.

I know my barriers are broken down by writing that moves me from my comfortable pieties to somewhere else, disorienting even distressing, wholly unexpected. As long as I’m left looking at the world in a way I didn’t have the imagination or the subtlety for before, I’m paying attention. I’m changed.

The litmus then isn’t whether it’s hopeful, or fearful, but rather, did it wake me up?

Amy: What can fiction show us about climate change that perhaps scientific reports can’t? 

Krista: I go full nerd for scientific reports, journals and writing: it’s a source of inspiration. But of course, scientific objectivity and evidentiary rigor limit the way I can be moved by that information. I don’t expect a lot of pathos with data. Fiction that is scientifically, as well as imaginatively informed, doesn’t have these limits. It can bridge the silos of art and science and show us what we care about (or don’t), understand (or don’t). It can confront us with our sanctimony and unreliability and that intriguing gap between our actions and words. It helps us imagine where we’re going, fathom what is gone and leaves us with a richer understanding of what’s happening out there right now.

This post was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get her newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.


Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x. 


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Manifesta 12: The Planetary Garden

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

During the renovation of the sanitary system of Palazzo Butera, one of the many crumbling yet spectacular palazzos of Palermo, Sicily, a Jacaranda tree’s centuries-old root was discovered. The seed of this beautiful fragrant tree, native to tropical and subtropical regions, had found a new home in the humidity of the Italian palace. Palermo is a city of human and non-human migratory flows. Over the centuries, plant and tree seeds from all over the world have travelled to Palermo and found new habitats. There, they adapted, grew, reproduced, and combined.

This cosmopolitan (bio)diversity is apparent in Francesco Lojacono’s 1875 painting View of Palermo, which depicts the Orto Botanico – the city’s lush botanical garden. The garden was founded at the height of the European colonial period as a place to collect and crossbreed different plant species, and classify them according to Linnaeus’ classification system. It comes as no surprise that none of the plants, flowers, and trees in Lojacono’s painting are indigenous. One can recognize aspen from the Middle East, agave from central America, eucalyptus from Australia, prickly pear from Mexico and loquat from Japan. The citrus tree – now a symbol of Sicily – was originally from Asia and introduced under Arab rule. Today, Palermo’s botanical garden is one of the main venues of Manifesta 12, the European Nomadic Biennial. It was Lojacono’s painting that inspired this year’s theme: The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence.


“View of Palermo” by Francesco Lojacono, as printed in Atlas Palermo by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture for Manifesta 12.

Based in Amsterdam, Manifesta travels to a different European city every two years, and transforms it into a large contemporary art exhibition. The organization’s aim is to “prompt reflection through contemporary culture on what it means to be European.” After Zurich (2014) and St. Petersburg (2016), Palermo is a timely and interesting choice. Located in the south of Europe and northwest of the Middle East, Palermo exemplifies Europe’s history of multiple identities while at the same time being a place where key transnational issues – such as climate change and trafficking – converge. Above all, the architecture of Palermo is an incredible backdrop for an art exhibition. The slowly disintegrating palazzos, with trees piercing right through them, ensure that pretty much any art is going to look good. From the incredible State Archives of Palermo with papers piled to the eves, to the magical oratorios, the venues steal the show at Manifesta 12.


Protocol no. 90/6 (2018), MASBEDO at the Archivio di Stato di Palermo (State Archives of Palermo, Gancia venue – Cortile della Gancia).

Though it might be highly enjoyable for visitors, it is slightly colonial to fly to a new place every two years, take over the city, and hope to transform it with contemporary art. The Manifesta team must be aware of this as this year more in-depth, pre-Biennial research was conducted. The urban research study of the city of Palermo was (ironically?) done by the also Netherlands-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and resulted in the Palermo Atlas – a collection of stories gathered on the ground and supported by data. The book aims to enable a more integrated approach and allow for a deeper understanding of the urban realities and cultural, social, religious, ethnic, and geo-political complexities of the city. To me, this investigation is not a luxury but the basic foundation of any Biennial – especially one that lands in a new country every two years. The art event stands or falls according to how genuine the city’s interest is. This can even influence the quality of the artworks; the more the work interacts with its context, the stronger it seems to be.


Un-Built Palermo, Palermo Atlas, Office for Metropolitan Architecture for Manifesta 12.g

The most striking example of this is the work that filmmaker Laura Poitras did with a group of Italian film students. Building on her personal interests and expertise, Poitras pointed the students towards the strong U.S. military presence in Sicily, the island being crucial to the U.S. military communications and drone operations. She worked with them and guided them for several months. Though she has shot incredible footage herself at the Sigonella station – supposedly the hub of U.S. naval air operations in the Mediterranean – the real revelation came from the students. Their confidence boosted by their world-famous mentor’s reputation, they produced four short films that each tell a different story about the U.S. military bases. The films are informative and telling, but also manage to keep their artistic and poetic character. The students got their moment of fame at the opening of Manifesta 12 at Teatro Garibaldi, the main venue. It was clear that the audience was there to see Poitras, but she generously gave the stage to them, showing sneak previews of their work and letting the (very shy) students speak about their films.


Still from Signal Flow, 2018 – one of the films Poitras made with Italian film students.

The question remains as to what the Manifesta legacy might look like. After all the confetti has blown away, has the art crowd really contributed to Palermo’s transition to a city that is not under unlawful control? Will the palazzos turn back into decaying homes for Jacaranda trees and crumble away over time? Will the students’ films be seen by international audiences? Though it is hard to say, it is clearly the elephant in the room. But it appears that all the praises and appreciation for the handsome venues have sparked a renewed interest by local citizens to look after them. I call it the holiday effect. Sometimes all it takes is a foreign eye to recognize the beauty of what you already have. Now let’s nurture this renewed appreciation for these Sicilian gems – without becoming colonial about it.

Teatro Garibaldi

Manifesta 12: The Planetary Garden. Cultivating coexistence. is on June 16–November 4, 2018 in Palermo, Sicily.

(Top image: Bo Zheng, Pteridophilia, 2016. Video in the Orto Botanico Palermo as part of Manifesta 12.)


Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues and the initiator of the Van Eyck Food Lab.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Now Hiring: Sustainable Scotland Network

This post comes from Creative Carbon Scotland

The Sustainable Scotland Network are recruiting two new positions to join the team at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation – a Network Engagement Officer and a Project Administrator. This is an exciting opportunity to work at the frontline of delivery and engagement on climate action in Scotland.

Sustainable Scotland Network (SSN) is Scotland’s professional network for public sector sustainability and climate change action. SSN works to support improved public sector action on climate change through capacity building, support for mandatory reporting, knowledge exchange and sharing of good practice.

SSN is supported by a secretariat and run by the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (University of Edinburgh) and Sniffer.

Both roles are fixed term until March 31 2020 with possibility of a one year extension subject to funding. Secondments are welcomed. For further details on each role or to apply please follow the links below, Deadline is the 17th July.

SSN Network Engagement Officer: This is a part-time role (0.6FTE) 21 hours per week available for immediate start. Salary: £27,285-£31,604 (pro rata). Find out more and apply

SSN Administrator: This post is full time with immediate start. Salary: £22,876-£27,285 per annum. Find out more and apply


The post Opportunity: Two New Positions with the Sustainable Scotland Network appeared first on Creative Carbon Scotland.


Creative Carbon Scotland is a partnership of arts organisations working to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland. We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.

In 2011 we worked with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Threatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network to support over thirty arts organisations to operate more sustainably.

We are now building on these achievements and working with over 70 cultural organisations across Scotland in various key areas including carbon management, behavioural change and advocacy for sustainable practice in the arts.

Our work with cultural organisations is the first step towards a wider change. Cultural organisations can influence public behaviour and attitudes about climate change through:

Changing their own behaviour;
Communicating with their audiences;
Engaging the public’s emotions, values and ideas.

Go to Creative Carbon Scotland