Climate collapse and the role of art

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According to my LinkedIn profile, I‘ve been making art for 22 years and 11 months, during which time we’ve experienced 20 of the warmest years on record, globally. Our ice sheets are melting and sea levels rising. Things are heating up and human beings are the protagonists in an epic extraction-based story that’s set to impact multiple generations and species. If we track back further, over the course of my 45+ years on the planet, collectively humanity has wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970.

Facing such dire consequences (and obvious signs) you’d think we’d all be focused upon low-impact, closed-loop, lifestyles with communal veg plots and localised circular economies. We’d be contributing to a world based on ‘Triple Bottom Line’ principles, where planet, people and profit were of equal value; the social, environmental and financial in perfect co-flourishing equilibrium. Yet the picture is one of global complexity, mired in cross-continental supply chains, individualism and exploitative manufacturing processes which lead to the notion of Capital as King: ‘There is no doubt that capitalism imposes a relentless pattern of violence on nature, humans included.’ (Jason W. Moore).

Can art create change? Set against this backdrop art provides a powerful tool in terms of consciousness-raising, agitating, re-framing and addressing both the impacts and the outputs of human behaviour. It allows us to question how we can live in ‘full presence and be useful while this is happening’ (Joanna Macy) by channelling our emotional responses into a desire for radical social and environmental change. Art is also the reason I placed 3.6 tonnes of post-consumer plastic waste into the Walker Art Gallery back in 2013 as part of an installation titled ‘Strangers in a Strange Land’.

walker art gallery

Viewing the waste as an art material in its own right allowed me to explore its inherent symbolic value as a mass-produced consumer by-product. Placing the bales within the context of the Gallery’s highly ornate Victorian architecture challenged visitors to reconsider their relationship with what an artwork could ‘be’ or look like. Playing with context and material in such a way also allowed me to access the Walker’s wider collection and include a painting by Albert Starling (1858–1947) titled, ‘Strangers in a Strange Land’. This was intended as a further linguistic and historical ‘nod’ towards the fact that something not-quite-right was happening to the environment within which we found ourselves.

The scale and scope of the problem in worsening. Microplastic pollution, for example, can now be found within arctic ice cores as well as deep below the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean, embedded within 150-year-old ocean sediments. There are clear signs that we are facing a catastrophe far larger and longer lasting than the current Covid pandemic, yet governments scramble to reinstitute ‘Business as Usual’.

What is needed is a multi-party, cross-cultural, intergenerational shift where relationships form the core:

‘Each time a story helps me remember what I thought I knew, or introduces me to new knowledge, a muscle critical for caring about flourishing gets some aerobic exercise. Such exercise enhances collective thinking and movement in complexity. Each time I trace a tangle and add a few threads that at first seemed whimsical but turned out to be essential to the fabric, I get a bit straighter that staying with the trouble of complex world-ing is the name of the game of living and dying well together…We are all responsible to and for shaping conditions for multi-species flourishing in the face of terrible histories, and sometimes joyful histories too…’ Donna J. Haraway talks of ‘Staying with the Trouble’ (2016)

Texas highway

In response to climate change, my art-making story-telling journey began at university with a graduation exhibition containing 7500 ice-cream containers. Later, I won the Liverpool Art Prize with a work that contained 132,000 plastic knives and forks. This subsequently led to my ambitious Walker exhibition. Next up, I’m headed to the source of the product, the oil fields of Texas and the Permian Basin. The residency will focus upon Climate Anxiety and Eco Grief within the extraction rich environment of Fort Worth, USA. As the largest energy-consuming (and energy-producing) state in America, the location provides a rich backdrop to my conversations between The Art Galleries at TCU (Texas Christian University), the Department of Psychology and the Institute for Environmental Studies. The project will culminate in a programme of socially engaged practice, an installation and a site-responsive Artists' Film in 2021.

Further reading:


‘Climate change: Where we are in seven charts and what you can do to help’
‘We Made Plastic. We Depend on It. Now We’re Drowning in It.’
Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, report finds
‘Microplastics found for first time in Antarctic ice where krill source food’
'Microplastics found in 150-year-old ocean sediment’
Donna J. Haraway // ‘Saying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene’
Jason W. Moore // ‘Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism’