Artists and Climate Change

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Dancer & Choreographer Lynn Neuman Creatively Engages the Public

By Peterson Toscano

How does an artist decide to do the work she does? How does that work evolve over time? What impact does it have on the audience and how can an artist deepen that impact? In my recent conversation with dancer and choreographer Lynn Neuman, I encountered an artist with boundless curiosity. This curiosity drives her work. 

As director of Artichoke Dance Company, Lynn recognizes the vital role art plays in addressing issues like climate change. But entertaining and educating are not enough for Lynn and her company. They always want to do more to get people to act. Through community engagement and direct outreach to lawmakers, they are training community members to change legislation. 

During the pandemic, Lynn and Artichoke Dance Company have been adjusting and adapting once again. See their Covid Creations. “It reflects our feelings of isolation and desires for connection during the coronavirus,” Lynn explains. “Filmed at various times of day, the series reflects the available bandwidth of the internet.”

Next month: When faced with an existential crisis, poet Walt Whitman allowed himself to be transformed for his times. Lessons Whitman learned are relevant for artists today as we face multiple crises.

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunesStitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloudPodbeanNorthern Spirit RadioGoogle PlayPlayerFM, and TuneIn Radio. Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.

This article is part of The Art House series.

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As host of Citizens’ Climate Radio, Peterson Toscano regularly features artists who address climate change in their work. The Art House section of his program includes singer/songwriters, visual artists, comics, creative writers, and playwrights. Through a collaboration with Artists and Climate Change and Citizens’ Climate Education, each month Peterson reissues The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @ citizensclimatelobby.org

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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

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Grieving Towards the Future

By Clare Fisher

If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that most of us are pretty bad at dealing with uncertainty. Either we’re optimistically booking holidays and Airbnbs for “when all this is over” – if not next week, then certainly by Christmas – or we’re slumped on the sofa, convinced that slumping on the sofa and maybe watching other people slump on their sofas over Zoom is all we will ever do.

Both of these responses, however, as Nicole Seymour points out in Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age (2020), are “different sides of the same coin, a coin that represents humans’ desire for certainty and neat narratives about the future.” Easier to say “things will be this way forever” than “we have no idea how things will be next week, next month or next year.” Worse: we have no control over how they might be. Digging into the middle space between the two is difficult and scary; yet it is also where reality happens, and where we might, if we stick with it long enough, start to change it. So how, given the anxious, control-hungry creatures we are, can we do that? 

This is a question that haunted almost all of my conversations with researchers and educators as part of our Arts & Climate in Higher Education series; indeed, conceptualizing interdisciplinarity as an “and” which allows us to pay attention to that which individual disciplines leave out, as I did in my first blog post, suggests that a willingness to engage with uncertainty is the (wobbly) foundation on which interdisciplinarity is built. Developing strategies for delving into the spaces between and beyond what each discipline is sure of is also crucial to the pedagogy and the theory of interdisciplinary arts and climate change education, as I have explored in my second and third posts. For this reason, my fourth and final blog post is asking: what is at stake in our struggle with hope and despair? And how might we move beyond it?

Seymour, who teaches the Literature and Environment course at California State University, Fullerton in the U.S., focuses on texts which illuminate how and why we are failing to deal with climate change. They are often funny, using irony and humor to satirize such failures and point towards different ways of creatively responding to the crisis. The assumption – which she effectively dismantles in Bad Environmentalism – is that climate art can and should do one of two things: teach people about climate change and serve as a mode of catharsis. This leads to an overwhelming affect of earnestness which, paradoxically, makes people less likely to engage. A similar point is made by an activist character in Jenny Offill’s novel, Weather: “people are sick of being lectured to about glaciers.” The activist, however, is sick of having to add an “obligatory note of hope” to the end of every one of her talks, eventually concluding that “there is no hope, only witness.” Bearing witness, argues Seymour, is one of the many other things environmental art, when freed from the earnest tones of environmentalism, can do. Perhaps bearing witness to the affective difficulty of bearing witness is an important part of this, both in and out of the classroom.

Interdisciplinarity, with its acceptance of not-knowing, contradiction, and uncertainty, is perhaps best suited to bearing this sort of witness. Ingrid Horrocks and Laura-Jean McKay, who lead the Eco-Fictions and Non-Fictions undergraduate course at Massey University in New Zealand, choose texts which are capable of holding multiple and contradictory narrative threads; these texts slide between mundane and global scales while witnessing the specific environmental histories of the local region. Laura and Ingrid believe that giving students the opportunity to connect their lived experience with the material being studied helps prevent any collapse into despair. It is no wonder, then, that encouraging students to connect with their physical environments is a key feature of so many courses I’ve looked at so far, such as those in the Environmental Studies Department at Wofford College, South Carolina, and the Art and Place MA at Dartington College of the Arts in the UK, both of which emphasize experiential and field-based learning; and the Design for Performing Arts MFA Program at York University in Canada, where students generate specific change proposals for their campus. Here, as elsewhere, engaging with the complexity and the difficulty of the broader issues facilitates a focused and creatively constructive engagement with those that touch on students’ immediate surroundings.

Hope that is born of a recognition of how bad things are is very different, then, from the “things will be better by x,” “we’ll find some sort of tech to save us” escape-valve variety. It might point towards a better future; it might also spring from the past. It is to this end that John Willis’s – paradoxically named – environmental history course, Inviting Doomsday: US Environmental Problems in the Twentieth Century at the University of Kent, UK, is designed. Through studying specific examples of climate activism, students grapple with the complex ways in which socio-economic and cultural systems contribute to climate change, and the ways in which activists have historically tackled this. When he started teaching the course 15 years ago, British students saw its content as far away and only relevant to the U.S. Now, however, there is a greater sense of anxiety and urgency among the students. Through topic-based learning and interdisciplinary research, they are encouraged to draw out the multiple and conflicting stories around specific environmental issues. “It’s harder, now, to instill positivity,” he says. “Although examples of successful activism, and figures like Rachel Carson, can offer some sort of hope.” He is quiet for a moment. Then he adds: “though the general situation is quite dire.”

In her book Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman (2020), Rebecca Tamás argues that what is often represented as “climate grief” in popular culture is in fact “climate despair:” “a misery which shuts down our ability to think critically and to have any version of hope.” By contrast, “Grieving for the environment means … rejecting total despair, but it also means giving up on any romanticized visions one might have had of an unblemished, pure natural world, where the human can turn to the nonhuman for relief and easy comfort.”

Reading Tamás, I had an “a-ha” moment: this, I think, is what these interdisciplinary courses and programs are beginning to do. Leaning into the spaces between disciplines and categories means learning to let go of uncertainty; it can be difficult, scary, and confusing, yes, yet it can also be funny, surprising, and joyful. It might mean simply bearing witness to our failures to bear witness to the true complexity of it all. It might mean forming new horizontal connections with our classmates and our teachers in order to identify places and ways to make a positive difference. What I felt, as researchers described their experimental pedagogies and teaching practices, was that I was glimpsing a different future.

This article is part of our series on Arts & Climate in Higher Education.

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Clare Fisher is a novelist, short story writer, and researcher based in Leeds, UK. She is the author of All the Good Things (Viking, 2017) and How the Light Gets In (2018). Her work has won a Betty Trask Award and been longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. She is studying for a practice-led PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds and teaches Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College and Queen Mary University of London. She can be found on Twitter at @claresitafisher.

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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

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Celebrating Native American Heritage Month: Five Artists You Should Know

By GiGi Buddie

Welcome to another installment in my Indigenous Voices series, and happy Native American Heritage Month! 

In 1990, President George H. W. Bush declared the month of November as Native American Heritage Month, and since then it has been a month of celebration and remembrance for Indigenous peoples in the United States. To mark the occasion, I have decided to profile Indigenous artists I feel you should know, and up-and-coming student artists working to create waves of their own. 

Throughout this month, and beyond, I encourage you to research influential Indigenous figures in American history, explore the artists I introduce more deeply, find out whose land you’re on, and search for ways to celebrate the Native people of this land. November also includes the American tradition of “Thanksgiving.” Learn about the true history of this holiday and Native American Heritage Day, which is observed and celebrated the day after Thanksgiving. This nation was founded at great cost to the first peoples of this land, and I implore you to remember, recognize, support, and educate yourself on the past, present, and future cultures, struggles, and accomplishments of American Indians. 

To jumpstart that acknowledgment and education, here are profiles of influential Indigenous artists you should know! Each of these artists has made a name for themselves and used their platform to talk seriously about issues that pertain heavily to American Indian communities. While not all of these artists address climate change directly, much of the work they do is built from a foundation that challenges a white-dominated society. These artists have had to tirelessly work against the colonized world that brought about assimilation, genocide, racial injustice, and the building blocks of the climate crisis. 

XIUHTEZCATL MARTINEZ

Starting off our list is 20-year-old Indigenous climate activist, artist, and author Xiuhtezcatl (shoe-tez-caht) Martinez. Inspired by his mother’s activism, since the age of six Xiuhtezcatl has been working to create sustainable dialogue and change for our planet. Initially speaking at local rallies in his home state of Colorado, he has since been propelled to the international stage. He has stood before the representatives of the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Summit in Rio de Janeiro and spoken boldly about the urgency of climate change, emphasizing that “this is a struggle of cultural survival for my people, for Indigenous folks specifically, who are on the frontlines everywhere.” He is the youth director of Earth Guardians where he “uses art, music, storytelling, and civic action to inspire and mobilize young people in the fight to protect our planet.” He has created a name for himself as an eco hip-hop artist, a powerful and influential young activist, a plaintiff in a climate crisis lawsuit against the Obama administration, and a voice of hope for both Indigenous communities and our planet.

To learn more about Xiuhtezcatl and his accomplishments, check out this article published by Cultural Survival. You can also listen to his music, and find all of his social media handles on his website.

RADMILLA CODY

Next up we have the Navajo award-winning singer, model, and anti-domestic violence activist Radmilla Cody. With her GRAMMY nomination and multiple wins at the Native American Music Awards, Radmilla’s musical talent is undeniable. But her accomplishments don’t stop there. She was named one of NPR’s 50 great voices, a Black History Maker Honoree, and uses her platform, and her personal experiences as a survivor, to advocate against domestic abuse and violence.* Her platform is one that is built off of her own experiences growing up in America as a biracial woman. She attempts to communicate positive messages about her dual identity to underrepresented minority groups in similar situations. Radmilla’s voice is one of power and resilience and her music, sung in her Native tongue, is reminiscent of the power of Native storytelling. Be sure to listen to her music and follow her on social media


*According to a study by the National Institute of Justice, more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women and men have experienced violence in their lifetime, and more than one in three experienced violence in the past year.

SACHEEN LITTLEFEATHER

Third on my list of big-name artists you should know is actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather. Sacheen gained attention in 1973 when she was chosen by actor Marlon Brando to deny his Oscar for his portrayal of Don Corleone in The Godfather. Brando wanted to bring national attention to the treatment of American Indians following the siege at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. I was fortunate enough to learn about Sacheen’s life at the Native Women in Film Festival where One Bowl Productions was screening their documentary of her life, SACHEEN, Breaking the Silence. It was there that I learned about her career, activism, and extraordinary life recounted in a profound, artistic, and beautiful way. Sacheen has always been very active in the American Indian Bay Area community, even being one of the original occupiers on Alcatraz Island to protest civil rights violations against American Indians. 

In an interview with KQED, she voiced her views on our white-dominated society saying, “We [American Indians] have been oppressed so much from dominant society that we have internalized that oppression. The more that Native American Indian people like myself speak out, the more understanding that there becomes. The truth has got to win out above all the lies that have been told about us by the dominant society.” You can watch her speech at the 1973 Oscars.

KINSALE HUESTON (YALE UNIVERSITY)

On my list of up-and-coming artists you should know is artist, scholar, and activist Kinsale Hueston. At just 20-years-old, Kinsale’s list of accomplishments is impressive and inspiring. She has been recognized as a National Student Poet, is the recipient of the Yale Young Native Storytellers Award for Spoken Word, has been named one of Time Magazine’s “34 People Changing How We See the World,” and has published a collection of poetry titled Where I’m From: Poems from Sherman Indian School. An enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and a student at Yale University, Kinsale’s work centers around Diné stories, personal histories, and contemporary issues affecting her tribe. Much of her work focuses on issues relating to violence against Native women, settler-colonial violence, resource extraction, and land/body relationships. She is a powerful young activist in a time when such voices are desperately needed. You can read more about her on her website, shop for her merch, and even request to book her for readings or events. 

COCO PERCIVAL (POMONA COLLEGE)

A relatively unknown, up-and-coming artist you should know is 21-year-old Chickasaw Fox Clan and Pomona College student Coco Percival. Coco grew up in a small, conservative town in Missouri, and often felt like she lacked the space for her traditional Indigenous practices. After she left that restrictive environment for Pomona College in southern California, she realized that she now had the space she had been longing for and other Indigenous students to share it with. Going to college expanded her ideas of what being Indigenous means, and soon she was ready to get back in touch with her Indigeneity. 

“My beading and art is my resistance”

Coco Percival

When she was young, her aunt taught her to bead and she has worked off those foundational beading skills to teach herself traditional Loom beading. Another student at Pomona taught her to make earrings, and now she puts her talents and skills into creating her art. Percival takes commissions for her beadwork and you can find her beading on Instagram (@nakbatiipoli_oksop means rainbow beads in the Chickasaw language). You can reach out to her through direct messages or the contact on her Instagram profile to purchase her work.

If you would like to get to know more Indigenous artists, here are a few more names to research: Maria TallchiefIrene Bedard, and Forrest Goodluck.

While you sit with your family this Thanksgiving and reflect on the parts of your life that bring you joy and gratitude, consider giving thanks for the land you reside on, and honoring those who lost their lives, culture, and stories under the colonization of North America and the expansion of “the New World.” Keeping these traditions and cultures alive requires us to deepen our knowledge of these people and land, and constantly challenge how American Indians are portrayed in entertainment and the media. History is written by the victors, but American Indians are still here, present, fighting, and proud. Our history deserves to be heard and our heritage deserves to be celebrated. Aheeiyeh, and Happy Native American Heritage Month. 

(Top image: Chief Sitting Bull by GiGi Buddie)

This article is part of the Indigenous Voices series.

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GiGi Buddie is an American Indian artist and student studying theatre, with an emphasis in acting, at Pomona College. Whether it be through acting or working in tech, GiGi has dedicated much of her life to the theatre. In the summer of 2019, her passion for art and environmental justice took her to the Baram River in Malaysian Borneo where she, alongside Pomona professors, researched the environmental crisis and how it has been affecting the Indigenous groups that live along the river. As a result of her experience researching and traveling, she student-produced the Pomona College event for Climate Change Theatre Action during the fall 2019 semester.

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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

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The Ocean Inside

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Dutch-Canadian printmaker Eveline Kolijn grew up in the Caribbean where she developed an enduring interest in natural history and the environment, as well as a love of the ocean. Having spent a great deal of her childhood scuba diving in the coral reefs, she originally thought of becoming a marine biologist before her life took her in another direction. 

In 1997, Kolijn emigrated to Calgary, Alberta, a land-locked province in Western Canada where she established her printmaking practice. During her explorations of the region, she visited areas in the Canadian Rockies that were riddled with coral fossils dating back millions of years to a time when the land encompassing Alberta was a tropical sea. Similar in structure to the living corals in the Caribbean today, the coral fossils reinforced Kolijn’s ongoing interest in coral reefs and her concern about the current degradation of the beautiful reefs that she had known as a child. 

Repeated visits to the Island of Curaçao, where her parents had settled and where the reefs had deteriorated to a disturbing level from the effects of the climate crisis and other environmental stresses, motivated her to begin what was to become a three-year project that she called The Ocean Inside. The name acknowledges that even in a place where the sea is nowhere to be seen, in the “inside” of her country, there is evidence of sea life.  

Rocky Mountain coral fossils

A multimedia installation incorporating printmaking, video, animation, and sound, The Ocean Inside addresses the environmental status of and critical functions provided by our oceans, and the threats to the marine life living in them. The project evolved in stages as Kolijn added all of its various components.

For many years, Kolijn filmed underwater footage, primarily in the Caribbean, which captured both the beauty and degradation of the shoreline and coral reefs. Based on the success of previous installations in Australia and Spain with similar materials, Kolijn knew that for The Ocean Inside she wanted to project edited video footage from her underwater video archive onto a translucent polyester veil that would be handprinted with a network of phytoplankton – microscopic marine plants that are a major source of food for marine life and are responsible for producing an estimated 50% of the world’s oxygen. The patterns on the printed veil, which would be embedded with glittering mica, would intersect with the projected imagery to create a dynamic, shimmering and layered effect. Kilijn calls the veil a representation of “the web of life.”

Ocean Veil, print detail. Lino-print with mica on polyester voile showing the reflective and light blocking qualities of the veil, 270 x 420 cm (2017). Photo by Eveline Kolijn.

Additional elements in the video include animated versions of Kolijn’s printed images that dance and pulsate across the screen, as well as ceramic discs printed with coral images. She also created sixteen poetic statements that encourage viewers to personalize the video experience. Rather than using music as a soundtrack, she recruited individuals to read these statements in their Indigenous or native languages, which included Dutch, English, French, Greek, Japanese, Mandarin, Nahuati, Papiamentoe, Polish, Russian, Shona, Spanish, Tagalog, Te Reo Maori, and Urdu, to emphasize the universal nature of water and the global reach of the climate crisis. One example of such a statement is, “My blood is my private ocean containing a chemical memory of the source of life.” 

The Ocean Inside has been installed in Calgary (2017 and 2019) and in Spain (2018), and was scheduled to be installed in Puerto Rico at the Southern Conference Graphics International and in Crete in 2020, but were either cancelled or postponed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Coral Phages: Guardians of the Host or mediators of Infection? Photopolymer and zinc intaglio, 33 x 48.3 cm, 1/14 (2020). Collection Zuckerman Museum of Art (Kennesaw State University, GA, U.S.A.) as part of the Southern Conference Graphics International archival collection. Reproduced with permission of the portfolio curator. Photo by Eveline Kolijn.
TIDALECTICS

In 2020, Kolijn curated and produced a boxed print portfolio entitled, Tidalectics, which incorporates the work of 11 printmaking artists who collaborated with marine biologists to create artwork related to the ocean. She selected the title – which had been used by Stephanie Hessler in her own book by the same name and referred to a new worldview of the ocean that merges the arts, sciences, history, and environmental studies – to emphasize the cross-disciplinary nature of her project. With the assistance of Dr. Mark Vermeij, a leading figure in current marine biology research in the Caribbean, Kolijn recruited each of the artists and then matched them with marine biologists, based on the artists’ preferred area of interest. 

After a number of virtual interactions, the artists created visual responses to the work of their collaborating scientists. Kolijn partnered with Dr. Forest Rohwer, Principal at Rohwer Lab in San Diego, California, whose research focuses on the role of microbes and viruses in coral reef health and disease. Her piece in the portfolio, Coral Phages: Guardians of the Host or mediators of Infection?, is a photopolymer and zinc intaglio print. She was quick to point out that the scientists involved in the project were delighted that the artists were interested in what they were doing and pleased that their work would reach audiences beyond their scientific disciplines.

These days, Kolijn is reading, studying, and reflecting on what it means to be an artist in the Anthropocene. She says, “for a long time residing at the periphery, the topic of art and environment is poised to take center stage.” With both The Ocean Inside and Tidalectics, she has demonstrated that visual art can play an important role in providing comprehensible access and an emotional connection to the scientific world.

(Top image: Video still from The Ocean Inside projected on the Veil (2018-2019). Photo by Eveline Kolijn.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited in widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and climate change. She co-created a national, participatory public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and which has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.

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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

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An Interview with Editor Dr. Katharine K. Wilkinson

By Amy Brady

What a month it’s been. Among all the political changes are the environmental ones. America’s Northwest (and Canada’s Southwest) continue to be engulfed in some of the largest wildfires in that area in recorded history. They are so large that their haze made it to New York City last week, making the sun look like a bright red spider bite.

But that’s nothing compared to what folks out west have been dealing with. Just look at some of these photos sent from my brother-in-law, who lives in the San Francisco area. They were taken two weeks ago at approximately eight o’clock in the morning.

The climate crisis is impossible to ignore.

And yet, so many voices – particularly those of women and BIPOC, the people who are impacted first and hardest by climate change – continue to go unheard. That’s why anthologies like All We Can Save, edited by Dr. Katharine K. Wilkinson and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, are so important. This book features all women, who contributed essays, short stories, and poetry about the climate crisis. They come from a range of backgrounds, from the artistic to the scientific, and all of them write with urgency and power. In my interview with Katharine (Ayana was unable to participate because of time constraints on her end), I learned what inspired this book, how Katharine and Ayana came to work together on it, and what both women hope for the future. 

Let’s start at the beginning. How do you know Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, and what inspired you to work together on this anthology?

Ayana and I first connected via Twitter (feminist bastion that it is…ha!) and some good climate match-making in late 2018. On our first phone date, we quickly realized our shared focus on climate solutions, women’s leadership, and building community. I’d been offered an opportunity to hold a retreat at West Creek Ranch, and on that initial call, we decided to jump into partnership and curate/facilitate that retreat together. We fired up a Google spreadsheet called “Women solving climate on a ranch in Montana.” Little did we know that would be the first stage of a snowballing collaboration to support what we’ve come to call “the feminist climate renaissance.” (Mega Google spreadsheets continue to be a theme.)

The specific idea for the anthology was born out of a fit of frustration. We were in Colorado for a climate summit and noticing, once again, a maddening imbalance of voices. A relatively small cabal of white men have dominated so much of the climate conversation for so long. Too often, the ideas, perspectives, and vital work of women get sidelined and insufficiently resourced. And, data shows, that’s especially true for Black, Indigenous, and other women of color. As we rage-hiked amidst the aspens, we grappled with how we might shift things. Publishing remains a critical path to influence in public discourse, so we thought “passing the mic” via an anthology could be one way to help. We wanted to amplify a mighty chorus of folks leading and lighting the way, folks who ought to be household names but may not be…yet.

The contributors to All We Can Save are all women. How did you arrive at that decision?

The climate crisis is a leadership crisis. Status quo leadership simply isn’t getting the job done. Science makes it clear that we have to transform society this decade, which means we need transformational leadership. We believe that genuinely transformational leadership is both more characteristically feminine and more committedly feminist. That kind of leadership certainly isn’t limited to any gender (lord knows we’d love to see more of it from men). But women are bringing it in droves to the climate movement. We’re witnessing an upwelling of compassion, connection, creativity, and collaboration. A feminist climate renaissance is underway, but not nearly fast enough. We wanted to use this book to accelerate it and to celebrate it. We’re not suggesting we need only women, but rather that we need a full spectrum of leadership bringing diverse superpowers to the climate movement. Right now, the movement is short-changed, and we simply can’t afford that any longer.

Your anthology contains many different genres. Why include a mix instead of focusing on just one kind of writing or art?
 

My undergraduate supervisor had a saying: “Specialization is for insects.” I bow down to insects, especially pollinators persisting despite the odds, but something as complex and all-encompassing as the climate crisis wildly exceeds siloed disciplines or genres or bodies of expertise. In ecology, there’s the concept of the ecotone – a transitional space between ecosystems, where one merges into the other. Ecotones tend to be home to lots of action, lots of diversity. We need more liminal, ecotone-esque climate spaces. We hope All We Can Save is one of those – a book that brings 60 different perspectives into conversation and connects dots in powerful ways.

Both you and Ayana have backgrounds in the sciences, and while All We Can Save includes work by scientists, it also brims with writing often thought of as unscientific, like poetry. Why include science and art together? Are there things that the two disciplines, which are so often seen as completely separate, might learn from each other?

I should caveat first that science is not my primary background. My undergraduate degree is in religious studies, and my graduate work was in the social sciences. But with that said, we need so many ways of knowing to wrap our minds, and hearts, around the climate crisis – many ways of knowing to access “truth.” And given the inescapable emotional and even spiritual dimensions of climate change, rational treatises aren’t enough. We need art. We need poetry. We need to bring our whole selves to this movement, and our hope is that the multiplicity of this anthology invites that. Truth be told, we can’t imagine the book without poems or without the original illustrations by Madeleine Jubilee Saito. That would feel profoundly deficient, even somehow dishonest.

I find it particularly compelling that your anthology is solutions-oriented. So much writing on the climate crisis avoids, for many reasons, tackling solutions. Why did you decide to take this focus?

I’ve been living and breathing climate solutions for a number of years through my work at the nonprofit Project Drawdown, where I’m the principal writer and editor-in-chief. Part of our reason for being is to fill that very gap – to help cultivate an understanding of and enthusiasm for climate solutions. The problem statement of climate change is utterly overwhelming, but we have an incredible toolbox of practices and technologies that are already in hand, already proven. The big work now is to move them forward at the scale and speed required. It’s roll-up-sleeves, get-to-work time, and we wanted the book to speak to that. There’s no “save” without solutions.

A more personal question, if you don’t mind: Given all you know about the climate crisis, and all that you’ve read on the subject (including that which appears in All We Can Save), are you hopeful for the future?

I have a pretty fraught relationship with hope, and I’m not altogether convinced we need it. What I’m dead certain we need is courage, which is why it’s included in the subtitle of the book – “truth, courage, and solutions for the climate crisis.” We know there’s a range of possible futures ahead. None of them are easy, but some are unfathomably hard, especially for those who are already bearing the brunt of inequality and injustice. It’s going to take all we’ve got to realize a future that’s still possible, despite the bar being high and the odds being long. Personally, I find courage in the collective – in community and in collaborations like the one Ayana and I have. I find it in the incredible persistence of life on Earth. If we link arms with one another and the living systems of this planet, I think there’s the possibility of a future we’d want not just to hope for but to bring into being, one determined step after the other.

Finally, what’s next for the both of you? Anything in particular (including book tours!) that you’d like my readers to look for?

To come back to one of the things that brought us together initially…we hope that this book may be a catalyst for building community. We hear from folks all the time how hungry they are for deeper and more generous dialogue, to circle up in ways that are nourishing and healing. So we’ve designed All We Can Save Circles to support those needs. Starting the week of October 5th, small self-organized groups will begin reading the book together. Each week for 10 weeks, we’ll provide three generous questions for dialogue around one section, as well as additional read-watch-listen resources. If you’re keen to help strengthen the “we” in All We Can Save, Circles will be a great way to do that.

Starting in late September, there will be lots of virtual events happening, highlighting the book’s amazing contributors. And stay tuned for an announcement about a broader project to build on the anthology and take support for the feminist climate renaissance to the next level. For more information about all of that, visit our website and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @allwecansave.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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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 TimesPacific 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 AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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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

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Popular Movies and Climate Change

By Tulsi Pate

These days I find myself taking frequent nature walks where I breathe a little slower and think a little deeper. In a way, I romanticize these walks, imagining which angle will best capture the sunset or which filter will come closest to showing how green the trees truly are. This habit of inserting myself into a film as if I am a character comes from my love for the feelings that movies evoke. Suddenly I remember watching Avatar on the big screen, mesmerized by the natural blues and aquas, the chirping of crickets reverberating in the vibration of speakers. 

From towering tsunamis and cracking glaciers to animate green landscapes and vivacious animals, popular fiction films have given us both subtle and poignant images of our changing environment. It is debatable how far “awareness” of this issue can get us, but for the climate change skeptic, who may be reluctant to watch a documentary about the dying Earth, climate change-related fiction films can instill a sense of respect for our land and help visualize disasters that may otherwise seem abstract. James Cameron, director of Avatar, believes that he can be most effective at a grassroots level (as opposed to the political process) by using his cinematic skills to inspire viewers to connect with nature. “You can’t feel that you are ready to make a sacrifice in your lifestyle to protect something unless you respect and love it.”

We have all been there, sitting in a movie theater, speakers booming through our hearts, witnessing magical blue rivers and getting chills, yearning for an escape to nature. For a moment, we project past the screen and into the realm of computer-generated forests; everything is serene. But how long do these effects last? How long until I forget about my human footprint again and fall back into hopelessly accepting doomsday? A film’s impact depends on how directly it addresses our changing climate and how creatively it helps us visualize our impact on the planet. Movies can range from having environmental themes to being environmentally focused. They can also take many forms from apocalyptic (Snowpiercer2012) to lighthearted animation (Wall-E, The Lorax) to visually inspiring (AvatarMoana). 

In addition to helping us visualize an otherwise abstract future, films reflect how society is thinking about these catastrophes and stretch our imagination of possible solutions. For example, the recurring theme of an “escape to space,” present in movies such as Interstellar and Wall-E, becomes a more realistic prospect as tech billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos invest in space exploration. Other movies, such as 2012, feature a strong male character who saves his family from falling buildings and is left to survive with the remaining one thousand humans. These scenarios suggest a sort of hopelessness and inevitability about the destruction of Earth. I have yet to watch a movie in which governments manage to control carbon emissions to minimize the effects of climate change. That is the biggest issue in climate change film today. People are aware of climate change, and exacerbating the burden of change and desperation on them through film is more likely to drive them away than inspire them.

Let’s look at Wall-E, an adorable Pixar film about a robot that is compressing garbage on a demolished Earth abandoned by humans, who now inhabit a spaceship. The ship is run by the Buy’N’Large corporation, and epitomizes consumerism; humans sit on moving chairs, drink oversized sodas, and rarely look up from their holographic screens. One of the ship’s human-serving robots, named Eve (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), comes to Earth and takes an olive tree sprout back to the ship while Wall-E follows her in. The movie then plays out as a love story between Wall-E and Eve. Director Andrew Stanton claims that he didn’t “have a political bent or ecological message to push” and that “everything [he] wanted to do was based on the film’s love story.” Climate destruction is almost normalized in the background. The movie not only presents a post-apocalyptic trashed Earth, but it highlights how our increasing consumerism – however unintentional it might be – is inconsiderate of the Earth. 

Of course, many children may not see this movie for its environmental complexities, but even from a young age we internalize subliminal messages about our (typically Western) relationship to the Earth. Effectiveness? Well, the movie itself is not going to create a little army of child activists, but it will communicate the idea that our current extractive relationship to the Earth is unsustainable. Other animated movies have subtler themes: Moana features an indigenous relationship to the land as well as a beautiful Mother Nature-like depiction of Tafiti, and The Lorax even more subtly expresses deforestation.

It is possible for these movies to unintentionally normalize the destruction of the planet. Learning about deforestation and waste pollution at a young age may convey the idea that this is just how humans are. It may take the urgency of the problem away. In the case of Wall-E, it may suggest that escape from Earth is the only option, that the end of Earth is inevitable. Similarly, Interstellar is about a NASA mission to find another habitable planet after Earth has been consumed by dust storms. The movie opens with a rural farm family whose crops are failing due to the endless dust. Some say this was a sort of “wake-up call” to one of the demographics that most often deny climate change. 

For those who believe climate change is simply part of the Earth’s natural cycle, it is important to emphasize the role that humans play in exacerbating it. In some of the movies mentioned above, the focal point is the destruction of our planet, set in a post-apocalyptic time, and doesn’t show the human behavior that led up to it. Avatar is well-known for its stunning visuals of the moon Pandora, where the extremely intelligent Na’vi beings live in harmony with the land. That is until a military mission sends humans to Pandora with goals of colonization. Not only does this shed light on the military industrial complex and climate change, but it also emphasizes Indigenous relationships to the land as intelligent rather than “primitive.”

In Western culture, we are commonly taught to look down on “lesser developed” countries. For example, we often believe that advanced technology correlates with increased quality of life, and when we see images depicting lack of air conditioning or cellular devices in other countries, we assume those people need help. In the movieBlack Panther, we are shown what could have been if Native land hadn’t been colonized. Wakanda, Black Panther’s fictionalized country, is rich with resources and one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, but it is surrounded by mountains where people herd their sheep and ride on horses. This suggests that it is possible to develop technology that enhances the quality of life in a way that is compatible with the environment – two ideas that are often seen as mutually exclusive. Both Avatar and Black Panther also remind audiences that it is impossible to remove colonization from the story of our changing climate. 

In fact, it is impossible to remove many socio-economic issues from climate change and merely reduce it down to industrialization. Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho is famous for his movies Parasite and Snowpiercer, both of which offer a striking commentary on not just climate change but also the wealth gap. Snowpiecer features a never-stopping train that carries the last humans left on an Earth that has frozen over. At the back of the train are the poorest of the poor, who are fed “protein bars” and live in sickness and gloom. As we move up the train, we reach the elite, where children attend school and people eat real food. The rear of the train orchestrates a revolution with the goal of reaching the front, but many are killed along the way. We later find out this was orchestrated by an insider for population control.  A commentary on how the world’s poorest will be the first affected by climate change, the film also shows how the elite can and do lead common people to their own demise.

In Parasite, a poor family lies and cheats in order to get employment with an upper class family and take advantage of its resources. At the end of the movie, it starts to rain, and the camera pans from the rich house all the way down to where the poor characters live – a small flat nearly underground – showing the progression down societal class levels. The flat is flooded, again showing how the poor are essentially disposable in this situation. It is difficult to watch these films simply for entertainment, and much of the audience will seek out themes of economic privilege in an increasingly deteriorating world.

This said, it is possible that only a few like me unpack these themes while many others enjoy the movie for what it is. Should climate change artists ditch their creative endeavors and focus on more “actionable” items or can art simply exist to exist? It is undeniable that these films evoke strong emotions and perhaps they are powerful enough to inspire some people into action. But the issue I see repeatedly in these films is the signaling of doom. The climate crisis has gained people’s attention; now it is time to revise the script to include legitimate solutions rather than destruction or escape. If writers and directors reframe the way they think about climate, they will be able to show audiences the change that is already underway and inspire alternative climate futures. Whether the movies end in tears or in joy, they will all embody the same human experience needed to propel us past our changing climate: hope.

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Tulsi Patel is a student at Yale University studying Cognitive Science. Her interests range from linguistics to astrophysics, but the area that she would like to be most impactful in is climate – particularly food waste and education. A polyglot who loves learning languages, she would ultimately like to work in a global context. At Yale, she is part of an Asian spoken word group for which she writes and performs poetry about her experience of the Asian American diaspora and reflections on growth. Ideally, her future career will allow her to channel her passion for creativity into making an impact in sustainability.

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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

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Wild Authors: Pitchaya Sudbanthad

By Mary Woodbury

For this post, we are fortunate to travel to Bangkok, Thailand, to explore Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain, published by Riverhead Books (US, 2020) and Sceptre (UK, 2019). In 2019, Bangkok Wakes to Rain was selected as a notable book of the year by The New York Times and The Washington Post as well as a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. I read the book in April, while adjusting to our new life in Nova Scotia, and would read at night in the absolute silence of the new place. The novel is a beautifully written elegy to Bangkok’s collective memory.  It’s a forever moving piece of not just place writing but period/cultural writings. In that sense, it reminded me a little of James Michener’s The Drifters (a novel I read and enjoyed as a teenager) but it is much more significant, bound by wild prose and history – including the present and climate change – not holding the characters and their experiences together by mere threads but, seemingly, much more fluidly. Can I say that it haunted me drop by drop?

ABOUT THE BOOK

A missionary doctor pines for his native New England even as he succumbs to the vibrant chaos of 19th century Siam. A post-World War II society woman marries, mothers, and holds court, little suspecting her solitary fate. A jazz pianist in the age of rock, haunted by his own ghosts, is summoned to appease the house’s resident spirits. In the present, a young woman tries to outpace the long shadow of her political past. And in a New Krungthep yet to come, savvy teenagers row tourists past the landmarks of the drowned old city they themselves do not remember. Time collapses as these lives collide and converge, linked by the forces voraciously making and remaking the amphibious, ever-morphing capital itself. Bangkok Wakes to Rain is an elegy for what time erases and a love song to all that persists, yearning, into the unknowable future.

CHAT WITH THE AUTHOR

I found Bangkok Wakes to Rain to be a profoundly moving story, mostly due to the expanse of time in which it unfolds, the deep dive into character-building, and the place writing. What motivated you to write this stunning novel?

I’ve spent my life witnessing the many ways Bangkok has changed over decades, at distances near and far, and as both an insider and outsider. It’s an inherently novelistic point of view that helps me try to make some sense of a city that is in a perpetual process of conflicted reinvention. In writing my novel, I was propelled by curiosity about a place that is intimately familiar to me and yet unknowable. I put my imagination down on paper and just kept trying to see what came next.

The novel seems to be one that hopes to preserve history by making us remember certain times, whether or not we’ve lived through themBut it also seems to be fluid and moving, like the life force of rain and water flowing constantly in Bangkok. When you wrote the novel, did you also plan to write about our present climate crisis and how that is changing Bangkok? There is that wish to preserve life before climate change too?

In the early days, I had no idea that I would touch on the climate crisis in my novel, even as someone with a degree in environmental studies. It eventually became self-evident that if I were to extend my imagination into the future, a Bangkok literally in deep trouble because of rising waters was more likely than not. I needed to project the novel forward with the climate crisis as part of the city’s arc.

Yet, in thinking of the catastrophic effects of a flooded city, I also saw the future reversion of Bangkok to what it had once been: a low-lying amphibious capital city with extensive networks of waterways. This was before much of it was contorted from its nature to match humankind’s trivial ambition of capital growth. What do we hope to preserve then? What will we mourn of a landscape’s forced deviation? Bangkok, like many cities, feels like a flickering dream of an unsustainable civilization. We will try to hold on to it for as long as we can.

Another reason I gravitated to the novel is because it’s nonlinear, and I think most of us really make sense of life that way. The past is constantly creeping up in memories – especially as we get older – and the present and future are highly uncertain, which sometimes makes us miss something more solid from the past, even though it too was surrounded by uncertainty. In Bangkok, one of the constants is the house in which various people flow, like ghosts. Care to comment more about these themes in your novel?

I have a propensity to try to bring a place in my mind, where it’s not just background but an entity in itself. I find that a place is never a thing with a clear, definite shape. It fluctuates, obscuring and revealing. Telling the story in some kind of straightforward narrative made less sense to me for this novel.

I find that place is usually many things to different people at various points in their lives, and so it is deeply rooted in character and time, which are always restless. Someone can be somewhere and experience a place in time far differently from others, and so memory can also be place or a sense of it. This is especially true for a city like Bangkok, where so much has been built and replaced and rebuilt again and where there are layers upon layers of social stratification everywhere. I always see the city with a kind of double or triple vision, where the present, past, and imaginative are spectrally imposed over one another.

Recreates the experience of living in Thailand’s aqueous climate so viscerally that you can feel the water rising around your ankles.

Ron Charles, Washington Post

What is the background of your creation of the main characters, such as Nee, Nok, Clyde, Phineas, Sammy, and Pehn?

It’s hard to pinpoint any one inspiration for each of my characters. Whenever I’m in Bangkok, I collect stories from relatives, Thai history books, folk lore, and mass culture into the same general chest of narrative construction blocks. I do some minimal amount of research to get a more accurate feel, and then I mostly see what happens. There’s a little bit of this and that in every character, and most of what ultimately made it into the book is the characters becoming what the novel needed of them, by my imagination.

And then the novel switches into the future, where the character Woon is introduced. This takes us back to my earlier climate change question but also my earlier remarks about preservation. The themes of submergence and rescue come into place as Woon rescues artifacts, such as art and old letters, that have been lost by rising waters. I kept thinking the whole time how important fiction is because it also preserves our memories, albeit creatively. Can you comment more?

With a climate crisis likely, I tried to think of all that would be lost in Bangkok, not just in terms of the physical aspects, but the sensuous and spiritual. I think fiction can help perpetuate a few complex visions of the city, just as an old painting can let us emotionally glimpse the impressions of city or landscape from centuries ago. I say perpetuate rather than preserve, because a future reader’s vision will also be colored by the experiential palettes of their own time. With all the documentation and data collection happening now, they may be able to reconstruct and relive our current experiences in ways we can hardly imagine, but reanimation is different from any singular remembrance. Who will remember Bangkok in a few hundred years? What will they see and feel? I don’t know. It will probably be a far different reconstitution of Bangkok from what I believe my writing depicts today. 

Important, ambitious, and accomplished.

Mohsin Hamid, 
New York Times bestselling author of Exit West

After the novel was published, COVID-19 came along, making us even more on edge. How have things been for you?

I know I’m fortunate in being able to maintain a very science-based hermetic existence during this pandemic, largely keeping to myself while staying awake at odd hours and communally doom-scrolling with the internet-captive masses. I’m also in pretty close contact with relatives in Bangkok and get a lot of visibility into the widespread, strict adherence to safety practices, like face mask-wearing and social-distancing, that’s far different from the easy disregard I’ve seen in America, even in a virus hot zone like New York City. The linkages of organized misinformation between the denial of epidemiological science and climate science denialism are made clearer to me and probably others paying attention.

Are you working on anything else now?

I’m exploring and working through a few ideas. That’s all I usually say.

Thank you so much for your time in talking with Dragonfly.eco and for your brilliant novel!

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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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

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Jason Davis Merges Climate Stories with Original Compositions

By Peterson Toscano

Joining us in the Art House is musician and composer Jason Davis. Jason curates ClimateStoriesProject.org. The site hosts videos from people all over the world. They reveal the impacts of climate change in their lives, and how they are responding. Jason takes some of these stories and composes music to accompany them.

You will hear a moving and powerful testimony from John Sinnok, Inuit Elder in Alaska. Woven around the story is Jason’s haunting and beautiful composition for the double bass. He calls the piece Footsteps in Snow. You will also learn how you can share your own story on the website.

Jason wants to hear your climate story. He invites you to explore his site to read other climate stories and consider contributing your own. That website is climatestoriesproject.org

Next month: As director of Artichoke Dance Company, Lynn Neuman recognizes the vital role art plays in addressing issues like climate change. But entertaining and educating are not enough for Lynn and her company. They always want to do more to get people to act. Through community engagement and direct outreach to lawmakers, they are training community members on how to change legislation. 

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunesStitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloudPodbeanNorthern Spirit RadioGoogle PlayPlayerFM, and TuneIn Radio. Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.

This article is part of The Art House series.

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As host of Citizens’ Climate Radio, Peterson Toscano regularly features artists who address climate change in their work. The Art House section of his program includes singer/songwriters, visual artists, comics, creative writers, and playwrights. Through a collaboration with Artists and Climate Change and Citizens’ Climate Education, each month Peterson reissues The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @ citizensclimatelobby.org

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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

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Water Worlds

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Catherine Nelson is an Australian photographer who creates complex, imaginary natural worlds using digital technology and animation. After earning her Art Education degree in painting at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney, she worked for a number of years as a visual effects artist in the film and television industry until she began her current practice ten years ago. Connecting her background as a painter with her inherent love of nature, Nelson calls her photographs landscape “paintings.” 

For each final composition, Nelson shoots hundreds of individual photographs of a specific site. Using Photoshop software, she then separates individual elements within the photographs, creating an entire library of elements that she can manipulate and place anywhere in the final image. Most of her compositions are circular, a device she uses to tell multiple stories within the same landscape. 

“FUTURE MEMORIES”

Completed in 2010, Nelson’s first series of work is called “Future Memories.” Unlike other contemporary artists who choose to portray aspects of the climate crisis with graphic images of present and future catastrophes, she prefers to deliver her environmental message of alarm by creating images that reveal the astounding beauty and richness of nature as an idyllic memory of a world we are losing or as an imagined Eden that never was. She photographed her first piece in the series called First Freeze: Bourgoyen Winter, in Ghent, Belgium, where she now resides. Inspired by the work of Flemish painter Pieter Breugel the Elder, the winter scene documents the last time the city was covered with that many inches of snow. 

First Freeze: Bourgoyen Winter, digital photography, 2010
“UNSTILL LIFE” AND “SUBMERGED”

In 2015, Nelson completed two series of photographic landscapes of underwater worlds called “Unstill Life” and “Submerged,” in which she imagines “what it would be like to look out from under the water as if the body of water above is observing us.” Instead of our usual anthropomorphic view of the natural world, our position in these photographs is as just one of a multiple variety of species intertwined below the water. For these compositions, Nelson photographed vegetation in ponds located in Ghent and in mangroves in Thailand. Wading into the water carefully so as not to disturb the muddy ground beneath her, she lowered her camera below the surface of the water to take her shots. The vegetation in the final images is pristine, lush, interconnected and idealized; the water is clear without any presence of pollutants or menace. 

Unstill Life #1, digital photograph, 2015
EVERYNOTHING AND DROP

Using the skills she first developed as a special effects artist, Nelson has also created two videos that are a direct response to the climate crisis. For EveryNothing (2017), she took thousands of photographs of the tiny succulents, euphorbias, and cactus plants being propagated in small pots at the Meise Botantical Garden in Brussels and identified as endangered. She then digitally extracted the individual shapes of the succulents from the photographs and morphed them into a continuous moving parade of plants that emerge into the picture frame and then disappear, emerge again with different shapes and colors and then disappear again. As Nelson explains, “everything comes from nothing.” She describes the finished video, which took a full year to complete, as “a kind of meditation,” a haunting record of what we are rapidly losing on planet Earth. The music accompanying the video, which was composed, performed, and recorded by Alexander Berne and The Abandoned Orchestra, adds significantly to the hypnotic effect of the 60-minute piece.

Nelson’s second video, Drop (2019), was inspired by the recent ten-year drought in New South Wales, Australia, said to be “the worst drought ever recorded since European settlement.” It was so bad that local towns were just months away from being abandoned entirely. Acknowledging that access to water is one of the defining issues of our time, Nelson calls Drop “a poem about the journey of a water drop,” the liquid that descends from clouds as rain and creates our lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans. 

Drop was shot in New South Wales using a drone. The actual drop of water was computer generated and follows a path from formation to its destination onto a cracked, desert-dry patch of earth. Although the soundtrack includes the muffled sound of thunder and birdcalls, the overall effect of the 2 minute video is one of quiet contemplation.

All of Nelson’s work is about the specific places where her photographs are taken, which include locations in China, the Danube Delta, Romania, California, Costa Rica, Greenland, Belgium, and Australia. As she readily admits, her decision to closely observe local environments through the lens of her camera is her attempt to understand how these ecosystems are out of sync so that she (and we) can better understand our common fate.

(Top image: Submerged, No. 1, digital photography, 2015)   

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited in widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and climate change. She co-created a national, participatory public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and which has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.

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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

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An Interview with Alexandra Chang

By Amy Brady

Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve loved the fall. The wool sweaters, the turning leaves, the pumpkins – autumn is about as cozy as it gets. I hope that wherever this post reaches you, you’re enjoying something like coziness and comfort.

Of course, the world beyond my warm and cozy apartment is anything but comforting. With an election looming, a hurricane barreling toward the Gulf coast, the Western United States on fire, and oh yeah, an ongoing global pandemic, every day feels chaotic, even terrifying. I don’t have a cure-all solution for anxiety, but I can offer a balm: CritterVision. I discovered this trail cam last week, and it’s been my go-to soul-soother every day since. The cam appears to be located in South Carolina and streams 24/7. So far I’ve spotted a raccoon, a possum, some squirrels, a bunny, a whole mess of birds, and what might have been a fox. Enjoy!

And now, another soul balm for you. This month I interviewed art historian, curator, activist, and all-around excellent human, Alexandra Chang. Alexandra is an Associate Professor of Practice with the Art History program at Rutgers University-Newark, the founder of the Climate Working Group (of which I’m a member!), and the director of the Global Asia/Pacific Art Exchange and Virtual Asian American Art Museum with the A/P/A Institute at NYU. Her list of accolades goes on, and so does her boundless energy. She recently launched the EcoArt Salon at Rutgers University-Newark, which showcases the work of artists who are thinking about ecology, climate change, and the environment in their art. The salons encourage dialogue across disciplines about how art and the sciences might work together on issues of climate change. Below, we talk further about the salons, her thoughts on the power of art to address the climate crisis, and other exciting projects. 

Please tell us a bit about your background. How did you get involved in ecologically-focused art?

I can’t think of an exact moment when I started working with artists on ecologically-focused art, but in 2009 I co-curated the special exhibition 2012+ with curator and model Mie Iwatsuki for The Drop: Urban Art Infill arts festival. I remember The Drop as a special time when there were a bunch of us – curators, artists, architects, web folks, designers – all coming together on Wednesday nights from 9 p.m. until the early hours in a space in Chelsea to talk about the state of the world. It was 2008, so we were working in the creative fields amid the financial crisis and we were all finding it difficult to get funding for projects. We were also concerned about climate change and the potential end of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. We were wondering about our futures, our role as urban dwellers, and what we could do.

The idea of The Drop – a 2-week arts festival addressing climate change and our relationships to it as residents of New York City – emerged. Artists painted in the streets with the public, designers worked with the detritus of the festival to design outfits, the DJ booths were solar-powered. The Joan Mitchell Foundation and The Cue Foundation were located on our block near our building and they brought art educators onto the street and provided tables and chairs. It was an amazing moment of everyone getting together. 

Kickstarter had just started so we crowdsourced the funding and also had about 30 sponsors working together to make the event possible. Again, it was the recession but that made it a special time for working together. The special exhibition 2012+ took place in one of the 8,000-square-foot spaces we used – one space showcased sustainable design while the other featured the exhibition. It was designed as a maze or labyrinth through which you would go from works engaged with dystopian futures and current ecological issues to possibilities and dreams for the future. We ended with Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree on which folks could write and hang tags with their wishes for the future. These are now preserved in the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland.

What is the EcoArt Salon at Rutgers? And what do you hope it achieves?

The EcoArt Salon is hosted by the Paul Robeson Galleries and sponsored by the Clement A. Price Institute at Rutgers University-Newark. The EcoArt salon began to showcase the work of the many artists engaged in ecoart practices, but it is also meant to be a community where cross-disciplinary dialogue can be generative. The salons are small in size and allow for meaningful dialogue about what people are working on. They also allow for the possibility of collaborating. Artists, curators, students, faculty, community folks interested in the topic, and a range of others usually attend. We used to host with dinner, which always opens up dialogue, but it is also meant to be informal, inviting discussion rather than lecturing. The salons have grown a small community of folks who keep coming back, so meaningful connections and dialogue can happen. Now, it’s virtual. We just started back up again since the pandemic began and while we can no longer provide dinner, the online format has brought participants from across the world into dialogue, underlining the globally connected and comparative issues of climate and environment happening today.

The first EcoArt Salon at Paul Robeson Galleries with artist Katherine Behar, October 2019.

Artists of all kinds are increasingly interested in addressing climate change in their art. Why do you think this is?

There is an urgency. I think we can all feel it, from the fires in Australia, California, Colorado, and elsewhere that have never been so intense, to extreme weather happening all around us. Artists have always been addressing the issues and contexts of their time, and climate change is possibly the most intense issue of our time, happening right now. It only makes sense that artists are addressing it.

This is perhaps the ultimate – if impossible to answer – question for climate-minded artists: What role does art play in public discourse surrounding climate change? Does it bring greater awareness to the issue? Could it possibly motivate people to take action?

It’s an interesting question and it has come up during the EcoArt salons; artists are not sure if they are being effective. There is a lot of self-questioning. But I have to say that art plays an immense role and is powerful. What these artists are doing is underlining important issues that are being ignored. They are also addressing our minds, bodies, and spirits. Artists work in multiple mediums: embodied practice, conceptual work, visualizations that help us better understand or bring our attention to things that have been veiled from our perception for one reason or another. The term “spirit” is important; there is something about our emotions that is often ignored. Climate change, and the art that addresses issues related to it, encompasses and involves our fears, collective grief, and hopes as well. 

You’re the founder of the Climate Working Group. Why did you start this group?

This group started in 2017 and the timing isn’t insignificant. It was when the U.S. government administration changed and the new administration started cutting support for policies and the data and science behind building awareness of and slowing climate change. Not only was information not being funded, but it was being erased. The group began at New York University with the Asian/Pacific American Institute, where I was working at the time. The Institute was rethinking its foci given all the changes happening with the change in administration and the need to concentrate more than ever on issues of environment and race. We had always been working on projects and with folks engaged in environmental and racial justice, especially in the Pacific, and my personal research interests also focused on these topics. I was able to help instigate and build this network, which has shifted a bit and now pretty much sustains itself. The Climate Working Group began and continues as a cross-disciplinary group of doers who are active in their respective fields in fighting the climate crisis. They collaborate on discussions and projects and create an important, supportive network.

A conversation between artists, faculty, and community members at a shared dinner at the EcoArt Salon.

What’s next for you? Any projects, research, or events that you’d like my readers to watch for?

I’m working on a publication with the Climate Working Group that was just approved by Routledge. I’ve also turned a lot of my focus on practices of healing and care during this time of pandemic and eco-crisis. I am trying, along with community urban farmers including Newark artist and urban farming advocate Jamie Bruno; Clan Mother, farmer, healer, and artist Michaeline Picaro of the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation; and colleagues from across the different Rutgers campuses, to bring a healing community garden to Rutgers Newark at the Price Institute garden. Fingers crossed that this will happen and you can all join us there.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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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 TimesPacific 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 AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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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.

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