In this guest post, Kellie Payne, reports on Bruno Latour's recent talk at the Tate.
The French sociologist Bruno Latour gave the keynote address at this month's Tate Britain’s symposium Beyond the Academy: Research as Exhibition. His address considered the environmental crisis as a particular challenge which would require natural history, art museums and academia to join forces. The challenge, he said, was that “climate change is currently unrepresentable”.
In an effort to address this, Latour has embarked on a number of projects. One is the School of Political Arts at the Sciences Po in Paris. The school, which will be formally launched this year, will bring together young professionals in the social sciences and arts to attempt to represent the political problem of climate change. Latour says the school will “not join science, art and politics together, but rather disassemble them first and, unfamiliar and renewed, take them up again afterwards, but differently.”
Latour is also working on establishing a new type of Biennale in Venice, which will incorporate social scientists into artistic production. By bringing together social scientists and artists, Latour wants to address these issues in new ways. He expressed interest in Avatar, calling it the first ‘Gaia’ film, beginning this task of rethinking the ecological crisis and exploring ways of making it representable.
His engagement with climate change includes his participation in the Nordic Exhibition of the year Rethink: Contemporary Art and Climate Change which was staged in Copenhagen during COP15. He contributed to the Rethink exhibition catalogue with the essay “It's Development, Stupid” Or: How To Modernize Modernization. It is a response to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Break Through – From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. In this essay, Latour argues that the separation of the subjective from the real into dichotomies such as 'nature' and 'culture' must end. In order to begin to tackle the challenges we are facing, we must acknowledge just how closely human and nature are entwined. He has given a lecture on ‘Politics and Nature’ at the Rethink The Implicit venue at the Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art.
Latour spent most of his Tate talk discussing two of his previous exhibition projects which combined the talents of artists and social scientists. Both exhibits were produced with Peter Weibel at ZKM Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. The first, Iconoclash (2002), which brought together a team of curators, including Hans Ulrich Obrist from the Serpentine Gallery, examined how iconoclasts are represented in art, religion and science. The second, Making Things Public, partnered artists with social scientists to create individual exhibits. The exhibition was centred on a number of themes: Assembling or Disassembling; Which Cosmos for which Cosmopolitics; The Problem of Composition; From Objects to Things; From Laboratory to Public Proofs; The Great Pan is Dead!; Reshuffling Religious Assemblies; The Parliaments of Nature. The exhibition sought to materialise the concept of a ‘Parliament of Things’.
Latour conceptualised his exhibitions as thought experiments, but found the exhibitions themselves to be failures, saying that most of the individual projects within the exhibition failed as works of art. The books that accompanied the exhibitions, in particular, Making Things Public, a large book created after the exhibition, were more successful.
This was one of the themes that emerged from the day at Tate: whether certain exhibitions work better as books. Latour said that working on exhibitions has been one of the most interesting parts of his academic life. Exhibitions, he said, have a different rhythm and intensity of work and creating the ‘thing in the space’ adds to intellectual life. But creating an exhibition must be different to writing. When exhibitions merely illustrate a point, no gain is made.
Latour’s interests have now moved towards ecology and the role of the arts in representing our environmental challenges and the need for artists and social scientists to collaborate on these issues. He said he himself is writing a play on climate change.
Kellie Payne is a PhD student in the Geography department at the Open University researching culture and climate change.
Founded in 2000 the Arcola, in Arcola Street, London E8, is regarded as one of the leading arts venues in the UK. Now, it has become a leading light in the campaign to reduce London’s carbon emissions by 60 per cent before 2025 by investing in series of innovations and and an ongoing project to educate visitors on sustainability.
“We are trying to become the world’s first carbon neutral theatre.” said Dr Ben Todd, Executive Director with the Arcola Theatre in London.
“We are in a very old dilapidated building so we’ve done lots of work in house. That’s involved changing our suppliers, turning things off and putting in some fairly advanced technology for demonstrations.
“We are in fact the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell powered theatre and we’ve done some shows where we’ve run purely on hydrogen. Which in itself isn’t directly green but it helps to persuade lighting designers that they need to seriously cut the amount of lighting they use.
“We’ve managed to put on a theatre show here on five kilowatts which is about 70 per cent less than you would normally use,” said Dr Todd.
GTBS members are assessed on 145 separate measures by qualified advisers before being awarded a Bronze, Silver or Gold grading, making it one of the most scrupulous green accreditation schemes in the world.
To achieve a Gold grading from GTBS members have to demonstrate a number of practical measures which have improved energy savings and promoted sustainability.
“The Gold Award for the Arcola is a strong catalyst in greening North East London, including Hackney and surrounding districts,” said Jon Proctor, Technical Director of the GTBS.
“The most progressive areas for the business relate to how they communicate the green message to the community. The theatre hosts monthly green Sundays which are popular and very well designed.
“The Arcola staff have taken a lead on Green tourism in the area having been an excellent advocate of the scheme through presentations and demonstrations and they continue to drive sustainable development through a mix of highly innovative projects such as LED lighting and hydrogen fuel cells as well as simpler products such as a vegetarian restaurant.
“There are still areas for further improvement but the business has tackled all the issues which can be tackled directly and remains an inspiration to the community and the whole industry. As the first theatre in the UK to gain a Gold Award we hope further promotions will follow.”
A little bit of a circular reference, but here is an article Executive Director Ian Garrett wrote for Susie Ibarra and Roberto Rodriguez’s Song of The Bird King Blog:
While attending the Arts Presenters APAP Conference in January, Roberto and I sat on a panel, The Tipping Point: Artists and Climate Change led by Graham Devlin. We were delighted to meet at the session Ian Garrett, Executive Director for The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts. He is based in LA and at CalArts University where he also teaches Sustainability in the Theatre Department and with interdisciplinary artists. It’s comforting and inspiring to hear and see the work of Ian Garrett and his active commitment to cultural and environmental sustainability. Garrett’s work challenges and engages in dialogue on these issues. Here he speaks about Art and Eco-Justice. – Susie Ibarra
Giving Voice: Art and Eco-Justice
This past December, I traveled to Copenhagen for the fifteenth Conference of the Partners meeting, better known as COP15. I was there to serve as a witness to the artistic and creative responses to COP15. I was not looking to observe the UN Climate Change Conference itself; I felt this was easily accessible through remote media, and, in some ways, the less interesting event. While COP15 itself had far reaching implications for international governments, I felt my presence could serve to chronicle the other voices that were trying to be heard through less formal means. And, in the winter edition of the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts Quarterly, I asserted that this creative sound — from the gallery exhibitions to the street-performance demonstrations — was the only collective, non-political voice. There is no political body that serves as the voice of the holistic sense of Planet Earth quite like those of artists.
Upon my return to California, I participated in the Arts in the One World Conference at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). In this past year, its fifth, the theme was guhahamuka, a Kiri Rwandan word that refers to the breathless attempt to articulate the inexpressible. And again I came to these thoughts of giving voice to that which can not speak for itself, and trying to communicate things which are nearly impossible to communicate. I continually come back to the necessity of art to fill this void. I see creativity as not just that oversoul of our celestial orb and home, but that which gives all people and things a chance to communicate with others without requiring political power or similar agenda-ed platform.
Invisible 5, a project by Amy Balkin, is a prime example of this type of work. Organized as a self-guided audio tour through the California Central Valley along US Interstate Highway 5, this project highlights ecological issues related to the history of this thoroughfare from Los Angeles to San Francisco. This additional layer of spatial encoding transforms the experience of transiting across a typically uneventful stretch of highway into a shocking story of rapid ecological disturbance, injustice, and racism. It reveals a hidden past, lending the inspiration for the project’s title.
My own motor-touring experience comes with a personal history of making this driving numerous times. My father was raised in the San Jose area, and my paternal grandparents were laid to rest there. I grew up traveling back and forth fairly frequently. My brother and sister in-law now live in Oakland, and my wife and I travel when we can to visit and see our little nephew. Were I not to have met Amy and heard her speak about this project, I perhaps never would think about the secrets just beyond the shoulder of the road as I barreled along this route. Without this piece, there would only be silence, and I would have traveled on, ignorant of the veiled violence.
In Balkin’s project, we are told of the duality of this region’s former riches. We hear about building up the area surrounding this new thoroughfare, the impact of oil, the creation of large agribusiness, industrial farming, toxic waste, and deadly fog. The stories are told by activists, residents, officials, and rangers. Without this compilation, though, one might never know the tales this land now holds. There are those who would prefer we weren’t paying attention; things are rarely hidden for the sake of being hidden.
From the largest gatherings of political powers on the future of global ecology to the environmental maladies laid at the feet of small rural communities that aren’t expected to say much, it is important that silence isn’t encouraged. There is no advocacy in silence. There is no remembering in silence. The small island nation of Tuvalu, who became a household name through advocacy at COP15, is about to vanish due to the rising seas, and uses its little might to assert that it doesn’t want to be forgotten while the larger nations jabber. This example is most compelling because it was the closest to a pure voice that exists in these political talks. It is not talking about the threat to its economy, but simply survival.
We could start to talk about any number of instances where advocacy is needed. The Bhopal incident in India was only recently revisited when Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide and had to answer questions about this tragedy. In order to appeal to developers, structurally sound public housing projects were closed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The list goes on in terms of injustice and ecology, and a lack of advocacy predicated on environmental grounds.
This is what makes Song of the Bird King so important. It is an effort to amplify the voices of those affected by the over-fishing, commercialization, and subsequent acidification of Lake Sebu in the Philippines. But it also shows use the problematized arena that art must step into. It is easier to talk about the negative environmental impact of an action. There are more metrics for the destruction of habitat and ecosystems than the cultural consequences; We can talk about sea levels rising. We can talking about the annual fish kill of a body of water. We can talk about the toxicity of particulates in the air. But we cannot empirically state the effects on a population and how this affects its culturally sustainability.
We live in a world where so many are culturally and geographically disconnected from their lands of origin that we rarely consider the importance of place to people. As Susie and Roberto’s documentary notes, only four percent of populations live indigenously. But we find it difficult to even understand the connection of people to their non-indigenous homes, like the farming communities of California’s Central Valley or those displaced by Hurricane Katrina. When a storm is coming, we ask, “Why don’t people just move out of the way?” without valuing a personal or a cultural attachment to place.
This is the root of ecojustice, providing fairness to a person’s or people’s habitat, and, while images of drowning polar bears are heartbreaking, helping us recognize our humanity in environmental issues. Balkin’s work highlights those we don’t see in an area we see as vacant — the “away” where we keep throwing everything. We forget about the tragedies like Bohpal that continue to affect lives discarded by corporations on the other side of the globe. Who knew about the small islands in the Pacific until their inhabitants spoke up? Tuvalu and others are merely tropically anomalies with little to exploit. And, in Song of the Bird King, Susie and Roberto have the vision to look at Lake Sebu, not just as environmental issue, but one of those rare places still connected to a culture and people.
Please check out Ian Garrett’s current projects at: