Arts and Climate Change, a good idea?

Arts and Climate Change, a good idea?

Image: Cape Farewell, Ackroyd & Harvey.

One very hot summer day in London in 2006, during high tourist season, I ventured out to see The Ship: Art and Climate Change at the Natural History Museum. It so happened the museum was in full swing of its Dinosaurs show, which seemed to be attracting the majority of people swarming around the building and in its halls. After much circuitous navigation and queues, I finally found myself at the small room tucked in the back of the building, housing the exhibit. Leaving the noise, chaos and crowds, I entered a space where the music of ice filled the room, a large, white whale skeleton encrusted with crystals lay in the centre, and images of ice and maps hung from the walls. There was a small wood and glass case, in which an image of a dancer was projected, as if some sort of ghostly specimen. It was an unearthly, eerie space. And I wondered where everyone was, as I pondered this art that had been inspired – and in some cases created – in the high Arctic, aboard the Cape Farewell voyage.

The act of attending this art exhibit, showcasing art created and inspired by climate change and a voyage to the Arctic was just as fascinating as the art itself. For there I was, meditating on art which was in fact about the state of our perilous and fragile planet, and in particular a region that is most vulnerable and terribly crucial for all of our lives. And meanwhile thousands of people – most of whom had flown thousands of miles to be there – were filling the space. Every now and then an errant visitor would wander in, have a quick look and leave bewildered. I overheard one man say to his wife, in front of the dance piece (by Sioban Davies), say, “I don’t see how that has anything to do with climate change” as he walked off. Indeed, what does art have to do with climate change?

David Buckland, creator and director of Cape Farewell, would argue that it has everything to do with it. As we are confronted with information and knowledge that seems to defy representation, and is woefully inadequate through charts and graphs, we must find new ways of engaging our hearts and minds. And the arts are as powerfully suited as any other means, if not more so. This is because on some level, the issues we are facing are beyond comprehension, in the context of our daily lives, and our current ways of life. Through enlisting artists, writers, musicians, thinkers and dancers to work alongside scientists and educators, Cape Farewell is attempting to find new modes of communication, that do not necessarily engage with rationality and cognition, but with experience, emotion, affect and the body.

So how effective are arts in communicating about climate change and environmental issues in general? We can’t know for sure. But what is certain is that art has the potential to move us. It is not only Cape Farewell who are exploring these modes: a current issue of engage: the international journal of visual art and gallery education is devoted to art and climate change. As editor Karen Raney writes, “One reason art can work so powerfully on our perceptions is that artists tend to link different spheres and orders of experience.” The international arts competition, Artes Mundi, spoke to this emerging theme at their conference, Climate Change: Gauging the Temperature.  Many of us may have heard about the Cornelia Parker exhibit at the Whitechapel Gallery, featuring an interview with Noam Chomsky and collaboration with Friends of the Earth for a one-day workshop, Poison and Antidote.

As we struggle increasingly to bridge the gaps between urgent, planetary crises and public engagement and political inertia, the turn to arts as a viable mode of communication makes sense. It’s not about being didactic; it’s about trying to make coherent that which is, on some levels, unthinkable.

An interview with David Buckland appeared in the journal Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, For a copy of the interview, please contact Renee at

Posted by Renee Lertzman

Leave a Reply