Category Archives: Aesthetics

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…. 



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”


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 ( – 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”


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.


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! 


By Miriam Burke

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Subverting the aesthetics of decay

The aesthetics of decay have been well versed of late, not only within academic literature, but also mainstream media and online via blogs and other social media. We have seen an aquarium in an abandoned shopping mall in Bangkokentire disused airports in Cyprus and an whole abandoned island used in Hollywood blockbusters. Industrial, residential, infrastructural, rural; there have been a plethora of forms of dereliction that have been recorded. The huge swath of media (sometimes labelled ‘ruin porn’) has led to the fetishization of dereliction with some suggesting that such overt ruination imagery has had damaging effects on particular places that are oft the focus of such narratives, notably Detroit.


Nature reclaiming her land

Click on the photos to view the larger image

Recently, I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Shropshire and Cheshire countryside, and came across what on first viewing looked like an abandoned, disused factory, perhaps once used for chemical production of some kind (I had trouble recalling my GCSE chemistry lessons). Upon closer inspection, the site did indeed have a ‘ruined’ factory. The redbrick façades were punctuated by shattered windows that allowed the old pipework, and inner-workings of the factory to be exposed. Nature had clearly began to reclaim this building, as shrubbery and invader species were rife on the walls, the roofs and throughout the old passageways between the buildings. The high industrial, temporary fencing that are synonymous with ‘danger, keep out, abandoned building’ sites was stationed around the decaying buildings, and had it not been for the family waiting impatiently in the car while I indulged in ruination geekery, I would have attempted to get beyond the fencing to explore further. Other typical ruination aesthetics were in view, with the exposed metal work rusting in the damp North West climate. Continue reading


Dialogues in Human Geography

Dialogues in Human Geography

Landscape Surgeons Harriet Hawkins and Innes M. Keighren have separately published forums in the current issue of Dialogues in Human Geography, the sister publication to Progress in Human Geography. Dialogues, as its name suggests, provides a forum for disciplinary debate and seeks (to quote from its website) to “stimulate open and critical debate on the philosophical, methodological and pedagogic foundations of geographic thought and praxis”.

Harriet, together with Deborah Dixon and Elizabeth Straughan, leads a forum on the aesthetics of post-human worlds, with responses from Nigel Clark, Arun Saldanha, Lesley Instone, Jamie Lorimer, and Ionat Zurr.

Innes, together with Christian Abrahamsson and Veronica della Dora, leads a forum on canonicity in geography, with responses from Robert J. Mayhew, Charles W. J. Withers, John Agnew, Avril Maddrell, Janice Monk, Phil Hubbard, Richard H. Schein, and Richard C. Powell.

The South London Black Music Archive

Memorabilia from The South London Black Music Archive. Photograph from

One of the standout exhibitions for me this year has been The South London Black Music Archive (2012) by Barby Asante at Peckham Space, South London. This short post will briefly describe this exhibition, explaining why I think it was interesting, and how it speaks to my Ph.D. research.

The South London Black Music Archive engaged with people’s relationship with black music in the South London area. Predominantly authored by East-London artist Barby Asante, the exhibition was presented as an ‘open archive’ to which visitors can add to the objects on display. Peckham Space describes the intention of the exhibition thus: ‘Asante’s selected objects highlighting seminal moments in this history will share the same platform as visitors’ objects and stories depicting their own experiences through music and memorabilia.’[1] The exhibition consisted of one room and encompassed a variety of display methods, including archival boxes, an interactive magnetic map, vitrines, changeable wall displays, shelving and a listening station. Visitors were actively encouraged to contribute objects relating to their experiences of black music in South London to gain “membership” to the archive. The objects were categorised, labelled and stored within boxes and exhibited on a rotational basis in the gallery space. The exhibition encompasses a range of technologies to appeal to an intergenerational audience, including iPods, record players, tape players and a DVD station. Music filled the gallery space; the atmosphere constantly being (re)shaped and transformed through inviting visitors to play donated records and suggested tracks from the listening station. The exhibition also allowed people to share their memories, stories, observations and anecdotes relating to their experiences of black music in South London by texting the gallery. These texts were received and printed live within the space, enabling the visitor to add their printed story to a large magnetic map in the area to which it referred. Within this very small space a multitude of interactive opportunities and outlets for the visitors’ personal expression and contributions to be heard, seen, touched and absorbed.

Magnetic map of South London with visitor texts stuck on. Photograph from

The facility to allow spectators to feed back into the exhibition was, for me, particularly interesting. In doing so a tension was created between the authorship of the space and the spectator, challenging the identity and position of the artist, whilst empowering the visitor. Through this tension, the aesthetic experience of the space was created based on exchange rather than transmission. Exchange is a key word for this exhibition. It appeared not only in the authorship of the space, but also in the form of the social relations it facilitates. The objects and interactivity of the exhibition aren’t really the art here; it is the social relations created by them instead. This is not to downplay the objects and processes of multiple authorship of the exhibition at all, for they were the facilitators of this social exchange. However, the primary aesthetic, in my opinion, lay in the social relations and encounters the exhibition provoked. In this light, The South London Black Music Archive transformed Peckham Space into a site of dialogue and encounter, using art practice as a technology of connection.

My Ph.D. research is interested in precisely this connective ability of aesthetics coupled with its potential to play a role in the debate surrounding the creation of meaningful encounters in times and spaces of increasing diversity. I attended a fascinating series of sessions focused on ‘Encountering the City’ at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference in Edinburgh last month which opened my eyes to the great variety of research currently being carried out on the understanding of meaningful encounter. I am hoping that my research will be able to add something to this exciting and important topic.

Danny McNally (Ph.D. student at Royal Holloway)