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The thing we shouldn’t be asking artists to do


Heart of Darkness by Cornelia Parker, 2004 from Earth: art of a changing world, London 2009

This is Climate Action on Cultural Hertitage week – it’s an initiative championed by Bridget McKenzie as a response to the growing number of individuals and organisations calling for a more clearly defined sense of purpose from the arts and heritage sector.  People like Al Tickell of Julie’s Bicycle ask: “Why do we expect moral leadership to come from corporations and science? Surely the meaningful nature of the arts in society puts it in a position to take a lead on climate action?”

There are two aspects to this. Firstly it’s about how we behave ourselves. Art fairs, say, have become an example of the muscularity of the art industry. As curators/critics Maja and Reuben Fowkes have asked,  is this world of global art jamborees a sustainable one? Gustav Metzger’s Reduce Art Flights was one of the artist’s passionate “appeals”, this time to the art world to reconsider how they had been seduced into transporting themselves and their works around the globe. Furtherfield.org’s We Won’t Fly For Art was equally explicit, asking artists to commit to opting out of the high profile career track that conflates your ability to command air tickets with success.

Industries can change the way they behave. Tickell’s work with the music business has already shown how a cultural industry can transform itself in terms of process.

But there’s also the role of art as a spoke in the wheel of culture. Science itself changes nothing. To become a transitional society requires more than policy. The real change must be cultural. So should climate be the subject matter of art?

Pause for thought: Do we want rock stars enjoining us to change our ways? Please God, no. See? If it doesn’t work for rock music, why should it work for other art forms?

In an article being published next week on the RSA Arts & Ecology website, Madeleine Bunting will be arguing strongly against the urge to push artists into an instrumental role in climate:

“The visual arts offer a myriad of powerful ways to think and feel more deeply about our age and our humanity, but it is almost impossible to trace the causal links of how that may feed through to political engagement or behaviour change,” she cautions.

It is time to accept that artists don’t simply  ”do” climate. Even the most obviously campaigning art is of little value if it is simply reducible to being about climate. They may be inspired to create by the facts of science and economics, as Metzger and Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett of Furtherfield were in those examples above, but if you asked them to make art about climate they’d almost certainly run a mile.

What was interesting about the RA exhibition Earth: art of a changing world was the way that made that explicit. Artists like Cornelia Parker and Keith Tyson were clear in saying their pieces that they weren’t necessarily conceived with climate in mind at all, (though both are passionate about the subject). The decision to include Parker’s Heart of Darkness as an a piece of work to make us ponder the destruction of our planet was a curatorial one.

There’s a kind of separation between church and state needed here; institutions shouldn’t just be looking to their carbon footprints, they should be looking to see how they can contextualise this cultural shift with what they show their audiences – whatever the artform. It is up to the curators, directors and art directors to take on this role. In this coming era, we urgently need events, exhibitions and festivals that make us feel more deeply about the change taking place around us – and we need them to find new audiences for those explorations too.

But what we shouldn’t be doing is asking artists to make art about climate.

Read Bridget McKenzie’s Framework for climate action in cultural and heritage organisations

Follow Climate Action on Cultural Hertitage #cach on twitter

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

Should we still be flying for art’s sake?

When Emma Thompson joined the protest against the third runway at Heathrow earlier this year, MP Geoff Hoon was scathing. “She’s been in some very good films,” he said. “Love Actually is very good, but I worry about people who I assume travel by air quite a lot and don’t see the logic of their position.”

I remember being extremely disturbed by what he said. Shocked even. Here was a former Defence Minister and Chief Whip, one of the tough guys, publicly coming out in favour of an excruciatingly meandering rom com. One of Richard Curtis’s worst, in fact.

Less surprising was Hoon’s attack on an actress for joining the ranks of the climate protestors. When artists lend their weight to a cause they open themselves to charges of hypocrisy. Who is she, an actress who flies across to Hollywood on a regular basis, to tell us not to fly?

The poets John Kinsella and Melanie Challenger are currently writing a work for the RSA Arts & Ecology website called Dialogue between the body and the soul, which grew out of both the poets’ decision not to fly to poetry readings. Now, even if every published poet in the world gave up flying, it would hardly make a major statistical dent in the world’s carbon footprint, but for each of them it is a major decision. Poetry is an endangered species of an artform, and practitioners have to take their audience wherever they find it. For Challenger, who is a new poet starting out, this is the kind of public commitment that could hobble her career for good.

Interestingly, there have been rumbings of unease elsewhere in the art community about the amount of too-ing and fro-ing required by the modern international art scene. Two years ago Gustav Metzger initiated Reduce Art Flights; a manifesto contribution to Sculpture Projects Münster that called for artists to go cold turkey on their addiction to international travel.

With full cognisance that it is ‘a drop in the ocean’, the RAF ‘manifesto’ nevertheless invites voluntary abandonment – a fundamental, personal, bodily rejection of technological instrumentalization and a vehement refusal to participate in the mobility increasingly endemic to the globalized art system.

And earlier this year artists Marc Garrett and Ruth Catlow invited colleagues to sign a “I will not fly for art pledge. Garrett and Catlow are the founders of furtherfield.org and HTTP Gallery. The Geoff Hoon in you might feel tempted to note that both are committed to the ideas of virtual art in networked space. Give up flying? Well, maybe that’s easy for them to say.

The point is there is no one-size-fits-all pledge. That’s the unfairness of Hoon’s jibe.  We may accept that air travel has been the UK’s fastest growing emissions sector in this decade, and carbon emitted by planes in the atmosphere is three times more damaging than carbon emitted by cars on the ground. We may perfectly reasonably oppose plans for further airport expansion. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want Emma Thompson to fly to the US to make Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang. (OK. Bad example.)

As Dialogue between the body and the soul winds to a conclusion, I’m going to use it as an excuse to ask writers and artists their thoughts on what they do — and don’t — feel comfortable to commit to .

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

Interview with activist/video maker Leo Murray

I’ve just posted an interview that Caleb Klaces did with Leo Murray for on the main RSA Arts & Ecology website. Murray did the clever little viral video Wake Up Freak Out – Then Get a Grip which has been doing the rounds on the net.

Art has the ability to move people in a way that nothing else does. In the world we live in today, screen media is the most prominent cultural feature. People spend the majority of their waking hours staring at screens (computers and TVs), which gives you a clue if you’re trying to propagate social change. If you don’t try and come at people through their screens you’re just standing behind them tapping them on the shoulder saying “Hey, over here…”. It’s really clear that there’s no way to bring about the social change that we need to deal with climate change without the use of screen media. Aside from mass media, I’m pretty certain that The Age of Stupid [which Murray animated the first three minutes of] is the most powerful tool to motivate people around climate change that exists now. It does the opposite of what I do in my film, it barely addresses the science at all. It’s set in the future and uses narrative to suck you in. Taking a historical view seems a very productive perspective…

Read the whole interview.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

When artists fail to read the small print

Caleb Klaces makes a point in his review of Marcel Theroux’s new novel, Far North, on the main RSA Arts & Ecology website: the moment when Theroux starts to try and create a plausible scientific scenario for the catastrophic future in which his novel is set is the point where you start going, “Umm. Really?”

It takes a great writer to be able to incorporate research into a novel. Theroux opts to include a character explaining how we got into this mess:

The planet had heated up. They turned off smokestacks and stopped flying. Some, like my [Makepeace’s] parents, altered the way they lived. Factories were shut down […] As it turned out, the smoke from all the furnaces had been working like a sunshade, keeping the world a few degrees cooler than it would have been otherwise. He said that in trying to do the right thing, we had sawed off the branch we were sitting on. The droughts and storms that came in the years after put in motion all the things that followed.

See? It’s not really quite like that, is it?

Read the review here.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology