The Art of Reimagining Managed Retreat

Artist Yky shares ideas and artworks he presented to an international conference addressing scientific, social, and governance issues around ‘managed retreat’ — and how artists need to engage with pedagogy to contextualize and reimagine responses to climate change.


2,440 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


In June 2021, Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York City organised a four-day conference addressing scientific, social, and governance issues around the theme of ‘managed retreat’. This conference covered a broad spectrum of topics, but all of them were meant to discuss resilience, relocation, and climate justice when facing the consequences of flooding. I was invited to discuss how art could address the challenges of climate-caused relocation.

At what point managed retreat? Columbia Climate School conference 2021

It was no surprise to me that, amongst key issues, it was recognised that most practitioners facing climate change and resilience challenges had no adequate professional preparation in terms of communication. Scientists are often blamed for not being able to see the value of unconventional narratives. But artists also have their share of responsibility. During this conference, it appeared that the meaning we give to the words ‘managed retreat’ and how to bring pedagogy into the process were two essential issues. To give more insights on the way art should address the question of communication improvement, I presented five of my works that question how vulnerabilities may turn natural hazards in disasters.

‘Managed retreat’ — advancing in a different direction?

Art provides powerful narratives, enabling us to bridge the gap between scientists and non-expert citizens. It gives a better understanding of the world. Its vision of reality enriches the collective debate, enabling a significant change by shifting the perspective to more open-minded views. It gives the opportunity to understand reality differently, either using our sense of understanding or our sense of emotions, or both. Facing disasters, be it due to climate change or others hazards, artists will use their skills to convey the message they find appropriate. Most often, the vulnerabilities that shape such disasters translate into a scope of artistic representations which are direct, realistic, emotional, strong, and visually meaningful.

But, seen from the artistic point of view, translating into a piece of art the meaning of ‘managed retreat’, though terribly actual, is much more challenging. During my presentation, one of the questions sent through the Q & A session asked “is the word ‘retreat’ appropriate to discuss the topics of the conference?” I think this was one of the most interesting questions, as indeed, the word ‘retreat’ can have a negative perception. It is linked to this idea that you have been defeated and that there is no other alternative than withdrawing and leaving the field to the ‘enemy’. Flooding-caused displacement cannot ignore our attachments to a community or a place. It needs to address social and environmental justice issues as integral parts of the retreat management. But at the same time, it is ambiguous. What do fairness or justice mean when dealing with the unavoidable tradeoffs linked to forced evictions, when prioritising access to retreat resources, when ignoring the fact that indigenous communities have tribal rights that are too often ignored by our post-colonialist behaviours?

But what about understanding retreat as ‘advancing in a different direction’? Could we think of retreat as being a way to reimagine, reinvent, redefine processes to give the environment its full place, promoting visions radically different from massive human movements? Undoubtedly, the creativity and imagination required to propose new scenarios, even ones seen as utopian, are the privilege of artists. But how can we describe the complexity of urban space from the artistic perspective? How could artists translate into their works the unpredictability of our future as described by Carl Folke of the Stockholm Resilience Centre?

There is a need for all artists to better understand some concepts. ‘Resilience’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘risk management’ are not interchangeable words. When sustainability calls for more efficiency, resilience is more focused on redundancy. Both need to be linked, and the conditions providing a synergistic effect between the two concepts are key when looking for the path to reimagine ‘managed retreat’. Artists don’t need to be experts, but they need to know how to address through their skills the issues related to climate disasters. Empathy is not enough; there is a need to better engage with scientists, to better contextualize the concepts so that such concepts, through an artistic expression, help non-expert citizens to understand how and why retreating from flooding-prone areas and moving to safer ground can also meet their needs.

Bringing pedagogy into the process

The scientific community may understand complex concepts but without appropriate storytelling it will fail to engage people, for a simple reason: facts are not enough. We also need the right narrative and, in this respect, art can help.

There are many examples of associations, like Art of Change in France, Artseverywhere in Canada, or Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, with talented artists who are committed towards climate change. And some of them bring artists and experts together to imagine and propose answers and ideas for adaptation and transformation. But few are engaged together in a pedagogical process. However, artists need to recognise their social responsibility and be involved in an artistic approach consistent with the objectives we are trying to reach. Some of them may find it difficult to leave their comfort zone: going beyond a natural sensitivity finding its expression in a painting, in a sculpture or in a poem is not easy, and sometimes not feasible. But artists can also engage in improving our well-being and well-living, using their skills to increase our collective awareness, through a designed pedagogical approach together with scientists in a co-working exercise.

Ultimately, the threats and challenges we all face are so high that being committed towards non-expert citizens becomes a duty. A pedagogical approach is not needed simply to make non-expert citizens aware of the challenges they face; but it is definitely a requirement if artists want to play a role in explaining the systemic nature of socio-ecological threats shaping our vulnerabilities.

Pedagogy cannot be decreed; it needs to be learned. And in the specific case of hazards and related disasters, teaching is cognitively challenging. When both experts and artists decide to join their skills, Paulo Freire can be very helpful. Freire was a Brazilian educator and sociologist who dedicated most of his work to vulnerable communities. His work — most of it can be found online — was about how knowledge should be transferred from teacher to learner, and the core was based on the idea that unequal social relations build the path to a “culture of silence” which is created to oppress. To this extent, it leads to questioning the systemic nature of inequalities in our society, shaping the vulnerabilities that lead to disasters. ‘Teachers’ following Freire’s principles, will need to develop the critical consciousness of ‘learners’, aiming to build a “cultural action for freedom”.

Managed retreat: the art of critical thinking

Redefining ‘managed retreat’ in such a way that the focus moves from disruption in human occupancy to promoting new visions incorporating issues of gender, race and equity questions the nature of artistic approaches. How can they be consistent with the duty to (re)educate communities about conceptual processes which themselves had their share of responsibility in creating inequalities? In line with Freire’s approach to giving more importance to questions than to answers, artworks should prioritise such issues. By doing so, art will engage in this ‘critical thinking’, seen as the cornerstone that enables us to reconsider what has been taken for granted when this is needed.

In the five works I showed during the conference, and seen below, the property of argentic paper to darken when exposed to light should be seen as an allegory of ephemerality, questioning the value of what lasts in time. Each is a diptych of two photographs illustrating a given urban space impacted by a natural hazard. While the first one is stable in time, the second image darkens — with some parts disappearing as the argentic emulsion turns black. It is the comparison between the two photographs that will lead the viewer to question the resilience level of the urban space. Being ephemeral, this work can be seen as having no value, unless its value lies in the questions it raises.

“Only the ephemeral is of lasting value.”
Eugène Ionesco (playwright, 1909-1994)

Shakes 

‘Shakes’ questions how resilience can be implemented in the case of widespread destruction by earthquakes, which are devastating at different levels. They impact the cities, the organisations and the persons. But they also talk about an irrational fear, which is the destruction of our matrix. In this diptych, the second picture darkens in time in such a way that only the broken glass path remains, referring to our fears and vulnerability, while two attributes of our cultural heritage — a Le Corbusier building and the Golden Gate Bridge — are endangered even when not destroyed

Yrban resilience: Showing Shakes, a diptych by artist Yky
Shakes, a diptych: D0 and D+
Artist: Yky © 2018

The Japanese paradox

The Japanese paradox’ is all about the difference between risk management and urban resilience. It is well-known that the Japanese culture of risk management is almost second nature. But do we really speak of urban resilience, the way we understand it, when philosophical and/or religious principles refrain from addressing the norms that sometimes need to be reconsidered? In that work, darkness in time is detrimental to the city and its inhabitants, confronting the great wave of Hokusaï, symbolising the almighty nature that no one can stop.

Managed retreat: showing 'A Japanese paradox at D0 and D+', a diptych by artist Yky
‘A Japanese paradox at D0 and D+’, a diptych
Artist: Yky © 2018

La Seine

La Seine’ was taken during the substantial flood in Paris three years ago. And this work is about the adaptation of historical cities’ urban environment. How far are we ready to go in losing our cultural heritage, and what does this mean in terms of resilience?

Managed retreat: Showing 'La Seine, a diptych at D0 and D+' by Yky
‘La Seine, a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist Yky © 2018

NB: ‘Shakes’, ‘The Japanese paradox’, and ‘La Seine’ were showcased just before the pandemic during the Art of Resilience exhibition organised by the World Bank in Washington DC.

