Artist Michael Gresalfi shares an artwork that uses repurposed materials dating from before our mass communications ‘information age’ to witness the extensive decline of bird species and populations in his local area and the loss of natural spectacle.
820 words: estimated reading time = 3 minutes
My wife and I have lived here in our home, located in Boyds, Maryland, USA for more than 32 years. Our backyard is adjacent to a 2,500-acre regional park. Black Hill Regional Park is comprised of fields, forests, streams, ponds, and a large lake.
Over the past decade, we have noticed the precipitous loss of so many species that we previously observed, including native bees, butterflies, beetles, salamanders, frogs, toads, turtles, and birds.
Not only have we lost a number of bird species, the quantity of remaining bird populations has drastically diminished. In the past, during both the Spring and Fall migratory seasons, we would watch in awe as deep and dark ribbons of migrating birds flew overhead, oftentimes extending for many miles and for half an hour or more.
Over the past years, this substantial loss of both species diversity and populations has influenced the direction my art has taken. I find myself responding to this human-induced global environmental onslaught with an increasing focus on creating climate change focused art, and where possible relying upon recycled and repurposed materials when making my art.
If you have not watched my narrated art and science integrated slide show ‘Our Changing Planet’ please do so. My large installation “What Man Has Wrought” likewise is also available here on the ClimateCultures website.
Post-it board – sixteen reasons for bird species losses
This repurposed work originated with my purchase of a 1970s-era post-it board, which I then transformed into a climate change focused work of art.
I began with a 19.5″ x 27.5″ canvas framed and unpainted machine-stamped post-it board that included the outlines of birds sitting along attached twine, along with one-inch-sized clothes pins.
Prior to the introduction of the ‘Information Age’ and the advent of personal computers and particularly smartphones, people kept track of upcoming events on paper calendars and notepads and through the use in their homes of post-it boards.
I found this post-it board, equipped with the eight intact strings and a few miniature wooden clothes pins at my local Goodwill store. The canvas was untouched, no gesso, no paint. The birds were simple outlines, and not colored. The price tag on the back indicates it was sold in the ‘pre-barcode era’.
I purchased it for US $5.00 and proceeded to paint both the background and the birds with various acrylic paints. I then used vintage filing folder plastic file tabs and associated cardboard name tags, along with purchased colorful one-inch clothes pins to create this climate change focused work.
The twenty short post-it notes posted on this repurposed board (in order) are as follows:
*Where Have All The Birds Gone?
*In the past 50 years 30% lost inN. America
*2.4 Billion have disappeared since 1970
*MANY CAUSES MAN INDUCED
*SEED BEARING PLANTS DISAPPEAR
My future goal is to broaden my focus on the many other diminishing and lost species that I have observed here in my backyard and within the adjacent regional park.
I haven’t seen a salamander egg mass in the ponds in more than a decade. The mating songs of the Spring Peepers, a tiny chorus frog found in the pond directly behind our yard, is nowadays a mere whisper.
Along with Box Turtles, Bull Frogs, Possums, and Monarch Butterflies, all are prime candidates for my future works.
“If you were alive in the year 1970, more than one in four birds in the U.S. and Canada has disappeared within your lifetime” — so begins Vanishing: More Than 1 In 4 Birds Has Disappeared In The Last 50 Years, an article by Gustave Axelson
(September 19, 2019) for All About Birds. The article summarises recent research led by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which quantified for the first time the total decline in bird populations in the continental U.S. and Canada, a loss of 2.9 billion breeding adult birds. Conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg, who led the study, is quoted: “These bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife. And that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.”
Globally, the 2022 edition of State of the World’s Birds from BirdLife International “paints the most concerning picture for nature yet. Nearly half of the world’s bird species are now in decline, with only six percent having increasing populations. One in eight species (or 1,409 species in total) are now threatened with extinction.”
In our first accompaniment to Longer, a new ClimateCultures in-depth feature, arts researcher Jemma Jacobs introduces her recent study of the Flint Water Crisis and environmental racism as seen through one photographer’s work to make visible hidden perspectives.
1,830 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes
Longer is the new ClimateCultures offering of works that don’t fit within the normal ‘short reads’ format of our blog: essays, fiction or other forms that haven’t appeared online elsewhere and explore in more detail the creative responses to our ecological and climate crisis. With each new Longer piece, the author introduces them here with an original post, where they can reflect on the motivation or inspiration behind the work or the process of creating it. Jemma’s essay for Longer is The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis.
Environmental violence is racially discriminative; this is something I have always known, and my recent research provides mounting evidence to support it. When my Master’s course provided me with more opportunities to build on this knowledge — and add to the academic field in some way — I thought it would be dismissive to ignore the patterns of racial discrimination that I have recognised within the Anthropocene discourse.
At Goldsmiths University, I am completing a Master’s in Contemporary Art Theory. I have found that the Visual Culture department gives me the scope to explore topics utilising various schools of thought. With sustainability, environmental justice and art being three of my major interests, my course has given me the space to explore their intersections. Within the course I have explored Black Aesthetic Theory with regard to black music and poetry and the intersection between ecology and art theory, along with notions of power and subjectivity. Having completed my undergraduate degree in History of Art, my interest in visual culture remains strong. My move to Goldsmiths supported my growing curiosity in theory and environmental issues while allowing me to base my explorations within the visual. So, when given the chance to expand on my knowledge on the Anthropocene and its intersection with racial narratives, I decided to explore the Flint Water Crisis through the photographic lens of LaToya Ruby Frazier. My essay The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis is published today on ClimateCultures.
The Flint Water Crisis & the Black Anthropocene
Beginning in 2014, with its effects predicted to last for many more years to come, the Flint Water Crisis saw the water of a community in Michigan become toxic. The health of adults and children was put in danger. Residents of Flint experienced a range of impacts, from hair loss to miscarriages and disease. Children’s brains were affected, showing damage to their learning, behaviour, hearing and speaking skills. The issue sits deep within a history of environmental racism, particularly when understood with these facts: the crisis was caused by the distinct ignorance and mishandling of those with power, in a city where over half are black or African American and over one third in poverty. The catastrophe highlights racial power imbalances that can be recognised globally. It therefore proves the need to expand on the idea of the Anthropocene – humanity as a whole is not the cause of the changing climate which we see today. Rather, the western powers of white supremacy. Kathryn Yusoff’s concept of the ‘Black Anthropocene’ recognises the inextricable link between the history of racial and environmental violence — arguing that one cannot exist without the other. Ultimately, environmental neglect has its roots in colonial ideas of power and possession.
Exploring the discriminatory aspects of the Flint Water Crisis through photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier provides a perspective that is otherwise left invisible. She gives visibility to the black community, emphasising their strength and perseverance within such a catastrophic moment. The title of her photographic series alone, Flint is Family (2016-2021), readdresses the imbalance of power underscored by the crisis. Frazier is an incredible American artist who draws off her own childhood in late 20th century Braddock, Pennsylvania. There, she experienced a declining economy and city. Frazier’s 2001-2014 series The Notion of Family captures the ‘ghost-town’ in a documentary way that sets up her style for later works. Expanding on the neglect she experienced herself, Frazier’s perspective on the Flint Water Crisis is extremely valuable in underlining the American experience, while demanding justice.
Living in the wake
In preparation for my body of work, I read many texts that gave me a theoretical understanding of the black experience. This work is imperative but does not override how I am part of the western white bias that is caught in the colonial modes of thinking that my work seeks to dissect. Making myself open to black authorship was not only important but essential prior to any exploration. Doing so allowed me to approach Frazier’s images with deeper consideration of historical patterns of injustice. Essential contemporary works, such as Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, grounded my study of the Flint Water Crisis in a history of racial injustice. Sharpe, specifically, allowed me to explore the existence of colonial attitudes within contemporary society as black communities live ‘in the wake’ of slavery. Her work permitted an investigation into the term ‘wake’ and its various denotations: such as the wake of a ship, referencing slavery but also its everlasting impacts in society today; and the act of being awake.
As mentioned before, Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None grounded this within a more environmental framework. Alongside this, Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything exposed me to the notion of the ‘sacrifice zone’ — “whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable.” This allowed me to see the city of Flint in a way that those in power at the time did: as geographically disposable.
My research confirmed and extended my knowledge of the need to recognise power disparities within our changing climate and how they are intimately tied to modes of governing. Seeking a recognition of this, my paper views Frazier’s photographs as making visible the invisible. The community of Flint were ignored, their health left to decline as those in power denied the state of their water system. Frazier’s series sheds light onto those communities and shouts their significance.
Visual culture as a positive force
In a world where our environment is being neglected, abused and exploited, black communities are disproportionately impacted. The mistreatment exhibited in the Flint Water Crisis is symptomatic of the greater black American experience at large. In my paper, I explore how contemporary inequities can be traced to the colonial period, how the importance of water is symbolically linked to such concepts. I explore how the visuals of photography reveal the climate crisis as compounding injustices that have been present for many years.
While it is important to be critical of those with power, especially those who use it in discriminatory ways, Frazier provides an alternative approach, one which should be focused on more: how it may be more productive to shed light on those vulnerable to that force. Lifting up communities who are at a disadvantage, especially when they’re portrayed as active agents and not simply passive victims, can work to bring equity to societal relations. Frazier undoubtedly produces a positive force. Her use of the ‘deadpan’ aesthetic arouses curiosity and emphasises the normalcy of racial discrimination. In her documentary photographic style, Frazier provides an intimate insight into the crisis — an understanding that photojournalism within the media is unable to fully render.
Environmental violence can manifest in a variety of ways. The Flint Water Crisis acts as a prime example of its unjust and discriminatory pattern. Frazier’s photographs work brilliantly as a counter, productively expanding and flipping the narrative. My exploration of this in my paper helps to magnify links between past and present inequalities, while simultaneously adding to the discussion of visual arts and its contribution to historical understanding.
Unfortunately, we are not able to share LaToya Ruby Frazier’s images here but you can see her series (and video)Flint is Family, and other works, at her website. “In various interconnected bodies of work, Frazier uses collaborative storytelling with the people who appear in her artwork to address topics of industrialism, Rust Belt revitalization, environmental justice, access to healthcare, access to clean water, Workers’ Rights, Human Rights, family, and communal history. This builds on her commitment to the legacy of 1930s social documentary work and 1960s and ’70s conceptual photography that address urgent social and political issues of everyday life.” You can watch A creative solution to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the TED Talk Frazier gave on the Flint Water Crisis, her Flint is Family project and the work with communities in Flint that the project has helped to fund.
Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018) is published by University of Minnesota Press. Yusoff examines how the grammar of geology is foundational to establishing the extractive economies of subjective life and the earth under colonialism and slavery. You can read a review published by New Frame (28/8/19), a not-for-profit, social justice publication with “a pro-poor, pro-working class focus that aims to report faithfully and informatively about the lives and struggles of ordinary people.”
Interdisciplinary artist Andrew Howe shares three objects that chart material flows in time. Slipware pottery, an acorn and a bitumen spill offer fragmentary stories entwined with present experience and imaginings of past and future in the same moment.
1,310 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes
The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
The recording of history is a collective narrative of personal memories and subjective interpretations of objective data. And memories are the internal stories we create from fragments which become entwined with present experience and our imaginings of the future, always in the same moment. As I thought about identifying objects from the past, present and future, I could only see them as materials on a journey flowing through time. This flow need not be considered as a linear process but as a cycle, perhaps a little like the river cycle, in that all time can co-exist simultaneously but in different locations.
Based on my recent experiences out walking, objects that represent the Anthropocene in the present time, perhaps more than any other, are the proliferating numbers of discarded face masks and discarded dog shit bags (DDSBs) lying on pavements, spilling out from litter bins or festooned from trees and bushes. But I wished no connection with these objects, whereas each of the three objects I selected have specific resonances for me with the past, present and future.
My first object is a fragment of brown slipware pottery, one of a handful I gathered last year while mud-larking on a pebble bank at the edge of the River Severn, downstream of Shrewsbury town centre.
An informed acquaintance suggested to me that the brown and amber pieces were most likely 17th or 18th Century combed slipware. I was intrigued by its unknowable journey from formation of the clay, very likely a result of glaciation, and extraction for making into a pot. It was then used in someone’s house in Shrewsbury, maybe even one of the Tudor timbered mansions that still stand in the town centre. At some point it was lost and broken and found its way into the river. Over the years, it has been washed downstream, gradually rounding off the edges until I picked it up. How will my intervention change its course of flow?
Ruptured nature in peatbog and bitumen
I encountered the second object whilst researching a project at the Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve, the UK’s third-largest raised peatbog. Within the wetland nature reserve, there was a car breaker’s yard that operated for many years until the site was taken over by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. The stark juxtaposition of the scrapyard against the remote wetland landscape had fascinated me for some time.
Shortly after many of the crushed cars had been removed from the site, I made a visit to observe the mountains of remaining tyres and thousands of mangled fragments of plastic and metal car parts. I collected these like archaeological finds. Then entering a thicket between the scrapyard and peatbog, I saw a large bitumen tanker part-suspended in amongst the trees, as if it had been driven in at speed and simply left.
When I returned a few months later, the tanker had been separated from its cab and moved, as part of the ongoing clean-up process, to a position on the concrete hardstanding in the main scrapyard, which was being cleared for restoration by covering with topsoil. In the warmer weather, the bitumen leaked from ruptures in the rusted steel carcass and spread out in mesmerising black pools, its ‘skin’ intricately marked and rippled.
Bitumen can be found naturally or produced via the fractional distillation of petroleum. This natural hydrocarbon seemed to be reaching out, as if trying to recombine with the peat below and complete a cycle interrupted by human processing. The sculptural tanker is a powerful artwork in itself, symbolic of the human exploitation of petroleum and car manufacture.
In my early discussions with the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, there was general agreement that we, as a society, should take responsibility and acknowledge the legacy of human impact on the environment, perhaps by leaving some of the dereliction in place. However, while bitumen is widely used as a construction material, it has some chronic toxicity, it is a potential carcinogen and the tanker was regarded as a hazardous waste. The metal structure was also regarded as unsafe, so the decision was regretfully made to retain the tanker on the concrete and cover it with soil as protection.
Acorn to oak, and uncertain futures
The final object is an acorn. This particular acorn came into my possession during a heritage project where I was trying to locate trees more than 200 years old in Telford; trees that could have been witness to the battle of Cinderloo, an industrial dispute in 1821. Around 3,000 miners marched in protest against savage wage cuts and they shut down ironworks before coming into conflict with the Shropshire Yeomanry, resulting in two fatalities and nine arrests, with one man hanged for felonious riot.
There are many woodlands in Telford, growing over the ruins of industries that date back to the start of the Industrial Revolution. Only a few of the trees are as old as 200 years though, so the acorn I collected from one old oak in Coalbrookdale provided me with the potential to create a special connection. By planting the acorn, it may grow and live on beyond a normal human lifetime to make a connection spanning between the origins of the Anthropocene and an uncertain future.
The centuries-old relationship between the English and oak woods is at the heart of national identity; once integral to peasant livelihoods, Royal hunting forests and naval shipbuilding. Oak has abundant uses as a strong and durable construction timber, as fuel, as animal fodder, for the tanning of leather and in production of ink, but its value is increasingly recognised for sequestering carbon and sustaining biodiverse flora and fauna in its branches and in its root systems. Humans will need to rebalance the values of oak between a commodity and as a living guardian, if we are to begin regaining some harmony with the more-than-human for our own survival.
Bitumen, a sticky, black, highly viscous liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum, is also known as asphalt, and is mainly used in road and other construction, although its natural form was historically used for waterproofing and as an adhesive as far back as 5,000 BCE. Runoff from roads can cause water pollution from bitumen and, as this article from MedicineNet explains, Hot asphalt causes a lot of air pollution. “As it heats up, asphalt releases chemical compounds that contribute to air pollution … Sunlight plays a key role in these asphalt emissions, with even moderate levels of sunshine tripling the release of air pollutants.”
