Wobbly Ground: Climate, chaos and creativity

I’m Miriam, and I’m an artist -turned geographer; along the way getting terrified and fascinated by climate change. This blog post is a summary of a presentation I gave summarising the research I have done in the first year of my PhD at RHUL…

I’m interested in the way that art can prompt and suggest ideas about the way that we interact with our natural world – especially in terms of the climate. The very idea of climate change is a really difficult one to relate to – in fact “you almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology”1, it’s big, it’s longterm, it’s horrifically negative and it’s a global problem; and joyfully, western populations are, for the most part, apathetic. People feel distant from the issue, there’s a focus on negativity and guilt and there’s an awful lot of media generated uncertainty and confusion. There are lots of studies – mostly from social psychology – which look at the barriers to people engaging with climate change, but I’m intrigued to find out the ways that people do in fact engage with the climate, in order to build on these.

I look at art and climate change, not as using art as an illustration of scientific facts, but as knowledge about climate change, and the lived experience of climate that can inform how we can instigate and cope with changes to come. I have been thinking about my own art practice in regard to the philosophy of Elizabeth Grosz, in order to understand the work that these imaginative forays into the idea of climate change do…. 

 “Albedo”

 Albedo

I’ll try to keep this snappy: Albedo, for those non-physical science types, refers to the reflectivity of a thing – usually a planet. So, a white or silver thing will have high albedo, as it is very reflective, and a black thing will have low albedo as it absorbs energy and radiation. In terms of climate change, the more areas of snow and ice there are, the more energy from the sun is reflected straight back out to space; rather than warming our atmosphere. As areas of sea and ice shrink, and give way to dark areas of open water or coniferous forest, these dark areas absorb more energy and the world warms.

My work, albedo, is an attempt to ‘cool’ the planet by making small wax casts of my fingertips, and placing them outside the gallery. In this work, there is a connection between familiar fleshy fingers, and the massive, and often incomprehensible forces that govern not only our climate, but the very universe itself. Elizabeth Grosz describes art as a means to ‘slow down chaos’, and I’m interested in the ways that these artworks can offer a space for pondering the connection that we – as bodily creatures – have with the world that we inhabit, that so often gets forgotten about in the business of day to day life…

“Drawing of a Piece of Chalk, Drawn with the Piece of Chalk, Until all that is Left of the Piece of Chalk, is the Drawing of the Piece of Chalk”

 TL572655

I hope the title of this work is relatively self explanatory. This is one of a series of drawings of pieces of chalk that I collected on walks in the south downs in Sussex. The idea for the drawings arose out of many, long conversations with the wonderful Dr. Peter G. Knight, glaciologist extraordinaire at Keele University (www.petergknight.com) – so I can’t take all the credit! Again, I take inspiration from Grosz’s writing, when she says that art can offer a means of connection across scales – and a way for us to relate to things that are ‘beyond relations’. This work is a way to explore the histories of the materials; for the chalk is composed of long dead sea creatures that swam in the warm tropical seas that covered Southern England in the late Cretaceous period. They have been subjected to geological processes of time and pressure, but also of climate change. This work observes and transforms the materials once more – again, with the help of my fleshy formed fingers – turns the piece of chalk into not an accurate representation of itself, but a prompt to enable us to think about the histories, stories and memories of changing climates that are contained within the material itself. 

“Preserved Snowballs”

 Stack

A few years ago, one January, I was at Liverpool Street underground station when a boy of about 9 or 10 came down onto the platform carrying a snowball. The station was hot and the snowball was beginning to drip. He looked at his snowball, looked a the display which told him the next eastbound train was 3 minutes away, looked back at his snowball and ran off, up the stairs.

Snowballs-1

This moment really stuck with me, and in response I learned how to ‘preserve’ snow on glass with superglue, and created these hanging ‘preserved snowballs’. I feel that this is something that we have all wanted to do at some point in our lives (I mean, who hasn’t seriously considered slyly popping a small snowball in the freezer?). But it also alludes to a sense of loss and melting ice on a global scale. But for me, there are 2 things going on in this work: one is the idea that we wish to preserve the world just as it is – but the world is changing faster than we can ‘preserve’ it, and indeed it is always changing, so perhaps, preservation is no longer an option for us. Instead, we need to come to terms with the scale of the loss all around us, and learn to cope with the changes to come. The second aspect of this work, which relates to the first is the idea of stories; stories help humans through difficult times, and it is in cultural reservoirs and memories of tales and stories which, perhaps will be exactly what we will need as the impacts of climate change really do start to to bite. 

Future research

This post has focussed (perhaps rather narcissistically I feel) on my own artwork. But my PhD research is about encouraging others to create their own stories, and images of climate change as a way to investigate what is important to ordinary people who (importantly) are not already engaged with the idea of climate change. At the moment, this involves a group of women on an estate in Hackney, many knitting needles, copious amounts of tea and a lovely young man called Richard at the London Wildlife Trust… Watch this space, and I’ll post something about this soon! 

  1. http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/2014/socialbrain/climate-change-experts-beginners/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+rsaprojects+%28RSA+blogs%29

By Miriam Burke

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