Climate Change Narratives: Can Art Lead to Action?

 Written by June Fukumura, an emerging, local theatre artists with a BFA in Theatre Performance and Certificate in Sustainable Community Development from Simon Fraser University. She is the Co-Artistic Director of her theatre company, Popcorn Galaxies and the Co-Founder of New(to)Town Collective. Her practice includes performing, directing, devising, clowning and physical theatre, as well as community engaged arts. Her work often explores site specificity blurring the line between the art and the everyday. This year, Popcorn Galaxies is producing ‘New Narratives, An Enviro-Art Event’ in May. June is also the Associate Producer of the Vines Art Festival, a local outdoor festival bringing together the community, artists, and environmentalist through art.

We are now standing at the end of the fossil fuel era.  At least, that’s what 196 countries have agreed to last December at the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Paris. This monumental achievement is indeed historical, but we can’t get comfortable in our celebration. Now comes the task of implementing policies in order to achieve the agreements. This means that every country, government, community and individual must change the way they live their lives -  morally, ethically, socially, and economically - to exist sustainably on this planet. Everyone has a part to play and mobilizing action is what will make or break this deal. The question is, how do we communicate and catalyze this kind of mass global action?

In a recent CBC article, Climate change is 'largest science communication failure in history', psychologist Per Espen Stoknes critiqued the doomsday narrative that continues to permeate mainstream media.  The assemblages of scientific data, graphs, and research are just too overwhelming for people to handle. Often, the language used to convey the scale and complexity of climate change is far from inspiring. Popular images used to promote awareness such as polar bears on melting ice caps, smoke stacks, and aftermaths of disasters, creates “eco-anxiety” and “eco-despair”. Studies have shown that these iconic images have lost their potency, creating cynicism and fatigue. The majority of our current climate narrative causes distance, helplessness, fatalism, resignation and apathy towards climate change. Stoknes says that the only way to convince people to act is to "forgo much of the doom and gloom and paint a more positive picture of a green future”. So how do we paint this positive picture? Author, Bill McKibben suggests that what the warming world needs right now is "art, sweet art”.

 Around the world, artists are striving to turn the table on the climate narrative. David Buckland, founder of Cape Farewell is one of the pioneers of this movement. In 2003, Buckland, a video artist and designer, set out on an Arctic expedition with a team including visual artists, composers, writers, and a dancer along with a dozen climate scientists. Since its first voyage, Cape Farewell has completed eight Arctic expeditions. This seemingly odd collaboration between art and science has proven to be a symbiotic one - the climate scientists collect data for research and the artists translate it into works of art. In an interview, Buckland says:

With art, it’s personal; when a scientist reports that the Greenland ice is melting, it can be hard to engage with emotionally. When an artist goes up to the Artic, and is able to create something out of the experience, it’s a story. The audience knows that it’s about my personal story, and my commitment [… ] In terms of climate change, if we can engage people emotionally, it’s much stronger and persuasive. 


Most recently, Cape Farewell and the COAL Association spearheaded Art Cop21 for the Paris Climate Change Conference. One of the most prominent works, created by artist Olafur Eliasson and geologist Minik Rosing, was showcased outside of the Place du Panthéon. Ice Watch consisted of twelve massive blocks of ice transported from Greenland. Totalling over 80 tons, these free floating ice burgs were placed in a clock formation where they slowly melted over nine days. Passersby were invited to touch the ice, listen to pops and cracks as it melted, and look at ancient snowflakes trapped inside the air bubbles. Data and language were purposely absent from the piece because the ice itself told the narrative of climate change, acting as both a reminder of the physical reality and a poetic metaphor to activate the audience’s imagination. This narrative invited playfulness, curiosity, and a haunting beauty; it welcomed an engagement on a visceral level. This piece aimed to reclaim the awe and appreciation for nature that we are often distanced from, especially in the urban environment.


On the other hand, while writer Amanda Montañez agrees that most data visualization is lackluster, her article Art Can Highlight Climate Change, But Where is the Data? makes a case for data as a valid and necessary component of the climate narrative. She claims that “data visualization presents facts, and—if done well—nothing more”. Montañez argues that this is the inherent power of data. The recent Bloomburg iconographic created by Eric Roston and Blackie Migliozzi is exemplified as an effective and user friendly model of data visualization. While art does evoke emotions, Montañez critiques its lasting effects, especially on individuals who are indifferent or skeptical about climate change. She is uncertain that the behaviours of spectators can be altered by a single encounter.

Are some ‘abstract’ art works simply too alienating to communicate a straight-forward message? Are some art forms more suitable to communicate a cognitive understanding? Is intellectual cognition necessary to spark action? Montañez asserts that data is crucial. What she suggests is art that works in harmony with data like the works of Golan Levin, who recently created Infoviz Grafitti, a street art piece grounded in data visualization. Levin uses recognizable infographics such as pie charts, bar graphs, and histograms to convey simple yet powerful messages. The work is crafted in such a way that the facts are easily discernable. For Montañez, it is artists who embrace rather than negate data, like Levin, who will pave the way for effective communication about climate change. 

Photo by Golan Levin 

What Montañez argues is in one respect quite valid, without context or prior interest in climate change, some art works may remain purely aesthetic. Furthermore, it’s hard to claim that audiences who encountered Ice Watch, or any art for that matter, immediately sprang to action. Even if data visualization was more accessible, influencing behavioral change is not a simple cause and effect. As spectatorship is inherently subjective, the effect raised by arts’ affect are difficult (and seldom) quantified. This limits our understanding of knowing what kind of art is making what kind of impact, though projects like Climart and Climate Outreach point to an increasing momentum to broadening this research. By the same token, however, as Buckland and Eliasson argue, art is powerful because of its visceral, emotional, and fundamentally ephemeral nature. What might read as evocative for one may not at all for another. Even if the work was perceived as evocative, there will be no two meanings that are alike because each spectator constructs a meaning intrinsically unique to that individual. Art is an arena in which varying opinions are not only unavoidable but are embraced; this diversity creates fertile ground for innovative discourse. Art won’t always lead to immediate behavioral shifts, but it may plant a seed of inspiration or shift the audience’s perspective in a way that leads to action.

Perhaps what is necessary then is a variety of art that conveys the message of climate change in a variety of ways. So yes, we should have art that speaks a more abstract and poetic language and yes, we should have art that embraces data visualization. The more quantity and variety, the stronger the collective message will be. In addition, what is effective about art, especially public art, is the opportunity for shared meaning-making experiences. Ice Watch reached audiences that may not otherwise engage with climate change or art. By experiencing art together, the anonymous audience members become a temporary community. Moreover, the cross-pollination between artists, scientists, and the public creates novel ways of bringing data and art together while simultaneously strengthening the network of climate action advocates. These collaborative encounters have the potential to form permanent communities and in turn may come together to incite a cultural paradigm shift. David Buckland illustrates that “in the history of human existence, there are times when there are massive social shifts, and the things that tend to make it turn faster are cultural things; people can shift en masse through cultural means, not only economics”. Similarly, Eliasson adds that “culture is a powerful ally in the struggle to effect change. Culture is almost always about turning knowledge into action […] A work of art can contribute to the creation of a sense of community or reciprocity, and it can motivate us to do some­thing together, to become conscious and active members of a global we, without surrendering our personal, emotional experiences”.

The question still, is whether the current collective drive of artists, scientists, activists and the general public is strong enough to activate a rapid cultural paradigm shift. I remain optimistic. Within the last year, many arts organizations have turned their attention to the environmental movement and are now encouraging artists to create work with climate change in mind. In Vancouver alone there are a number of upcoming events including The BC Buds Festival, Only Animal’s Generation HOT, and the Vines Art Festival. As an emerging theatre artist, I am thrilled about these new platforms for collective engagement. The surge of new environmental arts events suggests that a new culture is already emerging. I believe it is our responsibility as artists to keep this momentum moving forward by creating work, taking part in community events, casting a wider net to reach new audiences, and supporting each other. My hope is that art, with its exponential modes of transmission, can act as one of the fundamental building blocks for a new culture with a new climate narrative. As artists, we can catalyze action from the individual level to the global.

  • Joanna Ashworth
    commented 2016-04-18 11:22:43 -0700
    I am pleased to see that June has published one of her ‘Sustainable Community Development’ class assignment and is engaging with other students, sustainability professionals and art practitioners who are experimenting with methods of communication about climate change. This article highlights some of the successes and challenges of doing socially engaged art.

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