You can learn more about the history of the Cinderloo Uprising in Dawley, Telford and the heritage project led by community group Cinderloo 1821.
Curator and writer Rob La Frenais interviews scientist and fellow ClimateCultures member Bill McGuire about Skyseed. McGuire’s novel explores geoengineering — the ‘fix’ proposed by some as global heating’s global solution. What on Earth could possibly go wrong?…
1,930 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes
As COP 26 in Glasgow approaches, there’s a new thriller, Skyseed by scientist Bill McGuire which is aimed at drawing our attention to the growing lobby of industrialists, fossil fuel producers, politicians and scientists who want to explore the idea of geoengineering — what is called in the novel the ‘Fix’ — using novel, large-scale, engineering solutions to global heating.
In a tense drama set in 2028, the world’s scientific community — astronomers, volcanologists and climate scientists — slowly becomes aware there is a conspiracy of ‘bad actors’ who are secretly unleashing synthetic biology-inspired ‘nanobots’ to eat up the carbon in the atmosphere. Without spoiling the plot, there is an unexpected volcanic eruption during this process which sends the world hurtling towards a new ice age, where ironically we have to go back to dirty coal technologies like steam trains to try to reverse runaway cooling. This is probably the first thriller based on the climate emergency as it is unravelling right now and certainly the first based on geo-engineering. As the book’s cover suggests “hacking the earth might be the last thing we ever do”.
The ‘bad actors’ are — wait for it — Britain and the USA. It’s a story that mirrors the unthinkable alliance between Blair and Bush to launch an illegal war in Iraq based on non-existent weapons of mass destruction, based on a ‘dodgy dossier’. In the book, the UK Prime Minister has already bought a dodgy dossier on geoengineering from the US President, while at the same time testing the water with a climate scientist he had previously campaigned with before getting elected and back-pedalling on climate pledges, Jane Halliwell. Here she responds to his suggestion that a ‘fix’ might be possible.
Jane looked at the PM for a long moment, then shook her head. ‘Prime Minister, you know what needs to be done. Nothing’s changed. Our priority has to be slashing emissions, not (increasing) GDP growth. Nothing else will do…Kickstarting the stalled renewables and transport decarbonisation drives, a crash programme in energy efficiency. It’s the same old stuff. I’m afraid there’s just no silver bullet.
Moving from science fiction to reality?
McGuire knows his territory. When he’s not writing novels he’s Professor Emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at UCL, London and contributing author to the IPCC 2012 SREX report on climate change and extreme events. I asked him how he became aware of the dangers of geoengineering as portrayed in his thriller.
“Well the idea’s been around since the Cold War really, people like Edward Teller brought it up. So it’s always been at the back of my mind. Over the last couple of years, there’s been a UN moratorium of geoengineering; open-air experiments anyway. Despite that, people have started to bugger around, if you like, and try things out. It’s the fact that it’s growing in terms of credence and involvement that has sparked my interest in it. People are getting into it in all sorts of ways. For example there’s a project designed to brighten the clouds over the Great Barrier Reef. It’s aimed to preserve the Reef, but it’s pretty clear they are developing a technology that can be used around the world and make large amounts of money out of it. It’s moving from pages of science fiction to what potentially is reality.”
There are already documents circulating about a ‘soft’ version of geoengineering, for example a group led by Sir David King called the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge. What was his response to that? Was ‘climate repair’ also another excuse for inaction on climate?
“In Skyseed I talk about direct interventions that try and cut out incoming sunlight. Those are pretty drastic ways of doing things. The technology in Skyseed is actually a form of carbon capture. The ‘bots suck the carbon directly out of the atmosphere, which is that cause of the devastating cooling. However there are geoengineering techniques based on carbon capture which can be done in all sorts of ways. One that doesn’t sound too bad is spreading basalt dust on farmland. Basalt dust reacts with carbon — it locks it away and does a good job in that way. But when you look at these things, whatever they are, at scale they are huge projects. It would involve spraying basalt dust on half the world’s farmland, just to reduce the emissions by about a 20th of what we produce every year. This is the big problem with geoengineering, it has to be at a massively huge scale if it’s going to do anything at all.
“The other thing I have an issue with is, if you think geo-engineering is a solution waiting to be utilised, then you’re never going to spend as much time pushing as hard as possible for cutting emissions, because you’re always going to think: ‘doesn’t matter, there’s a backstop — we can always resort to that’. If, for example, you’re protecting a city with your loved ones you fight a damn sight harder if you’re in the last line of defence than if you’re in the second line of defence. This is a systemic problem with geoengineering as a whole.”
With regard to the speech by Jane Halliwell to the Prime Minister above, had he come across any politicians taking the idea of geoengineering seriously?
“I think the UK government is taking it seriously. There are people in government keeping up to speed on what’s going on. It’s certainly not being ruled out. Of course, the fossil fuel companies and others are pushing this. If they can keep temperatures down they think they can keep pulling oil and gas out of the ground. There’s a lot of lobbying in various countries.”
In his book, could the rogue geoengineering activity have been spotted from space, for example from the ISS?
“The sort of scenario I talk about in the book, which is extreme and which we don’t have the technology for at the moment, in terms of these self-replicating nanobots; firstly it was detectable because of the density of the atmosphere. The astronomers were complaining they didn’t have decent observing conditions in the Canary Islands. Certainly, if somebody was pumping, for example, tens of millions of tons of sulphur into the atmosphere, illicitly, that would be picked up, because there are monitoring instruments up there.”
Geoengineering — to what end?
With the Arctic ice melting at an alarming rate would that be a legitimate reason for engineering solutions, like re-icing the Arctic with giant mirrors, for example?
“It depends on your point of view. The natural way would be to allow it to heal itself, really. ‘Re-wilding the climate’, I call it. If we decide as a society that if we have brought emissions under control we now want to reverse things, you would use geoengineering schemes to refreeze the Arctic, etc. Or we might argue that we brought emissions down, let’s just let the Earth get back to where it wants to be. Before we started influencing the climate the global average temperature was on its way down towards the next ice age. If we talk about ‘repairing the climate’ we don’t even know what that means. Does that mean getting back to 280 parts per million carbon dioxide, which it was in the interglacial period, because if it is, we will end up in an Ice age again? At a higher level nobody knows. It’s not an issue that’s been addressed yet. Once we get emissions under control, knowing what we do next is a big issue.”
Had he been in a room where people were seriously fanatical about geo-engineering?
“I haven’t been in a room with them, no, but I keep track of things and I know there are individuals who are fanatical about it as an agenda, certainly. There are people like that about. Not many so far, thank God.”
So for example?
“Well the chap (David Keith) who runs the SCOPEX experiment, for example, at Harvard. They already designed an instrument that will go up into the stratosphere and test, first of all spraying water, then calcium carbonate then sulphur dioxide as a means of testing pumping out millions of tons of sulphur. There’s also the Great Barrier Reef project I referred to before. People like Bill Gates are involved in these, they funded some of these studies. Tech billionaires need to have these big shiny projects, don’t they? They can’t keep their hands off. “
In the novel, the whistleblowers who draw attention to the effects of geoengineering (like him) get assassinated by dark forces of the State. How real was this? McGuire: “Well it’s a thriller isn’t it!”
Find out more
Skyseed by Bill McGuire was published by The Book Publishing Guild in September 2020, and you can read more about Bill’s work on the novel and thoughts on geoengineering in his piece for the ClimateCultures Creative Showcase — including a link to a podcast interview.
You can find out about plans for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021 and Pre-COP activities at the official COP 26 website.
Rob mentions the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, which was founded and is chaired by former UK Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King. The Centre’s research themes include deep and rapid emissions reductions, greenhouse gas removal and restoring broken climate systems, and it also develops policy.
Video artist Mirjamsvideos shares reflective artworks which subtly demonstrate our relationship with the world, using ugliness in trash and beauty in small things to overcome our lack of insight into systems we’ve made toxic to ourselves and others.
2,060 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes + 9 mins video
Mission accomplished: my art made somebody cry.
You read it in the art books, in the intellectual words of curators, art historians: art has the power to change the world! But when you are in the artist’s shoes sometimes it is difficult to see if your work has any effect at all.
First of all, the amount of visuals created is overwhelming, so that sometimes even the most important or stunning messages are hardly being seen. Then, nowadays many important venues for artists’ exposure, like festivals and group exhibitions, call for payment just to submit your work for the selection process. The highest submission fee I have seen so far was €350. Here in Portugal that can be more than half the monthly salary of someone with a full-time job. And last, even if you get the exposure, how often does a visual artist receive the message: “Hey, your artwork really changed my life!”?
Being an artist in love with the natural world it is heartbreaking to see its man-made destruction, and overwhelming to become aware of all the issues we are up against. But worst of all, seeing how little aware people are of the harm we do and how little some seem to care makes me feel lost as to what I could possibly do to spark a change in people’s minds. And then, these words appeared:
“Such a powerful metaphor … to convey such an important message. I cried and although to be really honest I do cry a lot … I cried because I feel the same and you express it beautifully.”… “Thank you for making us think about such a huge issue in such a delicate and poetic way and for reminding us that no matter how bad and tragic the situation is we keep going and we keep going for love ❤️ “
This message appeared after I posted a work of video art that deals with the problem of pollution in Portugal: forests, parks and streets filled with trash.
I also cried a bit, just because it was so good to know that yes, the work did have an impact, I am making a difference! But it also showed that sometimes the effect of an artwork is of a more subtle nature than to see people sign up for environmental volunteering the next day or pledge not to use plastic bags anymore. It can be more like just another drop in a slowly filling bucket. And without these drops, perhaps the bucket would never fill…
A message for my fellow artists: Keep going, you’re doing important and amazing work!
Trash & our toxic system
And here are some words about the work of art that placed a few drops in a few buckets.
As you might have read in my ClimateCultures profile, my road to becoming an environmental artivist was a bit, let’s say, controversial. But it also is a great example of the lack of insight we have into the harm that we actually do (at times even when we think we do good). Our education isn’t actually providing us with an honest view, and neither does it focus on what is important for us to know to create a better life on this planet.
For example, I remember that, in my very early teens, I found an explanation in a schoolbook for why the poor nations in the world are poor. It was said that their geographic areas had fewer resources and therefore they had not been able to develop like us in the western world. Now, in the second half of my thirties, I am reading a book — Ecofeminism, by Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies — that provides quite a different explanation: it is our western lifestyle that is keeping the rest of the world poor.
Though we are educated to see colonialism as something of the past, it is still very alive today. Some now call it capitalism or patriarchy and there are other names. It steals healthy lands from people to then fully deplete and toxify them. It grows food that is unhealthy for our bodies. It sells clothing created by and filled with chemicals that are making our rivers (our drinking water) unfit for life. It makes us buy makeup for which, in a faraway land, little girls have died in mines and that is sold in loads of packaging — like all of its other products — that we then dispose of improperly, leaving cities and natural areas littered with trash.
In Grande Lisboa in Portugal, where I live, trash flies freely through the streets, in parks, forests, rivers. It’s very painful to see that people care so little, that people cannot see the harm that they do to themselves, but most importantly, to all life that is innocent, that had no share in our destructive ways.
YOU — a film of a relationship
YOU is the story of how I managed to deal with this ugliness in my world; from denial to panic, to sadness to finding an enormous piece of trash floating in the stream in front of my house that I couldn’t bear to look at anymore, so I jumped into the water and took it out.
In the last months, besides dreamy landscapes that seem to pass by in slow-motion, scenes that come to me naturally, I started to document the trash lying around. My videos are often characterised by still and long shots in which subtle, real-time movement creates a hint of time passing by, of a story wanting to be told. I first attempted to get this effect from the trash as well. But since trash is often blown around until it reaches windless corners, there was not much movement there to be seen. Even flies would fly away when I arrived.
It made me realise that the trash had to be shown in a different way, it had to make a real contrast with the beautiful: I had to create ugly scenes! Actually, I already had ugly scenes, for I sometimes forget to turn off my camera before taking it off the tripod and putting it back in my bag. These wild and messy accidental shots were perfect to portray the panic and disorientation erupting from a brutal attack on one’s safe and pretty world.
Next to that, I started to shoot many photographs of the trash, for these could be easily edited into fast flashing scenes, like suppressed memories that uninvitedly pop up.
The film is divided into six parts. The first is a beautiful and joyful day in which everything seems perfect and innocent. In the second, the problem really shows itself but is waved away like a bad dream. But the third day is taken over by trash and ugliness, panic and disorientation, followed by the fourth part: a time of feeling completely defeated.
The narration is inspired by a sense — beautifully voiced by writers like Bhai Vir Singh or Rabindranath Tagore — that the relationship one has with the world is similar to that of a relationship between lovers. The world being the other that you desire to see, hear and dance with. Part five therefore is the lover calling back the other who thinks love had been lost. The love is still there, but some mature and responsible action has to be taken for the love to flourish again. And once this has been done, we arrive at the closing part: a happy ending. Because, although I know that the health of the planet is in a really bad condition, I have to believe that we can still save her. Without that belief, I would be practically dead.
So, is my short film going to save the world? No. Much more action is needed. Most importantly information, awareness, needs to spread. As mentioned before, we are dealing with an incredible lack of insight. Information on the harmful effects of our trash on the planet, on ourselves, is not well spread, or not communicated in a way that people can really relate it to their day-to-day life. A lot of work still has to be done, in this and other areas. This little film was just a little start…
When one sets off on the journey to save the world, she opens up a whole new world for you!
I began to see that despite all the nonsense that we do to her, she keeps nurturing all of life, even us. I got a different understanding of the concepts ‘Mother Earth’ and ‘Mother Nature’ and started to regard these words with more respect, for really only a mother can love like that.
It also awakened a more nurturing, more motherly aspect in me, once again seeing the small things around me and those that need our help and our protection.
Imagine you had to move around like a snail; delicately touching the world around you with your tentacles, eyes that can stretch out above your head, sliding a large part of your body over the ground, a wall, a rooftop, possibly feeling every little bump and crack beneath you. A gush of wind is like a storm for you, a kilometre could be a whole country, it could be all you will ever see…
It would be quite a different world, right? When you would actually be in contact with your surroundings…
The greatest challenge about making this work was to get a good shot of loads of cars flashing by. Not only because this is just not my cup of tea, but also because I made this work during Covid times when there weren’t a lot of cars out in the streets.
During this time of silence and billboards not changing every week, and after the fear of running out of food had faded away, a serenity entered into my mind and it became easier to see the small, almost still, but sublime beauty that daily life silently presents us with.
Snails are such magical creatures for me and I can observe them for hours. They live in a beautiful dance of elegant clumsiness, seem completely immersed into the world, masters of mindfulness, yet they look like children innocently discovering what happens around them.
They are the antithesis of the common man: stamping around in thick-soled sporty shoes, slamming several doors behind them, turning a key and speeding away, not for a fraction of a second touching the world.
Not only have we gotten disconnected from the world, but also from ourselves. As much as the ‘great thinkers’ of old wanted to release humans from their animal selves, and despite the fact that nowadays some of us have mechanical body parts or were even created outside of the womb, we continue to be biological creatures. It’s nature that keeps us alive.
Maybe if we’d be a bit more like the snails, we could reconnect a little. Our experience of life and each other could be like a clumsy dance of elegance. We would not throw disposable masks, batteries and random trash anywhere on the ground, because that is neither elegant nor clumsy, that is just stupid.
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Ecofeminism, by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, is published by Zed Books (2014: 20th-anniversary edition).