Do cities learn from getting burned?

This work was inspired by the Australian tragedy that we all remember but is also related to the ongoing and never-stopping fires in California. And it speaks of the moment where cities will be impacted, and not only the wild-urban interface. It also questions our inability or difficulty to learn from aboriginal traditions in terms of fire risk management.

Do cities learn from getting burned, a diptych at D0 and D+' by artist Yky
‘Do cities learn from getting burned, a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist: Yky © 2019

Is NYC retreat inevitable?

This work refers to the different issues discussed during the conference. It was inspired by an article published last year in the online journal NewCities in which the CEO of the Star City group explained why he decided to leave the Hudson River area where he was living and why he did not believe any longer in urban resilience. This work concluded my presentation, not only because it refers directly to the conference topic, but also because not being able to explain to non-expert citizens the meaning of urban resilience should be seen as a collective failure.

'Managed retreat: Showing 'Is NYC retreat inevitable? a diptych at D0 and D+' by artist Yky
‘Is NYC retreat inevitable? a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist: Yky © 2020

Find out more

You can explore the programme for the At What Point Managed Retreat? conference and watch videos of all the sessions. Yky explores many aspects of urban resilience in a changing climate in his Resi-city blog about his work picturing urban resilience seen from the citizen point of view: for example, Exploring spirituality in the urban frame. Some of the artworks featured in this post — including Shakes — were exhibited at Art of Resilience, organised by the World Bank in Washington, DC. In Urban Resilience? Art, the Missing Link, his earlier post for ClimateCultures, Yky offers further thoughts on art as a pedagogic tool and imagines a conversation between citizens, a scientist and the artist himself as they consider Shakes.

You can read about the language we associate with coastal change and particular responses such as managed retreat in You can’t resist the sea: Evolving attitudes and responses to coastal erosion at Slapton, South Devon, a 2009 paper by geographer Stephen Trudgill.

Yky mentions the work of Carl Folke and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. You can download and read Resilience: Now more than ever, an article co-authored by Folke for Ambio: A journal of the Human Environment in 2002 and shared as part of the journal’s 50 years celebration in 2021: “As proffered in the Ambio article, resilience is about learning from and developing with change, rather than managing against change. Resilience is about having the capacities to live with complexity, uncertainty, and change, abrupt or incremental, and continue to develop with ever changing environments. This includes both adaptation and transformation.”

Among the organisations bringing together artists’ responses to environmental and climate change, Yky mentions: Art of Change in France, which was created in Paris in 2014 ahead of COP21 and “highlights the role of artists and creativity as accelerators of the ecological transition and acts on an international scale”; Artseverywhere in Canada, “a platform for artistic experimentation and exploration of the fault lines of modern society”; and Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, “mobilising the arts and culture to take action on the climate and ecological crisis.”

The work of Brazilian educator and sociologist Paulo Freire is celebrated by the Freire Institute, an organisation for transformative community-based learning, and many other organisations around the world (which you can find listed at the Freire Institute). “Freire developed an approach to education that links the identification of issues to positive action for change and development. While Freire’s original work was in adult literacy, his approach leads us to think about how we can ‘read’ the society around us. For Freire, the educational process is never neutral. People can be passive recipients of knowledge — whatever the content — or they can engage in a ‘problem-posing’ approach in which they become active participants. As part of this approach, it is essential that people link knowledge to action so that they actively work to change their societies at a local level and beyond.” Freire wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968, translated into English in 1970.

Yky mentions Anthony Townsend, the CEO of the Star City group, who decided to leave the Hudson River area over climate resilience concerns when the river flooded Hoboken, New Jersey: Our Inevitable Retreat is the article Townsend wrote for NewCities. “The plan I came up with was simple — move inland and uphill. To my disbelief, the housing market hadn’t skipped a beat. Once I finally pulled the trigger, my condo sold in less than a week, at a profit.” 

Yky
Yky
A citizen artist exploring urban resilience whose photographic works use argentic paper's response to light to highlight the challenges raised by climate hazards in urban spaces.
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