The arts community is responding to climate change, and changing the conversation in the process.

Michael Pinsky’s Come Hell or High Water from Climate Change: Cultural Change.

The year 2006 has seen a change in the weather. Climate change, perhaps the most far-reaching and significant scientific issue of this century, is no stranger to the bestseller list, the red carpet, the floor of the Senate, or the corporate agenda. But now another realm has joined the dialogue—contemporary art. Like the Hudson River School of 19th-century painters, who breathed romance into an indomitable American landscape of vast blue skies (most recently threatened by the Clear Skies Initiative and a fast-growing coal mining industry), glistening bodies of waters (although PCB levels make the Hudson River fish inedible), and dense forests (now suburban tracts), these new artists are primarily concerned with representing natural systems. Using different palettes and new media, they are capturing and reimagining our changed relationship with natural systems. Let’s call them the Hudson River School 2.0.

The work of these artists was featured in a slew of major exhibitions this year including “Ecotopia” at New York’s International Center of Photography, “The Ship: The Art of Climate Change” at London’s Natural History Museum, “Cape Farewell: Art and Climate Change” at the Liverpool Biennial, and “Climate Change: Cultural Change” in Newcastle.

But how do art and the work of the imaginary relate to an issue mired in contested claims and debates on effective policy response? Can they offer anything when we are focused on alternative energy, CO2 trading quotas and glacial retreat? Why not just leave it to trusted scientists? Artists don’t give answers; they don’t operate within a structure of credentials, reinforced by formal peer review. They explore nuance and subjective experience and accept multiple answers to the same question. And that’s precisely the point. The artists in these shows reflect a relationship with nature that is often obscured and muddied by our urban existence. We “know” about climate change, but there has been no en masse abandonment of cars, no mass migration to dense urban centers to shrink our carbon footprint, no sudden antishopping spree—in fact, no significant lifestyle changes. A fundamental conceit of the Enlightenment is that knowledge leads to action. And it is the artists who are producing the post-Enlightenment strategies.

Consider Greetings From the Salton Sea, a photographic series (and associated book) by Kim Stringfellow. Included in “Ecotopia” at the International Center for Photography, it provides a thorough documentation of one of the most contradictory sites in America. Simultaneously a wildlife reserve and a toxic threat to nearby San Diego and L.A. (if it were allowed to dry up, it would release particulate matter), the Salton Sea is a former lake destination for vacationers where irrigation runoff has concentrated pesticides in increasingly saline desert waters. Stringfellow’s project documents the hopeful and remarkable capacity of migratory birds to adapt and use the new lakes, which were created when a dam in the Colorado River broke in 1905. They make a temporary home, yet theirs is an evidently frail existence surrounded by the stench of death and chemicals. Stringfellow’s images provide an almost tender experience of the details that create this scape, after which she introduces the large-scale infrastructure proposals designed to address this site and provides a clear challenge to the Army Corps of Engineers or corporate counterparts. Her engagement evinces a quality of attention and detail that illuminates without simplifying and invites our intuitions, interest, and collective problem-solving abilities.

The point is that the artists’ view is invaluable precisely because they are not experts and do not have the authority granted by science. They are only as persuasive as their images. As nonexperts—though interested and knowledgeable—they stand in for the view of the everyman. This reflects the nature of urban and natural systems. They transcend boundaries; they transcend borders, disciplines, issues, and expertise. With art, the viewer knows that she has a license to interpret, to critically evaluate the work, that her opinion matters. The same can’t be said of science. Scientific arguments are presented in the public imagination as fait accompli. When definitive terms like “discovered” and “understood” are the norm, science is often a one-way conversation. The creativity on display in these exhibitions plays into the public imagination differently than the computational model, the quantitative risk analysis, or other summative representations used by environmental agencies to inform public decision-making. The art invites interpretation without oversimplification or unnecessary precision. And by combining legibility with a diverse viewership the works of art provide the opportunity for evidence-driven discussion. They invite skepticism (who trusts an artist?) and critical engagement. They incite participation, not passive consumption of facts. In a participatory democracy, strategies that raise the standards of evidence used in public debate and that engage diverse publics are worth attention. And as much as climate change is a phenomenon of the environmental commons—we are all subject to it, layperson or expert—it necessitates, and deserves, a response from the commons.

These artists are doing experiments, public experiments. Hudson River School 2.0 is action-oriented, and artists are acting in a system that includes all of us. This is different than the traditional environmentalism of preservation. While that is important work, what we can conserve is dwarfed by what we have, in many ways, screwed up. There is plenty to reimagine, rework, and remake in the landscape. The HRS 2.0 is about this interaction, not distant images of nature, not just conservation. It`s about reconstructing in culturally sustainable ways. This also means including play and spectacle in serious work, and recognizing the generative power of play. Sam Easterson’s piece, Animal, Vegetable, Video, in “Ecotopia” is tirelessly fun. We literally take the perspective of an aardvark, watching film that was shot with a camera strapped to its head and back. Seeing the world through the aardvarks’ POV is endearing, and it sheds light on how they manage their resources and territories—we could do with some guidance in this respect. Why are we going here? Why there? I kept asking the aardvark, and sure enough he would show me.

Natalie Jeremijenko is a New York—and sometimes San Diego—based artist.

Originally published January 15, 2007

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